The power of speech
‘I remember the day that the Berlin Wall came down,’ says broadcaster and author Edward Stourton. ‘I was based in Paris and I went to the newsstand, bought my morning paper, and as I read the news I remember thinking, “My children will never know what it’s like to live under the threat of Armageddon”.’
This was a very real threat when Edward and his debating partner and now friend, Sir Nicholas Mostyn, were at school in the late 60s and early 70s. ‘I remember discussing what we’d do if the Russians invaded and swept across the West German plain,’ says Sir Nicholas, ‘and whether we’d fire nuclear weapons or not. Debating society encouraged us to talk about politics and to develop our ideas.’
Thrown together by chance after another pupil dropped out, Edward and Sir Nicholas went on to win the Observer Schools’ Mace (as it was known then) in 1975, speaking in favour of a referendum on the European Union. In his closing comments, Lord Hailsham, one of the judges, advised the young debaters to ‘speak more slowly…, to eschew clichés, and to remember what Churchill had once told him, that “If you can speak in this country, you can do anything”.’
Nobody can dispute that being able to persuade people in argument is a tremendous asset. It’s an aspect of confidence to take forward in life. All children should be taught to debate, whether that’s formal debate or what the Americans would call the ability to argue.
Sir Nicholas Mostyn
Both Edward and Sir Nicholas also agree that the other great skill debating teaches is that of listening. ‘I remember listening to John Humphrys interviewing Clare Short, during the Iraq war,’ says Edward. ‘And during the course of one answer she referred to a transcript of a conversation that the UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan had had, which had come from intelligence sources. There was a moment of pause when you could almost hear John’s brain whirring and he said, “I’m sorry, are you telling me we bug the UN Secretary-General?” And at that point the interview went down a totally different course. It’s that kind of ability to pick up on a weakness or an unexpected point, and to never stop listening which I think is a really valuable skill.’
The art of listening
By teaching young people to listen, as well as to express themselves effectively, we give them the skills and the confidence to thrive and to participate fully in their communities.