Is Anyone Speaking?

06/29/2013 03:35 pm ET | Updated Aug 29, 2013

"I'm on Facebook so I don't have to talk to people." -- A bright and dedicated student at a major American University (paraphrase)

In the new report, "The Heart of the Matter: The Humanities and Social Sciences for a vibrant, competitive, and secure nation," by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, there is the following passage in its executive summary regarding one of its goals:

Support full literacy as the foundation for all learning. The nation depends on a fully literate populace -- on citizens whose reading, writing, speaking, and analytical skills improve over a lifetime. These are among the principal skills that the humanities and social sciences teach, and they must be nurtured at every level of education.

I highlight the word speaking because, in the commentaries I have seen on the report (and doubtless I have not seen them all), I did not notice emphasis on how the humanities can contribute to the pleasure of conversation (known in some jaw-breaking circles as "oral communication," a term doubtless treasured by dentists).

The humanities' role in improving writing is justifiably underscored, but a far more fundamental way of sharing thoughts and experiences with others -- through the electronically unfiltered spoken word -- is not cited by those who share the report's emphasis on "full literacy as the foundation for all learning."

I find this omission odd and unsettling, especially given the state of speaking in our Republic today. For anyone with an ear for language, it is apparent that Americans' growing inability to talk with one another one-on-one could be cause for concern, leading as it may to social if not intellectual isolation. While words can be digitally disseminated, direct speech enriches, with its unique and magical qualities, the lives of those speaking with others -- as Socrates's dialogues demonstrated, eons ago, so well.

But at modern U.S. universities, direct teacher-student discourse is becoming increasingly rare. "Expert" professors pontificate through jargon-filled lectures and PowerPoint presentations that do not necessarily lead to person-to-person dialogue. The latest academic trend is for online courses where the spoken word is absent.

And young people, raised on video games with which they "interact" but not converse, are reluctant -- if not incapable -- of expressing themselves in comprehensible complete sentences. Verbal tics -- the endless repetition of "like" being perhaps the most irritating among them -- proliferate. Indeed, the whole notion of focusing on the speech of a person(s) with whom you are physically present, rather than staring at your electronic device, is becoming increasingly passé.

Some are not upset by this disappearance of the spoken word exchanged between persons in the "non-virtual" world, evaluating the extinction of down-to-earth conversation as yet another part of an inevitable Darwinian evolution -- mankind's "adaptation" to the brave cyberspace world of universal interconnectivity, of which books are, granted, an earlier version (Plato, as is well-known, castigated writing, despite his having preserved Socrates's dialogues in such a form; his great mind, a footnote to Western philosophy, is full of contradictions).

Others, in defense of the importance of face-to-face conversation -- what speaking, in its fullest sense, is about -- would suggest that sharing words directly with other human beings, be they colleagues, friends, or a lover, is, indeed, what makes us, perhaps more than anything else, human -- and thus what the humanities should nurture and protect.

As the above-cited report underscores, "Even in a digital age, the spoken ... word remains the most basic unit of our interactions, the very basis of our humanity."

Yes, let's read, write, and use the Internet, but let's not abandon the miraculous pleasure of speaking in the real world with identifiable persons other than ourselves. As Edward Murrow, a prominent American journalist, who ran the United States Information Agency (in charge of our public diplomacy with the outside world) during the Kennedy administration, said (1963):

"It has always seemed to me the real art in this business is not so much moving information or guidance or policy five or 10,000 miles. That is an electronic problem. The real art is to move it the last three feet in face to face conversation."

After all, is not our spoken word the most awesome app ever invented? And it's free! (In all meanings of the word).