Rhetoric is more than the simple act of persuasion: it is the use of language in its most sophisticated dinner jacket of choice. When reviewing our English curriculum, rhetoric had to play a central part, because to teach the way Aristotle positioned the use of language as an artform is to teach how to use language in its truest and most authentic form. Indeed, rhetoric provides learners with a study of English with a ‘view behind the curtain.’ As such- we enable them to see exactly how demonstrative, interrogative, manipulative language can be when used as an instrument of embellishment and beauty. I was therefore delighted when our rhetoric unit was recognised by Oak National as deserving of a position on their curriculum, not merely because it would mean that children would learn the mechanics of rhetorical language, but they would learn the study of rhetoric through the multi-faceted lens that I am so incredibly passionate about.
We exist in a world where language holds weight more than ever before, and as they begin to recognise the societal tensions that exist, rhetorical language acts as a way for young people to navigate that environment before deciding where their particular place is within it. We cannot look to understand politics if we do not understand the way in which the language of politics is being garnished for us to ascertain truth or certitude. We cannot seek to comprehend the powerful words of a campaign without being able to take an objective standpoint on the essence of the speaker’s intentions. We cannot hope to decipher the words of a man of colour; woman with power; victim of suppression; if we do not scrutinise the way that their words are delicate or deliberate because they utter them. Students deserve the vantage point of being able to differentiate between the substance of the words, and the way in which the substance is decorated. View rhetoric as the Matrix, if you will: by teaching children manipulation of language, we are providing the fundamental platform for them to make the choice to see reality for themselves, as opposed to leaving them lost in the fabrication of reality.
If I want students to be grounded in the connotations of language so that they understand the gravity of rhetoric, I must share the mechanism at play when evoking pathos, revealing to them that emotional manipulation coupled with knowledge is an intoxicating combination. If I want to challenge the masculinity of language so that students understand that the female form within both literature and the world faces relentless oppression from the words they are forced to use, I will feel it is necessary to study Aspasia, and by honouring her achievements as an orator, we seek to dismantle the way in which her name is now used to describe a speech impairment - the ironic bastardisation of her very accomplishments as an orator. If I intend for students to understand the fluidity and flexibility of rhetoric, I will demonstrate to them the way in which Gandhi used language to drive peace, not fury, and that rhetoric has been used achieve quite magnificent things - as demonstrated by the soldiers at Tilbury, or Burma’s women of destiny, or perhaps even one boy that read Lennie James’ open letter on 8th June 2008.
Mary Beard considers that in a world of oracy and cultural legacy of rhetoric, ‘we are still, directly or more often indirectly, the heirs’ but for this to be true, we must be committed to respecting the traditions. Committing to the study of rhetoric is more than showing students a gimmicky wizardry of words: it allows them to see how our world is constructed, one silken thread of language at a time.
- Ensure your teachers become experts of rhetoric through a combination of further reading, collaborative discussion and plotting through texts to consider a conceptual analysis of rhetoric
- Prepare for teaching through group analysis and research of key speakers and contexts
- Ensure a balanced, agnostic approach to critical analysis in class, so that we might hope to develop critical consumers of language
- Demonstrate the recurrent aspect of rhetoric when teaching: this might be through the use of rhetorical language to highlight racial or gender-specific injustice
- Look to build a multi-faceted representation of rhetoric for students so they can recognise this use of language within their own experience of language day-to-day.
Rhetorical study should act as causeway between the world of the student, and the wider world of language as a whole.
Kat Howard's new book, co-authored with Claire Hill, Symbiosis: The curriculum and the classroom, co-authored with Claire Hill, published by John Catt Education and available to pre-order here
 Mary Beard, The Public Voice of Women, 2014.