Speeches, Soundbites, and Shopping Week

Spoken Word

Nowhere are the rules of the American marketplace more relevant to us Harvard students than in that strange scholasticized capitalism we call shopping period. Gregory Mankiw emerges from his lair to woo freshmen, never to be seen again (except, perhaps, for Parents’ Weekend); Paul Farmer makes a layover between Haiti and Rwanda, advertising global health to would-be do-gooders; other professors use every skill of rhetoric and eloquence at their disposal to win a coveted spot on our Study Cards.

This is not universally true, of course, and for those with stricter requirements or higher self-assurance shopping period is only a name. Yet it is striking how much emphasis many of us place on it. The oratorical power of a professor, we believe, tell us much more than a mere syllabus or coursepack could. This is what compels us to go to class even when it’s not technically necessary—or, conversely, never attend lecture even when we should. They are why Michael Sandel’s “Justice” continues to draw a thousand students, even though all his lectures are taped and he has written a full-length book hardly different from his class.

Even though lectures often begin as essays, or at least a series of written notes, when they are spoken aloud they somehow become more than the sum of their parts. In October of my senior year of high school, my English teacher drove the nine of us in the class up to New York to see Hamlet—which we had been studying—on Broadway. Some of us had enjoyed reading the play. I was especially captivated by the angsty soliloquies, but none of us saw in it the genius we were supposed to, or experienced the pleasure our professor thought we would. I remember exchanging startled glances with my classmates during Act II, when Hamlet evades Polonius’ questions through wordplay and sheer craftiness. “This is funny,” we whispered to each other, leaning across the armrests of our plush seats. “This is good!”

It is a cliché to say speeches make words come alive, jump off the page—but it’s clichéd for a reason. Speeches used to be the only way to convey information to a large audience, the only means to transfer knowledge to an illiterate audience. Rhetoric was one of the only subjects required of an early Harvard student in all three years of his education. Harvard understood the importance of fostering in its students the power to reach an audience and the tools to effectively do so.

Many Harvard courses still rely on the pedagogical power of speeches. I must have read Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address in three different classes by now, and each time when we read it aloud it inspires me in the most saccharine sense of the word. I have parsed the speech, close-read it, and analyzed the themes and tropes, yet hearing it aloud as the president would have spoken it makes these devices fade into the background. They become only tools which enable Lincoln to take the temperature of a moment and lay out his national project.

Speeches ultimately became unnecessary for transmitting information, giving way to a literate populace and, eventually, by the heaving mass of data that is the Internet. Today anyone can expound on anything via YouTube, and the speeches of politicians have been reduced to a string of the same soundbites replayed over and over in the media. That everyone has a voice is not necessarily a bad thing—it is democracy at work. Yet with so much out there, there exists the danger of sound degenerating into noise. It becomes possible for the elevated power of Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address to be replaced in our collective memory by the naturally disenchanting minutiae of daily life.

And yet the crowds in eloquent professors’ lectures, the masses captivated by Obama’s 2008 speech in Philadelphia on race in America, suggest that we still hunger for words arranged in a certain way and spoken in a certain rhythm, giving voice to something that we might also have thought but could never have said so well. Obama has been criticized recently for his reliance on teleprompters during speeches and for the lack of passionate eloquence that so characterized his early speeches. This suggests that the spoken word continues to exert a hold over its audience, and that the president—and our other leaders—might do well to reassert that slippery skill of rhetoric, difficult to describe but instantly recognizable.

—Victoria A. Baena can be reached at vbaena@college.harvard.edu

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