Ross Woods, 2014, rev. 2018, '22
Many centuries ago, degree candidates often gave their dissertations orally, not in writing. In the seventeenth century, for example, Cambridge University required disputation and declamation of Bachelor students as well as higher degrees.1 According to one source, the system was still sometimes used at Harvard University as recently as 1826.2
The procedure emphasized the examinee's ability to engage in scholarly debate, defend a view with a live audience, and give an oral presentation displaying mastery of the subject. To a lesser extent, the method still survives when a student is required to pass an oral defense of a written dissertation or thesis. It also survives in another form. Twelve percent of respondents (approximately 12% of programs surveyed) still require a public lecture as part of the final review for doctoral projects. 3
Although nobody is seriously suggesting that the process be fully revived for an earned degree, it is interesting to see how it would work in the modern era for doctoral dissertations and is particularly appropriate for honorary degrees.
1. V.H.H. Green. British Institutions: The Universities. (Harmondsworth, U.K., Pelican books, 1969). Pp. 196f., 204.
2. Annual Report of the President of Harvard University to the Overseers on the State of the University for the Academic Year 1825—1826 (Cambridge Mass.: University—Press-Hilliard, Metcalf, & Co.) P. 7.
ADME 2022 Final Project Survey Results (v. 3.30.2022), which was an unpublished survey of US professional doctoral programs, in all cases Doctor of Ministry accredited by ATS.
Martin Camargo. "Epistolary declamation: Performing model letters in medieval English classrooms", https://experts.illinois.edu/en/publications/epistolary-declamation-performing-model-letters-in-medieval-engli-3, Mar 21, 2018.
E.K. Moore The Passions of Rhetoric: Lessing’s Theory of Argument and the German Enlightenment (Berlin, Springer Science & Business Media, 1993). E.g. pp. 97ff.
Barton, Matthew D., "Dissertations: Past, present, and future" (2005). Graduate Theses and Dissertations. http://scholarcommons.usf.edu/etd/2777. Pp. 35f.