Up Front: Well-Chosen Words
The emphasis on standardized testing is muzzling the teaching of self-expression.
Credit: Getty Images
When tennis star Andre Agassi played -- and lost -- his final game at the U.S. Open in the early fall of 2006, he waved and bowed to a cheering, full-house crowd of fans at center court in the Arthur Ashe Stadium, in Queens, New York. At the official moment of his retirement as a professional player, Agassi, who had evolved from an enfant terrible to an eminence gris during a long career, was approached by a television reporter with a microphone in hand, prepared, no doubt, to ask the usual roster of obvious questions ("How do you feel now that you've played your last match?"). Agassi politely took the microphone and, looking up at the crowd, said:
"The scoreboard said I lost today, but what the scoreboard doesn't say is what it is I have found. Over the last twenty-one years, I have found loyalty. You have pulled for me on the court and also in life. I've found inspiration. You have willed me to succeed, sometimes even in my lowest moments. And I've found generosity. You have given me your shoulders to stand on, to reach for my dreams, dreams I could have never reached without you.
"Over the last twenty-one years, I have found you. And I will take you and the memory of you with me for the rest of my life. Thank you."
There may have been a dry eye in the house, but not in my house. It's doubtful that anyone at the stadium that day will forget the feeling they had when Agassi said his fond farewell. As speeches by athletes go, Agassi's eloquent words rank right up there with the ailing Lou Gehrig's good-bye to the fans at Yankee Stadium in 1939.
This issue contains a story by staff writer Grace Rubenstein on the crucial and perplexing subject of educational assessment. In the era of No Child Left Behind, when un-nuanced numbers have become the primary measure of a student's learning and intelligence, the economical eloquence exhibited by Agassi is an unfairly neglected metric.
Sadly, too, the ability to say well what one thinks has generally fallen on hard times, especially among teenagers. The usual suspect is television, to which we can now add the crude new compressions of text messaging. But a suspicion of well-formed speech probably predates the impoverished lexicon engendered by television's dumbed-down vocabulary (with some notable exceptions). For generations, now, anyone good with words in middle school and high school has risked being labeled a "smart guy" or a "teacher's pet" or worse, so the best we've come to expect are the florid banalities of graduation valedictories.
This has not always been the case. When the actors in the Globe Theatre spoke the great St. Crispin's Day rallying speech in Shakespeare's Henry V, the commonest listeners in the audience understood every stirring word. The letters from soldiers that Ken Burns used so well in his Civil War documentary showed how poetically ordinary young men once expressed themselves. And the commonly held idea that eloquence is the same as flowery, excessive verbiage can be instantly scuttled with a reading of the brief, unforgettable words of Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg Address. Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech was powerfully metaphoric, yet it was spoken in a way instantly understandable to everyone in America.
The self-censoring of eloquence may seem a small thing in the face of our oft-noted decline in math and science skills. But speaking with grace and clarity is as potent a life skill as any student will ever carry away from school into the larger arena of life. Eloquence carries with it the power to inspire, to convince, to lift the spirits or raise a defense against malevolent ideas, and -- not least -- to impress those who can lend a helping hand up many a slippery slope. How does one teach eloquence? Well, a book of great speeches might be a start, or simply typing "John Gielgud" into YouTube's search engine. But the first step is the hardest: Convincing young people that eloquence is cool. A tough job, but truly, to use an ineloquent cliché, a gift that will keep on giving.
Consulting Editor and Eloquent Guy