As time goes by, I am ever more perplexed by why we make students learn to write the classic five-paragraph essay but have so much less interest in developing their spoken argument skills. As much as I love writing, I wonder if there is something arbitrary in the idea that education must focus more on the written than the spoken word.
I’m not referring to the mano a mano of debating or the thrilling but colloquial speechmaking of preaching. I’m talking about formal oratory. Back in the day, people would clear their throat and deliver. They weren’t winging it. They would plan their remarks, without writing them out word for word. They knew their topic and, from that, they spoke.
Today, people may give a talk but with no expectation that they have their material down and not usually with the idea that they will attempt to convince us of a proposition by making a case. Our sense of a spoken presentation is less formal, more personal, looser. But more formal oratory has its uses.
Sheer aesthetics is one of them. For example, to Americans in Gettysburg on Nov. 19, 1863, the address they gathered to hear was not delivered by Abraham Lincoln. His speech lasted but two minutes. Former Secretary of State Edward Everett gave a two-hour speech from memory.
This was no talk of the kind we most often encounter these days, but an oration, opening with: “Standing beneath this serene sky, overlooking these broad fields now reposing from the labors of the waning year, the mighty Alleghenies dimly towering before us, the graves of our brethren beneath our feet, it is with hesitation that I raise my poor voice to break the eloquent silence of God and nature.” He spoke of the hypocrisy of slavery in a country that was supposed to be free, the crime of the Confederacy’s rebellion and the horrors of war.
People actually thrilled to these very long speeches in this era. It was very common to attend them. As strange as they may seem to us now, these events were no more peculiar than what we know as stand-up comedy these days, in which someone strides onto a stage with self-conscious bonhomie and spends about 20 minutes making an audience laugh with general, often self-deprecatory remarks and then thanks the audience and walks off. Stand-up in those days would have seemed as weird as watching someone talk in long sentences for hours seems to us.
I also think, as I read a book about 19th-century England, of the way parliamentarians used to communicate. The men regularly made their points to their colleagues in speeches that could run far beyond what anyone could write out and memorize word for word, in contrast to now, with speeches subject to time limits. Or: Black people of letters, such as W.E.B. Du Bois and Maya Angelou, engaged in oratory contests when they were young, competing for prizes according to how gracefully and how convincingly they made a case for some proposition. The tradition of such contests continues in the Black community.
When I have given oral presentations, I reach people more directly than if I’d written everything down for them to read. When people can see your face and hear the melody of your voice, your point gets across more vividly. Language evolved, after all, for face-to-face contact, not rendered as glyphs on paper.
The question is why oratory of this kind is so much less central to the culture than it once was. The fact that there exists an organization like Toastmasters, which fosters ability in public speaking, only underscores that this skill is no longer a given from schooling and general acculturation.
Imagine a square divided into four smaller ones. The top left square is casual speech; the top right square is formal speech. The bottom left square is casual writing; the bottom right square is formal writing. We have, as it were, an empty square in our grid.
Casual speech is how we communicate most of the time. Down from that square, casual writing once upon a time meant the way you may have written letters to friends or the written language of passed notes or dorm message boards. More recently it is texting and email, in which we use the mechanics of writing to express ourselves in a way that sounds like talking. Formal writing is the five-paragraph essay and, of course, books and articles.
But what about that upper right square, formal speech?
That is what Everett and Du Bois and others considered natural, even if it seems as antique and clunky to us as steamboats and corsets. When we communicate formally, we moderns think first of getting language down on a page in written form, perhaps out of a sense that this is how to deck language out in its Sunday best.
Indeed, there is the TED Talk, but besides its air of casualness (business casual), note that the result is thought of as a unique genre, subject sometimes to a mannered chuckle. The storytelling events put on by the Moth also qualify as oratory but, again, usually pitched in a snug, relatable tone and less about making a case. Today, the formal speech is othered rather than fundamental.
Perhaps it seems that to organize our thoughts properly beyond the level of “Want mustard with that?” we need to tie them down with the yoke of writing.
But the ancients didn’t think so. Even with a fully developed writing culture, the Greeks and Romans valued the ability to stand and pose and pace in front of an audience and make their point through speaking it — and formally, not colloquially. Even today, there are revered intellectuals who mainly express themselves by speaking rather than writing, such as Cornel West.
As odd in its way as the old-time, lengthy speech is today’s academic article. In many fields, these tend to be so imposingly long that few readers get through them. They can seem about as inutile as the sculptures up high on European cathedrals, where, for centuries, no one could see them but God.
Academic articles look great from a distance, get their authors promotions and can be a joy to write because people can feel they have fully expressed what they know. But all but a few go virtually unread because there are too many of them and too little time. I can tell you that a lot of my earlier articles were all but unreadable because of length and style — or lack thereof.
In that light, I am certainly not wishing we would go back to listening to people talk for hours at a time; we have more to entertain us these days. But I imagine a different universe in which academics would be expected to present most of their ideas in solid PowerPoint versions, narrated in formal language, getting across the amount of information a person can actually absorb in 20 to 30 minutes.
I wish students had the choice of either writing essays or speaking them. We would train them in the ability to speak carefully and coherently with the same goal of making a point that we require in writing.
A lot of people really hate writing. It’s an unnatural activity, as humanity goes. If we imagine that speech has existed for 24 hours, then according to all modern estimates, writing came along only sometime around 11:30 p.m. Writing is an artifice, and given a choice, most people would rather talk (or text).
For students who prefer it — and most of them likely would — the idea would be to give an oral presentation to the class, going from a memorized outline of planned remarks but expressing its points spontaneously. They would be graded on the quality of both the delivery and the content.
I have done this in one of my classes, and often the students who choose speaking make a better case than many of those who opt for writing. They seem to connect more readily to the task of talking than to writing an argument and execute it with more passion. It is unclear to me that there is a reason to classify oral suasion as something lesser than the written version, as long as students are instructed that they are to maintain a basic, tempered poise, without relying on volume or colorful rhetoric to stand in for logic.
Some will object that students will need to be able to craft arguments in writing in their future endeavors. But to channel the modern kind of skeptical response: Will they, though?
How elaborate do memos get? And especially, are enough students really likely to need writing that it must be drilled into all of them? An alternate universe would be one in which students who thought of themselves as likely to need such a skill in the future, such as in the law, would be the ones who choose written over oral expression.
When I am asked to speak about something, I do some written preparation to organize my thoughts, but I don’t craft sentences. I fashion my ideas into exactly three basic points. In terms of realistic expectations of human attention span, especially in our eternally distracted era, even four points is too many, but two isn’t enough. Three points, each expressed with about three subpoints. I consider it my job to be able to hold this much in my memory, along with intentions of an introduction and a conclusion.
To be sure, only formal writing can harbor “Beloved” or “Ulysses,” extended scientific proofs or detailed historical documentation. However, when it comes to individuals expressing their intelligence for assignments or teaching, I cannot see that writing is the only legitimate and effective vehicle. We are a society that values speaking engagingly but places less of a value on speaking precisely. This is a mere matter of cultural preference; I wish it would change.
Have feedback? Send a note to McWhorterfirstname.lastname@example.org.
John McWhorter (@JohnHMcWhorter) is an associate professor of linguistics at Columbia University. He hosts the podcast “Lexicon Valley” and is the author, most recently, of “Woke Racism: How a New Religion Has Betrayed Black America.”