Classical Rhetoric, Schools and Citizenship

On 7 November 2016, Dr Arlene Holmes-Henderson (University of Oxford) gave a lecture in Glasgow on how classical rhetoric can enrich school learners’ development of speaking and writing skills. Dr Holmes-Henderson is a member of the Classics in Communities project.


Dr Arlene Holmes-Henderson

Dr Holmes-Henderson argued that an introduction to classical rhetoric can help school pupils to develop literacy, critical literacy and critical thinking skills, which are conducive to articulate self-expression. Classical rhetoric involves deconstructing and constructing communication; skills which prepare young people for learning, life and work. The ability to present their views, with carefully considered reasons, prepares school learners to become engaged, active and participative citizens.

In classical rhetoric, the refutatio (refutation) is the part of the speech devoted to answering the counterarguments of your opponent. Dr Holmes-Henderson pointed out that in order to answer an opponent’s arguments, we have to learn ‘To see ourselves as others see us’ – this is a quotation from Robert Burns’s Scots poem ‘To a Louse’ (1786). This approach helps cultivate ‘responsible citizenship’, as to respond to criticism, people have to put themselves in their opponent’s position. This requires the suspension of one’s own argumentative position and promotes identification and engagement with the views of others. In the context of school, this could help pupils to see each other’s points of view. And this is particularly relevant with reference to the Scottish government’s Curriculum for Excellence. Classical rhetoric can help to achieve the purposes of the curriculum, namely to develop key capacities including ‘confident individuals’, ‘successful learners’, ‘responsible citizens’ and ‘effective contributors’:

Dr Holmes-Henderson’s key argument is that classical rhetoric builds communicative competence and enables young people ‘to have their say’, a central feature of Scottish democracy.

She made the point that a good speaker uses ethos (character, credibility) and pathos (emotion) as well as logos (logical arrangement of words) in order to persuade the audience. Schoolchildren often think that communication is about logos (the words themselves), and they are not aware of the other two. Teenagers are actually experts in pathos because they know how to manipulate their parents; however, learning about classical rhetoric will help them to learn that an effective speaker uses all three elements together in order to persuade.

According to Dr Holmes-Henderson, the key benefit for school learners is that classical rhetoric can provide a structured approach to thinking about contentious issues. Quintilian has two rhetorical exercises which could be applied in modern schools:

suasoriae – imagine yourself as a figure from history or mythology and present an argument outlining your choice of action in a dilemma

controversiae – fictional law cases, in which you had to ‘act’ either for the defence or the prosecution

Dr Holmes-Henderson explains that debating these imaginary or historical scenarios in the classroom creates a cultural and historic distance which can help build rhetorical competence and prevent an argument from getting overheated. The construction of a scenario can offer a protective buffer which prevents discussions from descending into slander. In this way, school learners (and citizens) with opposing views get the opportunity to explain and justify the foundations of their beliefs in an effort to transform opinions. When learners are sufficiently confident with rhetorical theory, they can graduate to arguments concerning controversial contemporary issues. If performed well, this exercise can encourage democratic deliberation, which aims ultimately to allow all sides to reach new and acceptable positions for collective action. What better preparation for citizenship could there be?

Dr Holmes-Henderson concluded that rhetoric has many benefits for 21st-century education: it provides a structure for argumentation; a framework for self-representation; and it boosts critical skills, such as the ability to ‘read between the lines’.

Anyone interested in further reading on this topic can consult Dr Holmes-Henderson’s essay in the book Democracy and Decency (2016).


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