Ramus vs. Vico: How Should Rhetoric be Taught?

Of what exactly should a curriculum in rhetoric consist?  In “Arguments in Rhetoric Against Quintilian,” Peter Ramus wants to isolate matters he considers essential to the study of rhetoric—style and delivery—leaving dialectical matters to other disciplines.  In “On the Study Methods of Our Time,” Giambattista Vico wants to integrate rhetoric with instruction in other disciplines so that the students will know what they are talking about.  These two men, writing nearly two centuries apart, represent opposite ends of a controversy that is still brewing in the academy today.  Both of them make valid points.  Why muddy up the teaching of rhetoric with many diverse topics not directly bearing upon its practice?  On the other hand, for eloquence to stand for something, it needs a broad base of knowledge upon which to rest.

As Vico argues, excessive concentration upon discrete academic disciplines fosters a sort of intellectual tunnel vision.  Vico also points out a situation already reaching critical mass in his time and even more intense in ours: the overwhelming amount of information available to each area of academic study which means that “the attainment of any science or art has become so difficult…that at present time no person can master even a single subject” (50).  These factors make extremely problematic Vico’s longing to recover in a modern fully integrated, multi-disciplinary curriculum the unitary system of knowledge he sees in the schools of the ancients.

Despite these challenges, Vico’s project still today resonates with students of the humanities, those who see the benefits of adding to what Vico calls “philosophical criticism”—what we might call the hard sciences—the moderating, broadening, contextualizing, humanizing influence of such subjects as ethics, eloquence, and human nature.  Science alone can be cold and sterile, eloquence alone empty.  Vico’s writing suggests that the two sides of this academic debate are not enemies, but partners who have forgotten how to work together.

For my part, I believe that the best course of action lies somewhere in the middle between Ramus’s academic isolationism and Vico’s full immersion program.  Students of rhetoric (and the humanities in general) absolutely must have exposure and confidence in very many disciplines in order to conduct the sort of research and writing that is their specialty.  Conversely, students of other disciplines (perhaps those focusing upon scientific research) urgently need skills in writing and eloquence in order to fully explain their discoveries, as well as to situate themselves as members of their culture and community in general.  However, neither side can be expected to achieve the sort of depth mastery that each is expected to attain separately in their disciplines.   How can this difficult task be accomplished considering the limits of time and resources?

I do think that modern universities—at least the ones I have personal experience with—are trying to integrate the competing academic disciplines to foster the development of a well-rounded student.  Nevertheless, internecine politics and ever-tightening funding, not to mention the pressure from students to focus upon immediately marketable skills, make disinterested time-sharing among disciplines a continuing challenge.  I do not have any startlingly new or original suggestions for improving matters.  The widespread project to foster “writing across the curriculum” seems at least nominally successful in addressing the needs for cultivating language and writing skills in disciplines where these are not the primary focus.  Perhaps when our culture as a whole values eloquence and expression in writing and speech as much as it values the technological instrumentality of the hard sciences, the curricula in institutions of higher learning will reflect those relative priorities in more balanced ways.

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