In the film Darkest Hour, Winston Churchill searches for his copy of Cicero — that Roman politician and lawyer who so excelled in the art of public speaking. Churchill was composing a speech and needed guidance.
So why aren’t we, in education, turning to Churchill and Cicero? Professor John Hale states in his lecture series “The Art of Public Speaking” that public speaking is the most neglected of the liberal arts.
Public Speaking Should Be Emphasized
With my twenty years as a teacher, both at college and high school, I must agree that along with reading and writing, public speaking should have equal weight. It should not simply be an “elective” for a few, but a requirement for the many. All teachers in all disciplines should have students speak publicly.
To my own scholars, I say, “In this class, we follow the trinity: reading, writing, and public speaking.” I do not want the image of my scholars bathed in the glow of an iPad, like docile factory workers from the 19th century.
My classroom, I hope, serves as an open forum, a theater-in-the-round, the way I envision a classroom in Shakespeare’s day when debate and recital were essential. Rather than a minister at the pulpit, I sometimes feel like a facilitator at the Friends’ Meeting — with individuals called to stand and testify.
The DNA of classroom instruction, however, is the sermon; now, the commonplace lecture: a spiritual leader who would rise to the lectern to uplift and to educate. Earlier this year, I asked my students how many were trained or even practiced public speaking: one student raised her hand.
My wife said it’s like the end of the world to ask her students to speak in class. And this is fashion and child development. Petrified, students will often take a zero, she said. They want to read from paper, not develop a persona. They do not understand the transformative power of public speaking: we can teach to spin clumsy silence into reasoned gold.
In my class, on the second day of class, my students traditionally stand on a milk crate to “rant.” By the middle of the year, they deliberate on the same crate in the lobby for ten minutes.
Last year I was proud of my teenage daughter Nancy who spoke before a packed room of concerned parents and students at a school board meeting. There was a proposal to collapse one of the high-performing middle schools, and Nancy spoke from her heart about her experience. Few lessons in her classroom experience equaled such life-altering events. She had “blood, sweat, toil, and tears” in that speech. For her small part, the proposal was tabled. For now.
Our history is full of wonderful public speakers, but are we training the youth to carry on the tradition? Who is our next Martin Luther King? Susan B. Anthony? Henry David Thoreau?
So many of us simply Tweet or repost or hit the like button without putting our whole soul and body into the fight. Public speaking is so personal and so frightening.
This past semester, one of my former students messaged me through Facebook. This relatively shy student was now gunning for the president of an engineering club. He was the underdog but wanted a few tips. I reminded him of our lessons, and he said he would use personal anecdotes, walk away from the podium, vary his pitch, and use gestures to articulate keywords.
“Mr. Bowne,” he typed. “It worked! It was a tie! I’m now co-president! Thank you!”
What happens when the general public fears public speaking? We have too few community members to speak to the Board of Education. We have too few who lack the courage to take a stand at Township Council meetings. We have too few willing to stand up to authority.
Skills in reading, writing, and public speaking will pay off stronger dividends than a piece of paper from an overpriced college. A skilled orator is confident, carefully tuning their words to persuade, perhaps even an employer.
What Can We Do?
As a parent, ask your child how much public speaking practice takes place in the classroom. Practice at home. Practice an interview. Speak to teachers and administrators at your school to encourage more public speaking.
As teachers, we can step to the sidelines (and I know that’s so difficult for us) and allow the students to play the game. I know I hate being a spectator, and many traditional classrooms are spectator sports.
As administrators and legislators, fight to bring back the art of public speaking. Bring in professionals to every discipline of how to make public speaking work in the classroom.
After all, thank God a Churchill came to save Britain and the rest of the free world from Nazi rule: His simple “We will Fight” speech, a speech you should Google right now, effectively changed the course of history.
It just took someone to give us the words to inspire us to fight.
Thank you for reading.
If you are interested to read more of my writings, you may read the following one published in The Masterpiece.