Logic and Rhetoric. A Graduation Speech for Theologians and Non-Theologians

In my new role as dean of studies, I have to represent our Faculty of Catholic Theology in certain ceremonies at the University of Innsbruck. On July 10, 2021, I was up to deliver a short graduation speech for news doctors, masters, and bachelors of the Faculty of Catholic Theology as well as the Faculty of Language, Literature and Culture. Here is what I said:

Dear graduates of our university, dear relatives and friends of the graduates, dear ladies and gentlemen,

Whoever studies at a university joins a tradition of  educational and academic culture, which then also becomes part of her or his own history, biography, and view of the world. It is not easy to determine exactly when university education began: A university today is truly a different environment of teaching, research, and life than it was in 1088 in Bologna, 1365 in Vienna, or 1669 in Innsbruck – just to mention these three important foundation dates. We can find a systematically developed understanding of academics and teaching much earlier anyway: Just think of Plato, Socrates, and Aristotle almost 1,500 years before the University of Bologna was founded.

As with so much in European history, also in this regard, the time of Charlemagne proves to be one in which the givens were brought together and bundled as in a funnel, and afterwards expanded again geographically, methodically and thematically. At this historical focal point in the history of Western European education we meet Alcuin, born in York and then Charlemagne’s secretary of education of sorts in continental Europe.

In his literature, Alcuin liked to use the form of dialogue, similar to how Plato delivers it from Socrates. Maybe Alcuin had also come to the conclusion that education is sometimes better enjoyed in small sequences. In one his dialogues, Alcuin lets Charlemagne himself ask the following three questions:

What is science?—Answer: In science we know the exact cause of something, for example we know that a solar eclipse happens because the moon darkens the surface of the sun. (N.B.: The Latin word scientia which Alcuin uses is translated into German as Wissenschaft, and this is the generic German term for all academic fields like science, humanities, etc. Maybe this paragraph looks a bit out of place for an English audience, but in German it makes perfect sense in the given context.)

What is logic?—Logic is the science of reason. It imparts the ability to ask questions, to provide definitions, and to investigate, and actually it can even distinguish true from false. (N.B.: Alcuin uses the word dialectica, but this can be translated as logic in the modern sense of the word, while Dialektik in German would rather remind one of Hegel or Marxism.)

And how does logic differ from rhetoric?—Like a clenched fist from the palm of the hand. Logic connects arguments with shortest possible words. Rhetoric, on the other hand, moves freely and with a rich vocabulary in the field of speech. The former condenses the words, the latter spreads them.

You, dear graduates, should have come into contact with all of this during your studies in the 21st century. You have practiced the skill to draw admissible conclusions from given presuppositions. You will probably have been criticized from time to time when someone was of the opinion that your conclusions were hasty and inadmissible or that the presuppositions were not sound, or when you talked too much and did not present your thoughts in a compact and clear manner—welcome to the world of logic. On the other hand, you were supposed to not use arguments as a wet rag that you hit on other peoples‘ heads, you should learn how to prepare insights for different target groups, to stimulate independent cognitive processes of kids and adults, to ignite the eros of understanding in other people—that is what rhetoric means.

Finally, you should get to the bottom of things—whatever those were in your field of study—, dig deeper than others do, understand connections better than prejudices suggest, maybe even those prejudices that you brought with you and which you may have had to say goodbye to in a painful manner.

You have achieved the goal of your studies. You are now part of the university’s history and the University of Innsbruck has become part of your history. During the last semesters, we teachers have had enough opportunity to give you what we think is important. Therefore I now limit myself to three small requests:

Please remain people who first ask about causes and connections and only then make judgments. This is perhaps the most important part for assuming social responsibility, to which you will soon acknowledge in your pledge. (N.B.: After the speech the president of the university receives an academic vow by the graduates which includes the aforementioned social responsibility.)

Logic and rhetoric: Please be strict with yourself when making arguments, especially where others will attribute competence and authority to you based on your studies and your academic degree. Please also stay creative, target group-oriented and make the most of the abundance of language and media when it comes to conveying knowledge and getting people of all ages fascinated about it.

Thank you for the trust you have placed in us, the lecturers at the University of Innsbruck—I congratulate on your graduations! And I can assure you that this was the first time for some of you, but the last time for all of you that you had to listen to me during your studies. Thank you very much!

The Alcuin quote is from Patrologia Latina, vol. 101, col. 952–953.

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