It has been employed for thousands of years, taking in everything from Julius Caesar writing veni, vidi, vici (“I came, I saw, I conquered”) to Bruce Forsyth greeting fans with “nice to see you, to see you nice”.
Caesar, Forsyth and countless others, from William Shakespeare to Nicki Minaj, have used classical rhetoric, the ancient formula for crafting and delivering persuasive arguments. Now, an academic argues that teaching it in schools would improve the nation’s communication skills no end.
Arlene Holmes-Henderson, a classics professor at Durham University, is leading a project to help improve the oracy of children in the north-east of England. If successful, the aim is to roll the scheme out across the UK.
Holmes-Henderson is collaborating with three academic colleagues who have expertise in other areas – psychology, English and education – and who are all passionate about equipping children with skills to become effective communicators.
“We want to empower young people to find and use their voice,” she said, adding that teaching rhetoric was just one part of the project but an important one.
Holmes-Henderson is a former secondary school teacher and has seen first-hand the lightbulb moments when pupils realise that the latest Sony advert, for example, is a chiasmus.
Famous examples of chiasmus include John F Kennedy’s “Mankind must put an end to war, or war will put an end to mankind” and Forsyth’s “Nice to see you, to see you nice”.
Holmes-Henderson said chiasmus was often used in political speeches but not always for the right reasons, and knowing about it helps audiences read between the lines.
“If you don’t know about chiasmus, it is quite easy to be taken in, which is why it’s important for young people to have a rhetorical toolbox where they can deconstruct the communication of others,” Holmes-Henderson said. “They can also use it to construct their own communication in order to be as articulate and self-expressive as possible.”
Other rhetorical devices include asyndetons (the deliberate omission of conjunctions), anaphoras (repeating a sequence of words at the beginning of neighbouring clauses) and alliteration (the repetition of initial consonant sounds of nearby words in a phrase).
The north-east of England is an area of particular “classics poverty”, said Holmes-Henderson. “Kids in the north-east have the least access to classics compared to children elsewhere in the country. I think we see a real difference between the private sector and the state sector in terms of preparing young people to find their voice confidently.”
The original motivation for the project, titled “shy bairns get nowt”, is the disadvantage faced by schoolchildren in the north-east. Holmes-Henderson said one report found that pupils fell twice as far behind during the pandemic as their peers in the south-east.
Improving children’s oracy skills has lifelong benefits, the researchers said. “Long after they’ve forgotten the rules of trigonometry or the imperfect tense in French, they retain the skills required to disagree constructively,” Holmes-Henderson said.
Holmes-Henderson represents classics, while the English representative on the project is Prof Simon James, who led the Durham Commission on Creativity and Education. They are joined by the psychologist Thomas Vaughan-Johnston, who is an expert in vocal characteristics of persuasive speech, and David Waugh, an education professor who co-wrote the book Integrating Children’s Literature in the Classroom.
The strength of the project was the mix of academics taking part, Holmes-Henderson said. “We have people who would not usually ever meet. I would not normally be having conversations with colleagues in psychology, English and education because academia is really siloed.
“Together, we hope that we can create something that will have a significant impact across the north-east. The long-term aim is that our training and resources can be rolled out to other schools across the country.”
The academics started meeting in April and are planning an international conference in Durham on the subject in September. They said any resources that emerged as a result of discussions would be produced with teachers.
“We are not at all saying we know everything,” said Holmes-Henderson. “We want to collaborate with the teachers themselves because they are the experts in their classrooms.”
“Mankind must put an end to war, or war will put an end to mankind” – John F Kennedy addressing the UN general assembly in 1961.
“Fair is foul and foul is fair” – the three witches in Shakespeare’s Macbeth.
“Nice to see you, to see you nice” – Bruce Forsyth.
“We will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom together knowing that we will be free one day” – Martin Luther King in his 1963 I Have a Dream speech
“I came, I saw, I conquered” – Julius Caesar
“I came to win, to fight, to conquer, to thrive. I came to win, to survive, to prosper, to rise, to fly!” – Nicki Minaj