Bring back school debating societies

27th July 2007 at 01:00
We spend more time considering the interests of children, but our conversations with them can still be stilted. I took a 13-year-old girl to an adult party the other day and said how marvellous it was that the generations mixed so easily now. The girl looked doubtful. She said in her experience conversations were dead in the water. Adults would ask her which school year she was in and when term finished.

Why did adults never ask her view on anything? It is our default position to elicit facts from children. We tend to avoid discussion, particularly of current affairs, because we want to seem chummy and we are intuitively trained in conflict resolution.

Yet the internet has made children more conscious of global issues. Also because of these influences, they are more opinionated. In some ways, this is a good reason to stick to term dates rather than Third World debt. Youthful opinions can be over-emotional and under-informed.

Politicians have a creepy tendency to treat young people's opinions as sacred. They assume a grave expression and reverence on the Question Time panel if a student in the audience describes the Prime Minister as a nobhead or inflates the misery of tuition fees to the suffering of Dafur. What we have lost is the art of debating. The young should have their arguments tested. Their logic should be prodded, their beliefs challenged.

I am reading the former Tory leader William Hague's splendid biography of William Wilberforce. Hague's last biography was of William Pitt the younger. Wilberforce and Pitt made their mark on history through sheer force of argument to Parliament. Pitt, not much older than a student, learned to hold the attention of the Commons debating chamber for four hours, slipping out at intervals to be sick because he was so nervous.

Wilberforce did not achieve the abolition of the slave trade just because it was self-evidently wrong. He had to persuade people whose prosperity derived from it and a public not easily interested in far-away people. He used every argument he could find and won over wealthy vested interests by quoting Adam Smith on the economic inefficiency of oppression of the individual. He converted a nation to the merits of Christian virtue.

It is a shame William Hague is one of the few parliamentary orators left. Gordon Brown talks of restoring the authority of Parliament but has little feel for its oratory. Unforgivably, Tony Blair was capable of wonderful oratory forged from false argument. The case for war in Iraq turned out to be mendacious. Perhaps if the art of debating were taught in more schools, Mr Blair would have been more closely scrutinised.

If we do not bestow on young people the gift of independent thought based on the ability to construct and de-construct argument, we may make them vulnerable to indoctrination by the unscrupulous.

Would as many young Muslim men have been so grotesquely radicalised if they had joined school debating societies?

Sarah Sands

is a former editor of 'The Sunday Telegraph'

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