Rhetoric Study as a Salve for Misinformation

As I understand it, schools used to teach rhetoric - the art of persuasion and debate - to school children. This was before my time, so I have no exposure to it, but I do know that one of the most effective educational experiences that I have had in my life is practicing debate, here on the Straight Dope, during my formative years. This lead me to seeing terms like “ad hominem” and “no true Scotsman”, etc., going to look those up, and reading through Wikipedia pages like the following:

Whether someone is very good at spotting bad arguments or not, I think that it’s plausible that if:

  1. They had been taught lists of “bad arguments”
  2. They’ve practiced making argument pieces and engaging in debates
  3. They’ve been taken apart for making bad arguments by their teacher and peers

All while still a child, numerous times then when later, as an adult:

  1. Some public figure has made a bad argument.
  2. Some alternate trusted figure on TV or on TikTok calls the speaker out for practicing “ad hominem attacks”.

That person is far more likely to diminish the value of the public figure’s statements. They’ve been taught and trained to expect a certain quality of information, devoid of fallacies, and they’re primed to dismiss bad argumentation.

Minus an education in good and bad argumentation, during childhood, you can’t expect people to go out into the marketplace of ideas and have any ability to separate the wheat from the chaff.

Rhetoric studies (at least, as I envision them) should be restored to the school house.

(By chance, is anyone aware if there are any nations that do still teach rhetoric, universally, during grade school?)

Maybe not a full-bore course in classical rhetoric, but a good foundation in how to frame a logical argument and spot logical fallacies should be an essential part of education.

Otherwise we’ll keep rearing generations of easily fooled dumbasses.

@Sage_Rat, When you say schools and school children, how are you defining that? My understanding is that rhetoric was always advanced study, given to what we would today call tertiary students. Younger students would not be expected to understand. The dividing line was at an earlier age in medieval institutions, but the trivium (rhetoric, grammar, logic) was “the principal undergraduate course of study.”

A quick Google finds lots of American colleges with programs in Rhetoric Studies.

Some of this belongs in a foundation on how to organize information. Somehow these skills are supposed to develop from the study of other subjects without ever being covered specifically. Students are expected to be able to create an outline for a report but they seem to do so by copying existing material, usually nothing more than a table of contents from another source. And then before any instruction in spotting logical fallacies they first have to learn how to explain concepts using logic in it’s most basic form.

So much of the measure of education concentrates on retention of data and not how to use it. There is so much more emphasis on memorization of information than on how to think and how to learn. The surprising part is that it’s not that difficult, those are the skills children are born with naturally, it takes effort to get them to stop thinking and learning for themselves.

My bachelor’s degree is in Rhetoric. It’s still around, in some schools (or was, when I was in college, some 40 years ago or more). And it’s such a valuable resource.

Plato (and Aristotle) compared rhetoric to martial arts, like boxing or wrestling. It’s something everyone needs to learn, for self-defense at least, and there is a huge responsibility attached to skill in rhetoric, like in the martial arts. Ideally, when you gain the power derived from mastering (or at least studying) rhetoric, you also learn the discipline required to use it ethically.

It was never taught in any of my schools 50 - 60 years ago. I was on the debate team in high school but only because my friend organized it.
We did learn about writing essays, but never presentation.

The first time I encountered the idea of a logical reasoning class was in college. I found a textbook they were giving away that discussed it, and I devoured that book. I do seem to remember having gone over some of what was in the book in some class in K-12, but I’m not sure which one. It may have been something I read up online.

To give an idea of the quality of the logic book being given away: another book in the box was a book about the Bush/Gore election. So I don’t know if the logic book I mentioned above was ever actually used in a class at said college. If so, it must’ve no longer been in use there, as people would definitely have paid even for a used copy of an older edition.

With great power comes great responsibility. I heard that somewhere.

My high school, in the middle 60’s, had one teacher who taught rhetoric as part of his senior English (I think? or it might have been History?) classes. Unfortunately, he was the only one and I didn’t get assigned to him. I didn’t realize it at the time, but now I wish I had been.

The next year, in my college Freshman Philosophy class on Logic, we studied some of the logical fallacies that are mentioned here. It was in this class, when someone was struggling to express a thought and ended with “I know what I mean but I can’t say it,” that the professor said “If you can’t say it, you don’t know what you mean.” That’s what I retain from that class, more than any of the formal topics.

Apologies if my understanding of the history was incorrect. I’ve tried to Google up what things were like, but it wasn’t helpful. That said, the historical implementation doesn’t necessarily matter (and maybe even modern versions, if they’re more focused on teaching oratorical skills and Ancient Greek history than in catching fallacies) unless we have some way to evaluate its effectiveness on a population.

For myself, I would probably go for middle-school age to begin with.

We expect students to write history papers, write book essays, and run science experiments, so it makes sense to have courses preceding those that run through making arguments and evaluating evidence, in general. No debating, probably, just presentations and students being tasked with nitpicking flaws in the presentations. (Likewise, I’ve always faulted science education in that we completely avoid the whole aspect of peer review and replication of results.)

