At Yale, during the past two years, there has been a remarkably rapid growth of interest in debating A series of lectures by eminent public men has been arranged for this year, by the Yale Union, many minor debates are held between societies not organized for debate, between eating clubs and different tables in the Commons for example, and a set of prizes to be awarded annually after Yale's two intercollegiate debates have taken place, has been established.
Harvard, to whom was due perhaps the present revival of collegiate interest in debate, should not fall behind in developing that interest. The Harvard Union, like the Yale Union, has arranged a series of lectures on public speaking. The debating courses here give opportunity for practice in debate which probably more than equals in real value the frequent minor debates at Yale. But we do not yet offer prizes for excellence in debating.
In the absence of any gift for the establishment of prizes in debate, the Boylston Prizes, which are now prizes for declamation, might well be changed to prizes for the successful competitors in an annual contest in debate.
The change would undoubtedly be welcomed by the undergraduates. Probably not one student in a hundred is genuinely interested in declamation; there is a flutter of interest in declamation each spring but it seems to be caused only by the two hundred and fifty dollars offered in prizes, and it dies away as soon as the prizes are awarded. On the other hand there is a substantial proportion of the students who are interested and give much time to debating work, not only in the debating societies but in the courses offered by the Faculty.
The growth of sentiment is away from declamation which perhaps once flourished in the University, and toward debate. This is shown by the fact that the Boylston Prize contests which used to pack Sanders Theatre now gather hardly a handful. The intercollegiate debates on the contrary are better attended and attract more interest each year. The College offers no opportunity for training in declamation while there has been a substantial growth in the instruction given in debate. English 6 has increased in numbers and English 30 has been added; English 10 looks toward debate rather than declamation.
But the change in sentiment does not seem hard to explain. Declamation, except perhaps by a professional who has spent many years in training, is unreal and uninteresting. Declamations worth listening to can hardly be expected from a student who has few opportunities for training and whose effort at the contest is the result of two or three weeks of work. The average Boylston Prize declamation is little more than an exhibition of memory. Debating has the advantage of being within the powers of the average student; and even poor debating is valuable, as poor declamation is not, because it is a direct training for the work of active life.
Prizes are valuable, not because they distribute money among the students; to be of real value they must offer an incentive to work that is worth doing and that will be done even if the prizes are not offered. The Boylston Prizes as they stand, are a gratuity; if they are transferred to debating they will serve to build up one of the most important branches of college work.