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WE were not in the least surprised at the appearance of the article on "Debating," in the last Advocate. The indifferent attitude maintained at Harvard towards the claims of oratory has been so often attacked, that one ought to expect and welcome the presentation of the other side of the argument. But if this is all that can be said, - and it must be acknowledged that our author is pretty successful in covering the ground on his side, - we fear that his case is far from a strong one.
We do not propose here to discuss the claims of oratory. Everybody - even our conservative friend of the Advocate - who knows the means by which free speech is made influential in a democracy like ours, will, theoretically at least, take its utility for granted. The question at issue is the time at which the study and practice of the art should be commenced. According to our author, "a man must have a vast number of well-arranged facts and settled opinions before he can speak off-hand with ease." In other words, after years of cloister student-life, in which his learning is being augmented and his opinions digested, the man will one day blossom into a full-grown orator. Now on this point we are decidedly sceptical. We have always held, and still hold, to the idea that oratory is an art that grows by what it feeds on; that, while no amount of "well-arranged facts and settled opinions" will enable a man to "speak off-hand with ease," it is practice, and that chiefly, which gives confidence, ease, and power.
It would be pleasant for both speaker and hearer if this could be otherwise; if the orator, with only a scholar's preparation, could spring full-armed to life, like Minerva from the Thunderer's brow. We should then be spared the blunders and failures of the young orator in his eager and oft-times futile efforts for success; that crude-ness which, in the young orator as in the budding writer, may be called, by a metaphor as true as it is homely, "veal." But this is one of the things impossible. The little bird, seeing its parent flying from bough to bough, thinks it can do the same. Having found itself strong enough for the slight use of its limbs required within the narrow bounds of the nest, it confidently makes trial of its strength in the air. But, alas! the failure. Not till then does it learn its own weakness. The retirement of the study is well enough so far as it goes, but there is nothing like the rostrum for taking the conceit out of a man. The sooner and oftener he gets upon it and is made to learn from the bitterness of defeat the depth of his own ignorance, the more he will prize both study and rostrum as means to his end.
If such be oratory, - an art content with small beginnings, thriving on the hard lessons of blunders and mistakes, - the sooner in life these rudimentary lessons are given, the better for all concerned. Could Harvard act on this principle she might have a chance of escaping such criticism as the following on the Commencement speakers of a few years ago:-
"There is one more point upon which we must animadvert, and this is the miserable delivery of the Harvard graduates. After each inevitable expectatur of the President, a youth was seen to mount the rostrum with all the awkwardness of persons who feel themselves in a false position, heightened by the uncouthness of a barbarous habillement, which he had evidently never proved. After more or less unsystematic bowing, each gave his proof of memory for bad prose with all the systematic regularity of cadence exhibited by a machine." - The Round Table, August 8, 1868.
The anonymous author of "Debating" says, that in this matter we are "stubborn as mules." Let us beware, lest in trying to avoid the "sophomoric" and "claptrap," we err on the other side, and be charged with possessing some other undesirable qualities, besides stubbornness, of the above-mentioned animal.
A. D. V.
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