As early as we know about in most cultures, rhetoric has been central in understanding the role of citizenship. In the ancient world, the liberal arts were were those subjects considered essential for a free person to know in order to take part in civic life. Civic life, at that time, consisted of public debates, defending one's self in court proceedings, serving on juries, and military service. The original liberal arts were grammar, logic, and rhetoric.

Today, Whitman College's mission statement suggests that liberal education seeks to "help students develop capacities to analyze, interpret, criticize, communicate, and engage" (Whitman College Catalog, p. 4). Important, if not central, to these capacities is the ability of students to analyze the messages with which they come into contact every day and to respond with effective, clear, and thoughtful communication. The study of rhetoric, nearly continuous over the last 2500 years, has always been central to the objectives of a liberal arts curriculum; indeed, it is one of the seven founding aspects of liberal arts. Extending that study to contemporary political participation, movements and protest, the rise in use of social media, and other newly evolving forms of discourse has advanced the work of our field into the 21st century.

The use of communication in speech, writing, oral communication, and mediated communication is a unique characteristic of humans, demonstrating what Kenneth Burke argued in 1966, we are symbol using, and abusing, beings. Rhetoric is the dynamic by which all of the important institutions of our society operate; public address is used to dispute public policy and to resolve problems we face every day; and it is through communication that humans come to know and understand their world.