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Hampden-Sydney College is one of four or, depending on how one counts, five liberal arts colleges for men in the country, and teaching students to write and speak well has been a primary focus here since our founding in 1775. With that in mind, it’s not surprising that our graduates include such wordsmiths as William H. Armstrong (Sounder), Michael Knight (The Typist), and Stephen Colbert.
But not all of our incoming freshmen are naturally gifted with words. Our college has made writing a high priority for all students, and since 1978, the college’s rhetoric program has been the institutional center of that effort. Our students read and analyze classic American works by James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, Abraham Lincoln, and Martin Luther King, along with essays by E.B. White and George Orwell, Annie Dillard, and Virginia Woolf. But they also read contemporary creative nonfiction by Scott Sanders, Rebecca Skloot, Pico Iyer, Lee Gutkind, Anne Fadiman, and Phillip Lopate, among many others.
Good writing is clear writing, no doubt. But the best writing is engaged, passionate prose that unites head and heart in an individual voice.
Our students read not just to encounter or appreciate these writers. Instead, they examine how these authors combine an attention to structure with creative and innovative personal styles, all in the service of what they wish to say. In this regard, writing classes at Hampden-Sydney no doubt resemble those at other colleges nationwide. But Hampden-Sydney’s rhetoric courses also embody the belief that familiarity with our language’s rhetorical structures prepares students to use sentences and paragraphs purposefully, and thus helps them develop an individual writing voice that is clear, engaging, and persuasive.
Anyone who has hired folks over the last 5-10 years knows that this is a systemic problem among current graduates — and a particular reason why I insist upon a classical education that reinforces logic, grammar, and rhetoric over a liberal arts education that seemingly allows for ad hominem and crying to pass for credible argumentation (see: modern political environment).