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Prudence in Writing

~by Joanne Schinstock~

In last month’s blog post, Mr. Eddie Kotynski wrote that “a prudent person can discern what ideas and acts conform to reality and which do not.”. Looking back on the last 3 years of teaching the Writing & Rhetoric series, I recall one story that speaks to the way prudence is fostered in Writing and Rhetoric—through dialogue and relationships. The story is about a mother and her young son. She shared with me how she felt their relationship deepened over that year as they discussed various wise sayings and pithy quotations about virtue while they examined the behaviors and choices of people who either lived virtuously according to those sayings or did not. It is in these discussions that the child and parent, teacher and student, learn to identify ideas and actions that follow reality; reality being what is in accord with God’s design. It is in the embrace of a loving home and a Christ-centered online classroom that students discern from well thought out content what is right and how to act rightly by examining the lives of men and women in history and literature. After all, it is the purpose of studying history and literature that we grow in virtue, and writing then becomes the evidence of this training in prudence fostered by community and faith. 

Reclaiming the Christian Classical tradition is about restoring our faith in our collective human history. Through imitation of the Progym (progymnasmata), the ancient writing exercises that trained orators who wrote and spoke so eloquently to preserve the truth, the students and I are encountering the masters and educating ourselves in the way of the good pagans and holy Christians who are the forbearers of this tradition we are reclaiming. Teachers must put faith in the masters before them and students must put faith in their teachers to trust them as we walk on the road of the ancient progym. As Fr. Benedict Baur, a Benedictine monk, Archabbot of Beuron Abbey, and author of In Silence with God, wrote, faith “gives reason the power to associate itself with God’s perception and judgment—to see with God’s own eyes.” If being prudent is exercising right judgment, and discernment, then faith is what unites our decisions with God so that we act in accordance with His laws and Spirit for the benefit of each other and the glory of God. 

The student must put his faith in the forms he is being taught in order to craft beautiful essays that present the truth eloquently giving way to beauty. Beauty springs from the structure and language that persuades the reader. This is the art of rhetoric. Specifically, the Writing & Rhetoric Year 4 students learn persuasive concepts to write encomiums and vituperations, a praise of virtue or an attack of vice, directed at a specific person in history or literature. These students read and discuss the fine or poor qualities and achievements or failures of a person of interest. Ultimately, students must discern who lived well and write to inspire others to seek out a life of virtue. It is by the nature of this type of writing students practice prudence, discerning what ideas and actions are good and true. Students must be able to see reality to exercise authentic prudence and by doing so “participate in the wisdom of God”. 

This experience is encouraged and shaped by class discussion stemming from students walking vicariously in the shoes of people in history and characters in literature. In conversation students are testing ideas, asking questions, synthesizing sources all the while understanding truth in order to defend it. They must speak to what is just and good and true about God’s creation and point to the lives of others whose actions embodied virtue. In order to do this well they must perceive reality rightly and identify just behavior accurately. It is through these conversations, as relationships amongst students and teacher develop to apprentices and guide, we are seeing reality and judging history through figures of the past and determining what is worthwhile to encourage in our present. This type of education with an emphasis on prudence changes culture because we examine reality and judge human behavior according to the teachings of the Christian faith that provides us the foundation of wisdom and truth. Prudence is the habit of seeing accurately.  

Returning to the forms of writing and the structure of essays, students practice discernment each time they self-assess their work. Prudence is that habit of rightly judging and acting on that judgment, which trains the mind to know the correct forms of grammar and then students revise and perfect their writing by acting in accord to the truths of grammar. The writing rubrics used in class outline a series of questions that students use to reflect on in order to determine if they’ve answered the prompt well. This format of question and answer trains the mind to identify truth and the practice of writing according to those truths strengthens the prudent student. 

Finally, the students share their final essay in community. In reading the essay aloud students are persuading others and sharpening their oratorical skills. It is this final colloquium that helps solidify their learning as ideas are expressed wrapped in beautiful rhetoric to move the heart and mind. Learning in this way is not just about acquiring knowledge but wisdom gained to transform the student and teacher together, as is described in Proverbs 2: 10-11, “for wisdom will enter your heart, knowledge will be at home in your soul, discretion will watch over you, understanding will guard you.” The wisdom gained through the various writing exercises emphasizes a study of humanity through reading, dialogue, and writing specifically about the actions and achievements exemplifying prudence. Over the course of a year students spend ample time evaluating the actions and behaviors of noteworthy men and women in history to answer the questions: Who is worthy of imitation? Who is prudent? 


[2] Baur, Benedict. In the Silence with God. Scepter Publishers. Princeton, New Jersey.

[3] The New American Bible Revised Edition. Catholic World Press. Catholic Book Publishing Corp., NJ. 2010.

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