The revival of a 200-year-old speech competition gets prime-time trappings.
And it just might change the curriculum.
Sitting with my fellow judges in a packed Dana Auditorium, I feel like Simon Cowell in Middlebury’s version of America’s Got Talent. The College hasn’t fully gotten oratory just yet, but tonight’s Parker Merrill Speech Competition is a promising step.
Dana Yeaton, the event’s director and mastermind, bustles up and down the aisle, obsessing over the sound and quality of video. As the founder of Oratory Now, an effort to bring the art back to the College, this theatre professor has a lot riding on the event. It could be the start of something big—big as in, restoring rhetoric to its rightful place in the academy and giving renewed vigor to the perceived value of a liberal education.
Actually, I’m more token geezer than Simon Cowell. My fellow judges, both much younger, have serious oratorical chops. Dena Simmons ’05, a newly minted EdD working at the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence, has given two TEDx Talks as well as a TED Talk on Broadway. Cloe Sasha ’11 founded TEDxMiddlebury and now works as the content and program producer at TED itself. TED is the Big Top of oratory, the Woodstock and Bonnaroo of the spoken word. Simmons and Sasha’s generation truly recognizes the value of the art.
A word about oratory: It’s to speechmaking what writing is to typing. Oratory injects thought into speech. The original form of persuasion, it moves an audience, changing its mood, its mind, even its willingness to change the world.
Of course, there’s evil oratory as well as good, as every dictator will show you. Effective oratory disguises its tricks. Donald Trump’s rousing non sequiturs, delivered in 12-second comedic punch lines, instinctively imitate the ancient Greek period, a point or concept delivered in the length of a human breath. (The Greeks believed that the patterns of our brains follow the rhythmos, or symmetry, of our bodies.) His audiences love this brilliant attention-holding device. Modern sophisticates, who see only the buffoon, reveal a fundamental ignorance.
Our forebears knew otherwise. Applicants to Middlebury in the early 1800s used Latin oratory as a form of SAT; a student was considered worthy of entrance if he could recite long passages of Marcus Tullius Cicero’s unparalleled prosecution of the Roman rebel Catiline. Top graduates gave Latin orations at Commencement. But the art soon faded as the classics became increasingly unfashionable. By 1855, when pastor and Middlebury trustee Thomas A. Merrill added his name to the College’s Parker Speech Competition—thus inaugurating the Parker Merrill Prize—he made the affair sound like an exercise in deportment. The winner, he said, would demonstrate “the superior propriety and elegance of his manners.”
Harvard administered the coup de grâce to the dying art in 1876, when Francis James “Stubby” Child, Boylston Professor of Rhetoric and Oratory, got himself awarded a chair in English literature. The first Boylston professorship had been filled by John Quincy Adams, who shared the rhetorical secrets of the ancients (and whose syllabus provided my own introduction to the art). Professor Child, on the other hand, disdained oratory, saying he “would much rather be teaching dancing.”
As Harvard went, so went Middlebury, to the point where spoken rhetoric—one of the original liberal arts—became at best an extracurricular activity. The Parker Merrill competition itself went moribund in 1965, staying silent until this spring, when Dana Yeaton and his cadre of Oratory Now peer tutors chose to revive it.
A wiry, successful playwright, Yeaton took his first step toward oratory five years ago with a first-year seminar titled Speechmaker’s Studio. The class borrowed a popular technique from the ancients by channeling great speakers through the ages, from Demosthenes and Lincoln through Churchill and Martin Luther King Jr.—with a dose of spoken-word poetry and TED Talks. In 2014, Speechmaker’s Studio became a J-term course and began to morph, Yeaton says, “from a class into something of a movement.” Students who complete a nine-hour training program can qualify as paid “oratory coaches,” while faculty can dial up a pair of Oratory Now tutors for any class or project. Organizations like TEDxMiddlebury, the Student-Athlete Advisory Committee, and Midd Entrepreneurs collaborate regularly with Oratory Now; so does the Center for Careers and Internships. Oratory can now even fulfill the PE credit, with a single eight-hour course.
But Middlebury oratory isn’t all about physical drama. “I’ve seen coaches come out of a session absolutely giddy about the sudden improvement in someone’s delivery,” Yeaton says (rather giddily).
“But my greatest pleasure comes from the writing, when someone finally shrinks their argument to its essence. When at last they tailor their style to an actual audience. That’s when our forays into Aristotle and Cicero start to make sense.”
In other words, the thinking part, known as rhetoric. Harvard wasn’t the first institution to try and kill the art. The invaders of ancient Rome did a good job at it, along with a faction of early Christians—among them Saint Augustine, who renounced his profession as a rhetorician. Rhetoric managed to survive in desiccated form throughout the Middle Ages and finally underwent a vigorous revival during the Enlightenment. Rhetorical thinking permeates the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. Every one of the Founding Fathers received a rhetorical education in some form. Thomas Jefferson absorbed John Locke, an Oxford lecturer in rhetoric whose modern theories of the state were deeply influenced by the art. James Madison studied at the feet of Princeton rhetoric professor (and Declaration signer) John Witherspoon.
