Yale can take great pride in the fact that both President George W. Bush and Senator John Kerry went to Yale in the 1960s. At the same time, Yale should also take a close look at what was going on during the 1960s at Yale that might have contributed to these men’s interest in public life and in shaping their plans to enter the public arena with the skills that enabled them to speak in ways that communicated their designs and desires for the nations future.
One of the things that went on at Yale in the 1960s was a course in American Oratory and History that taught the great American orations and their place in American history. This course required students to read and analyze the great American speeches, and just as importantly, the students were required to give orations themselves that were then critiqued by their fellow students and professor. The course accepted only 16 students each semester and there was always a waiting list to get in. It was the only course at Yale that taught students how to become better public speakers. Professor Rollin G. Osterweis taught this class.
When President Bush came to Yale in 2001 to accept Yale’s honorary degree, he singled out Osterweis and his course in American oratory as helping prepare him for his role in public life.
As well, politically interested Yale students were attracted to the Yale Debate Team that was coached by Osterweis. That team travelled with its coach all over New England as it debated other Ivy League Schools. Yale had a freshman debate team that debated other college freshman teams as well as prep school teams.
As the coach of the debate team, Osterweis took his debate coaching responsibilities as seriously as if he had been the Yale football coach. In the March 21, 2004 edition of The New York Times, John Kerry’s roommate, Harvey Bundy, remembered Osterweis saying that John Kerry was the finest debater he had ever coached, other than Bill Buckley, who had been one of Osterweis’s earliest and finest debaters.
Yale had, up until the time Osterweis retired, a long and distinguished history in Yale debate. Osterweis, before he took over the Yale debate team duties, had mentored under Professor John C. Adams, who had been the faculty debate coach until his retirement in the late 1940s.
The Political Union was also an important place for those students who were thinking of entering public life. Osterweis was the faculty advisor to the Political Union, and took his role in that organization extremely seriously. John Kerry was both a product of the Yale Debate Team and Yale’s Political Union.
Today Yale does not have a faculty coach of the Debate Team, nor has it had a faculty coach since Osterweis’s retirement in the late 1970s. Yale also no longer has a course in American Oratory, nor any other course where students can learn to give speeches on important subjects and have them critiqued.
Although the art of Oratory is as important as the ability to write, and although Yale has many courses in helping students to write better, there is not even one course that teaches Yale students to speak better. Even in everyday life, the importance of being able to express oneself in a clear and articulate way is an important tool for all educated people.
The Greeks and the Romans knew the importance of Oratory, Yale knew the importance of Oratory in the 1940s, ’50s, ’60s and ’70s, and the nation knows the importance of Oratory by virtue of making political candidates debate each other before major elections. Now, once again, Yale might want to rethink its role in helping to shape the next generation of students learn the art of Oration. We are seeing before our very eyes, right now, what the last generation at Yale helped produce.
Nancy Osterweis Alderman graduated from Yale College in 1994 and the School of Forestry and Environmental Studies in 1997. She is a daughter of Rollin Osterweis.