What was "The King's English"?
As Aristotle noted, our species is unique among living creatures in its capacity for language. This fact has many implications for our mission. If The King’s College aims to prepare students for careers of leadership, we must acknowledge the crucial importance of mastering the written and spoken word. As I argued in my last contribution to the EST, we ought to be self-consciously cultivating a deep appreciation for the English languages in our students, regardless of their major.
As all of us know, King’s is unusual in having two “incarnations.” Since reopening in Manhattan in 1999, the college has created a distinctive profile for itself. Much of that distinctiveness derives from its Christian character and its efforts to recover valuable things that have been lost in the morally confused world of higher education.
As an example of the latter, consider the initiative known as “the King’s English.” To judge from our website, the King’s English is still part of our pedagogy, and some faculty, staff, and alumni remember it fondly.
Nonetheless, it has been languishing for some time. How did this happen? And how did it originate?
Former Provost Peter Wood launched the King’s English in the spring of 2006. He had several reference points in mind (besides the college’s name) when he named the program. Many Americans know that “the King’s English” refers to a high standard of spoken English in the United Kingdom. (When the monarch of Great Britain is female, we also hear the phrase “The Queen’s English.”) Finally, “The King’s English” was the title of an important book written in 1906 by the British lexicographer Henry Watson Fowler, who also wrote the indispensable reference Modern English Usage.
Wood introduced “The King’s English” to the college in three stages. Initially, he sent the faculty “back to school,” requiring them to attend weekly three-hour workshops that he organized. (Staff members were encouraged but not required to attend.) In the second stage, faculty members were asked to look for ways to incorporate aspects of the King’s English into their teaching. In the last phase, Wood encouraged student to pursue the King’s English as an extracurricular activity.
In the workshops, faculty and staff gave prepared or extemporaneous speeches on familiar topics before colleagues, who then shared comments and offered constructive criticisms. This was rhetoric in the true meaning of the word: giving and analyzing speeches; closely observing a speaker’s delivery, grammar, and posture; reflecting on the structure of a speech, its purposes, and the speaker’s choice of words.
Wood also innovated. In the workshops, we gave impromptu speeches on random themes, with subjects drawn from a hat. In a different exercise, we gave speeches in randomly assigned spots around the college, with the goal of engaging all persons in the immediate vicinity.
Were these workshops easy? Hardly. Were they helpful? Extremely.
Despite their difficulty, I only recall faculty members praising Wood for launching the King’s English. We all benefited—both in and outside the classroom.
Most importantly, we gained credibility with students. As we spoke to them about the importance of rhetoric, we ourselves were striving to deepen our knowledge of that ancient discipline. Students appreciated this, and they formed groups modeled after the faculty workshops.
Professor Ethan Campbell also reminds me that several Interregnum contests grew out of a faculty and staff “olympiad” in fall 2006. It consisted of poetry recitals, debates, and random-theme competitions. Students were allowed to attend and were inspired by what they saw.
So what happened to these initiatives? Well, for different reasons, Wood resigned as provost in spring 2007, and the status of the King’s English soon changed. It has hung on, surprisingly resilient, but few would say that it enjoys robust health today. And if it is central to our identity as a college, it probably needs some kind of revival.
The college already has students who love the English language and engage it in different spheres. As examples, I think of various programs in MCA, the Debate Society, and Mock Trial. But the King’s English was meant to be a college-wide program. Ultimately, the goal was to have every student engaged with it, not as a matter of personal choice, but as a matter of institutional design.
Here’s another way of understanding this matter. Consider the painfully shy student who rarely speaks in class and still gets excellent grades. This is a common phenomenon at most colleges and universities—but something that should not occur at TKC, with its core curriculum and commitment to the King’s English. We can admire the student’s diligence in getting fine grades, but we should want this student to overcome his or her shyness.
It is true that we have a required course in Persuasive Writing and Speaking (previously called “Rhetoric”), and that is to be applauded. But more can be done. Within the curriculum, other possibilities include administering oral exams in a larger number of courses (a common practice in Europe), developing a two-semester sequence in classical rhetoric, and offering instruction in foreign languages. (As I shall argue in a future contribution to the EST, one of the hidden benefits of studying a foreign language is simultaneously acquiring a greater knowledge of English.)
In the realm of extracurricular activities, students could emulate their predecessors and form groups to acquaint themselves with the King’s English. By my count, at least eight current faculty members completed the workshops organized by Peter Wood, and students could approach any of those faculty members for ideas. Or perhaps students might wish to form a club devoted to the study of rhetoric.
I am not suggesting that it would be easy to implement all of the ideas just described. Curricular development at colleges and universities, even very small colleges, is sometimes a slow process. But students don’t have to wait for further developments in our curriculum to rejuvenate the King’s English. Those who are interested—and I know there are some—can take the initiative. Doing so might facilitate changes in the curriculum.
David L. Tubbs is Associate Professor of Politics and Co-Chair of the Program in Politics, Philosophy, and Economics. He has been teaching at King’s since fall 2005.