My Lesson in Writing Instruction from Ancient Greece

Enos, Richard Leo

A Commentary on "Chapter 1: Ancient Greek Writing Instruction" in A Short History of Writing Instruction: From Ancient Greece to Modern America

My fondest wish is that I am now standing before you reading this statement about what I learned while researching the chapter on writing instruction in ancient Greece. One year ago, however, when our panel chair and editor James J. Murphy proposed this panel, I knew then that I could only attend if the program came very early in the conference. I should have realized, however, that with James J. Murphy and these colleagues on the dais, CCCC would surely give this panel nothing less than "prime time" in the program. I hope, then, that my writing both will convey what I have learned personally while researching my chapter on writing instruction in ancient Greece and also, and more importantly, my deep and sincere appreciation to Jerry for all that he does for our discipline.

Much of my career over the last thirty years has been devoted to gaining a better understanding of rhetorical theory and practice in ancient Greece and Rome. In succinct terms, I have studied the relationship between thought and expression in Antiquity. Historians of rhetoric and composition--or any historians for that matter--must always question and reflect on their own presumptions. This project made me do just that: reflect on the starting points of my research. Because we associate writing instruction with the young and nascent learner, we are inclined to infer that the instruction is basic and therefore elementary—something that we can glance at before we move onto the weightier topics. Similarly, because so much of writing instruction flowered during the Classical Period, we also are not inclined to consider forces that were at work in the immediately preceding Archaic Period. While writing this chapter, I learned that both of these presumptions are inaccurate.

While writing instruction is basic and primary in education, it is also the foundation and route to understanding the shaping of mentalities. I came to realize the essential importance of grasping how minds develop through writing instruction. I also came to appreciate the impact of such instruction as societies became increasingly literate. I learned that I should not have concentrated initially on the pinnacle of the intellectual pyramidóthe one or two luminaries who rose above all others. Rather, I learned that writing instruction is the base of that intellectual pyramid, for it provides direct evidence of how thought and expression are shaped. To be sure, and as I discussed in my chapter, Isocrates demonstrated to all that writing instruction can be much more than elementary. In fact, Isocrates showed that writing, revisited and mastered at the end of one's formal education, is as much an heuristic in epistemic development as any other feature of his curriculum. This project has taught me that the key to understanding written rhetoric is in understanding the multi-faceted roles that writing plays in education and cultural development.

There is a second, equally important lesson that I learned from this project. My work on this chapter revealed to me that there is a substantial body of material evidence on writing instruction yet to be examined and studied. Many of these artifacts have only been unearthed by archaeologists of the last two generations; very few have been studied by experts in our own field. Perhaps this lack of attention is because we tend to think of "evidence" as only appearing in books and only in libraries. Information about centers for writing instruction (and their artifacts) often are not found in neatly bound volumes in beautifully and systematically catalogued repositories but at remote archaeological sites. This project has convinced me even more that we need to be less armchair experts in rhetoric and composition and more field-working "Indiana Jones" types if we hope to continue to contribute to a better understanding of our rich and fascinating history.

Thank you, Jerry, for once again helping me to learn my history lesson.


This text was an invited submission reviewed by TWI editors prior to publication.

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