Remember that you are a human being with a soul and the divine gift of articulate speech: that your native language is the language of Shakespeare and Milton and the Bible; and don’t sit there crooning like a bilious pigeon. Henry Higgins to Eliza Doolittle. Pygmalion by George Bernard Shaw.
It is also the language of Germaine Greer and the, sadly missed, Lisa Jardine.
In order to bring different voices together we need to be able to ensure language is understood. Our culture of conversation should not be about silencing voices it should be about listening to and enabling all to congregate in a place we share in common: voices joined, arguing, discussing, agreeing and disagreeing. At its heart is our agreement to have the conversation, a sign of a mature democracy rather than a petty piteous regime in which there are the chosen ones who know what is right and the ignorant, ‘evil others’ who should have their tongues ripped from their throats. Too many people are trying these days to silence voices because they disagree with them. Rather, we need to listen to a range of voices, this should be at the heart of our culture as understood by Michael Oakeshott:
…culture itself is these voices joined as such voices could only be joined, in a conversation – an endless unrehearsed intellectual adventure in which, in imagination, we enter into a variety of modes of understanding the world and ourselves and are not disconcerted by the differences or dismayed by the inconclusiveness of it all. And perhaps we may recognize liberal learning as, above all else, an education in imagination, an initiation into the art of this conversation in which we learn to recognize the voices; to distinguish their different modes of utterance, to acquire the intellectual and moral habits appropriate to this conversational relationship and thus to make our debut dans la vie humaine.
Our society has ‘jumped the shark’ when people try to silence Germaine Greer due to her ‘misogyny’.
If a school has a culture of silencing debate by not giving children the opportunity to speak or, when they do, by silencing them if they’re not saying the right ‘politically correct’ things then we have a culture that encourages young people to see thought and speech as a potential crime. If debate is reduced to being only the concern of politicians on telly with their Etonian wiles and a pastime for those dining at the dinner tables of Hampstead then something is wrong. If articulate talk is for the posh, then the rest of us are like dogs chewing over the inarticulate scraps left at the feet of the privileged few.
In today’s Times Clare Foges, speechwriter to David Cameron from 2009-15 argues that: “Children should leave school not just with a clutch of GCSEs but the gift of clear and proper speech.” She is right but this does not mean teaching children elocution, it means children need to learn to listen, think, argue, debate, and speak in formal ways, in the spaces that they share in common, which means mostly in the classroom.
Schools need to give children the opportunity to express their thoughts, though not their unthought through prejudices. No-one needs to hear, in a formal space, a child mumbling incoherently about something of which she knows very little. Pupils need to learn how there is often more than one side to an argument, they need to understand the complexity and subtleties involved in different points of view. They need to be taught how an argument is constructed and why, they need to understand logic and also the philosophical underpinning to different discourses. Pupils need to begin to discover what they believe and begin to articulate their thoughts in dialogue with others. They shouldn’t be looking to close down other people’s differing views, rather they should relish the opportunity to learn by listening to the voices from the past and the present in order that they might be articulate in the future.
Debate involves articulacy. Not only should students begin to understand why there are a range of views, they should also begin to be able to communicate in a way that means they can be understood. At the heart of this a school should have a policy for speaking and listening that covers all opportunities where pupils have to communicate with each other as well as encouraging more. Good communication includes the arts of grammar, dialectic and rhetoric; through the trivium children learn about the thoughts and ideas of the past and discover what matters. They are then given an opportunity to think about and challenge these thoughts and ideas and, in the process, develop the abilty to add to the thoughts and ideas that might matter in the future. Knowing, questioning and communicating; instead of shutting Germaine Greer up, they should understand why she is a colossus among men, they should challenge and debate with her, but shut her up? No!
Imagine if we had shut up all the other great thinkers of the past because they were not ‘politically correct,’ imagine the paucity of our culture if we allowed our half formed, ill informed, badly educated, prejudices to always hold sway. As Lisa Jardine put it: “We are going to have to learn how to participate in debates which are not about certainties.” Students should be curious about the world, not certain that they are its moral guardians, they should be open to the possibilities inherent in debate, not frightened due to its ability to offend. Schooling has a hugely important role to play. If our young people are frightened to debate then we have denied them the gift of clear and articulate speech.
If you are interested in the ideas expressed here, I’m leading a course on whole school speaking and listening, looking at debate, dialogue and rhetoric, click here.