One of our sessions today was taught by a teaching fellow at my university and centred on formal spoken language and the use of speeches as texts suitable for analysis by secondary school English students. He reminded us that although the speaking and listening exam had been removed from the English GCSE that all pupils must be assessed on spoken language. I have to admit, I am still a little confused as to how this actually happens without a formal examination. The listening element has been removed, which is interesting, as despite this essential life skill being harder to assess, it is invaluable in life as what do you learn from blabbering on but not listening? Again, Gove’s educational reforms wade heavily into regressive swamps but as a teacher I will have to suck them up and be his bastion, despite deeply held reservations.
The teaching fellow is a Teach First lead at the University (a programme that I have reservations about due to my experiences as a TA at a struggling school in London last year) and has done a great deal of work with pupils from poor socio-economic backgrounds. These pupils are generally not exposed to formal language at home and can be very reticent to using such alien forms of expression in the classroom. Being that language is so wrapped up in identity formation and cultural expression and that teenagers can be very preoccupied with ‘fitting in’ and being true to their background and cultures, making them ‘speak posh’ can be met with understandable resistance. However, politics aside (yet remaining absolutely central to this discussion) in order to elevate the chances of pupils to meet the demands of future life, such as interviews and situations where their disadvantages in cultural capital become manifest when they open their mouths, it is essential that teachers help pupils become “more versatile users of the spoken language” (Brindley, 2003: 48). By this Brindley means enabling pupils “to make their language meet the demands of a wide variety of situations” (ibid).
One way of developing the utilisation of formal spoken language is through the teaching of speeches and developing pupils’ abilities to analyse the effect of the rhetorical devices that most memorable speeches are premised on. Pupils will then be encouraged to write and perform their own speeches, readying them for a life of public speaking, or so the assumption goes.
After analysing a hilarious speech calling for the nation to abstain from eating chocolate brownies, the fellow then discussed the Aristotelian rhetorical triangle. A mouthful, yes, but a useful way of describing the essential persuasive elements of a speech. The first is ethos – Do you trust the speaker’s ethos? Are they credible? The second is logos – Does the argument make sense? Is it logical? The third is pathos – Do you feel any emotion in response to what they are saying?
Thus far I was fully engaged in the lesson, until the clanger that threw myself and some of my peers off course. Before introducing what the fellow called “one of the most memorable speeches of the 21st century” he asked whether anyone had been affected by the 2003 invasion of Iraq. I put my hand up and asked whether he meant emotionally or directly, which he skirmished past, not allowing me to express my thoughts. He reminded us that as teachers we had to be sensitive to the contexts in which we were teaching and be mindful of our choice of speeches that we taught. He then played us a video of a reenactment of Colonel Tim Collins’ eve-of-battle speech, given to the 1st Battalion of the Royal Irish Regiment in Iraq in 2003.
I knew that a colleague of mine would be teaching this speech next week and that it was one of 20 speeches that could be selected as class material for AS Level English. This is when my anger began to surface. During a quick break I started to talking to a woman on the course and she was visibly as upset as me at the choice of speech not only in our session but that Collins’ words were being propagated across the country to young impressionable minds. What we need to be mindful of is that the children that this speech is being taught to were still in nappies when England waged an illegal war based on false premises despite the advice of the United Nations. What we need to remember is that there were around 655,000 deaths in the first three years of the war alone, let alone the devastation that its after effects have languished on the country since the withdrawal of troops. We also need to remember that 179 British troops were also killed, whether we agree with the invasion or not, they were led blindly into an illegal war for patently obvious geopolitical reasons. Yes, it’s a good speech but would children be taught that Collins was later investigated for alleged war crimes against Iraqi civilians?
Whether Collins’ speech was an example of Aristotle’s rhetorical triangle or not, how would we know whether this was being appropriately and sensitively dealt with by teachers across the country? How would we know that it was being contextualised in a manner that the children being exposed to it understood the continuing implications for millions of Iraqis today? This is a speech that I would refuse to teach without an honest contextualisation, out of principal and respect to all those that have lost and continue to lose their lives after Colonel Tim Collins released those words from his lips.
Brindley, S. (ed) 2003. Teaching English. London: Open University Press