There is a scene in the film A River Runs Through It where the narrator, Norman Maclean, describes his education, saying, “I attended the school of the Reverend Maclean. He taught nothing but reading and writing. And, being a Scot, believed that the art of writing lay in thrift.” The scene flashed to a young Norman handing a paper to his father. His father scans it and hands it back, saying, “Again, half as long.” Norman goes back, writes his paper again, only half as long, and his father reads it again and repeats his instruction, “Again, half as long.”
This is strange instruction to students today who mistake the purpose of writing in school as being more of a quantitative endeavor than a qualitative one.
Many students, I imagine, think the hardest writing assignments are the longest ones, operating on the notion that writing twenty pages is harder than writing five. This theory inspires the thinking that the more they write, the smarter they appear.
But as Eisenhower said, “An intellectual is a man who takes more words than necessary to tell more than he knows.” What if the Reverend Maclean is right. What if the art of writing lies in thrift—the fewer words the better?
We want students to embody truth, beauty, goodness, wisdom and eloquence. St. Augustine said we educate to “seek to lead the citizens of earth toward citizenship in heaven while instilling in them the desire to introduce the values of the heavenly kingdom into the kingdom they presently inhabit.” So we want students not just to know things. We want students to remain students and become teachers. And we want them to be able to teach what they know gracefully and persuasively.
This takes eloquence.
Eloquence is the ability to understand ideas and concepts and then to express them with persuasion and grace. I believe we see this objective outlined in 1 Peter 3:15 “In your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect…”
This verse describes eloquence in its purest sense. First notice that Peter is saying that this kind of speech is honoring to the Lord. Christians honor Him by being prepared to testify of the hope within us. But then notice the two prongs of Peter’s point—that we are to be prepared to give a reasoned defense for the Gospel (PERSUASION), and that we are to do this with gentleness and respect (GRACE). This, I think, is as much an art form as anything. So if you are one who teaches, I submit to you this thesis:
Every teacher is an art teacher. And you should regard you self as such.
As a teacher, do more than impart raw data. You teach young minds to receive that data, process it, comprehend it and grasp how the data they’ve just received comes to bear on the rest of what they know. You want them to know truth, recognize beauty, practice goodness and live wisely.
Why? Of course so that they might glorify God and enjoy Him forever.
But how is this done? Not merely through stowing away all they know. But through “seeking to lead citizens of earth toward citizenship in heaven.” The New Testament calls this the Great Commission—to go and make disciples of all the nations, bearing witness to Christ Jesus with our whole lives.
This is an art—balancing grace with persuasion and conviction with love while using words to paint a picture of truth, beauty, goodness and wisdom for all the world to see.
And as it is with all art, some students are naturals at this while others struggle from the start. But every artist, to be good at their craft, must log hours of practice. And they must be taught. They must try and fail. They must savor the two things they get right, even though there are a dozen others they got wrong. They must develop logic and reason. This stuff only comes through practice.
And to do this, they must use words.
So cultivate eloquence in your students by requiring them to trade in the currency of words. Make them write. Make them speak. Give them the gift of the experience of talking in front of an audience, even if they’re terrified. Try to help them understand why this experience is a gift.
As a teacher, you can measure how well your students know the truth you’ve taught them when they can tell you what you’ve taught them. You know they have seen beauty by their expression of it. They will reveal their committment to goodness by the grace employed in their speech, both toward those who agree and those who don’t.
But don’t mistake flowery words for eloquence. Persuasion and eloquence are not the same. Mere persuasion can often be fruit of wearing down of the other side under the weight of the sheer quantity of words.
Trade in the currency of words. Make words count, not by how often they’re used, but by how well. Look for grace and persuasion, for truth, beauty, goodness and wisdom in those words. Help them hone their craft of expression by requiring them to speak, write, and respond with regularity.
And evaluate their work. Be willing to hand it back and say “Again, half as long” in order that they might be prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks them for a reason for the hope that is in them—and that they might do it with gentleness and respect.
Grade them on reason. Grade them on rhetoric. But grade them on kindness and humility too.
Reward them not just for the completion of the assignment, but for employing truth, beauty, goodness, and wisdom gently and with respect, lest they lose their hearers as Proverbs 18:19 predicts: “A brother offended is more unyielding than a strong city, and quarreling is like the bars of a castle.”
May God be pleased to use your investment in these children so that they might spend their lives seeking to “lead the citizens of earth toward citizenship in heaven while instilling in them the desire to introduce the values of the heavenly kingdom into the kingdom they presently inhabit.”
Russ Ramsey is the pastor of Christ Presbyterian Church Cool Springs in Nashville, Tennessee, where he lives with his wife and four children. He grew up in the fields of Indiana and studied at Taylor University and Covenant Theological Seminary (MDiv, ThM). Russ is the author of the Retelling the Story Series (IVP, 2018) and Struck: One Christian’s Reflections on Encountering Death (IVP, 2017).