Your Complete Guide to Speech and Rhetoric Courses in a Liberal Arts Degree Program

Young female speaker at podium

Anybody studying liberal arts must be open to defining the course of study for themselves. Whether you’re earning a bachelor’s or master’s degree, most liberal arts programs are customizable to your interests. But these programs also invite you to be open-minded and to explore topics and learn things that are entirely new to you.

No matter how you spin your liberal arts degree, your studies will challenge you to look at the world through the lens of the arts, literature, sciences, and social sciences.

How do we make sense of the world around us, and how can we, as humans, learn to become learners, so that we can better understands ourselves and one another?

Speech and rhetoric have long been the focus of a liberal arts education—and of all educations in any western context. There was a time when studying speech and rhetoric was considered essential to the education of citizens in a liberal democracy, and now, many secondary and post-secondary schools require that English writing courses teach at least some rhetorical devices and strategies.

Understanding how we use language to attract an audience, entice and educate others, and unite people under a common cause is essential to being able to communicate and assess the information that comes our way.

And in the digital age, studying speech and rhetoric in the context of a liberal arts education is one of the most important things we can do to keep ourselves aware, thoughtful, and discerning about the information that we consume.

Why Study Speech and Rhetoric in the Context of Liberal Arts?

Male speaker at business eventWhen you choose a degree in liberal arts, you choose to become well-rounded. You choose to bring a sense of awareness to yourself and to the world around you.

Speech and rhetoric are all around us at all times. We find rhetorical devices in the media that we consume daily, from the clipped videos of a public outcry that we see on a news network to the quick, comprehensive summations of the most recent nationally-recognized court cases that we see on YouTube and TikTok. Many companies and organizations have to speak to the public and to the media to share their policies, their latest news, and, occasionally, to provide explanations, contexts, or apologies regarding controversy. They look to their public relations specialists and writers to help them craft the narrative around these incidents; and they look for people who can do so in an honest, ethical, and aware manner.

Being able to articulate yourself in the increasingly digital world—where we are called to speak publicly and to share opinions online—is a big part of not only modern journalism, but is also integral to marketing and even to participating in social discourse.

Moreover, studying speech and rhetoric in the context of a liberal arts degree means that we can apply our understanding of the subject to various fields.

Courses in Speech and Rhetoric Help You Get the Point Without Getting Duped

When you study speech and rhetoric in the context of a liberal arts degree, you’ll be able to ask the right questions about the information that comes your way; questions that let you consider the veracity of information, contextual pieces that might be necessary for a full understanding, and how messaging can take on an entirely different meanings based on whether it’s presented in a way that triggers an emotional response or dispassionately conveys facts. In an era of troubling political polarization, you’ll also be able to learn how rhetoricians and leaders of the past have both united and manipulated their audiences.

Courses in speech and rhetoric will make you a more aware and more thoughtful consumer of media, and no matter what field you go into, those are crucial skills for participating in a globalized, fast-moving society. 

Don’t Just Learn How to Win an Argument, But How to Win Over an Audience

David Hume portraitSocial media relies on algorithms to curate everything from our news feeds to our shopping lists. As a result, it’s easy to remain staunch about our opinions. So, what can inspire us to look at other information that might change our minds and our actions?

Eighteenth century philosopher David Hume, in “A Treatise of Human Nature,” argues that the use of logic and fact alone cannot be enough to sway someone to question their beliefs or change their mind. Reason alone may give you the tools to win an argument—but it won’t make you a leader who inspires others to change the way people think and act.

“Since reason alone can never produce any action, or give rise to volition…the same faculty is as incapable of preventing volition, or of disputing the preference with any passion or emotion.”

~ David Hume

In other words, if presenting people with facts won’t change their mind, it also won’t necessarily inspire them to make decisions based on logic alone.

Hume goes on to add, “reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them.”

Though speech and the study of rhetoric can appear formulaic, it does not exclude the reality of human emotions. Logic and reasoning should serve and inform our humanity, rather than separate us from it.

What we learn from philosophers like David Hume is that facts won’t do all the work. You need to learn how to speak so that others will listen, to appeal to those who are dissenting your opinions.

In a liberal arts program, you’ll have the ability to take courses like “The Elements and Tradition of American Dissent,” where you explore how we’ve become less tolerant of argument—and propose solutions and strategies for how to increase our tolerance. You can even take a course on smartphone filmmaking, where you’ll learn about the power of stories, and how speakers and digital artists use narrative structure to help their audience see new possibilities and points of view.

