These new technologies are also, ironically, highlighting the importance of oral persuasion. Electronic media—online speeches, televised political debates, blogs with embedded video, TED talks, and so forth—has sparked new interest in cultivating oratory skills. This recent surge of interest, according to Eugene Tobin of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, also reflects new initiatives promoting undergraduate research (and oral presentation of that research) for all students, not just honors students. It is increasingly clear that superb communication skills are essential across a wide range of careers.
Active learning has its place, too. Danielle Allen, a professor of classics and government at Harvard, cautions the need for perspective. “Often, when people talk about flipped classrooms they think they’re inventing something new. But it’s important to recognize that both the lecture format and the seminar-discussion format date back to antiquity. It is true that the lecture is undergoing more rapid evolution. But both are ancient practices, totally durable, and both will evolve as social conditions change.”
Not only that, Allen continues, “Both of these are absolutely critical parts of the democratic process. We need that small group discussion because it’s the essence of deliberation, but people also need to know how to speak, how to listen, how to evaluate whether a lecture is supported by a good argument or not. Lectures in a campus classroom can help people acquire the standards for judging that kind of public performance.”
In his book The Art of Humane Education, the philosophy professor Donald Philip Verene asked, “How would wisdom speak, if not eloquently?” It was out of the tradition of oratory that great speeches that changed the course of history were born: Imagine the world without Winston Churchill’s impassioned call in 1940 for Britain’s “blood, toil, tears, and sweat." America would be a very different country without the speeches of Abraham Lincoln, Susan B. Anthony, or Martin Luther King, Jr. The combination of hard-earned knowledge, eloquence, and passion endows the lecture with a singular power: the power to move and change its audience.
Every lecturer has off days, but the good moments are sublime. Christopher Martin, an astrophysicist at the California Institute of Technology who has been teaching for nearly 30 years, would never give up the lecture format. “A lecturer can take students on an intellectual journey at the speed of thought. It is a performance and the ideal is to excite and inspire, create something out of nothing in front of the students’ eyes, a form of magic.” He continues: “Remember, the staggering advances in science, engineering, and technology in the last two centuries were made by former students who attended, and sometimes slept through, the old-fashioned lecture. If progress is our measure of success, then the need for change is overstated.”