The art rebounded yet again during the 1960s, when the literary critic Kenneth Burke published a brilliant set of books applying Freudian and Marxist theories to classical rhetoric. More recently, Middlebury’s own President Laurie Patton employed the metonymy—a trope first described by the ancient Sophists—in her published analysis of Indian mantras.
Meanwhile, the art never died among the land-grant universities, which remained relatively uninfluenced by the academic fashions emanating from Harvard. A student can major in rhetoric at UC-Berkeley, Iowa State, Indiana University, and dozens of other schools. Still, not a single Ivy League university or NESCAC school offers a formal major in the subject. Dana Yeaton’s ambition goes beyond reviving a contest, or helping students overcome their public speaking jitters; he’d like the liberal art of persuasion to be back at the center of a Middlebury education.
But tonight he has an event to run.
Of the original 24 contestants, only a half dozen have advanced to deliver short versions of their speeches to a panel of three faculty judges and a packed Abernethy Room audience. Tonight, the six finalists will give a six-minute speech; and then we, “the esteemed alumni judges,” will pick the winner.
First, the musical. Dana has earned himself the reputation of a campus impresario, directing blockbuster celebrations like the New England Review Out Loud performance, and he can’t resist doing a takeoff on Broadway’s Hamilton for this evening’s opener. Oratory Now students gamely rap Dana’s lyrics, bringing us up to speed on Parker Merrill history.
And then the speeches. Like a lot of you, I’ve suffered through many a presentation delivered by a student reading from a text at supersonic speed and sotto voce volume. Tonight, though, notes are forbidden; some of the contestants have clearly memorized their texts, while others daringly ad lib. All of them look nervous.
The talks themselves pay varying attention to the official theme, “True North: A Principle to Guide Us Through Troubled Times.” But the real topic of the evening, for most of the speakers, seems to cover the tribal tensions infesting elite campuses. August Hutchinson, a senior Feb, is the first contestant, and he offers great sound bites while describing his meeting with a group of anti-Semites. “When was the last time you were silenced into agreement?” he asks, somewhat rhetorically. He’s wearing a jacket and tie, and his parents sit in the audience. He gets big applause; but then they all do. Most of the audience consists of students, all of whom provide a healthy dose of support.
Next, Tabitha Mueller, a sophomore Feb, talks movingly about her father dying when she was a little girl. She livens her story with a fine comedic delivery and delivers a moral: “Listening to myself . . . isn’t selfish.”
Then up comes Briana Garrett, a first-year student, who seems much less rehearsed than the others. Offering a look of comic terror at the audience, she begins, “Guess it’s too late to leave now.” She stands shyly at the back of the stage and unnecessarily tells us, “I’m black. I’m female.” And yet she wins over the audience with a beautiful voice and perfectly timed dramatic pauses. She speaks of compassion as a kind of action—one that “could get my brother out of prison.” Leaving the stage in tears, she ends up winning the audience’s choice award.
The contrast is striking, especially when sophomore Peter Dykeman-Bermingham follows her. He begins with a physics joke and speaks confidently about emotions being “physical events, grounded in their tangibility.” (Extra points for him: The ancient Greeks believed the same thing, which is why “pathetic” and “pathology” have the same root.)
“My path through true north runs through the south,” says the next speaker, Dominick Tanoh, a slim African American sophomore from Chicago. By “south,” it turns out, he means “South Side,” a place that contrasts starkly with his experience growing up on the North Side, but where recently he began to uncover a deepening sense of faith.
Last up: Nia Robinson, another African American, who talks about discovering the Torah while visiting a Jewish temple. Her writing is beautiful, and she delivers it crisply, with authority. Her theme comes from Jewish scripture: We’re not obligated to complete the righteous work, but we must not stop doing it. “The work that saves the world,” she says, “is doing what we can.”
I whisper to fellow judge Dena Simmons, “We’ll all be working for her someday.” Simmons whispers back: “She’s a freshman.”
We judges get escorted to an empty room while students and faculty play PowerPoint Roulette, speaking to slides they’ve never seen before. We sit around a table wondering exactly how we’re supposed to pick a winner. I suggest we use Cicero’s five canons of oratory: Invention, Arrangement, Style, Memory, and Delivery. We end up winnowing them down to three:
Delivery, or the way the speaker performed the words.
Invention, or the ideas behind the speech.
Arrangement, or the order and timing of the words.
Which help us only a little. The speakers were all so good, but so different. In the end, after much scoring and discussion, we decide on Nia Robinson, the last contestant. (For more on Robinson, see the spring 2016 cover story, “Let’s Talk About Race.”) Honestly, any one of the six could have won. All of them performed beautifully; none of them expressed a truly revolutionary thought. (But how many TED speakers do, really?) “I was hoping for a little more invention,” Dana Yeaton says to me later.
Which itself counts as a victory, I think. After all, when was the last time a Middlebury professor used the word “invention” to mean the thought behind a speech?
Clearly, Middlebury oratory is beginning to find its voice.
Jay Heinrichs ’77 is the author of Thank You for Arguing, published in seven languages and used in more than 3,000 college courses nationwide. He wrote “Felix Against the Barbarians” for the spring 2013 issue of the magazine.