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THE DECLINE OF ACADEMICAL ORATORY. By academical oratory we mean the orations which used to be pronounced by eminent men during the week of college commencement. It was until recently the almost universal practice to provide learned orations under the auspices of the literary and philosophical societies of the colleges. These addresses were the principal feature of the public exercises, and there was little difficulty in securing the services of men distinguished in literature, philosophy, science, and statesmanship to present with the elaboration of precise statement, and with the advantage of rhetorical elegance, the results of those investigations by which their reputation had been gained. The oration before the Phi Beta Kappa or the Philomathean or the Athenian Society was the event of the week. But in nearly all of the larger colleges this custom is now much impaired, and even where an orator is still invited, his address, with rare exceptions, takes a place of secondary interest as compared with the other events of the week.
The decline of academical oratory is accepted by some as a sign of the times. It is thought to indicate a failing appetite for public speech. It is believed to prove that the days of sustained and stately eloquence are passing away. Before such a conclusion is accepted, however, it should be observed that there are certain reasons quite independent of the changing tastes of the community at large which partly account for declining interest in academical oratory.
One reason is that there are now other places better adapted than the college platform to the consideration of those subjects which are of large importance in the progress of knowledge and of public affairs. The formation of societies having for their exclusive object the promotion of learning in science, language, economics, archæology, and other branches of knowledge has provided a better means for discussing and disseminating the results of investigation. All that is technical is presented at the meetings of these societies or in their publications, and much that is of general interest is brought out in the same way. This method is more satisfactory to specialists than the limitations of a public address in the midst of an academical anniversary. Even literary topics require greater advantage of presentation than is afforded by the college platform. Nothing short of a course of lectures satisfies the critic or the student. There is appetite enough for prolonged courses, as the ready sale of tickets season after season testifies. The transition from a single oration in the middle of July to a dozen lectures in midwinter indicates greater thoroughness of treatment in respect to scientific, philological, and literary subjects. It came about thus that scarcely anything was left for commencement but politics. During and after the war the college platform was eloquent and influential in impressing the duty of the scholar in politics, and the many claims of patriotism, on educated men. The academic oration held its place as long as it did because the peril and
lege platformlitics, and the its place
need of the country made commencement a real opportunity to kindle the ardor of young scholars. The survival of the political address is found now in occasional addresses on political economy and socialism. In general, however, the interests which formerly centered in the college anniversary have been distributed to other points where they are still promoted by public speech as well as by the printed page. As the occasion became inadequate the oration became inappropriate, and therefore unreal. The real discussion of the same themes, having been transferred to a more ample arena, the academic oration lingers merely as the survival of a vanishing custom.
Another reason for the decline of academical oratory is the enlargement of certain uses to which the opportunity of the anniversary is most congenial. These uses are two, the religious and the social. There is no lack of reality in the attitude of educated youth to religion. The last Sunday of the collegiate year is a fitting occasion to address the students on the great themes of religion. The baccalaureate sermon has never before held so important a place as now. The president or one of the professors discourses earnestly on the debt of learning to Christianity, on the superiority of character to mere knowledge, on the service which educated men of Christian spirit can render to society. There is that fitness of theme and of persons to occasion which creates reality. It is a signal opportunity for the preacher to speak his most impressive word for religion and for consecration. For similar reasons, a sermon during the same day before the religious society of the college holds its place and has its justification. Eminent preachers still appear, and will continue to appear at the public meeting of the Society of Inquiry or of the Christian Association, although the same men can with difficulty, if at all, be induced to deliver a literary or philosophical oration later in the week. Also, social entertainments and reunions are claiming a good share of the time, – a highly satisfactory evolution of the college anniversary. Returning graduates get more good from meeting socially by classes at a dinner than from enduring the heat and burden of a set oration. Undergraduates entertaining friends of both sexes at lawn parties and spreads strengthen their own interest in the college, and unite it at the same time with the other interests of life. The most real occasion, after the religious, is the Alumni dinner, in which the exercises culminate. Dining together emphasizes the social relation of those who honor the same Alma Mater, and the speeches usually have that spontaneity, directness, and humor which belong to reality. The best things are said at the dinner, having the advantage of appropriate setting and natural occasion.
It cannot justly be argued, therefore, from the disappearance of formal orations at the commencement season, that the appetite for oratory and the influence of it have abated. There is still much effective speech even at those anniversaries, and the oration has merely sought a broader platform.
Similar changes in other associations of men indicate a similar evolution. Conferences of churches for general discussion are kept alive with no little difficulty. Committees are perplexed to find subjects for debate which will awaken interest. But the deliberative assemblies of the church, such as councils which have a definite task, and the annual meetings of missionary societies which have a tangible object, are alive with interest, and often furnish a platform to real eloquence. A difference of religious opinion kindles fervid oratory.
It is quite apparent that the uneducated mind is keenly responsive to public address. The influence gained by leaders of workingmen's societies is partly secured through pamphlets and newspapers, but chiefly through speeches at crowded meetings.
It may perhaps be a question whether the educated mind is becoming weary of public speech and less responsive to it. This question, however, cannot be decisively answered in view of the changing use of college anniversaries and the decline of academical oratory. It is undoubtedly true that there is increasing impatience of display in public address. There is a demand for directness, simplicity, and conclusive argument. This demand is banishing the formal, ornate, pretentious type of oratory. But such a change is an improvement, for it is in response to a demand for reality. Moreover, on proper occasions, rhetorical finish is appropriate, as in panegyrical oration, eulogy of the illustrious dead, and in presenting some of the loftiest themes of religion.
