Reviving the Dying Art of Communication

Posted on February 13, 2020

If communication is an art, we seem to be in the era of Dadaism. Dada art rejected many things, including logic. Apparently, twenty-first-century students are following suit when it comes to argumentation, persuasion, rhetoric, and oratory. They fling words as if they were punctured cans of paint and then call the mess a thesis, a paper, a position. Businesses agree: 40% of employers say their fresh-from-college employees are not proficient communicators—what makes it worse is that 80% of students think that they, like, are, good communicators and stuff. We’ve all seen enough student interviews on the news to agree with the employers.

It’s not just ineptitude. It’s also fear: “a 2014 online survey of 2,031 US workers found that 12% would willingly step aside to let someone else give a presentation, even if it lost them respect at work. Of those who did present, nearly 70% agreed it was critical to their success at work.” While many employees know that public speaking aids success, they’d prefer to shrink back if it means simply showing a PowerPoint rather than excelling at work. In fact, according to a 2014 survey, “fear of public speaking is America's biggest phobia - 25.3 percent say they fear speaking in front of a crowd.”

This all results in one thing: poor communication. Good communication is an art made up of other elements like rhetoric, dialectic, and imagination. When it comes to communication in the form of public speaking or presentations, characteristics like courage are required. That means in order to be a good communicator, many skills are involved, which further requires much time and many good teachers.

[caption id="attachment_23143" align="alignnone" width="1200"] Sophomore Caleb Salmon speaking in front of his class for Rhetoric[/caption]

The dying art of good communication is something New Saint Andrews seeks to revive. And the senior thesis is perhaps the pinnacle of a student’s ability to communicate well. It’s a capstone project that every undergraduate student completes and is “meant to be a demonstration of the education you’ve received, and a guided but independent piece of work in a particular area of interest,” says Dean Tim Edwards. At New Saint Andrews, this means a thesis displays the skills that the college wants to inculcate in all students: rhetoric, dialectic, perspective, observation, process, and imagination. It also requires strong self-discipline. It’s a satisfying experience, says Dean Edwards, “to see the students step up and show self-discipline, self-motivation, and self-control.” Esther Edwards, a 2019 graduate, had an especially impressive thesis.

“It was a translation project with notes, commentary, and an introduction. I was translating Immanuel Tremellius’s Hebrew translation of Calvin’s Latin catechism. After translating the Hebrew, I placed it in its historical context, noting its unique aspects.” Of particular interest to Esther, was Tremellius’s own creativity. “I was studying Tremellius studying Calvin. Tremellius took what Calvin said and put it in biblical Hebrew, with Hebrew idiom and a Jewish way of speaking and thinking.” Her thesis required the varied skills the undergraduate degree produces—"I really enjoyed my thesis because I incorporated the highlights of my academic experience. I incorporated languages, theology, history, and even creative writing in the translation process.”

While the faculty calls the thesis a capstone project, many students joke that it feels more like a tombstone. But Esther says it’s the chance to perform “the highest form of academic work you can do. It’s rewarding and an excellent discipline. It’s a showcasing of what you can do with everything you’ve been given. I think that’s important for the student as well as the teacher.” It also trains students further in “organization and thinking ahead. You need clarity of mind to envision the project; you need the grit to push through and honor the deadline.”

Obviously, the end goal of the thesis is to present an argument with the utmost clarity and persuasion possible. As good communication requires, the thesis necessitates the whole skillset of an undergraduate student. And since students have to publicly present and defend their theses, it also requires courage.

Thankfully, students at New Saint Andrews regularly speak in front of their peers and occasionally in front of the whole school for their rhetoric class. Rhetoric is more than sharp logic and well-chosen metaphors—there is a performance aspect as well that requires bravery. It only takes half a year for freshmen students to develop the courage to perform and lose the fear. “I’d always hated public speaking,” says freshman Sydney Kirsch. While she’s loved writing speeches, performing them had been a point of anxiety. But now, “I don’t care. It doesn’t hurt my soul anymore,” she laughs. “You get used to it. You get used to making mistakes and then recovering from those mistakes. There’s a very strong comradery you develop with your classmates who are really supportive.”

[caption id="attachment_23144" align="alignnone" width="1200"] Sophomores Sharon Hurley and Keidi Anderson speaking together for Rhetoric[/caption]

By senior year, public presentation is no longer a looming fear but a regular challenge. It’s not something most people get to experience and develop. The same is true of the skills of communication—where can you regularly practice and get expert advice on logic, creative expression, persuasion, rhetorical flourishes?

Communication is, of course, central to work and life, and New Saint Andrews graduates continually benefit from their undergraduate studies. But it is in evangelism and in defense of God’s truth that the college loves to see expert communication put to use. It is, after all, what our school mission is all about: shaping culture for Christ, starting with people.

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