At the risk of sounding mawkishly positive, I think I’ve discovered a cheap, simple fix for our fraying social, emotional and political health.
It’s easy to bemoan our problems as intractable, blaming familiar culprits like rising wealth inequality, technology (including social media) and the corporate capture of our political system. But what if our alienation stems, at least in part, from a profound failure of our educational system to teach the habits of connection, most of which boil down to thinking of others before speaking to them?
So let’s put kids together and teach them how to talk, to hear and be heard, to resolve differences and forge consensus without flameouts, rupture, vituperation.
This solution is hardly new. Invented by educators and philosophers in ancient Greece, the discipline of rhetoric — originally defined as the study of persuasion and now more commonly known as the art of public speaking — remained the cornerstone of education until the 1700s.
Across Western Europe, students from about the age of 12 onward learned logic, social skills, critical thinking and speech techniques as a single, integrated discipline by means of a 14-step verbal and cognitive curriculum known as the progymnasmata.
Exercises began with simple recitations and enactments of fables and short stories. Later drills trained students to compose and deliver short speeches of praise and blame and, eventually, long discourses on complex themes. By writing with the intent of performing for others (rather than writing objectively for the page), students learned the art of blending fact with opinion. By mastering the techniques of persuasion, students became proficient at spotting others’ manipulative use of language.
Rhetorical training meant more than teaching students to declaim prettily; it meant arming them to engage as citizens in an irrational and contentious world. It was tantamount to installing the operating system for adult social life.
Imagine how helpful these skills might be today to address our current crises of trust and civility. Estimates vary, but the average American most likely speaks at least 10,000 words a day and possibly closer to 20,000. How remiss (and weird) is it that we’re no longer taught how to use them?
Our modern educational system, largely developed in the 17th and 18th centuries during the Age of Reason to serve the needs of the Industrial Revolution, prioritizes the acquisition of knowledge and technical skills while demoting speech to the realm of soft skills. The result: Students spend the better part of two decades learning to solve problems on paper, then graduate into a world of real-life speech, where professional and personal success often depends on making decisions in groups of people with diverse viewpoints.
How do we expect young people to grapple with our socially complex world when we have failed so miserably to set an example or offer guidance?
My interest in rhetoric began in 2010, during a chat with my extremely reclusive Iowa step-cousin. He’d lived alone until the age of 60 in his parents’ basement with no friends, no girlfriends, then surprised the entire family by meeting someone and getting married. I asked him how he’d mustered up the courage to approach his future wife, given the depths of his isolation. “I joined the Toastmasters,” he said, referring to what is likely the world’s largest organization devoted to teaching public speaking. He’d never seen a therapist or taken meds. One or two dozen hours of speech training changed his entire life.
I’ve since learned that this is what speech training does. When speakers put themselves in their listener’s place, they find it easier to explain themselves. The confidence that we can make ourselves known and understood is transformative.
Apparently, scientists agree. Dr. Hannah Hobson, a lecturer in psychology at the University of York who has studied the connections among language, communication and mental health, especially among neurodiverse youth, has found repeatedly that the inability to express feelings or ask for help can often correlate with existing or developing mental health issues among youth. Conversely, she told me, improved communication skills correlate with youngsters’ emotional development and mental well-being.
A study this year by researchers at George Mason University similarly found that introductory speech classes and the communication competence they confer predicted improvement in three indicators of student well-being: loneliness, a sense of belonging and flourishing (defined as subjective well-being).
Lest the idea of rhetoric be dismissed as obscure or fussy for its association with antiquity or philosophy, few subjects are more straightforward to teach; it’s the soccer of academic subjects. In middle and high school, speech can be taught as a stand-alone subject or woven into existing classes. Students, for example, can deliver one report per semester out loud. A simple primer will suffice to convey the basics of audience analysis, speech organization and delivery skills. Students can critique one another and learn by observing. Another tremendous resource: the Toastmasters Youth Leadership Program, which offers a curriculum spanning eight one-to-two-hour sessions.
What is nearly impossible for our modern, un-speech-trained selves to understand is that effective, confident communication — in the face of anxiety and fear of giving offense — is a technical, learnable skill.
Speech proficiency harnesses the energies of neurodiverse, nonreaderly, nonwriterly kids, conferring them with the power to compete against their more traditionally advantaged peers. If you’ve ever noticed that it’s not necessarily the most knowledgeable or pedigreed people who lead but the best communicators, you’ve unwittingly observed the primacy of these supposedly soft skills. In July the British Labour Party leader Keir Starmer pledged that if he became prime minister, he would prioritize the teaching of “oracy” to smash the “class ceiling.”
For 2,000 years, rhetorical training allowed us to talk, argue, fight, negotiate and engage — even with those we disliked. If the term feels too fancy, let’s call it success skillz. By any name we choose, it’s time to resume teaching the skills that form the basis of interaction and a civilized life.
Words are cheap indeed, but neither history nor humanity has contrived a better means of coming together to address injustice or to explore the meaning of truth (mine, yours, ours). What’s good? What’s right? What do you think? Talk to me.
John Bowe is the author of “I Have Something to Say: Mastering the Art of Public Speaking in an Age of Disconnection,” among other books. He contributes regularly to CNBC about public speaking.
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