The revival of oratory?

There is an argument to make that the web and the “infotention” problems it has created may be eroding our capacity to read and write, especially in extended forms. Some years ago I was presenting a paper at a conference at Columbia University and had occasion to talk to a professor of Russian literature who said she could no longer teach as she had before because her graduate students could no longer sustain a reading of War and Peace. (Morgan Meis, at Drexel University, raises an interesting counterpoint in The Return of the Epigram: Can 21st-century Twitter rescue the wordplay mastered by 1st century Romans?)

I wonder, however, if we aren’t seeing the edges of the Gutenberg Parenthesis, the idea put forward by Professor Sauerberg of the University of Denmark that the past 500 years or so might be viewed as an interlude strangely dominated by printed texts. I hope so.  And I hope that what comes next is a return to the spoken word–a more social medium than print.

Now I am a great lover of books and reading and writing. I worry though that print currently has a privileged position in our schools when there is nothing inherent in it to suggest that it is the be all and end all of communication. Indeed, our nearly exclusive use of text in schools may disenfranchise large numbers of students who struggle with written language for one reason or another.

As I said, print is not inherently good. Indeed, it killed off the high art of oratory. In Cicero’s day the measure of a man was his ability orate. If you want to hear what a good speaker once could do read Regicide and Revolution: Speeches at the Trial of Louis XVI and remember that these were mostly extemporaneous. I submit that if our students could do this, we’d be pleased indeed. (I’m thinking of making my final exams this year oral exams. I think they are a much better way to measure knowledge and skill. It’s much harder to cheat in an oral exam, too. Really, all an essay evaluates is one’s ability to write an essay. That’s not a bad thing, not at all. But it may be a limited and limiting lens.)

So maybe, just maybe, the web and social media and tools like SocialCam and podcasts will help us build a revival of the great art oratory, not at the expense of print, but to augment it.



  1. Reply
    amyburvall November 6, 2012

    Love that you wrote about one of my favorite topics – Gutenberg Parenthesis…you really need to meet Alejandro Piscitelli- at least digitally :)

  2. Reply
    Chris McKenzie November 8, 2012

    This is an interesting topic, isn’t it?

    It will be interesting to see what happens to print now that it is being dethroned. How will it continue being remediated? Already, print is less of a barrier to back-and-forth conversation than it once was because that type of dialogue can happen via print, either synchronously or asynchronously (but still faster than in the past). Printed text’s permanence is also no longer as strong as it used to be. The same page on Wikipedia can change each time you visit it, which couldn’t happen with a traditional encyclopedia. In Skype, print and spoken word can coincide, and in many places it is becoming difficult to tell whether the visual and audio are supplementing print or being supplemented with print.

    Coincidentally, I’d recently had a similar conversation with a couple of teachers oral exams too.

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