Voice Lessons

Voice Lessons
In a distant day on the St. Lawrence campus, in a course held in Richardson Hall, I was introduced to the writing of Matthew Arnold. He made four words, “he never spoke out,” the  theme of his famous critical essay about the 18th-century “graveyard” poet, Thomas Grey.

These words invite consideration of how we learn to speak out at a liberal arts college today, when the volume of coarse chatter often drives civil discourse to polemical absurdities. Or the cacophony gives valid reason for not risking one’s private sanctities, thereby hushing a person into a residual shyness.

At St. Lawrence, our best intention is that students will learn to speak out and to speak well. A life merely filled by the example of doing capably or achieving much, of which very little has been expressed, is not self-explanatory. Young people, and their teachers, should know how to speak, plainly and without posturing, about what they think and wish to do. Frankly, a failure to find one’s own answer to problems of the day, even intensely controversial matters, and then give it in good faith, is a signal of an imperfect intellectual life. In passivity, there is the danger of forming an anti-intellectual attitude bearing the name of ignorance.

The academic disciplines in research graduate study, the eventual trailhead of all college courses, are always steeped in debate, controversy and disputation. The friction of learning implies the taking of sides. Siddhartha Mukherjee in his history of cancer research, The Emperor of All Maladies (2010), discusses the three possible main causes of cancer (genetic, viral and environmental) by declaring, “Great science emerges out of great contradiction… a gaping rift slicing its way through the center of cancer biology.”

This kind of competition and scholastic rub is essential, though it also has the potential to intimidate the newcomer or take on a “politically” charged character. And yet, this excitement about ideas and differences must become translated into a liberal arts college education in such a way that it gives students something more than a knowing awareness about schools of thought. Students must attain an important freedom from inhibitions and repressions about speaking out.

As wise teachers already know, false modesty or scruples of caution which abet silence may actually cause a vital harm in a student’s development. The inability to speak out, not knowing your mind or your words, is a damaging thing in life, for it leads to a state of loneliness. Without a companionship of thoughts, a speechless solitariness leads people to become apprehensive, despairing and caustic.

One of the great joys in my work is following the formative development of St. Lawrence students as they gain confidence about what to think and how to express those thoughts. We emphasize this sequence of learning, from oral presentations in the first year to sophisticated conversations with faculty mentors. We’ve become known as a place whose students learn to speak out. I see their progress at poster sessions when a piece of complex science requires smooth explication for the passerby. I hear their papers delivered after a summer of collaborative research and admire their deft responses to questions. I observe their stage presence in University ceremonies or in performing arts programs.

Discovering the importance or truthfulness of a thought, no longer unframed or unspoken, is a tremendous moment of personal assurance. It is the secret and psychological warrant of being unburdened by isolation, of being understood by a confidante, such as a fellow student, professor or counselor. Emerson explained it this way: “A friend is a person before whom I may be sincere.” And it is in such a friendly spirit that we create the conditions for learning how to speak out.

Students must grasp other precepts as they round the turning point of finding a voice and head toward the shaping of a long, sustainable argument. I have been provocative intentionally when admonishing students that “facts are very precious, truly sacred, because they are so rare.” In other words, beware of half-truths tricked up as facts;  there is always more to the story and one data point or one anecdote will not bear the whole truth.

Learning to speak out effectively also transcends the ready habit of speaking against. When I was a graduate student myself, seeking and finding a vocabulary that admitted me to wonderful conversations with even the most strong-willed, I took special note of something Professor George H. Williams told our classes about the “other” side of an argument. We had been studying the great intellectual controversies and clashes down through the centuries, often the very causes of war and lasting geo-political divisions in the aftermath. George, who was himself a 1936 St. Lawrence graduate, would often say with a knowing glimmer, “Choose well your enemies, for in the end… you will be just like them.”

Nevertheless, at St. Lawrence, we dare to speak out, but the wisest teachers and best students also learn the imperative of knowing what others say, even their silences.