Last night we watched Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Katie Benner ’99 interview former White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough. McDonough’s speech was uplifting, but perhaps the most impressive moment of the evening was when he turned a simple student question about his Irish heritage into a shrewd thesis on the value of immigrants to America, at the both historically and in the present.
McDonough, by this time, displayed a skill that was probably honed at St. John’s University, Georgetown University and during his various experiences as a public servant. Namely, the man knows how to speak to an audience – a skill which, according to Bowdoin’s recently released Knowledge, Skills, and Creative Dispositions (KSCD) report, many Bowdoin students believe should be taught. to some extent in college.
According to the report, when students were asked what knowledge and skills they hoped the college would provide them before graduation, many cited “practical skills” including “effective oral communication.” The task force said that “students should learn to speak eloquently and to articulate convincing arguments. They also need to know how to tailor their communications to their audiences.
We believe that Bowdoin’s program does not prioritize public speaking. Our peer institutions in Maine, Colby and Bates incorporate public speaking into their course offerings. Colby offers a course called “Public Speaking,” while Bates has a rhetoric, film, and screen studies department.
By comparison, Bowdoin does not have dedicated public speaking classes, and although a 2004 Bowdoin News article on teaching oral communication suggests that there was once a plan to mainstream teaching public speaking in the first year seminars, none of us had a public speaking mission in our seminars. The article mentions other efforts to strengthen public speaking education at the College, but all that resulted from these efforts seems to have disappeared in the years that followed.
Public speaking isn’t just about making a presentation in front of a crowd. It is the ability to defend your position under uncomfortable circumstances, to speak in the spotlight, to respond eloquently under duress, or to formulate intelligent answers to unforeseen questions such as how your Irish heritage has affected your work as White House chief of staff.
Bowdoin prides itself on its liberal arts program and its emphasis on teaching skills in a wide variety of settings. We believe that public speaking is one of those skills, and we wonder why this isn’t already an integral part of Bowdoin’s program. Bates offers a course called “Science Communication,” which teaches students how to effectively and orally communicate science-related topics to non-experts. Courses like this provide a useful model for how Bowdoin could help students develop their public speaking skills without straying from the College’s emphasis on the liberal arts.
The KCSD report shows that the College is aware of this shortcoming and we believe President Rose is dedicated to implementing a curriculum change to help prospective students acquire these skills. In rethinking our own Bowdoin education and the skills we believe we can develop further, we encourage the College to prioritize the integration of public speaking into the curriculum as it advances with the students. results of this report.
This editorial represents the majority opinion of the Bowdoin Orient Editorial Board, which is made up of Nell Fitzgerald, Dakota Griffin, Calder McHugh, Devin McKinney, Surya Milner and Jessica Piper.