Educator’s cautionary taleBy John McCabe-Juhnke
In Bid Me Discourse (Masthof Press, Morgantown, Pa., 2011, 115 pages, $12.95), David J. Rempel Smucker documents the life and work of his grandfather, Boyd David Smucker, a gifted professor of oratory and drama at Goshen and Bluffton colleges. Having spent the better part of my life teaching speech and theater at a Mennonite college, I found Rempel Smucker’s book resonant with my own experience.
Rempel Smucker describes the community of Boyd David Smucker’s childhood as a “change-minded” Amish group. Boyd, as the author refers to him, was nurtured in an Amish Mennonite community that was both rooted and progressive, qualities which were central to Boyd’s character and career.
Boyd studied with other Mennonite youth in the first class of Goshen (Ind.) College, where he developed his knowledge and skill in dramatic and oratorical performance. Rempel Smucker convincingly depicts his grandfather as an elocutionary pioneer in Mennonite higher education, detailing Boyd’s initiatives to build the curriculum at Goshen, where he was hired as the head of the School of Oratory.
Rempel Smucker describes tension between Boyd’s progressive vision for speech and drama at Goshen and suspicion among members of the Mennonite Board of Education, who prized humility over self-confidence. The transition to teaching at Bluffton (Ohio) College provided Boyd with an environment more receptive to his vision, though he continued to face criticism from area pastors.
Those of us who work in theater at Mennonite colleges can appreciate Boyd’s effort to promote social consciousness as a primary value that theater brings to a Christian liberal arts education. An underlying theme in all of Boyd’s educational initiatives — theater, oratory, competitive debate and athletics — was learning to engage the perspective of “the other.”
Boyd’s skill at dramatic recitation kept him in high demand as a speaker and performer. The talent and charisma Boyd displayed in the classroom and on stage were qualities that primed him for a role in student recruitment and fundraising at Bluffton — a role that tested the limits of his dynamism.
The time and travel required for recruitment and development strained Boyd’s teaching efforts, and the significant gains realized in his first 15 years as a fundraiser and recruiter dwindled away in the Great Depression. Rempel Smucker’s description of Boyd in the few years before his death from prostate cancer at the age of 57 portrays a man who felt drained and disappointed, doubting that the college to which he’d devoted most of his life would survive.
Bid Me Discourse is an impressive book despite its occasionally cumbersome style. Rempel Smucker’s research is thorough, and his carefully constructed story of Boyd David Smucker’s life is absorbing. The book that is both a tribute and a cautionary tale. It lauds the pioneering spirit of a man whose vision, talent and dedication paved the way for communication education in Mennonite colleges.
At the same time, readers — especially those with experience in Mennonite higher education — may find a deeper, more menacing message in Bid Me Discourse. Gifted individuals, who believe passionately in the ideals of an institution, can fall victim to their own devotion, especially in times of institutional fragility. When one is deeply rooted in an ethic of service, devotion to an institution can keep even the most progressive educator from recognizing when the demands of the academy are unrealistic and perhaps even deleterious.
John McCabe-Juhnke is the Nelson W. and Gladys I. Krehbiel Distinguished Chair in Speech and Forensics at Bethel College in North Newton, Kan.
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