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SCHOOL/ Young people don’t know how to argue anymore

SARA MORASSO comments on the importance of rhetoric, and of learning how to argue well, for students of all ages, and of the importance for the education system.

(Infophoto) (Infophoto)

John Henry Newman said, referring to one of his teachers, R. Whately, who he met at Oxford: “He decisively opened my mind, taught me how to think and to use my reason” (from the Apologia pro Vita Sua). Who can say this of his teachers? This question raises the interesting and very current challenge: does school really educate students to think and reason?

I agree with the call to reintroduce a space for the theoretical and practical teaching of rhetoric and to pay more attention to this discipline, which today seems to be neglected in schools. In this regard, I would suggest some points of departure.

First of all, rhetoric is useful. Today. The meaning of “rhetoric” and “orator” that comes to mind from studies in high school is, at best, an exercise in the embellishment of speech, and in the worst case, the sophist art of making any argument seem valid at all costs. The positive force of rhetoric, the ability to persuade, to show someone else the value of something, often remains in the shadows in school, or else is simply linked with the past, with the assemblies in Athens in the fifth century before Christ. Still, we need rhetoric today, and we use it every time we interact with other people and take a position and argue it, every time we make an effort to give the reasons for the positions and objections of others and to assess them critically. This aspect is now considered in the attention dedicated, both at a scientific level and in some university courses (and, more rarely, in high schools), to argumentation, understood as reasonable dialogue, where the attempt to persuade goes hand in hand with the submission of each judgment to the critical scrutiny of reason. The study of argumentation, which can be considered a renewal and a deepening of the classical rhetoric, is flowering internationally today.

Secondly, convincing is not (necessarily) manipulating. The argumentative attitude is based on the Aristotelian principle, deeply optimistic, according to which, for humans, “Truth and justice are naturally stronger than their opposites” (from the first book of the Rhetoric).

Those who believe in an undertaking, who have a desire they would like to realize, must take a position and argue to support it. This certainly happens in various pragmatic areas of human life (personal, family, legal, and political decisions) as well as in the field of knowledge, in formulating and supporting hypotheses for understanding reality.