Returning To First Principles To Spread The Word In The Academy Of The 21st Century

Two thousand years ago, scholars who could not verbalise ideas cogently and who could not present concepts with oratorical conviction were considered unworthy of a place in Plato’s Academia. Yet today, knowledge disseminated by papers, journals, books or computer screens is considered the be-all-and-end-all of scholarly output while the physical and mental effort associated with the passionate verbal expression of ideas is unfashionable and the vital, alchemical activity of teaching is pooh-poohed as a lesser skill.

But the pen and the tongue wielded competently together cut through far more convincingly in an argument than either can do when used alone. Why then do so many academics choose to fight their corners with one hand tied behind their backs? Why in tutorials, seminars, lectures and conferences around the world is drab delivery from innumerable scholars with embarrassed posture allowed to emasculate meaning and banish evidence of the lively minded concepts which the same scholars set down so convincingly on paper?

Well, to be seen and heard nailing ideas to doors where – as the author of the offending tenets – one can be apprehended and questioned – is not for the faint hearted. Far easier to set down thoughts on paper behind those doors, add a name, and be well out of the way when the reading of them begins: any response can then safely be made from behind a barricade of book covers.

Unfortunately, the current rapid expansion of undergraduate and post graduate courses looks set to bring those barricades crashing down. Ensuring that written argument remains original is an increasingly difficult task. Plagiarism, is becoming well nigh impossible to detect – let alone stamp out – from amongst the welter of material available on the internet. Indeed, so much information is now communicated in print that it is difficult even for honest writers to avoid the likelihood of unwittingly being guilty of malpractice.

Surely the time has come to reinstate the spoken word as co-arbiter of standards in the Academy in order to counter the increasingly woolly nature of the current plethora of written words.

Discourse clearly sorts out individuals who have a genuine grasp of a subject from those who do not. People who do not own the knowledge about which they speak cannot speak about it intelligently. Discourse highlights the value of collaboration – a far more productive medium for the growth of entrepreneurial ideas than ivory tower individualism – and marks out scholars who have the ability to defend and expand theoretical frameworks.

But if the fusion of good quality speech with good quality writing is to occur then initiates will have to overcome the attitude prevalent in higher education establishments that time spent training rhetorical skills is time wasted. Many academics now in post will have to undergo the not inconsiderable discomfort of altering lifelong vocal and performance habits as they struggle to speak as well as they write. Breathing which stimulates ideas, instigates choice of words and sustains speech; posture which supports and focuses attention on spoken ideas; deft use of the tongue to articulate and colour words in the resonant spaces behind the face; all these muscular processes will have to be scrutinised and new skills taken on board before countless black-hole lecture theatres can be transformed into energising, sunlit havens.

Luminaries such as Richard Feynman – the Nobel prize winning physicist whose students were so inspired by his presentation techniques that they ensured that his brilliant lectures became available for all to share – have shown that such magic can happen, but only where pathos, logos and ethos, the life affirming rules of rhetoric, are acknowledged as consubstantial with the well-crafted written word and studied as carefully.

Get that fusion right, however, and the Academy of the Twenty First Century will witness an upsurge of entrepreneurial ideas communicated by inspirational scholar-teachers.