Suzanne Fields

Students from the most prestigious -- and expensive -- universities were among the worst performers, including Princeton, Duke, Yale, Brown and University of California, Berkeley. Freshmen often scored better than seniors, suggesting that the longer they stay on campus, the more they don't know. We're not talking about arcane questions of political philosophy of the hidden gems of history, but fundamental questions about the most familiar specifics of American history, government institutions and economics.

The "youth vote" is said to be especially crucial this year, and Obama excites young people, but numbers are less important for the culture than what the young people understand about who they are and where they came from. How the senator speaks is not the problem. How we listen is. When two scholars studied the changing nature of the "sound bite" from 1968 to 1988, they tracked the nightly television newscasts and found that the time allowed for the candidates to speak shrank from 43 seconds to 9 seconds.

We require a different kind of tracking today -- how long do we actually spend reading the candidates' words in the newspapers, or listening to them on television or the Internet? If Sen. Obama's rhetoric can inspire young people to listen more closely, maybe he'll engage them long enough for them to understand what he's talking about.

Abraham Lincoln, one of the greatest presidential orators, read deeply into the Bible and the treasures of the Bard. His rhetorical flourishes were nurtured through reading from great writing. Stephen Douglas "won" most of his debates with Lincoln, but Honest Abe won the national attention that ultimately led him to the White House. An observer of the debating styles of the two men discovered why. "Douglas was eminently talented, Lincoln was original," writes Gustave Koerner, an Illinois politician in 1858. "But what made Lincoln vastly more effective ... was that even the most obtuse hearer could see at once that Douglas spoke for himself and Lincoln for his cause."

At this point in the campaign of '08, I'm with Eliza Doolittle:

Never do I want to hear another word
There isn't one I haven't heard
Here we are together in what ought to be a dream
Say one more word and I'll scream.


Suzanne Fields

Suzanne Fields is currently working on a book that will revisit John Milton's 'Paradise Lost.'

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