Last night, we watched Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Katie Benner ’99 interview former White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough. McDonough’s talk was edifying, but maybe the most impressive moment of the evening was when he turned a simple student question about his Irish heritage into astute thesis on the value of immigrants in America, both historically and in the present.
McDonough, in this moment, showed off a skill that was likely honed at St. John’s University, Georgetown University and throughout his various experiences as a public servant. Namely, the man knows how to speak to an audience—an ability that, according to Bowdoin’s recently released Knowledge, Skills and Creative Dispositions (KSCD) report, many Bowdoin students think should be taught in some capacity at the College.
According to the report, when students were asked what knowledge and skills they hoped the College would provide before they graduate, many cited “practical skills” including “effective oral communication.” The working committee stated that “students should learn how to speak eloquently and to articulate persuasive arguments. They also need to know how to tailor their communications to fit their audiences.”
We believe that Bowdoin’s curriculum doesn’t prioritize public speaking. Our peer institutions in Maine, Colby and Bates, incorporate public speaking in their course offerings. Colby offers a class titled “Public Speaking,” while Bates has a Rhetoric, Film and Screen Studies department.
In comparison, Bowdoin has no classes devoted to public speaking, and while a 2004 Bowdoin News article on teaching oral communication suggests that there was once a plan to integrate public speaking education into first-year seminars, none of us had any public speaking assignments in our seminars. The article mentions other efforts to strengthen the College’s public speaking education, but whatever came of those efforts seems to have vanished in the years since.
Public speaking is not just giving a presentation in the front of a crowd. It’s about the ability to defend your position in uncomfortable circumstances, to speak in the spotlight, to respond eloquently under duress or to formulate intelligent responses to unanticipated questions like how your Irish heritage has affected your work as the White House Chief of Staff.
Bowdoin prides itself on its liberal arts curriculum and its focus on teaching skills in a wide variety of contexts. We believe that public speaking is one of these skills, and we wonder why it is not an integral part of Bowdoin’s curriculum already. Bates offers a course titled “Science Communication,” which teaches students how to effectively, orally communicate science-related topics to non-experts. Classes like this provide a useful model for how Bowdoin could help students develop 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 deficiency, and we believe that President Rose is dedicated to implementing curriculum change to help future students gain these skills. Looking back on our own Bowdoin education and the skills we feel we could develop further, we encourage the College to prioritize integrating public speaking into the curriculum as it moves forward with the results of this report.
This editorial represents the majority view of the Bowdoin Orient’s editorial board, which is composed of Nell Fitzgerald, Dakota Griffin, Calder McHugh, Devin McKinney, Surya Milner and Jessica Piper.