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What Are Progymnasmata?

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  • Written By: Emily Daw
  • Edited By: Kaci Lane Hindman
  • Last Modified Date: 07 September 2016
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Progymnasmata means "before the exercises" in Greek and refers to an ancient classical method of introducing rhetoric to young students. The progymnasmata were designed as a systematic teaching method that would help students learn, over a period of several years, the skills necessary to compose and present rhetorical arguments. The precise origin of the progymnasmata is unknown, but scholars generally think that it was created sometime between the first and fourth centuries A.D. in either Greece or Alexandria. In modern times, the program is not often strictly followed, but aspects of it are still incorporated into rhetoric and composition courses.

The list of progymnasmata includes the following fourteen exercises: fable, narrative, anecdote, proverb, refutation, confirmation, commonplace, encomium, vituperation, comparison, personification, description, argument and deliberation. Some of these are self-explanatory, but others may be unfamiliar in modern times. The proverb exercise, for instance, requires students to defend or refute a claim made by a common saying. Encomium simply means "praise" and is an exercise in which a student praises the merits of a person or object. Vituperation is the opposite of encomium, in which a student decries some evil person or object. Deliberation, sometimes called legislation, requires that the student argue for or against a particular law.

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In a strict course of progymnasmata, the ancient student would work his or her way through each exercise in turn. It begins with the basic composition skills of story-telling, and gradually moves toward higher-level reasoning and argumentation skills. The course might take many years, but by the end, the student would have all the skills necessary for preparing and delivering a rhetorical argument. The last exercise — deliberation or legislation — most closely resembles a real-world scenario in which rhetoric is likely to be used.

Modern pedagogy does not follow the rigid outline laid out by progymnasmata, though many of its basic principles are still applied. For example, the first type of writing that children are often taught in primary school is that of story-telling, or narrative. Upper elementary students might be taught to write basic five-paragraph persuasive essays or compare-and-contrast papers similar to those of the middle steps in progymnasmata. Secondary or college-level students, however, are often asked to construct progressively more complex arguments such as research papers, which might cover some of the same topics as a deliberation exercise.

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