No Public Speaking at Harvard

Margaret Gutman Klosko says many top colleges have left a key element out of the curriculum.

August 18, 2006

Whether or not your college or university offers a course in public speaking probably has escaped your notice. Nevertheless, it might be worthwhile to give the matter a minute or two of consideration. You might find that the availability or unavailability of this course says something about how diligently a college meets its students' needs, and also about how robust are its humanities offerings.

At first glance, public speaking is an unassuming course of study -- not apparently a canary in a coal mine. Taught in many places by grad students with teaching stipends, or by last-minute, part-time hires, public speaking is no glamour queen, and has less prestige than even college composition. Writing in 1970, in Language Is Sermonic,   Richard Weaver noted that whereas once intellectual giants, men of subtle reasoning and wit, taught rhetoric, now it is taught by "beginners, part-time teachers, graduate students, faculty wives, and various fringe people...." Being a fringe sort of person myself -- a former administrator, adjunct, and perpetual faculty wife -- I can see his point. But it was not always so.

Up until the beginning of the 20th century, rhetoric was the most important course of study for young men who wanted to get ahead in the world. In Classical Greece, it was the only one. In the agora, if you found yourself a good sophist, you were a made man. So what if being rhetorically trained and well spoken disqualified you from becoming Plato's philosopher-king. Plato was telling a morally edifying fairy tale for a mundus imaginalis, while the sophists were teaching Athenians to communicate effectively with fellow citizens in the real world.

But at top universities, Plato's view of rhetoric has won out, and not simply as a result of a kind of puritanical suspicion of smooth talking. About rhetoric's fall from grace, Weaver argues that the elevation of science as a mode of thought is significant. It would seem that rhetoric, with its focus on probability has been the victim of the irresistible charm
and glamour of the scientific method. Weaver also argues that in our relations with other human beings to appeal only to logic, as science would have us do, is to appeal to part of a human being. Placing such a limit on intellectual inquiry and communication
ignores important complexities. He points out that the rhetorician addresses "historical man," a person experiencing the stream of history and the political and moral exigencies history presents and the choices these exigencies require.

Literature, of course, does the same thing, but in a more attenuated way. In teaching a person how to communicate with other persons, practical rhetoric inculcates along with appreciation of human complexity those devoutly worshiped "critical thinking skills." A discipline steeped in human complexity and teaching the skills to deal with convoluted layers of human experience would seem to fit very well within the traditional province of
the humanities.

Unfortunately, as Weaver has pointed out, appreciating human complexity means exploring human emotion. And this kind of exploration has been a problem for an academy wed to science. So, along with its unusually modest goal of deliberative probability instead of scientific certainty, rhetoric's teaching of emotional appeals along with logical and ethical ones has seriously undermined academic confidence in the discipline. This rejection of emotion in persuasion by the academic top-tier is probably
priggish and short-sighted. Anyone who uses language to persuade knows that it is impossible to fully engage others in an argument without using emotion. Considering emotional appeals to be simply matters of superficial style rather than of argumentative substance is to fail to appreciate rhetoric as a fully humane discipline.

Given the humanity and practicality of rhetoric, it is interesting to observe how the discipline has fared vis a vis literary studies. The downward trajectory of rhetoric's academic standing is the exact opposite of the fate of its academic cousin -- "literary studies" -- which in rhetoric's heyday was, as Weaver points out, the domain of intellectual plebeians, those faculty wives and other marginal types. Now literature departments are so intellectually lofty that to offer completely non-instrumental
instruction is a badge of honor, while to teach something for use in the marketplace, something not solely for the sake of pure, inapplicable knowledge, is to be intellectually despoiled.

It is no wonder, then, that Harvard does not teach public speaking. As Emily Nelson writing in The Harvard Crimson notes, "A quick browse through the Courses of Instruction will yield classes on topics as specific as medieval Welsh literature and the theory of the individual in Chinese literary culture. However, even a thorough search would not reveal the words 'Public Speaking' in any course title."

Granted, the Harvard College Committee on Curricular Review recommended in 2004 that the college's writing program be subjected to review and that those supervising instruction in college majors ensure that "instruction and feedback on written and oral communication [are] an integral part of the concentration program." If the committee reviewing instruction in oral and written communication finds a need for public speaking at Harvard, and if the college then does not ignore the recommendation, Harvard would be lonely in the Ivy League in offering a separate course in public speaking to liberal arts students.

Engineering programs, on the other hand, do widely offer and require that students demonstrate competence in oral argument. This is the case in the Ivy League and in the top-tier of public universities. While such universities as Michigan, Virginia , and Berkeley do not offer courses in rhetoric to their liberal arts majors, their engineering and business students generally are required to take courses in rhetoric, discrete offerings available only to engineering and business students.

Why are liberal arts students denied this resource? Provosts explain that liberal arts majors receive ample opportunity to hone skills in oral reasoning by means of class discussion. However, given class sizes at public universities, and the not universal tendency to speak out in class, this rationale seems overly optimistic.

So, Harvard and Berkeley (oddly, having its own department of Rhetoric) do not teach liberal arts majors public speaking skills. On the other hand, rhetoric -- in its most common form, public speaking -- is taught all over the country. You would be hard-pressed to find a land grant university or community college that did not offer public speaking to its students, who enroll in these courses in large numbers.

Top-tier rejection of rhetorical instruction, especially in the form of public speaking, seems to be about fundamental failures of undergraduate education in general and about failures of the humanities in particular. It is especially curious that in the face of calls for accountability in regard to student learning public universities have opted out of providing students with some very useful knowledge, while also failing to recognize the value of the discipline to humane studies.

The Association of American Universities may call for "reinvigorating the humanities,"  and the joint conference of the American Council of Learned Societies and the AAU may
express the intention "to develop a shared agenda for raising the profile of the humanities inside and outside of academia," but criticism of the status quo is stifled by reassuring boilerplate about the "vigor" of the humanities in today's higher education. Case Western Reserve University's then-president, Edward Hundert announced at the conference that the humanities are in great shape except "when it comes to funding, when it comes to new ways of harnessing information technology for new kinds of research and new collaborative paradigms for that research, and in communicating a more coherent message so that the humanities might gain more visibility, public support, prestige, and funding both within the university and society at large." Perhaps before
issuing reports and convening conferences about the status of the humanities, someone should pick up a copy of Aristotle's Rhetoric.


Margaret Gutman Klosko formerly taught public speaking at the
University of Virginia and at Piedmont Virginia Community College. She is a freelance writer based in Charlottesville.


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