According to the Blue Book, “Writing well is the hallmark of an educated person.” Students who never learn to write proficiently risk “limiting their futures without knowing what opportunities they are eliminating.” Consequently, all incoming students are required to take two courses that emphasize writing.
This certainly seems reasonable. Writing is a crucial way in which people share ideas with one another. But it is not the only way. Just as important — if not more so — is the ability to express oneself verbally. And despite its heavy emphasis on the written word, Yale’s undergraduate curriculum virtually ignores the spoken one.
The ability to convey one’s thoughts verbally is invaluable. Intangible qualities like leadership, charisma and charm all hinge on how effectively a person can orate. Virtually every career involves verbal relationships: Consider doctors with their patients, scientists with their colleagues, even full-time writers with their editors and publishers. It goes without saying that the ability to speak under pressure can make or break the career of a lawyer or politician.
All of this makes Yale’s curricular attitude toward verbal communication even more distressing. In short, Yale does virtually nothing to help improve students’ speaking abilities. A student looking for formal instruction on how to become a better speaker has nowhere to go, except for maybe a handful of theater studies classes.
How is this possible? How can Yale claim to offer a comprehensive liberal arts education while completely neglecting such an integral skill? The answer is that students are simply expected to improve their verbal communication skills through sheer repetition. By constantly interacting in seminars, in sections and simply over dinner, the theory goes, students eventually will become more proficient speakers. But a bad writer who writes a lot will only produce a lot of bad writing; so too for the inarticulate speaker. Without explicit criticism, it is highly unlikely that students will realize that they are speaking poorly in the first place.
Most Yale students simply never get this type of criticism. Articulating one’s point in class is viewed not as a skill to be refined, but instead as an obstacle to be overcome by saying the same thing over and over. Certainly, many Yalies are quite eloquent. But many are not. Too often, the only way to discover what a student is really trying to say is to dig beneath layers of run-on sentences, non sequiturs, and countless “ums.” In no way do I wish to exonerate myself from this category.
Fortunately, the solution to this problem is very simple. Students must be instructed on how to become more effective speakers. At Yale, we might begin by introducing a series of “speaking intensive” sections and seminars. In these classes, ideally offered in many different departments, section leaders and professors would let students know when they were speaking too quickly, using too many “likes” or failing to make eye contact. If a student were to say something that didn’t make sense, she would be asked to clarify. The student would be scolded for stretching a 30-second point over the course of two minutes, just as she would be scolded for stretching a one-paragraph idea over 10 pages. Instead of a final paper, the course would culminate with a final speech. Gradually, students would learn to approach oration in a more critical way and to become capable of critiquing their own performances.
Of course, the real source of the problem extends far beyond Yale’s campus. In short, public speaking is not a central component of American education. Though writing ability is viewed as a highly teachable skill, a student’s ability to speak is essentially accepted as immutable. The evidence is everywhere. With a few exceptions, American educators evaluate performance using written tests, not verbal ones. When a student writes a paper, he often gets two grades: one for content and one for style and grammar. But when the same student says something in class, the teacher almost always responds exclusively to the content of the student’s comment, not the style of its delivery.
In the long term, what we really need is a new way of thinking about communication in the classroom. We need to start looking at verbalization as a technical skill to be refined, not as a barrier to making oneself understood. Just like writing, improving one’s ability to speak requires trial, error and, most importantly, correction from somebody who knows better.
Glenn Thrope is a junior in Jonathan Edwards College.