In the Age of Texting, Students Need Cicero

Posted by Mollie Shaw on

Junior high and high school students often struggle with establishing the context for the reader when writing an argument essay.  They assume that the audience is the same as they themselves are in attitude toward and knowledge of their subject.  They have no experience in learning or writing the exordium, narratio and divisio parts of the Classical Structure. 

If you are not sure what I am referring to, then you need to know that in the Roman Senate chambers, the finest orators followed a pattern in their oral arguments which stands as an exemplary structure for arguments today.  This structure has six components:  the exordium which is the hook or initial introductory remarks to build connection with the audience and present the topic or question of the argument; the narratio which provides the background history and precedential details leading up to the present time, the divisio which presents the critical questions at hand regarding the speaker's proposition; the confirmio which we would recognize as the logical argument with evidence presented for each position; the refutatio in which the speaker addresses the opposing argument with respect and dignity and finally the peroratio which is the conclusion restating the main points in the confirmatio and then usually issues a call to action. 

My argument today is that students do most of their writing in texts and email which have an immediate context.  The time, place and circumstances are obvious and known to both parties.  This enables them to use quippy and shortened responses, often witty and personal in communicating in daily life.  Because of this habit of communication, they can struggle with creating a context for their reader.

The Classical Structure offers three of the six sections for this purpose:  the exordium, the narration and the divisio.  Consider this example:  

Thesis: Dogs should be euthanized if they don't have homes to care for them.

Exordium:  The speaker describes how much we enjoy our pets and love to care for them.  The speaker also describes the overpopulation of stray dogs in their city.  These are irrefutable and the audience nods in agreement.

Narratio:  The speaker explains the laws over the past 50 years pertaining to pets and loose dogs in the city.  He or she goes on to explain the animal control program and how it developed.  Then the number of dogs that have been placed into shelters in the last ten years and what the current numbers are today.  Also no-kill shelters are defined and described.  Kill and No-kill shelters are compared briefly.  The audience is led to understand the history and background of this issue and how it has been addressed in the past.

Divisio:  The questions to be answered are here presented.  Is it morally right to take a dog to a kill shelter?  Is it morally right to kill a healthy dog?  Who is financially responsible for the care of the dogs in shelters?  Should veterinarians be required to volunteer their services?  Are non-profit agencies sufficient or should the government hire personnel to address this issue?  Here the speaker raises the main questions involved which he or she will address in the confirmio and refutatio.

As you can see, writing these components in an argument essay establishes a clear context for the speaker's position in time and place, both based on physical facts of the case as well as the various schools of thought on the matter.  This sets up the audience to be persuaded of the credibility of the speaker as well as to agree with their final proposition.  

Our students today struggle to understand what it means to establish context in their writing.  When I was a youngster, I wrote letters from camp back home.  In them it was natural to say that "Today is Wednesday, and we have finished planning our play for tonight's talent show..."  Perhaps it is time to show them the old ways, the old Roman and Greek ways, of leading a reader into their argument.  

 


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