The Art of Rhetoric and the Power of the Model United Nations

Plato and Aristotle planning a symposium 

The ability to communicate effectively was essential for those wishing to participate directly in Athenian democracy. Aristotle defines rhetoric as, ‘the faculty of observing in any given case the available means of persuasion’ and considered it to be ‘a combination of the science of logic and of the ethical branch of politics’. Rhetoric was taught as a civic skill and was predicated upon appeals to logos, pathos, and ethos. In Roman times, the five canons of rhetoric or stages of constructing a speech were codified as follows: invention, arrangement, style, memory, and delivery. There are many fine examples of classical rhetoric such as Thucydides’ brilliant account of Pericles’ Funeral Speech (431 BC). More recently, Martin Luther King Jr. ‘s ‘I have a Dream’ speech is perhaps the finest example of the enormously persuasive power of oratory. 

 Of course, the art of rhetoric has been much maligned. The wily and artful politician who spins fine words and utilises devices such as assonance, hyperbole, anaphora and anadiplosis may duplicitously succeed in persuading an audience of a position that is ethically dubious. History is littered with examples of demagogues who have hypnotised people with their mastery of rhetoric. Words possess an undeniable power and there are many individuals who utilise their command of language to manipulate and control the vulnerable and dispossessed. Figures such as Andrew Tate and the far right activist Tommy Robinson utilise a limited repertoire of rhetorical devices to hammer home their divisive and hate-filled messages. Of course, ancient philosophers knew only too well how the power of rhetoric could be misused. Plato referred to rhetoric as ‘the art of ruling the minds of men’. It is easy to imagine that, two and a half thousand years ago, the conversations that took place in the shade of Athen’s colonnades would not have been unrecognisable to the modern day fears expressed about ‘fake news’ algorithms and the pernicious role of social media. There is an undeniable connection and the two often go hand in hand.

Few would dispute that diplomacy is preferable to bloodshed. The ability to consult, negotiate, and advance one’s case with clarity of logic and eloquence of delivery is one of humanity’s greatest safeguards against our more bellicose base instincts. The pointless slaughter of the First World War gave way to a belief in the primacy of international diplomacy and so the League of Nations was established in 1920 in order to provide a forum for resolving international disputes.Though it was proposed by President Woodrow Wilson, the USA never became a member. From the outset, it struggled to deal effectively with the rise of totalitarianism and the impulses of those who favoured action over debate. Pupils who have studied GCSE history will doubtless be aware of the League’s impotence when it came to dealing with the Abyssinian Crisis and the Manchurian Crisis. If the League of Nations failed spectacularly in its stated aim of preventing conflict, then at least some of its idealism was to survive the horrendous suffering of the Second World War. Without the League of Nations, there would most likely be no United Nations. 

Whatever the shortcomings of the League of Nations, it did inspire a movement within colleges and schools which survives to this day. Gresham’s School in Norfolk was a real pioneer in this regard. In 1920, it formed a League of Nations Union to discuss international matters. Schools such as Wellington College and Christ’s Hospital took part and throughout the 1920s, the school worked tirelessly to promote peace and international understanding. Students even travelled to Berlin and toured Germany where they were reportedly welcomed with ‘the utmost hospitality’. In 1930, the School won the Peace Medal in recognition of its efforts. It was at Gresham’s that I was first introduced to the Model United Nations (MUN) which was organised by the Head of History, Simon Kinder – one of the most remarkable and inspirational educators I have had the privilege of working alongside. His enthusiasm for MUN was born partly out of a deep understanding and regard for the idealism that motivated those early pioneers in the 1920s. However, I think he would also point out the many educational benefits that accompany participation in MUN activities. Involvement helps students to develop research and analytical skills. It enhances their understanding of world affairs and growing sense of global responsibility. It provides an excellent forum for developing interpersonal and leadership skills. MUN also inspires young people to grow in their awareness of humanitarian and environmental issues. It promotes international-mindedness and cultural awareness. Finally, it helps young people to develop self-confidence and develop their public speaking and debating skills. 

Given that it is such a perfect vehicle for developing the soft skills so necessary to success in adulthood, you might wonder why it does not constitute a compulsory part of the formal school curriculum. After all, there are many young people who are transformed by participation. Many a future Oxbridge candidate or student of international relations have found their feet whilst participating in MUN conferences. Indeed, the former Secretary-General of the UN, Ban Ki-moon, was himself a participant in MUN. Involvement in the MUN should be self-selecting given the idealistic impulse that underpins the whole movement. Future leaders and those wishing to enter the realms of journalism, law and politics will naturally gravitate towards the society. It is a place to meet like-minded individuals and to learn something useful about the complexities of negotiation. 

I was delighted to attend the MUN conference held here at Rossall on Friday afternoon. It was an absolute privilege to watch children of all ages participating with confidence and I am delighted that so many of our pupils are keen to develop their debating skills. Speakers were confident, eloquent and based their well formulated arguments on a strong contextual understanding of the issues at hand. It is easy to despair for the future given that humankind’s propensity for conflict may appear to show no sign of abating. However, as the Dutch historian, Rutger Bregman points out, global conflict is on the decline and there are many reasons for us to embrace hope. I would argue that the most important source of hope is our children. The opportunity to watch Rossall’s own MUN Society in operation should fill the most cynical of hearts with a sense of unbridled optimism. 

Finally, I have no doubt that Plato and Aristotle would have wholeheartedly approved of the quality of debate taking place last Friday afternoon in the history department. It was outstanding and offered no evidence of empty rhetoric being used for nefarious purposes!

Jeremy Quartermain
Headmaster of Rossall School