About a year ago I published a blog on the English-Speaking Union (ESU) with which I have had a long association. [i]
The main point of that blog was to quote from an interview that the new chairman of the ESU Miles Young had given to its magazine. Miles is a good friend of mine and a fellow graduate of New College, Oxford of which he is now the Warden. However, Miles was taken very ill with Covid, spent considerable time in hospital and while he is now slowly recuperating, he’s had to step down from the position of Chairman of the Trustees of the ESU which is a terrible shame for him and indeed for the ESU.
However, I believe the ESU is in good shape and I have become much more involved than my relatively casual previous relationship and am now a member of the committee of the Hertfordshire branch and see at much closer hand some of the excellent work that it does, particularly with schools and with the encouragement of oracy.
Six teams from five schools - Kings Langley School, St Albans School, Haberdashers’ Girls School, Immanuel College, and Chancellors’ School – recently took part in the Hertfordshire Branch Final of the ESU-Churchill Public Speaking Competition. Whilst Haberdashers’ School had been delighted to host the competition face-to-face, at the last-minute the competition had to be conducted over Zoom instead as some of the participants had tested COVID positive.
The Zoom competition was very well attended by student supporters of the participating schools, teachers and parents, and indeed by people like me who were there just out of interest. The Rt Hon Mayor of Hertsmere sent a wonderful message of support, “I commend the ESU Public Speaking Competition for encouraging students to develop their oratory skills which will hold them in good stead in their future lives.” The standard of the competition was immensely high, with speeches covering topics as far ranging as: ‘Margaret Thatcher does not deserve vilification’; ‘An undergraduate degree is an expensive waste of time’; ‘In today’s world, the young are wiser than the old’; ‘The exploitation of the Antarctic represent this generation’s greed coming at the expense of the next’; ‘Life is really simple but we insist on making it complicated (Confucius).
I was a member of the Debating society at my grammar school, and we had regular debates which involved picking a proposition, hearing from the leaders of the debate putting arguments for and against the proposition, then giving people from the floor the opportunity to make their own comments before finally taking the vote on the subject. The debates organised by the ESU take a different format which is simply that an individual student is asked to speak for a particular proposition. The arguments on the other side are not presented but nevertheless this is still a very useful experience in developing the skill of oracy and the judging does not need to focus on whether the individual is right or wrong but rather on how well they present their arguments.
In addition, it must be far more nerve-wracking to do this in a public competition whether in person or on Zoom than in a privately conducted school debating society where one is simply presenting the arguments in front of one’s peer group.
To take each of the subjects in turn:
‘Margaret Thatcher does not deserve vilification.’ It was clear that the speaker was not exactly a fan of Margaret Thatcher and felt that there was plenty of room for criticism, but she made the very interesting point that while criticism is one thing, the kind of vilification that Margaret Thatcher has often come in for was simply not deserved. For example, she made the very good point that Margaret Thatcher is remembered for closing coal mines when in fact this was a policy started by previous Labour governments, under first Harold Wilson and then Jim Callaghan, that actually closed more coalmines than were closed during Margaret Thatcher’s term of office.
While I was not one of the judges, I was allowed to put a question or to make a comment and I asked the speaker if she was aware that Margaret Thatcher was the first and only British Prime Minister to have been a scientist. She was not aware of that and was particularly interested when I added that Margaret Thatcher was the first world leader to talk about climate change. Her understanding of science gave her a significant advantage over most of our ministers who fail to understand many of the trends in the world. Far too many of our politicians have very little understanding of science. There have been almost no ministers with scientific training and indeed there are very few MPs with a scientific background and the scientific committees of the House of Commons are really very poorly equipped. Contrast the House of Lords where there are a significant number of people with scientific background including Nobel Prize winners. Consequently, their Science committee is of a much higher standard.
‘An undergraduate degree is an expensive waste of time.’ The speaker put a very strong argument about how the kind of undergraduate degree that most students take today is not only expensive but is also a waste of time. Typically, they will not learn at university the skills that are required in the modern world of employment. Instead, they are delaying by three or four years the time in which they should start to learn the skills in the world of work while many students will never earn enough to be forced to pay off the debt that they build up and instead it will fall to the taxpayer to write off that cost. Indeed, the cost has already been borne by the taxpayer so from a cash flow point of view UK policy is extraordinarily expensive. Interestingly when the speaker was asked whether he will be following his own advice he explained that he actually wanted to go into teaching and therefore a degree was regarded as essential. This is also a new development because when I was contemplating the labour market in the 1960s if you wanted to be a teacher you were more likely to go to something called a Teacher Training College which did not lead to a degree but did mean that you learned how to teach in the classroom.
‘In today’s world, the young are wiser than the old.’ Here the argument focused more on skills and technical ability than what I would call wisdom. However, this is not to say that there wasn’t a very interesting point being put forward. Can the young of today deal better with the challenges in life because they are exposed at a much earlier age to technical developments whether or not those developments are improvements is a different question. As someone who by such a young person would certainly be described as old, I was not completely convinced by the argument but that doesn’t mean that it wasn’t well put forward and that is the point of this programme.
‘The exploitation of the Antarctic represents this generation’s greed coming at the expense of the next.’ The argument was very much one of sustainability and exploitation of the Antarctic comes in at least two forms. One is the exploitation by governments and businesses of resources in the Antarctic which are no doubt extensive but to access them will be highly destructive to marine life and indeed they will have consequences on climate change. The second form of exploitation is that of tourism. It has become increasingly fashionable for wealthy tourists from richer countries to visit the Antarctic and it is inevitable that their very presence will damage natural life, both plant and animal. I found myself commenting at the end of his speech that because his arguments were so convincing it simply made it impossible for me to be one of those rich tourists that visit the Antarctic even though previously that had been one of my ambitions.
‘Life is really simple, but we insist on making it complicated (Confucius).’ It may or may not be true that Confucius actually said this but that doesn’t really matter as it has come down through the ages as a statement that may explain something about the human condition. Again, I’m not completely convinced by the argument, but the argument was very well made. I’m not at all sure that life is really simple. If we look at the life that many creatures lead as numerous programmes by Sir David Attenborough and others have demonstrated is a highly challenging one with high levels of risk being encountered by most animal species most of the time. Some animals need to consume several times their own body weight in food in a single day just to survive. So that is highly challenging and may well be complicated by the external conditions and the competition for food and water that they will face.
Humanity which may have begun in a similar way has to some extent simplified life by understanding the Adam Smith principle of concentrating on managing resources according to who is best fitted to do that. Today I will go to the supermarket to buy the food and drink that we need for the next week or so and that will take me about an hour. I do not have to grow that food whether that be crops, meat, fish, eggs, or whatever. Someone else has done that for me and someone else has made it easy for me to access it and all I have to do is take it off the shelves, put it in a trolley, pay for it with a credit card, drive it home, and then put it in my larder, refrigerator or freezer. Again, that is not the point of this exercise. The point is to see the extent to which the individual speaker could make his or her argument in the most articulate, well-researched and convincing manner possible and that is what the judges have to judge. Not on ‘are your right’ but to what extent have you met the challenge trying best to make your arguments and convince me.
In that sense I found the exercise both fascinating and impressive when one sometimes had to pinch oneself to remember that the average age of the speakers was about 17 and they were all articulate, had all done very good research and all made a very good case. I personally would have found it really quite hard to judge who was the winner but fortunately we have experienced people in that role, and they will have a long memory for a whole range of different speakers and will be able to plot the students against that history.