Tom F. Wright is Principal Investigator on the Speaking Citizens Project and teaches English and American Studies at the University of Sussex
Welcome to Speaking Citizens -- a project run from the University of Sussex, where I teach and research the history of rhetoric.
In my work, I’m fascinated by how people throughout history have used language to persuade each other. I’m especially interested in how they have used spoken language in public: through speeches, conversations, lectures and debates, and how this has influenced society and the history of ideas.
To put it another way, you might say that I am fascinated by all the ideas that come from Os -- the Latin word for mouth. Os is the root of lots of key English words. Examinations, medicine, sex, hygiene or poetry can all be oral. When we piece together the past from first-hand accounts we call it oral history. Songs, stories or jokes of ordinary people are described as oral tradition. The art of public speaking is oratory. We call those who excel at it orators. We call the mindset of mankind before the invention of reading and writing that of orality.
Each of these words or phrases suggests that the mouth is central to what it means to be human. And they are all quite familiar terms. But as I was researching them, I kept on encountering another strange word that I hadn’t seen before, one that seemed to link to modern education. The word oracy.
I discovered that it was a term that British educational researchers had coined in the 1960s. Just as we use literacy to describe people who are fluent and skilled at reading writing, oracy was a word created to describe the ability to listen and express oneself in speech. I soon learnt that it was more than just this, but also expressed a vision of the kinds of effective communicators schools should be sending out into society.
Over the last generation in particular, it has become one of the most important, and eagerly debated ideas in British educational theory. Groups such as Oracy Cambridge have co-ordinated research into how it might be taught, and charities and lobbying groups such as Voice 21 and a dedicated All Party Parliamentary Group have promoted speaking and listening as central to school curricula in Britain.
As a historian, this fascinated me for a number of reasons. I recognised that the kinds of arguments that were being made for and against the importance of speaking today were part of a long tradition. I saw that something that wasn’t yet called ‘oracy’ could be traced back thousands of years, enduring through Classical civilizations through the kinds of spoken education Shakespeare might have received. A desire to control children’s voices was there in the Victorian classroom, when compulsory education was introduced in the 1870s. It was also there in the broader self-improvement culture of the period, and as a cultural imperative it has never gone away, taking many strange turns along the way.
I wanted to find out more about this genealogy and show how contemporary theories of speaking belong to much older debates about the role of ‘talk’ within democracy.
More specifically, I wanted to focus on a particular political angle that I had noticed in the way oracy is discussed today. The claim is often made that removing disparities in speaking ability is a pre-requisite for social equality. Pioneering proponents from the 1960s such as Andrew Wilkinson and more recent champions like Neil Mercer alike have maintained that equalising speaking ability is a key route to equality of outcome and social cohesion.
I had also started to notice other people across the humanities and social sciences who were interested in these ideas. One was Stephen Coleman at Leeds, who is now a member of our team. As he had argued in a key article, it is long overdue for scholars beyond the field of education to undertake a more critical examination of what oracy means politically, in a broader sense. Along with Arlene Holmes-Henderson from Oxford, and my colleague Hester Barron at Sussex, the Speaking Citizens team came into being to try to do just this. The aim is to offer a historical and critical analysis of oracy from outside educational studies itself. As historians and social scientists, we will ask new kinds of questions that can help push the conversation forward. You can check out our aims and research questions here.
We will spend the next three years completing overlapping case studies that interrogate ideas about speech and citizenship from 1850 to the present. Ranging from community groups in present-day Leeds, through case studies of multicultural and migrant communities, radical educational thought of the 1960s, 1920s London schools, to the world of Victorian labour movements and women’s elocution, we will use diverse new archives to reconstruct the political history of speech education. In addition, by looking at contemporary real-life speech situations we will explore how the dynamics of political talk in non-formal adult contexts might inform school-based approaches.
These new contexts will allow us to trace the history of speech education as a political flashpoint. We can examine how these issues have been treated by successive governments, how ideas about talk changed with the expansion of the franchise and with shifting ideas about women’s role in democracy. We will be able to evaluate the successes and failures of past interventions and grasp the historically contingent nature of more recent understandings of speech. This larger frame of reference will provide educators and policymakers with a more secure knowledge base from which to advocate for reform.
In the first two years -- Covid-19 notwithstanding -- we will be working with partner teachers at dialogue events, and hosting a major conference bringing educators, researchers and thinkers together. In our final year, we will have developed our findings into teaching resources to be rolled out over the final year pedagogy workshops and will present our findings at the Department for Education and in Westminster.
Our work in progress is going to appear on this site, along with a wide range of stimulating perspectives from those interested in what it means to be a twenty-first century speaking citizen.
To learn more and be kept updated on progress, use our sign up form and follow us on Twitter at @SpeakingCitz