Sharpen your presidential address with rhetoric MA

A new course hopes to transform and revive an area often seen as outdated. Matthew Reisz reports

September 24, 2009

Rhetoric was central to education from ancient times, through the Renaissance and well into the 19th century - but then, in Britain at least, it largely slipped off the syllabus.

Could the "Obama factor" mark the beginning of a revival?

Here is a man - in the words of Phil Collins, former speechwriter to Tony Blair - who "spoke his way to the White House from nowhere through the power of rhetoric".

But in spite of this demonstration of its clout, rhetoric is in low academic repute.

At Gresham College in London, there has been a Gresham professor of rhetoric since the institution was founded in the 1590s.

But for the current incumbent Richard Evans, who is also Regius professor of modern history at the University of Cambridge, rhetoric "is seen as outmoded, a label that can be interpreted however we see fit". His own lectures will focus on "war and peace in Europe".

So is there still room for serious study of rhetoric in the traditional sense? Yes, argues Johan Siebers, leader of a new one-year MA on the topic at the University of Central Lancashire that begins this week.

Along with research and a dissertation, it includes modules on "the history and theory of rhetoric", "power in talk", "rhetoric in politics" and "the rhetoric of narrative and image". The first tranche of students come from backgrounds in linguistics, psychology and philosophy, as well as public relations.

Dr Siebers, a philosopher by training, addressed delegates at the first conference of the UK Speechwriters' Guild last week at the Arts University College, Bournemouth.

He and fellow speakers, including Mr Collins, explored common concerns under the theme of "Why is there no British Obama?"

"Speaking is part of what makes us human," said Dr Siebers, although critics since Plato have argued that eloquence is just a disreputable form of manipulation.

This has led writers on rhetoric to make clear that a speech is always "a tennis match with an invisible player, effective only if it respects the listener", Dr Siebers said.

"Historically, the flowering of rhetoric goes with Enlightenment and democracy.

"It is always committed to open-ended discussion, quite unlike the business model with a clear set of priorities decided in advance."

Rhetoric and compositional skills have long had a more secure place in the American academy than in Britain.

Gideon Burton, of Brigham Young University in Utah, has created a celebrated website called the Forest of Rhetoric, which sets out 800 rhetorical terms and figures of speech.

But it can get pretty difficult to recall precise distinctions between "metabasis", "metalepsis" and "metastasis" - and the range of such classifications has played a part in hastening the discipline's decline.

Nonetheless, Dr Siebers argues that a solid grounding in rhetoric can provide conceptual tools, unavailable elsewhere, that are "crucial in politics, art, science, business and all fields of public life".

And he suggested that it may be able to do even more than that - the Dutchman joked that he had noticed that "the British in general don't like to think. Perhaps rhetoric will prove more effective in changing that than philosophy ever has."

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