Prof. Wilmot Brookings Mitchell told me he had never been to South Dakota, but the people there had named three communities for him. Otherwise, he was well-seated as Edward Little Professor of oratory and rhetoric at the college of my choice, and it was well understood that you needed to "parss" his public speaking "clarss" before you could expect a diploma. You could be Phi Beta Kappa and have double honors in Greek and Latin, but without a passing grade in oratory and rhetoric you would be back next year to get it.
I mention Professor Mitchell now and then, as I turn off my television or radio to suppress the "ah-ahs" who clutter the air and deny the success of Education with a capital E. The microphone told even opera singers that they need project no more, and harangue is a lost art. Professor Mitchell left so much undone. His classes were held in the big assembly hall, where he took a far-back seat, and the performing student up on the stage was expected to "project" so the docent could hear him.
If Professor Mitchell cupped a hand to his ear, it was a signal to shout. And when a student faltered in his memorized lines and said, "Er-ah-er-ah," Professor Mitchell would interrupt in faultless pear-shaped tones to say, "Er, ah, Wilkins, if you mean to repeat, will you raise a hand before the next 'er' and 'ah,' so we'll be ready for it?"
I have no idea why the broadcasters comb the country, interviewing drop-outs, to assemble all the "er" and "ah" people to bring me the news and incite me to buy goods. I suspect mostly they are seeking the best in a scholastic world that doesn't study the seven liberal arts and sciences, and never heard of Aristotle and the importance of "pleasing language." Nowhere, today, I betcha dollars to doughnuts, does an ear ever respond as Juno, the Queen of the Gods, treads across the dactyls in regal meter: clump, clump, clump. Sweet bells jangled, harsh and out of tune. Where are the snows of yesteryear? Downtown? Er, ah. Er, ah.
Before the microphone, speakers needed strength of voice to reach people out in the back meadow. The "spellbinders" of those days were orators, and simplest reflection suggests that they were frequently more effective because of their presentation rather than their sapience. Read some of William Moody, the evangelist, with this in mind, and wonder why he was so persuasive. Then give a thought to Professor Mitchell, who could say "Good morning," so it would move mountains.
"You're a better man than I am, Gunga Din!" finished a student, and the professor said, "Well done, Wilkins, now run through the last three or four verses again, and say 'deen,' not 'din.' You might have noticed that by the rhyme. Deen, not din. If you please."
Yes, the thing about Professor Mitchell was that we learned something about everything from him as we spoke our way into a degree. It comes to me that his "public speaking" was the polish that satisfied the deliberate definition of the philosopher's gentleman: "One who prides himself on nothing." No specialist, he, but informed. And, sedately, quietly, and always with his, "By the way, Wilkins, if you'll notice...." Professor Mitchell had listened thousands of times to "Spartacus to the Gladiators," but when one more student had offered that declamation well enough to be graduated, Professor Mitchell could not resist expounding on the impeccable syntax of Elijah Kellogg and his Latinity applied forensically. "Yes, Wilkins, we thank you."
Professor Mitchell was perforce included in the faculty for the department of English, teaching American Literature, but I (and possibly a few others) always considered him a department by himself. And I felt as I saw how things went that it might be well if the other English professors took his course in public speaking as a requirement. I do know that we had one authority on Chaucer and Milton who envied Professor Mitchell his knowledge of Hawthorn and Walt Whitman. Professor Mitchell was too much a gentleman to add Thoreau.
IN the days of Professor Mitchell, it was customary for colleges to encourage their faculties to make public appearances as occasion offered, presumably to spread the word that the institution fostered erudition. The going price to bring high-grade culture to your club or society was $25 and car fare. Professor Mitchell was on the list.
Mostly, professors are unlikely speakers. They are great hemmers and hawers, and fiddle with their cuffs, and talk 10 minutes too long. I think the best on the roster of our college, excluding Professor Mitchell, was Dr. Gross, the ornithologist, who brought stuffed birds and showed slides of the roseate spoonbill. Poorest, probably, was Dr. Moody, who lectured for 45 minutes on the logarithm. But for a rousing good evening, Professor Mitchell was worth every cent.
He knew how to size up an audience, and he wouldn't tell plumbers the things that barbers would like to know. He would smile when he should smile, and he would lean forward and be stern when his message was firm. His voice never faltered for faulty breathing, and there was never an "er" or an "ah." You could hear every word outside and across the street. And he finished, so he always was wanted again.
To implement my desire and effect reform, I suggest we reinstate the art of public speaking. As in my college, nobody is graduated until he parsses. Then, if he studies affairs and their causes, learns to play the violin, and raises up a bull calf, the student may be ready to take a job in radio and television. And stop irking me.