Great speeches are different from great stories or poems or essays in that they were crafted for a specific place and time. That is why we and our children can learn so much from reading and hearing these oratorical masterpieces, yet they are seldom taught in the classroom or shared in the living room.
Next Saturday marks the anniversary of one of the most important speeches of all time, for it was on March 23, 1775, that Patrick Henry delivered his impassioned plea for the colonists of Virginia to form a militia and defend themselves against the British army.This speech - which ended with the famous words "I know not what course others may take, but as for me, give me liberty or give me death!" - was fashioned and delivered by a man who had received little formal education himself, had failed twice as a storekeeper, once as a farmer, and who had become a lawyer after reading only a single, borrowed textbook on law. Yet Patrick Henry was a master at knowing what words would best frame his side of an argument, and then delivering those words in a way that would sway a jury or move an audience to action.
Too often we remember only the "trumpet phrase" that identifies a historic speech, and, to be sure, the very best speeches have in common a memorable, eloquent and concise passage that was designed to ring in the ears and minds of those who happened to hear it. But the real craftsmanship of a great speech is not visible in that "trumpet phrase" alone, nor can the true meaning or intent of that phrase be seen if it is removed from the foundation on which it rests.
I remember a problem I had in compiling the selections for the book "More Classics to Read Aloud to Your Children." I wanted to include Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech (that phrase has now become its title) and to place it next to Lincoln's "Gettysburg Address" so that readers and listeners could see how carefully Dr. King designed his speech to parallel the thoughts and even the phrases that Lincoln spoke a century before.
The difficulty came in finding a written version of the speech that Dr. King delivered on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial that day. We have all seen the television clip of its last, dramatic, 30 seconds, but how many of us have ever actually read the entire text, though it required but 11 minutes to deliver?
Children need to hear and read and study and understand the world's great speeches, in part because they are unlikely to hear polished speaking of any kind today. Unbridled and vulgar fanaticism has replaced reasoned eloquence in campus and political rallies, and our leaders now create "sound bites" for the television cameras instead of polished and persuasive arguments for human audiences.
Children don't have to deliver or memorize these addresses in order to profit from them. The vocabulary, the historical context, the phrasing of language that was designed to be spoken, the timing and emphasis that one can feel in the words - all these are there to be learned if we will just include the great speeches along with the other works we read to and with our children.
The classic addresses by Churchill, Frederick Douglass, Gandhi, Franklin Delano Roosevelt and others can be found in the 808.85 section of your library. There is also a wonderful new book out titled "The American Reader: Words That Moved a Nation," by Diane Ravitch. At $35, it makes an expensive home learning resource, but a paperbound edition for about half that price is available through the Quality Paperback Book Club.- Dr. William F. Russell's books for parents and children include "Classic Myths to Read Aloud." Send your questions and comments about Family Learning to him at P.O. Box 1279, Menlo Park, CA 94026.