08 Nov 2019

Alex Hems: Head's Blog November 8 2019

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Debating and use of Language

Just before half term St George’s hosted our first Model United Nations conference. Over recent years our teams have been acquiring a very strong reputation across Scotland, so I was delighted at the suggestion that we should host our own. Attended by over 200 students from schools north and south of the border, our first conference was also Scotland’s largest at school level.  It was a treat to watch the students at work, negotiating, debating and presenting, over two busy days.  They were learning to collaborate with people that they had never met before, to present the perspective of the countries they were representing effectively and to respond productively to opinions that were not their own. For many it was their first conference and it was so good to hear the generous encouragement of the older students for those speaking for the first time.

An English teacher at heart, I am passionate about using language well. Lazy, inaccurate and simply abusive language annoys me deeply. Debating and MUN are very popular at St George’s, but I know that debating especially is sometimes regarded as rather old fashioned, perhaps because of the formality of its structures and the bombastic and somewhat combative style sometimes adopted by debaters. To my mind, however, it is an excellent way to hone some very important life skills. Debating requires young people to be accurate in their use of language, to develop a more sophisticated vocabulary, to reflect on the potential impact of their words and to choose them wisely. There is a place for rhetoric in a skilled argument, but a debater will quickly realise that style alone will not win a debate, and that substance is a prerequisite for success.  All the skills of organised and clear thinking, precision in expression and the ability to anticipate and appreciate a variety of perspectives are invaluable in daily life, whether at home or at work. Perhaps just as importantly debating requires participants to listen attentively, to pay attention to detail not only in what they say but what is said by others – they need to be in ‘receive’ mode as much as they are in ‘transmit’.

As we move towards a general election in a few weeks’ time I know that we will all grow weary of rhetoric. We have also heard much recently of the appalling abuse that is increasingly directed at MPs and others in public life. It is easy to over-simplify complex issues and suggest that a crudely binary choice is all that is available. Social media has facilitated this tendency, as well as providing a vehicle for some of the most vile but anonymous comments, and many so-called debates on Twitter for example are little more than mudslinging. Far from opening up debate, the use of inflammatory language closes it down by suggesting that someone with an opposing view is morally inferior and does not have a right to be heard. It is easy to hide behind such language and virtue signalling, and to incite indignation, anger and violence, while refusing to enter fully into debate.  It is so important that we are able to listen to opinions that we may not like, an ability which seems increasingly rare, and are required to present a reasoned response to them. In a proper debate we cannot walk away or refuse to hear what we do not like or agree with, and views that are poorly argued or based purely on prejudice, assumptions and hatred will be exposed for what they are.

I hope that the art of debating and public speaking will continue to flourish in schools. The snapshot that I witnessed over one weekend in October certainly gave me much to feel positive about.

Mrs Alex Hems MA Oxon
Head, St George's School for Girls, Edinburgh

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