In quiet times, when no danger threatens the nation from without, and no great moral issue stirs it from within, the oratory of patriotism and statesmanship cannot, of course, be as influential as in times of commotion. But if the occasion arises eloquence will again have a mighty sway over the minds of men.
The platform changes and the form changes, but the sensation produced by genuine oratory is not likely to be relinquished, and the power of the real orator over a public assembly is not likely to pass away.
THE OUTLINE OF AN ELECTIVE COURSE OF STUDY. For the full outline, and for general authorities, to be used under Section I, see January number, pp. 85, 86.
SECTION I. THE SOCIAL EVOLUTION OF LABOR.
Democracy in America. De Tocqueville.
NOTES. I. Conflicting theories in regard to the relation of Political Freedom to
Industrial Progress. (1.) Social equality the natural outcome of political equality. • When the Declaration of Independence in the United States, and the French Revolution, proclaimed the sovereignty of the people, and inscribed the equality of men among the articles of the Constitution, the principle of the brotherhood of man descended from the heights of the ideal to become thenceforth the watchword of the radical party in every country to which the ideas that triumphed in America and Paris have spread. Equality of political rights leads inevitably to the demand for equality of conditions, that is to say, the apportionment of well-being according to work accomplished. Universal suffrage demands as its complement universal well-being ; for it is a paradox that the people should be at once wretched and sovereign. As Aristotle and Montesquieu so continually insist, democratic institutions presuppose equality of conditions, for otherwise the poor elector will use his vote to pass laws for the increase of his share of the good things of life at the expense of the privileged classes.” – Laveleye, “Socialism of To-day,” Introduction, p. xx.
(2.) Industrial progress is the cause, not the consequence, of political freedom.
“ Whatever may be, theoretically, the form of government, the political freedom — real power and influence of the masses is always proportionate to their industrial prosperity and progress. Thus the political influence of the masses is far greater under the present European monarchies than it was under the ancient republics. And the political influence of the masses is greatest to-day in those countries where the industrial conditions — real wages – are the highest. The laboring classes possess more political influence and freedom in England under a monarchy, with higher wages, than they do in France under a republic with lower wages; and there is still more real democracy with higher wages under a republic in America than with lower wages under a monarchy in England.
"We repeat, therefore, that the popular idea that pervades the literature and forms the basis of the statesmanship of the period, which ascribes our superior civilization to our democratic institutions, and which has just been emphasized by an international monument in New York harbor, representing liberty as enlightening the world, is radically and fundamentally false. It is not true that our superior civilization is due to our democratic institutions ; it is not and never was true that liberty enlightens the world. On the contrary, our democratic institutions are the natural consequence of our industrial prosperity and superior civilization ; and liberty, like morality, instead of enlightening the world, is the golden result of the world's being enlightened by the material and social progress of society. Were this otherwise, the industrial depressions which affict the Old World would be unknown here. The notorious fact is that the frequency and severity of industrial depressions are as great under the democracies of France and America as under the monarchies of England, Germany, and Belgium." – Gunton, “ Wealth and Progress,” pp. 206, 207.
II. Contrast the relative influence of the terms Liberty and Equality in
America and France.
See De Tocqueville, “ Democracy in America,” Book II. chap. i. III. The United States as the chief example of a democracy is to be
studied in connection with the modifying influences which have affected the conditions of labor.
(1.) The valuation put upon religious and civil liberty by inheritance from England.
(2.) The formation of so many customs and methods during the provincial period.
(3.) The immense resources of the country for agriculture. (4.) The material effect of inmigration.
(5.) The industrial relation of slavery to the national life. IV. The sentiment of individualism in a democracy, upon which indus
trial tyrannies may be founded through the principle of competition, is in the United States modified by experiments in State interference.
“ The new democracies of America are just as eager for state interference as the democracy of England, and try their experiments with even more lighthearted promptitude. . . . Unrestricted competition has shown its dark side ; great corporations have been more powerful than in England, and more inclined to abuse their power. Having lived longer under a democratic government, the American masses have realized more perfectly than those of Europe that they are themselves the government. Their absolute command of its organization (except when constitutional checks are interposed) makes them turn more quickly to it for the accomplishment of this purpose. And in the state legislatures they possess bodies with which it is easy to try legislative experiments, since these bodies, though not of themselves disposed to innovation, are mainly composed of men unskilled in economics, inapt to foresee any but the nearest consequences of their measures, prone to gratify any whim of their constituents, and open to the pressure of any section whose self-interest or impatient philanthropy clamors for some departure from the general principles of legislation. Thus it has come to pass that though the Americans conceive themselves to be devoted to laissez faire in theory, and to be in practice the most self-reliant of peoples, they have grown no less accustomed than the English to carry the action of the state into ever widening fields." — Bryce, “ The American Commonwealth,” Part V. chap. 92, — on Laissez Faire.
V. The wages of the laboring classes in the United States at the be
ginning of the century.
“The hours of work were invariably from sunrise to sunset. Wages at Albany and New York were three shillings, or, as money then went, forty cents a day : at Lancaster, eight to ten dollars a month : elsewhere in Pennsylvania workmen were content with six dollars in summer and five in winter. ... In Virginia, white men, employed by the year, were given sixteen pounds currency. Slaves, when hired, were clothed and their masters paid one pound a month. A pound, Virginia money, was in Federal money three dollars and thirty-three cents. The average rate of wages the land over was therefore sixty-five dollars a year with food and, perhaps, lodging. Out of this small sum the workman must, with his wife's help, maintain his family. Hod carriers and mortar mixers, diggers and choppers, who from 1793 to 1800