In February, 2012 Hillsdale College hosted a conference called The Liberal Arts and Education Today. It included a lecture from Roger Kimball.
Kimball was one of the first speakers I featured on this blog. I see it was in June 2013. I remember that, having read his book The Fortunes of Permanence I went looking for an example of his speaking. I now see that, for a title to that post I stole a phrase from Shakespeare’s As You Like It which was rather pretentious of me, though I can see why I did it. The phrase was full of wise saws and modern instances because Kimball was fond of quoting others. Is he still like that?
Yes he is; but I’ll come to that in a moment.
The introduction is ably provided by Madeleine Smith, who studies rhetoric. I mention that because she would not need to look up the word when I point out the parapraxis in her final sentence. It’s a Neil Armstrong moment.
Kimball begins at 1:30. He is reading a script.
More than almost anyone you ever heard of, Kimball is immersed in the written word. He reads it, writes, it edits it and publishes it. Little surprise then that his idea of speaking in public is to write an essay then stand and read it. Also, in fairness, there are far too many public speaking teachers who sincerely believe that to be a correct way to go about it. They are tragically misguided.
What he has beautifully written, and what he is reading, is fascinating and brilliantly learned. I would love to read it, but I am unhappy hearing and watching his doing it.
I feel I am watching a prisoner. The real Roger Kimball is somewhere in there, unable properly to reveal himself. It’s not that he reads without expression – quite the reverse: he reads superbly, but look at his hands. When they are not hidden behind his back they are permitted just fleetingly to rise, illustrate a shape and then disappear again. Or they grasp the sides of the lectern, and occasionally we partially see an extension of the fingers. All my instincts, my experience, and his fidgeting tell me that his personality and hands are dying to be really expressive, but they are incarcerated by the written word.
He still quotes other writers almost to excess – some might call it gnomic, but these aren’t cheap slogans. They are excellent observations that are relevant to what he is saying. This again would be lovely to read, but frustrating to hear because many are so profound that you want to pause and let them sink in before moving on. That is a luxury not available to a lecture audience.
His hidden personality almost escapes at 25:40 when he explosively utters the word “but”. For a short while thereafter his hands are almost liberated. Almost…
Do you want to see the Kimball personality set free? Then keep watching till the end of the lecture, and then stay with it. The questions begin at 38:30, and with his replies we see him speaking spontaneously. Within a couple of minutes his hands come up and begin gesturing eloquently and generously as his liberated personality takes flight.
By the way, this niche interest of mine is not the only reason to stay for the Q&A. Hillsdale students ask excellent questions and this section is really stimulating. His new spontaneity does cause a drop of perhaps 5% of the literary merit of what he utters, but the compensation is at least 40% increase in audience engagement, and that’s a pretty good trade.
So if Kimball were rash enough to seek my advice, how would I suggest he prepare a lecture? As an experiment I would tell him to leave his desk and go for a walk in the countryside; think up three really good probing questions concerning his topic and message; answer them aloud to the landscape and listen to himself. I think he’d like what he heard.