Rebutting the “Stuff the facts – let’s just develop confident rhetoric” argument

Every now and then I see an article which makes me think about what the author is really saying and trying to see if I can agree with it. The article which got me thinking inferred that facts are irrelevant to a debate, as confidence was what mattered.

https://schoolsweek.co.uk/you-dont-need-facts-to-win-a-debate-you-need-confidence/

To quote from the article

“I was horrified (my italics) by a policy developer who tried to defend a knowledge-rich curriculum because “you need facts to win a debate”. He’s wrong – you need confidence. I’ve seen people win debates purely on bravado without an ounce of knowledge”

What horrifies me is that, in many cases, the author of the article is correct. There have been and there still are people who can win debates through sheer bravado. If you look and sound confident, you can go a long way. In my experience, people with a background in sales are very good at this. It’s only after a good few years of experiencing life (one of the benefits of getting older!), that you begin to realise that some people will sound confident about anything at all, whereas the trick is to ascertain whether they really have the facts at their fingertips, or whether what they are saying is just a lot of hot air.

In my 30 years of teaching I have seen many pupils give “speeches” asking to be considered for various positions of responsibility. In recent times, I have had to advise them that making a speech is not the same as an audition for “Britain’s Got Talent”. To be fair, some of their peers see through the confident rhetoric and gimmicks and start asking probing questions. But, equally, I have seen Mr and Miss Narcissist carry the day.

It is also true that I have often wished that the quiet but knowledgeable, thoughtful pupil would put themselves forward, So yes, I agree that we need to develop our less confident pupils in oracy.  Yet I do not want a world where people shout empty rhetoric at each other.

As another article has stated, oracy without knowledge leads to a situation where anger and passion substitute for analysis and exposure to an unexpected piece of factual information can derail the speaker. So yes, we need to develop confident speakers, but knowledge is crucial if ideas are to be challenged and argued appropriately.

Back in 1989 the former headmaster of Westminster School, John Rae, published a book, “Too little too late?” which gave his response to the newly introduced national curriculum. In it, he quotes Harold Macmillan’s classics tutor at Balliol college Oxford saying the following,

“Nothing that you will learn on the course of studies will be the slightest use to you in later life, save only that if you work hard and diligently you should be able to detect when a man is talking rot and in my view that is the main if not the sole purpose of education.”

The sole purpose of education? I disagree. But “a” purpose of education? Absolutely. At the risk of breaking Godwin’s law,  history is littered with examples of demagogues who used their rhetorical skills to win people over. Those people who dismiss a knowledge based curriculum are not giving their pupils the vital tools they need to challenge the windbags and narcissists. That is what horrifies me.

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