Out Loud and Off-Screen: The Power of the Spoken Word

As April comes to an end and the city of Baltimore is seared by racial conflict, I have been thinking about one of the great examples of the enormous power of public oratory, which occurred 47 years ago and whose anniversary is rarely noted. And this example - along with other displays of the power of the spoken word - exposes one of the great failings of modern education.

On April 4th, 1968, hours after the assassination of Martin Luther King, decades of frustration over monumental racial injustices found expression in a wide-ranging explosion of violence - riots that swept over many major cities in the United States and resulted in the deaths of hundreds of people.

But in Indianapolis something quite different happened. From the back of a flatbed truck in the heart of an area of the city that was predominantly African American, a deeply moved Robert F. Kennedy announced the assassination, which elicited gasps and cries of anger and sorrow from members of the audience who were hearing the news for the first time.

But after the announcement of King's assassination, Kennedy spoke quietly and drew the crowd to his heart with a remarkable speech that called for compassion and love. In less than five minutes, a noticeable calm spread across the crowd, Kennedy's words gently diminishing their shock and anger. Then something amazing happened: the citizens of Indianapolis applauded the man who delivered this terrible news; the man who, in many ways, represented what they most feared and hated.

Great orators provoke conversation, inspire change and give voice to the complexity and diversity of issues that we face both in extraordinary times and in our everyday lives. And their words can heal - or at least soothe - festering wounds, as Kennedy did so artfully.

And yet, despite the enormous power of rhetoric, few schools in the United States offer public-speaking courses. Instead, our children's primary tools in dealing with a very complex world are small blocks of on-screen texts that effectively discourage face-to-face interactions - even when they are in the same room with their peers.

While social media and technology clearly have a profound - and positive - impact on every facet of our modern lives, those devices that allow us to save time and simplify our lives also deliver a "perverse effect": They encourage the most superficial forms of communication and, as a result, barricade us from so much of what makes our lives rich, complex and meaningful. They atrophy the interpersonal skills that are vital to our ability to develop an authentic voice, to articulate that voice, and, as a result, to move or inspire or mollify an audience.

A working member of "the digital generation," I have begun to see that my friends and I have spent the last decade inhabiting and fostering an environment of emotional disengagement and selective avoidance. Our social media platforms and devices grant the power to create weak ties with millions, but strong ties with none. And they provide us with an excuse to avoid the kinds of uncomfortable but instructive situations and conversations that typically improve our lives.

The real victim of this disconnection isn't just the individual who is obsessed with a screen. It is, rather, the greater community - anyone and all of us who can benefit from hearing the well-articulated ideas of a thoughtful human being who has disengaged from her cell phone and wishes to entertain us with a fantastic new idea.

As American students become more and more enmeshed in the self-referential world of their digital screens, the need to alter the direction of attention becomes more and more evident. It is time for parents to turn their children's focus outward, away from the world of a small, flat screen and toward the real, three-dimensional world at large.

And we would undoubtedly benefit as a society if the art of public speaking, as it was in ancient Rome, were considered a requirement for any student seeking to advance his/her career and serve a nation that desperately needs leaders to expand our minds and force us to see new possibilities.

In a piece for the New Yorker, Malcom Gladwell wrote, "The revolution will not be tweeted," and he is right. If we want to address the great challenges of our time, we must develop the next generation of great storytellers, conversationalists, and speakers - people like Robert F. Kenned - people who change the world.

Robert F. Kennedy on that fateful day in April, delivering one of the greatest speeches in history.