Of all methods of dispensing information in an academic community, the lecture system is the cheapest. No other means has been devised of presenting to a large student body a condensed mass of material, accompanied by interpretive analysis on the part of a recognized authority. Textbooks--or the majority of them--soon become antiquated, whereas from the platform, an instructor is able to alter his subject in accordance as new facts are unearthed. Unhappily, the difficulty of mastering the lecture system, with its many angles, is out of all proportion to its economy.
Vitally important in a well-rounded lecture are presentation and content. Thanks to the renewed emphasis on scholarship, few Harvard lecturers last long without the latter. But it is the ability to stimulate, the extent to which a man brings into his subject the dynamics which give it significance, that make a lecture interesting. And it is precisely this ability which is being neglected today.
Some object that this "priceless ingredient" is a rarity, that it is possessed only by those who are born orators, that to confront a yawning mob on a cold winter morning--or a restive one of a spring day--and fill them with a burning desire to investigate, say, the real reasons for the failure of the Paris Commune, requires long, particularized training.
But the point should not be exaggerated. If a man has a deep interest in his field, if he realizes the fact that it is his job to impart some of that interest to his audience, the one remaining requisite is a certain case in expressing himself. Facility in talking to others is, then, the quality which, more than any other, is the earmark of the successful lecturer. Without it, his knowledge, however voluminous, will avail him nothing.
One of the greatest honors attainable in pre-Hitler Germany was to be appointed Lecturer in an elementary course. Such an attitude towards the lecture-system indicates clearly the gap between European and American theories of education. In the former it is up to the instructor to stimulate the student. We Americans have too long labored under the delusion that the privilege of taking a course is such as to compensate a student for any boredom resulting from men unaccustomed to public speaking. Only when we recognize that lecturing is one of the most important aspects of public speaking will the lecture system achieve its due position in American education.