More than a mere device

May 9, 2013

In her defence of creative writing, Fay Weldon argues that our schools and universities need a new discipline called literacy (“Persuasion: teaching not the what, but the how, of crafting words”, 2 May). Such a discipline, however, already exists, even if it’s little taught in the UK (my own university is a happy exception). I refer to rhetoric, for what is rhetoric - in the classic rather than the pejorative sense - if not the art, craft and study of “us[ing] words effectively and persuasively”, as Weldon puts it?

The roots of rhetoric go back to before Aristotle, and for centuries - along with grammar and logic - the subject formed part of the core curriculum of the West. Shakespeare’s mastery of the arts of language was based on a firm foundation in rhetoric. The same applies to Winston Churchill, the winner of the 1953 Nobel Prize in Literature, who at the tender age of 23 had written an essay aptly titled “The Scaffolding of Rhetoric”.

Today, rhetoric is a compulsory first-year course in many US universities, some of which also offer full undergraduate and postgraduate programmes in the subject. In this country, by contrast, rhetoric as a discipline has fallen into a far from benign neglect. Yet rhetoric is omnipresent in society: not only in advertising, as Weldon reminds us, but in journalism, law, marketing, politics, public relations, teaching - any occupation where effective communication is at a premium (and where is it not?). Creative writing may have its merits, but rhetoric is unique in offering a combination of academic rigour, employability skills and the tools for active citizenship. It is high time that it was restored to its rightful, central place in the education of our students.

Is Michael Gove listening?

Neil Foxlee
Senior research fellow and associate lecturer in rhetoric
University of Central Lancashire

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