A Review of Fitting Words by Wesley Callihan
Review by Wesley J. Callihan, author of Old Western Culture and founder of Schola Classical Tutorials.
Fitting Words is an outstanding rhetoric curriculum. Now, before I explain why, I should mention in the interest of full disclosure that Jim Nance has been a friend of mine for over twenty-five years. But if I hadn’t liked this curriculum I would simply not have written about it. Other people, like Brian Daigle of Sequitur Academy, have given it high and well-deserved praise already (Brian: “Not only should this curriculum become the standard rhetoric curriculum in our Christian schools, it should become standard reading for all upper level faculty, applying what is said here in every course…”) so mine is not necessary. I agree with Brian.
But I genuinely like this curriculum. A lot. In spite of having me as a friend, Jim has done a bang-up job in creating something that is perfect for Christian schools and co-ops (and homeschoolers too, as I’ll explain shortly). I have taught rhetoric for over twenty years and have become opinionated enough about it to think that a truly good rhetoric book can only be written by someone who has taught long and thoughtfully (rather than just researched the subject) and that is precisely what Jim, who has taught for about that long, has done. He knows the subject but he also knows students and he knows the interface between the two called “teaching.” Jim is a master teacher and the excellence of this book is the result.
There are indeed other rhetoric curricula for Christian students out there, and they are good–I’ve written blurbs for a couple and I stand by my praise of those texts. But now Jim’s curriculum is here. His new curriculum, based on his long experience in teaching rhetoric (and many other subjects), is complete, concise, clearly thought-out and written, easy to follow and understand, and fully backed by eminently useful supplemental material: workbook, exam packet, answer key to both of those, and best of all, a video course taught by Jim himself taking the student through the material in his own charming, amazingly well-informed, and clear manner.
Jim knows how to be clear and, better yet, how to find and clearly explain the essence of a thing. Long ago I discovered that Jim can explain higher math to me–I’m a complete ignoramus in that area–and I come away feeling like I actually know something about it. When he explains rhetoric, something I do know about, I feel like I know better now how to teach it. If I’d had his curriculum several decades ago I would have been a better teacher of the subject sooner.
One of the 30 Famous Orators highlighted in Fitting Words. Original illustrations by George Harrell.“I know not what course others may take; but as for me, give me liberty, or give me death!”—“Give Me Liberty”
Fitting Words is comprised of a textbook, a student workbook, an exam packet, and an answer key for the workbook and exams. The textbook comprises 30 lessons which follow the classical five canons of rhetoric. The text introduces, explains, builds on, reviews, and assigns practices for every important point raised. It regularly references the classical authors (Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, Quintilian, the Ad Herennium, etc.) often quoting them extensively as part of the assignment, but uses them in a clearly understood Christian context. In other words, it’s well anchored in the Old Western Tradition as the subject ought to be. Each lesson has interesting sidebar quotes, key concepts listed, and practical speech assignments, a Thinking Deeper section for further discussion, Further Reading for greater background or fuller context in the original sources, and a source section if there are footnotes in the chapter (there usually are). The workbook has very full exercises that require the student not only to recall but to develop, synthesize, and elaborate.
Since, as Jim explains, this subject (like all arts) requires theory, imitation, and practice, his curriculum provides the opportunity for all three: the textbook develops theory, the assignments in it and in the workbook provide application of theory and examples to imitate, and there are clear principles to help the student practice on his or her own, and clear guidelines for the teacher (or homsechooling parent) attempting to help the student move beyond the theory and imitation. The answer key is easy for a teacher to use and very clear, the exams are carefully constructed, and the whole package works together seamlessly, and has clearly been well thought through. A nice touch on top of all is that Jim has provided in the answer key two separate schedules for using this curriculum; one for a one-year course of 33 weeks with four classes per week (in my opinion the better approach), and one for a two-year course with fewer classes per week.
I am particularly annoyed when rhetoric texts slight or don’t take seriously the Memory canon of classical rhetoric, but Jim has not made this mistake–he has given memory its due, explaining its role in rhetoric and even giving a very clear, delightfully amusing, and immensely helpful example of how he himself might memorize Hamlet’s “To be or not to be” speech, using the loci method that most people slight.
I mentioned early that homeschoolers can use this too. The supplementary materials (workbook, exam packet, answer keys to everything) will enable a parent with no experience in rhetoric to teach this well, but the real key for homeschoolers will be the videos that go along with the text and workbook. Jim’s own teaching on the videos is marvelous and his presence and presentation are wonderfully engaging.
I am most impressed with the clear, concise, and logical way in which Jim presents, explains, and reinforces as he leads the student through the study of the art of rhetoric in his curriculum. Everything else supports that primary virtue. As I said at the beginning, I agree with Brian Daigle’s assessment: not only is this an outstanding rhetoric curriculum for high school level students, but if we really believe that rhetoric is an art for all of our communication and is, therefore, the capstone of the Trivium, then high school faculty should be required to study this course as well and to apply the principles laid out so well here in all their own teaching, in order to reinforce what we say we believe.
Wesley J. Callihan, November 2016
Find out more about Fitting Words: Classical Rhetoric for the Christian Student.
Wesley Callihan grew up on a farm in Idaho and graduated with a degree in history from the University of Idaho. He has taught at Logos School, New Saint Andrews College, and Veritas Academy. In 1997 he founded Schola Classical Tutorials where he teaches online classes on the Great Books, Astronomy, Church History, Greek, and Latin.
He is now working with Roman Roads Media to produce Old Western Culture, a 4-year integrated humanities curriculum designed to equip homeschoolers and their families with the tools to tackle the Great Books that shaped Western Civilization.