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Speak Your Mind

By Molly M. Strauss

As students pore over the online Courses of Instruction, incoming freshmen must puzzle through Harvard’s newly improved answer to the liberal arts. As the first crop to graduate under the General Education requirements, the Class of 2013 should—at least in theory—emerge from the university with a better grasp of the world than the rest of us possess. But, despite the Core’s laborious overhaul, the College has yet to address a significant gap in our education. At a university renowned for producing leaders in all fields, it surprises me that the undergraduate curriculum lacks an emphasis on public speaking.

Many, it seems, do not view oratorical abilities as a skill that can—or should—be taught. While the Expository Writing department offers Expos 40: Public Speaking Practicum in the spring, it caps the course at only 12, likely reflecting the level of undergraduate demand. Compare this to Expos 20, which Harvard requires every freshman to take. Clearly, the powers that be recognize that incoming students, accomplished and talented as they may be, still benefit from an introduction to Expository Writing. And, despite the yearly complaints, Expos 20 does its job. But while public speaking resources do exist (including classes at the Bok Center, programs at the Bureau of Study Counsel, an Aesthetic and Interpretive Understanding course, and a Crimson Toastmaster’s Club), Harvard leaves undergraduates to seek out this help on their own, instead of requiring or encouraging oratory instruction.

Rhetoric, one of the three ancient arts of discourse, harkens back to the Greeks—beginning with the fifth century B.C.E. Sophists, or even earlier. Long ago, thinkers highly valued verbal persuasion and deemed it a central facet of education. The field of rhetoric changed and developed during Roman rule and onward, until Harvard itself established the Boylston Professorship of Rhetoric and Oratory in 1806. It was Francis J. Child, the second professor to hold the position, who shifted the job once and for all toward literature and away from public speaking. Now, Harvard’s commitment to rhetoric is almost nothing more than a memory.

Today, the reason that a practice-based public speaking course isn’t mandatory—or highly sought after by students—might lie in its seeming normality. Let’s face it: Everyone talks. And at Harvard, everyone talks a lot. It’s easy to forget that chatting with your blockmate about her recent breakup—or even discussing India’s political system with a TF during office hours—just isn’t the same as standing in front of an audience, opening your mouth, and getting an idea across. Although you may never have need to speak in public during your college years, a multitude of careers require just that: Lawyers interrogate witnesses, public-school teachers explain their lessons, doctors present at conferences, CEOs lead board meetings, researchers convey their findings, academics give lectures, screenwriters pitch their scripts. The list is endless. True, Harvard does not pretend to provide a pre-professional education—we’re not MIT, after all. But learning to speak fluently in public isn’t like studying accounting or journalism. It’s a skill, but it’s a skill with endless application. More likely than not, you’ll find yourself in the spotlight at some point, with a question posed, and all eyes on you. Whether you succeed or flounder in that moment depends quite a bit on practice.

Harvard sections seem like they should help solve this problem. After all, we’re stuck in a room along with a TF and 17 or fewer students, forced to spill whatever we’ve absorbed from a textbook or coursepack. Such a situation does simulate a public-speaking environment—if every student actually feels pressure to contribute. All too often, the three individuals who enter the class perfectly at ease in front of a group monopolize section discussions, leaving everyone else relieved (and slightly annoyed). As a result, those who most need the practice can easily retreat to the back, avoiding the immediate discomfort but also forgoing a greater opportunity.

However, there is a bigger issue at stake here. To think of public speaking as something that can be practiced in an ideal section mischaracterizes it as a pure skill instead of an art form. There’s a big difference between an adequate orator and an inspiring one, and the difference does not lie in avoiding obvious faux pas, like not breaking into a terrible sweat or remembering the rules of grammar. Undergraduates could probably figure out the mechanics of public speaking without lessons. But when it comes to crafting a persuasive message and delivering it in a persuasive manner, the task becomes more difficult. Beyond that, learning how to speak from the heart—to convey internal passion and spark that same emotion in listeners—seems like a lifelong endeavor. I, for one, can use all the help I can get.

The undergraduate culture’s emphasis on extracurriculars allows certain students to work toward this goal, since many feel strongly about the organizations they run and exert endless energy in attempts to motivate their peers. Yet, on a campus where the majority of organizing occurs via e-mail lists and Facebook events, many student leaders spend more time online than on stage. While this experience is certainly valuable, it exercises a specific skill set that does not necessarily translate to real-time oration.

When it comes down to it, I am not suggesting that Harvard add another requirement to its already lengthy General Education curriculum. Quite the opposite: I wish that Expos 40 was in such high demand as an elective that the College needed to offer 15 sections. It’s easy to forget that a combination of high intelligence and natural eloquence simply doesn’t equate to public-speaking prowess. And—if we forget—we just might find ourselves center stage with nothing important to say.

Molly M. Strauss ’11, a Crimson associate editorial editor, is a social studies concentrator in Winthrop House.

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