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MC remembers oratory competition

September 24, 2010

Monmouth College recently celebrated an important event in the history of the college that occurred in 1881 when James Erskine, a Monmouth College student, defeated Jane Addams and William Jennings Bryan, two famous speakers, in an oratory competition.

The college celebrated this famous moment with an event that took place on Thursday Sept. 23, at 4:30 p.m. in the Morgan Room of Poling Hall. James Fry, president of Lambda Phi Eta, the communication honor society, spoke about the accomplishments of Addams and Bryan. According to Fry, Addams was appointed chairmen of Chicago’s Board of Education, fought for women’s rights and was the first women to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Yet, Fry said Addams’ speech did not even make the final cut in the oratory speech competition.

On Bryan, Fry said he was elected to the United States Congress in 1890 and became a leader of the free silver movement, which led to his most famous speech: “The Cross of Gold.”

One of the main speakers at this event was Monmouth College alum Charles Courtney, who first discovered James Erskine. According to Courtney, he was reading a review about Jane Addams and found a picture of her with a group of students who were all competitors in an oratory contest in Galesburg.

“Thus my question: Galesburg … such a close distance from Monmouth. Was there a Monmouth entry in the contest?” Courtney asked.

After doing some research, Courtney said he discovered that not only was there a Monmouth College student, but that he won the whole contest. According to Courtney, the competitors were judged by three judges in three categories: original thought, composition and delivery. The judges rated the competitors on a decimal system.

Erskine won the contest with 79.55 points, barely defeating James Addams, who earned 78.3 points. According to Courtney, Addams was judged first by one judge, third by another and fifth by the third, out of a total of six. Erskine was ranked second by all three judges.

There were approximately two thousand people who watched the contest, including 130 students from Monmouth College.

After Charles Courtney finished speaking, Dean of the Faculty David Timmerman spoke of the significance of the role of oratory, which he said is a friendly word for rhetoric. He said that three ideas were all introduced back in times of ancient Greece and Athens: rhetoric, democracy and the liberal arts.

“If you’re going to have a democracy, you’re going to need people who can speak with one another intelligently about significant matters,” Timmerman said. “A democracy takes people coming together and being able to construct arguments, do research and to understand the significant matters of the day and then speak on them effectively.”

        Timmerman continued by emphasizing that a democracy also needs people to know how to listen to these arguments, evaluate them and finally respond to them. He said this lead to the need for teachers to educate people how to do these things.

        “The first professors in the Western traditions were sophists,” Timmerman said. “They taught people to be able to speak intelligently about significant matters. If you don’t have an educated population who is able to do that, you really can’t have a very well-functioning democracy.”

        Junior Gabrielle Schaerli then reread Erskine’s winning speech, which was then followed by Professor Kate Zittlow Rogness giving a critical analysis of the speech.

        The last speaker was James Wyman, the newly hired director of forensics who is bringing back ScotSpeak. Wyman said twenty students involved in ScotSpeak will be leaving to another college in two weeks to compete in an oratory competition, which will involve debate, public speaking, the oral interpretation of literature and acting.

        “ScotSpeak should enhance Monmouth College’s ability to recruit high school students in the future, especially when our team becomes competitive,” Wyman said. “Plus, we’re looking at future scholarships for students to attract them to Monmouth College to participate in competitive speech and debate.”

        Wyman also emphasized how everyone can benefit from ScotSpeak because nearly everyone will have to give a speech at some point in their future careers.

        “What better way to prepare them than being involved in competitive speech and debate,” Wyman said.

Features Editor

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