(c) by Clarence Brown
I have a candidate for the school board. My long-term plan for him is much more ambitious, but the school board looks good as an entry level, for I am sure that once his ideas get even the tiniest hearing in the dustiest little local setting they will catapult him right to the top: a cabinet position as education czar for the whole country.
He is a teacher himself, and a lawyer, and very experienced at the top levels of government. And when it comes to public speaking, he makes Martin Luther King, Jr., look tongue-tied. He practically invented the subject.
The one little drawback is that my man has been dead these 1,900 years. But we have his book, which means that his demise was only partial. The better part of him, his ideas, survived, and since those ideas are blessed with immortal clarity and the sublimest horse sense, they will go on surviving. It is actually his ideas that I want to appoint to the school board.
His name? Resonant and beautiful, just the thing for an election poster: Marcus Fabius Quintilianus, shortened to Quintilian when he immigrated. Quintilian for the Million! Don't squint! Vote Quint!
But I leave the nuts and bolts of the campaign to better sloganeers. My job is to lay out his qualifications, which is a snap, since they are highly visible in his book.
You don't want to let the title put you off. It is nothing if not up-scale, being in Latin, like the rest of the book, but even the short form INSTITUTIO ORATORIA is hardly going to make it fly off the shelves. That is in fact the name it usually goes by, perhaps because the English translation is even worse: "The Education of an Orator."
How could anything with such a hopeless non-starter for a title possibly contain ideas that would be useful in today's schools?
The answer to this comes from Quintilian's approach to his task, which was in fact: how to train a public speaker. There are, he wrote, any number of manuals on this topic, but they are useless, since they all start with the assumption that the person to be trained comes equipped with every conceivable moral and intellectual excellence and needs only to be told how to organize his notes and not mumble.
This, said he, is nonsense. Any fool can be taught to stand up straight and project his voice, and evil men are notoriously good on the stump. It is in everyone's interest for a good orator to be also a good man. And the more he knows, the better. So the training of an orator begins at birth. Even before birth. Quintilian's advice to parents is: be good people yourselves, and learn as much as you can. If you put the child out to a wet nurse, make sure she has a good heart, and speaks the language clearly and grammatically.
(A word to the gender police: in Quintilian's first-century Rome the only conceivable pupils in his oratory class would be boys. In speaking of ideal parents, however, he gives equal attention to the cultural influence of the mother, and even names several women who were notable as public speakers. He therefore certainly thought that children of either sex might benefit from his instruction.)
What I have called his "book" is actually 12 books and amounts to a complete compendium of the knowledge that would be useful to anyone who wished to consider himself an orator, a term that practically meant statesman and philosopher, as well. Nothing if not thorough, Quintilian began at the cradle and wound up at the time when the aged orator had to muster the courage to retire and tend his beehives. When Poggio Bracciolini discovered Quintilian's masterpiece in 1416, it became a sort of portable university for the Renaissance, an age much taken with the fact that if you want to sound good, you must BE good.
Quintilian has more to tell us on the vexed topic of bringing up small children than almost any other classical author, so I shall return to some of his practical advice next week.