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What is Rhetoric?

Rhetoric is the art of persuasion and was once considered to be among the most influential and important of skills.

Isocrates wrote that, “We have come together and founded cities and made laws and invented arts; and, generally speaking, there is no institution devised by man which the power of speech has not helped us to establish.”

Although highly regarded among the Ancient Greeks, its dark side was known and acknowledged. Plato was one philosopher who pointed out that the masses are swayed by the most persuasive speeches, which means society and civic life can be controlled by whoever delivers the best speech; and that persuasion can be used to deceive and manipulate as easily as it can be used to enlighten and inform.

The scientific revolution saw the corresponding decline of rhetoric and the growth of the situation we have today: one in which ‘sciences’ and ‘humanities’ are regarded as separate categories rather than inextricably interwoven.

The scientific method is an excellent tool for determining the truth, but that discovered truth can only be successfully spread using the arts of rhetoric, where ‘successfully’ means both ‘reaches a large volume of people’ and ‘remains accurately and undistorted in message’. Unfortunately, one of the consequences of not teaching rhetoric is that the audience is often unaware of the techniques being used to manipulate them, and consequently more vulnerable to them.

The person who delivers the best speech is not necessarily right, but the weakness of democracy is that the masses must be convinced in order to achieve change, which means the person who delivers the most effective speech gets empowered to do so – for good or for ill – while brilliant ideas die on the faltering tongues of people less effective at swaying others.

At Rise & Shine, we believe that facts are important. Our debaters are taught to research their subject matter, to differentiate between the reliability of different sources, and to use their findings to inform and support their arguments. Their speeches are the assessment tool we use for these skills, which do, undeniably, make their arguments more convincingly persuasive.

What the debaters themselves often don’t realise is that public speaking skills are the least of what they are taking away from our classes. They will find cause to use the techniques they learned with us again and again – throughout their education, in the workplace, and in their interpersonal relationships – as they actively work to persuade others.

More vital, however, is their constant and reactive analysis of incoming information. The political campaign on the radio, the scientific fad on the talk show, the passive aggressive insinuation of a co-worker – all these inputs are filtered through their understanding of rhetoric. Being able to perceive the methods being used to manipulate them make those methods less effective, and make our students more discerning citizens of the world.


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