James C. McCroskey,
Scotland High School, Scotland, S.D.

(Author Comments, June 16, 2002)

[This was my first published article. I wrote it during my first year of high school teaching in 1957. Except for numerous "letters to the editor," this was my first attempt to write for publication. Several people who have read this paper more recently have commented to me that this it took a distinctively "communication orientation," as opposed to a "speech performance orientation," at a time when there was not even a Department of Communication anywhere in the U.S. They asked my how this came about. I did not realize it at the time, but I can see that now. I attribute this to my first mentor, Milo Wepking, who taught all of the speech classes I had as an undergraduate (yes, ALL--it was a very small college), as well as serving as my coach in debate and contest discussion events. The latter competition, although often alleged to be morally questionable, was the most useful learning experience I had as an undergraduate speech major. Contest discussion did not focus on speech performance but rather on effectiveness in group communication. The skills I developed there have been useful all my life--and probably account for the early development of my "communication orientation" which is expressed in this article.]

"This was a very poor quality contest." This was the comment made after the Humorous Division of our district contest by the judge. A number of coaches, including myself at the time, considered this comment to be in very poor taste. Since that time I have reversed this opinion.

Possibly this comment injured the students who were entered in the contest, but it was a very honest evaluation of the foregoing performances. It was a comment which could be applied to many other declaim contests. How many of us have heard contestants declaim selections of such low literary merit that they sounded ridiculous? I would venture to say that we all have.

If this be true, what then are we attempting to accomplish in our declamation program in this state? More important, are we accomplishing anything? In answer to this latter question, I believe that even the most ardent critic of our program would say that it does some good.

The answer to the first question, unfortunately, is not so simple and concrete.

By definition declamation means speaking or writing for effect. Declamation gained its heights when the people in speech were teaching speech in this manner. Few, if any, of us would desire to return to this elocutionary type of speaking. We see then that the meaning of declamation has changed in our minds. It is now, supposedly, the memorized recitation of a piece of literature written by someone else. It is also understood that the selection is to be of high literary merit. In practicality, we find that many, if not most, of the selections lack this literary merit.

Since it is easy to see that our declamation program does not comply with the original standards set up for it and that it does not meet the standards we have set up more recently, let us examine it from another viewpoint--the general goals of all teaching of public speaking.

GOAL ONE To provide experience in speaking before an audience. This our program does accomplish. In most systems the students appear in a local contest at which a few of their classmates and possibly their parents will be present. The winners will go on to the district contest and speak before a judge, one or two devoted speech teachers, and a few other contestants.

GOAL TWO To encourage critical thinking. Theoretically, the student should evaluate the material he is to declaim. Also he should study the author and determine what the author's intent was in the selection. In reality most students don't bother to look up the author at all. In the small schools the library facilities usually do not provide any material on many of the authors. The speech instructor may resort to explaining the selection and the authors intent to the student. Of course this is only the teacher's opinion of what the author meant, with no guarantee of accuracy.

GOAL THREE To improve the art of oral communication by training in use of the voice, gestures, etc. This goal could be accomplished in a declamation program. However, it very seldom is for some very good reasons. The teacher in the average school will be teaching or supervising at least five periods a day. The declamation program must be squeezed in during the teacher's free periods or before or after school. In a school such as the one I teach in, the busses arrive at nine and leave at four which leaves very little time for a declamation program. With a situation such as this each student will receive about four to six practice periods. With such limited practice little will be improved.

GOAL FOUR To stimulate comprehension of current problems. The only division of declamation which even pretends to do anything in this area is Oratory. Even this division falls down because all of the thinking is done by the author. The ideas of the author are the ones considered and many times no others are even thought of by the speaker.

GOAL FIVE To train students to perform research and organize an effective public speech. It is obvious that this goal cannot be accomplished since the student does not prepare his own speech.

I could continue setting up goals and showing how declamation does not fulfill these goals. However, I believe my point is made. We are accomplishing very little in our declamation program.

It is of no avail to criticize unless you propose a remedy for the evils you point out. This I believe I can do.

The program I advocate would include Poetry Interpretation, Prose Interpretation, Original Oratory, and Extemporaneous Speaking.

The poetry division would be operated much the same as the present poetry division with the exception of the required list. The student should be encouraged to choose poetry of his liking and be judged not only on his presentation but also the literary merit of the selection chosen.

The prose interpretation division would include all literature not written in verse form. The student would not be required to memorize the selection. This would encourage the student to work on more than one selection and choose the one he does best for contest presentation. Literary merit should be an important factor in the judging of this division also.

The oratory and extemp divisions would be operated in the same manner as they are at the present time in the South Dakota High School Speech Association state contest.

I firmly believe that this program would better suit the purpose of the teaching of speech than the present program. The art of interpretation would remain present and the elocutionary art of declaiming would be removed. The speech instructor would have the opportunity to give better training in the use of the voice, gestures, etc. since the problem of memory would be eliminated from interpretation. The seemingly ever-present problem of acting vs. interpretation would be eliminated to a great degree because of the difficulty entailed in performing exaggerated gestures with a copy of a selection in hand. The student would have the opportunity to receive training in research and preparation for a speech. He would be encouraged to examine current problems in preparation for an oration or an extemp talk.

We can improve our program. This is one way to do it. It is the responsibility of the speech teachers to improve the speech program whenever possible. Let us eliminate the possibility of another judge accurately stating, "This was a very poor quality contest."

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