Jeffry C. Davis: Forming Ethical Students and Responsible Citizens

Help with reading, writing, listening and speaking based on the teachings on ethics and responsible citizenship of Quintilian, the great Roman rhetorician.


Marcus Fabius Quintilianus—better known as Quintilian—was born shortly after the time when the procurator Pontius Pilate ordered Jesus Christ to be crucified to death on the cross. In his life he lived to see ten Roman emperors rise and fall, most by treacherous and bloody means. Much to Quintilian’s dismay, citizens who once resolved conflict with words, ensuring humane interaction between individuals, increasingly resorted to weapons.

To resist the tide of decadence and violence that rose in his day, Quintilian decided to do something radical: educate future generations to live a better way. To do this he designed a distinctly moral curriculum, which he implemented as the first publicly paid school teacher in Western civilization. Teaching children of affluent parents—parents who were largely interested in providing their children with the kind of education that would ensure a status quo life of extravagance, comfort, and supposed security—Quintilian challenged their values.

Quintilian saw education as a much more noble endeavor than simply the acquisition of a ticket to “the good life,” defined by status, influence, and material possessions. Addressing the parents of students, he boldly writes, “Would that we ourselves did not corrupt the morals of our children! We enervate their very infancy with luxuries... we form the palate of children before we form their pronunciation.” The good life, according to Quintilian, was not to be purchased, but practiced. And the purpose of school was to learn and exercise humanizing habits.

Building upon the best of the educational tradition before him, Quintilian emphasized the importance of the study of rhetoric for those who hoped to become responsible citizens. Sadly, “rhetoric” today means manipulative political language. But in ancient times rhetoric—the effective use of words for persuasive purposes—was linked to democratic government. The most famous teacher of the ancient world, Isocrates, whom Quintilian revered, described the benefits of true rhetoric this way: “Because there has been implanted in us the power to persuade each other, and to make clear to each other whatever we desire, not only have we escaped the life of wild beasts, but we have come together and founded cities, and made laws, and invented arts.”

The four arts that Quintilian believed were central to the study of rhetoric and essential for a vital citizenry were reading, writing, speaking and listening. The regular practice of each one of these basic language skills, Quintilian theorized, reinforced the others. After reading various forms of literature, written by worthy authors, Quintilian’s students were then required to write critically and creatively about them in class, especially addressing issues of ethical import. Then, Quintilian’s students read their work out loud, at which time their peers were challenged to listen actively and attentively, making preparation to speak in response. Learning in Quintilian’s classroom occurred corporately, under consistent and purposeful guidance.

Quintilian’s daily goal for his students was facilitas: being able to use words effectively and ethically in any form, in any situation. Facilitas served his ultimate aim of forming students into virtuous people who could truly live well. Inherent in this curricular goal are the literacy skills necessary for full participation in society. Likewise, these skills represent the primary artes of a liberal arts education: the hallmarks of a liberal—free—person.

It is no surprise that Quintilian is recognized as one of the most influential proponents of liberal arts learning. Furthermore, though seldom mentioned, Quintilian—who probably was the first pagan writer to encounter the gospel—has been valued by Christian educators for centuries because of his radical commitment to moral standards and his emphasis upon personal responsibility. Learning and life, to Quintilian, must be guided by principles beyond ourselves.

After considering Quintilian’s compelling convictions, maybe students will be moved to exclaim, like the Roman writer Martial, “O Quintilian, supreme guide of unsettled youth!”

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