Should rhetoric be taught in schools?

On the back of the book review I wrote a few days ago of Sam Leith’s excellent book, You Talkin’ To Me? which deals with the subject of rhetoric (you can read the review here), I began to think more about the extent to which rhetoric is relevant in the modern day. Within the next two weeks, the UK’s fleet of secondary schools will once more open their doors after the summer break. There will be a new wave of Year 7 students, all clad in jackets that are far too big for them, and often carrying unnecessarily large bags. Is there a rhetoric-shaped hole in their current curriculum?

It is becoming more and more apparent that the ability of students in the UK to write a coherent argument is decreasing. Law firms have expressed their disappointment about it, as has my university in my reading list. One can very easily point the finger at modern technology, with ‘text speak’ and emojis to concisely express one’s feelings becoming almost ubiquitous on social media. I don’t think this is the main cause of the problem though. Young people tend not to write ‘wuu2’ and its associated text-messaging tropes in formal writing, which implies that there is an issue with the way formal writing is being assessed in schools. Rhetoric, the ancient art of persuasion, teaches one how to argue clearly and effectively, and as Sam Leith mentions in his book, this is a skill that humanities degrees at university often call for.

Despite my well-known (and well-documented) enthusiasm for the Classics, even the idea of a GCSE in rhetoric seems laughable to me. Instead, it is a skill that needs to be combined into another discipline. English Language qualifications are the first thought that comes to mind, since they already include the assessment of writing. In fact, there was the option of writing an argumentative piece in the English Language IGCSE that I sat, but this was unpopular with students and subsequently removed from the specification. Having looked at some current English Language GCSE papers, an argumentative piece would look out of place, and would be a better fit in a different qualification.

As it happens, there’s already a qualification in the UK that tests argumentative skills in some ways. It’s called Critical Thinking, and as a result of simultaneously being the most useless and useful qualification I’ve ever done, it’s a bugbear of mine (you probably know by now that I have a few of these). Why might I be denouncing a qualification that addresses a skills shortage? Level 2 Critical Thinking (roughly at GCSE level) unfortunately doesn’t go a very long way towards developing these skills. Whilst the latter half of the paper deals with identifying flaws and unwritten assumptions in arguments, as well as providing the opportunity to write a brief argument, the first half of the paper feels more like glorified puzzles at times. These primarily test logic, an important skill in its own right, but the way in which it is done is simply not intellectually rigorous enough for the qualification to be taken seriously.

There are also a series of seemingly pointless questions which involve drawing and understanding argument maps. The theory behind this is crucial, especially in the legal field, but I cannot help but feel that it is not being tested effectively. Another bugbear of mine is the fact that education in the UK has drifted increasingly towards simply teaching students how to pass exams in recent years. The exam boards are partially responsible for this, as they have created examinations where virtually everything on the syllabus is assessed at some point. Is this really necessary? Whilst I maintain that examinations must show differentiation between more and less able candidates, I believe there is still room in the system for learning something simply because it is useful. In my opinion, the best solution here would be to keep the course content on understanding the structure of an argument as it is, but reduce the number of questions in an examination pertaining to it. The gap which this would create in a paper can easily be filled by other questions, which perhaps deal more specifically with the features of an argument that make it persuasive.

When preparing for the LNAT (National Admissions Test for Law) and for my interview at the University of Cambridge, the skills that I fell back upon the most were the ones which I had gained through Critical Thinking, which highlights how useful a qualification it has the potential to be. What struck me during LNAT preparation, however, was the huge gulf between the difficulty of Level 2 Critical Thinking, which I had sat only 15 months previously, and the admissions test that I was about to take. There exists a Critical Thinking qualification from the exam board OCR at both AS and A2 level, which I think provide a far more effective format for the Level 2 qualification, which could really do with being filled out to a full GCSE. Half of one of the AS modules is in a very similar format to the LNAT: a series of passages, each with three or four questions attached. I am not for one moment suggesting that Critical Thinking should become a path to the LNAT and to a law degree, but from my experience, the LNAT provides a useful blueprint of an intellectually rigorous assessment of critical thinking skills.

I am aware that a post on rhetoric has slightly descended into a bit of a rant about Critical Thinking. To an extent, though, I believe that my initial question has already been answered: rhetoric does not really need to be taught as a separate discipline in schools, but I believe it certainly has a place in a more rigorous Critical Thinking qualification. In my opinion, the current qualification is simply not serving its purpose. The ability to write a coherent argument, the main skill which is lacking across the nation at present, is part of the Level 2 paper, but could be assessed at greater length in an expanded GCSE qualification. This also gives an opportunity to assess candidates on their understanding of what makes an argument persuasive (in terms of the evidence which backs up the reasons, and any rhetorical tropes used), which is, in my view, the other highly relevant feature of rhetoric in the modern day. Over to you, OCR.

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