I would probably do one or two quarters of basics, leading into optional, more advanced classes in statistics, political science, and sociology (whatever the school had a good teacher for) - but, again, elective courses at anything beyond the basics.

Then, again, probably repeat that again at the start of high school, going back over everything and maybe going deeper into lying with statistics and introducing debate.

Since the early 80s, AP English Language and Composition has been commonly taight in High Schools, most often to juniors. It is a course in rhetoric, but not specifically classical rhetoric. We read texts and analyze exigence, context, purpose. We write arguments. Half a million students took the exam last year, and the vast, vast majority of them took the course.

I will link to the course description when I get home.

EM Forster put it differently in Aspects of the Novel:

Trying to discuss logic, fallacies, and bad arguments in a Florida middle school will get a teacher fired faster than a Democratic waiter at Mar-a-Lago.

Been a long time since high school days for me.
I recall that the subjects that were better suited to rote learning, were so. A few teachers would go into some background and more detailed conceptual aspects. I liked that.
I also recall that subjects that should have gone far more in depth into background and greater conceptual depth, were also taught far too much by rote.
This leaves too many students with a one dimensional shallow idea of many things. Which they may never question, even in relation to their lived experience. And bereft of the critical thinking tools to properly confront ongoing experience and information.
I happened to be interested in perusing a variety of other flows of alternate ideas, ideals, facts and fictions from an early age.

We studied 14 logical fallacies in 6th grade (1960s). It was a revelation. We had an exceptional teacher that year.

While I agree with you in theory, in practice, I think it would be too late for many. We’re in a world of information overload, and by the time I think it would be practical to teach these subjects (leaving out getting schools to support such a thing for the moment) in say the early-to-mid teens, they’ve already built quite a world-view from social media, youtube, parents and peers.

Not to mention the fact that parents would probably HATE their kids being taught to question authority, including themselves. It reminds me of AP English and studying Bartleby, the Scrivener. That was an eye opener at 14ish, and I am positive several of my classmates got themselves in trouble with their folks over it.

Not to fight the hypothetical though, if it could be implemented, and not just as part of an Honors/AP system, but perhaps in conjunction with traditional Social Studies / History, it would provide a great framework for interpreting both subjects. But if CRT is a boogeyman that cannot be allowed to exist, I see no way forward to implementing it (rhetoic study) on the national level needed to evoke positive change. If anything, I expect it would follow our current social/political divide quite closely - with liberal states supporting it, less liberal states treating it as indoctrination and violating parents rights of determination.

I’m not sure at what point in my education I learned how to form a cohesive argument, but my earliest memories writing persuasive essays starts with 7th grade. In these essays, we had to have a conclusion that was supported by at least three arguements, and we were expected to anticipate and counter at least one or two arguments against our conclusion.

For many people, this doesn’t follow them into the real world. On another board, I was accused of “pixel bitching,” i.e. nitpicking, when I started pulling apart the premises another poster used to support their conclusion. Going after the premises of someone’s argument was something I was taught to do as early as middle school. I think perhaps the biggest obstacle is that some beliefs are emotional and part of someone’s identity. And I don’t know if having a good solid grip in rhetoric will mitigate that.


Some people here seem to be confusing rhetoric with logic. The two are not synonymous, and there’s a whole lot of rhetoric practice that has nothing to do with logical arguments. That aspect should nt be neglected.

I don’t think that learning rhetoric would be useful in changing other peoples’ minds, but the OP seems to promote it as one tool to use to avoid being persuaded by faulty arguments oneself, which I would agree that it would be useful for.

EDIT: I realize that in order to be persuaded yourself, someone else will have succeeded in using rhetoric against you. But the rewards are much higher if you already have a media platform, since even if you only convince 1% of people, you’ll still have changed thousands of peoples minds. Whereas in an Internet discussion, you’d have a 1% chance of changing 2 or 3 minds, so much less rewarding, (and of course you are trying to counter people who have already made up their mind instead of possibly being the first voice heard about an issue someone previously didn’t know or care about.)

Recognizing bad rhetoric does have a downside, though. The Internet has ruined at least 2 things for me: professional comedians, and political speeches. The amount of crowdsourced humor online is so staggeringly huge that it dwarfs professional humor in both quantity, and, if you remember only the best, quality as well.

And I also recognize faulty arguments by politicians, even in support of policies I agree with (and, furthermore, it’s not like you would receive a wide audience by complaining about their logic, and those who do see it would probably assume you disagree with the policy and are concern trolling.) I didn’t mind hearing Bill Clinton speak, but that was before I had orders of magnitude more experience reading Internet debates.* Obama was, if anything, more logical and precise in his speech than Bill, but I sometimes had to stop watching/listening to him sometimes when he pulled a real boner of an argument.

*And I do feel comfortable characterizing many of them as debates, not because they are rhetorically satisfying, but because they are not much worse than other types of debates that are recognized as such.