On What We Lack

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If you think that written language is in a poor state today– an undeniable fact to anyone who’s read anything written before the 1950’s– it ought to be all the more evident that the state of spoken language is in no better condition, and probably a far more decadent one. Written language is, in fact, a more polished form of spoken language. At least we can edit our books, articles, papers, memes and tweets. Usually the way we speak is more ugly than even the worst of our papers.  This applies, often, even to those who have acquired an eloquent style of writing.

This isn’t only sad and impractical. It’s also dangerous. Most people don’t primarily communicate by reading and writing, and there’s an extent to where that’s a good thing; even the most proficient writing often falls short of completely effective communication. At the point where our primary form of communication is muddled with imprecise vocabulary, equivocation, misunderstanding, horridly ugly filler-words, colloquialisms, meaningless informal expression, redundancy and a plethora of other impediments, I can reasonably say that there is a problem.

Effective communication is a big deal. Try to think back to a great leader who wasn’t a masterful orator. There might be a few, but they are the exceptions rather than the rule. Those who can communicate are those who have the capacity to lead. Or, conversely, effective speaking is a prerequisite to leadership. As King’s students with influence as our stated goal, we ought to be at the peak of oratorical excellence. Even if you don’t want to buy the principled argument, or you’re not into the King’s vision, it is still extremely practical to be able to speak well in any context.

Maybe you’re one who thinks that you speak exceptionally. Perhaps you take offense at my criticism. Sure, I agree that there are people who can speak well, just as there are people who can write well despite the awful state of written language. You should remember, however, just as you can always improve your writing, you can always improve your speaking.

If speaking is so rudimentary to our values, then we ought not to let it remain in such bad condition. In fact, because speaking is so rudimentary to achieving our values (and really, achieving anything) then we should be more than adequate speakers. We should be awesome, amazing and freakin’ excellent speakers.

That begs the question, at least in my mind– why don’t we have more classes at King’s devoted to speaking? We have three that touch the subject rather peripherally, but none of them are explicit or rigorous when it comes to oration. We have Business Communication and Presentation, a great class that touches on the mechanics of speaking but has very specific business focus. We have Argumentation and Debate, another great class that focuses primarily on the task of constructing argument. We also have Persuasive Writing and Speaking which, at the very least, combines two very important subjects (each of which merit individual focus) into one class (usually at the expense of speaking).

You might say that we lack focused speaking courses because public speaking is integrated into classes such as College Writing II and the American Political Thought and Practice series. Our website even says, “The [PPE] curriculum places persuasive writing and speaking at the center of nearly every course.” While it’s true that you can’t even go half a semester without a writing assignment, the same can’t be said of speaking. If you happen to have a class that requires speaking, it will likely not be a large amount of speaking. On the occasion that you are actually required to give a speech of some sort, it is almost inevitably going to be graded non-rigorously and on content rather than form. While our current efforts to integrate speaking into the classroom are commendable, they are simply not sufficient.

We have two extremely rigorous writing classes mandatory for all students. We have compelling reason to look upon the subject of public speaking, or just speaking in general, as equally important. That’s why King’s needs focused and rigorous speaking classes.

OpinionJohn Sailer