If popular reports are to be believed, the fear of public speaking tops the list of common phobias; even death is apparently less frightening than standing in front of a crowd and proclaiming one’s thoughts aloud. Certainly most people have probably experienced the pounding heart and sweaty palms that frequently accompany the opening of one’s mouth to speak in front of a gathered group of judges, colleagues, or even just friends. Yet obviously the ability to speak in front of a crowd is important, particularly for the educated human being. The well-educated individual may have a rich and beneficial inner life and many great insights into the truth, but if he’s terrified of articulating his thoughts, his education benefits no one but himself…in which case, can he really be said to be fully educated at all?
At Providence, we aim to equip students not only to think deeply and carefully, but also to share their thoughts articulately with others. Training in this process intensifies in secondary school, obviously, as students in the rhetoric stage of learning spend a lot of time and effort developing their ability to express themselves clearly and persuasively in front of an audience. But the skill of confident public speaking takes time and practice to develop, which is one major reason for the Speech Meet competition which we hold each spring in grammar school. For this event, all students in grades 1-6 memorize a Scripture passage, poem, fable, or historical or literary piece, then perform it for their classmates and a panel of judges. They then receive encouragement and suggestions from the judges in order to help them refine their performance skills even further.
Preparing a complete piece of prose or poetry for solo presentation is a big project, which is why we want to ensure that the passages our students memorize are worth their time and effort. Classic poems that have stood the test of time, excerpts from time-honored historical orations or pieces of literature, and of course Scripture passages are all worthwhile “collector’s pieces” for our students as they store up items of value in their memories. As our grammar school students practice their public speaking skills and become gradually more comfortable standing and declaiming in front of an audience, they also add to their own personal treasuries of memorized work of high literary and moral value.
The famous “crown jewel” of a Providence student’s education is, of course, the senior thesis project and presentation, in which the 12th grade student researches, writes, then publicly presents and orally defends a paper on a controversial and relevant topic. But this impressive moment in the student’s Providence career does not spring up fully formed like Athena from the head of Zeus. In fact, one could say that the Providence student begins preparing for it in the moment when he stands up in front of his class to recite – clearly, expressively, confidently – that poem or Bible verse which he has practiced faithfully in preparation for his very first Speech Meet.