By studying speech and rhetoric within the context of a liberal arts degree, particularly if you choose to pursue the work at a graduate level, you’ll learn the strategies that not only make you the winner of an argument, but that teach you how to inspire change and advocate for change.

How Speech and Rhetoric Classes Bring the Most Out of Your Liberal Studies Curriculum

Young woman on social media on smartphoneAs much as studying speech and rhetoric in the context of a liberal arts degree will help you learn all of the strategies for appealing to an audience, it will also assist you in spotting those strategies in others.

Studying liberal arts means studying how we as a society evolve and change, as well as examining the literature, events, and speech that have influenced those changes. When you study speech and rhetoric in the context of a liberal arts degree, you get to learn how thought leaders and activists of the past and the present are able to influence others.

As much as you’ll study those who used speech and rhetoric to progress society and unite humanity, studying speech and rhetoric in the context of a liberal arts degree will also make you aware of how powerful people have used these strategies to manipulate their audience in destructive ways.

You will also be able to apply this exploration to a variety of subjects and contexts…

You may explore how John Dewey used a combination of logic and timeliness to argue that the education system should inspire children to become people of thoughtful character in the early 20th century—how did he use writing to inspire the education system to begin and continue to evolve?

Even in a History of Astronomy class, you may learn how early astronomers tried—and sometimes failed—to win over their audience, whether those in religious or political power, and how they presented their discoveries through speech and writing and inspired the public to rethink their relationship to the universe.

You may also study social justice issues, like gender and international politics, examining how a corrupt or sexist leader or movement uses their power—and their speech—to exploit and marginalize. Same goes for any courses that you may take about race and social justice; how have thought leaders used speech and rhetoric for both progressive activism—and regressive bigotry?

When you study how others have used speech and rhetoric, you’ll see how it can be used for evil and for greatness. You’ll become adept at spotting it in our modern era, especially when messaging of all kinds is readily available and infinitely distributable on the social media platforms that we access hourly.

Studying Speech and Rhetoric Leaves You Better Equipped to Survive in the Digital Age

Getting a liberal arts degree requires that you study such a wide array of subjects, contexts, and texts that you quickly learn how little you know—and you learn to become comfortable listening to others peoples’ viewpoints.

“Intolerance of others’ views (no matter how ignorant or incoherent they may be) is not simply wrong; in a world where there is no right or wrong, it is worse: it is a sign you are embarrassingly unsophisticated or, possibly, dangerous.”

~ Dr. Jordan B. Peterson, 12 Rules for Life

When you study speech and rhetoric in the context of a liberal arts degree, you’ll become adept at exploring what you know and challenging others to do the same. You will routinely engage in discourse with others, and, since many of your courses will be seminar-based where much of your learning will be dialogic, you will have conversations with others that will at times be uncomfortable. You will explore topics that are uncomfortable because they force to confront epistemologies that you may not agree with. You will read texts that do not align with your preconstructed ways of knowing, and you’ll converse about those texts with others. You will ask challenging questions, and your classmates will give you challenging questions to which to respond.

Because you’ll be studying speech and rhetoric, you’ll grow more accustomed to seeing others’ points of view, not only through logic, but through empathy. And when you become more empathetic to them, you will be more equipped at helping them hear and understand your ways of thinking.

Never before in history have speech and rhetoric had such a constant presence in our lives. We can’t unlock our smartphones without seeing curated news lines that are meant to capture—and keep—our attention. Teenagers are posting TikToks that soon go viral and garner the attention of a celebrity and even influence national policies. Our news sources give us only slices of our politicians’ arguments in courtrooms and congressional hearings, and anyone at any time can post a Snapchat story or an Instagram video expressing their opinion on anything. The result? They can draw attention to their cause, and, sometimes, they can even inspire action.

Because speech and rhetoric are all around us, any successful company or organization in any field must be adept at participating in online discussions. Understanding speech and rhetoric and having studied the subject within the context of a liberal arts degree will allow you to advise others on how to participate in these conversations in the digital age, and how to participate in them fairly and mindfully yourself.

When you study speech and rhetoric in the digital age, you become a sort of public relations specialist—you bring a sense of awareness to all of your interactions. And with many of those interactions now taking place in the online environment, where they are both permanent and easy to disseminate, a little extra awareness is a very valuable thing.