What Is Dialogue in the Classroom?

I intend to write more about David Bromwich’s splendid Politics by Other Means after reading it again. I have stacks of books waiting for me, but they will have to wait a little longer; this book is calling to be reread, and reread it I will. My commentary of the other day seems cursory to me; my thoughts have been writhing and growing, but they need grounding again.

In the meantime, I would like to return to the passage on conversation (on p. 132 of the book). Bromwich argues here that the study of our past is essential to true reflective discourse in the classroom and elsewhere. In his recent book College: What It Was, Is, and Should Be, Andrew Delbanco makes a seemingly similar point about classroom dialogue: that it is made possible by a study of common texts, a core curriculum, within a community of students and teachers. The subtle difference between their arguments can be traced, I believe, to different conceptions of dialogue or conversation.

Bromwich, it seems, perceives conversation as essentially an exchange between two (two people in the room, or a person with a book, or a person’s understanding of the present with a study of the past). There may be more conversants, but any conversation starts with the two. He does not state this outright; rather, it is evident in the focus and attention he expects of the conversation. Here’s the passage from which I quoted the other day:

Above all, conversation offers a place for coming to know something quite different from what one had known before. This may mean a different way of living, of thinking, of being. But for a citizen of modern America, the largest, almost the only unimaginable difference, is between the new which we inhabit and the old which we have never seen enough of to forget. It is because the distance between our lives and those of the past seems to be so commanding a fact—greater than the difference that separates us from any alien culture today—that I have kept coming back to the arts and habits associated with the study of the past.

Such study is by necessity solitary and concerted, much of the time; while such study involves questioning and argument, it also requires listening and absorption.

Delbanco, likewise, draws attention to the importance of studying the past. But he places less emphasis on the discipline that this requires, and more on the enrichment it brings:

Seen in this long view, the distinctive American contribution [to liberal education] has been the attempt to democratize it, to deploy it on behalf of the cardinal American principle that all persons, regardless of origin, have the right to pursue happiness—and that “getting to know,” in Matthew Arnold’s much-quoted phrase, “the best which has been thought and said in the world” is helpful to that pursuit. This view of what it means to be educated is often caricatured as snobbish and narrow, beholden to the old and wary of the new; but in fact it is neither, as Arnold makes clear by the (seldom quoted) phrase with which he completes his point: “and through this knowledge, turning a stream of fresh and free thought upon our stock notions and habits.” In other words, knowledge of the past helps us to think critically about the present.

On the surface, Bromwich’s and Delbanco’s arguments seem nearly identical—but as they play out in the two books, one sees the differences between them. Delbanco seems just a little less wary of group activity, group work, group consensus, and the intrusion of sociological methods than Bromwich.

In the final chapter, Delbanco discusses, with some skepticism, so-called innovations in higher education. His skepticism seems to vanish when he describes the interactive physics classroom:

Harvard physics professor Eric Mazur, having discovered that his students were doing more memorizing than thinking, shifted from the hour-long lecture to shorter periods of exposition alternated with ten-minute periods during which student breakout groups work collaboratively on an assigned problem. Students then report their results through an electronic feedback system, which tells the professor how well they have grasped the point he has just explained. If a significant number haven’t understood it, he returns to it for further discussion before moving on. It’s a way of restoring a dialogic dimension, even in a large class, to the monologic lecture.

Whatever one thinks of Mazur’s approach as described here (and physicists and physics students may be in a better position to judge it than I), it is not a way of restoring a dialogic dimension. Ten-minute periods of small-group work will likely destroy any semblance of dialogue, and the electronic feedback system provides statistics (the percentage of students that got the right answer), not lines of reasoning. True, it is difficult to have a dialogue with more than one or two students in a lecture class–but I would gain much more from a single conversation between professor and student, or from a lecture, than from group activity of this sort.

Contrast this with a peculiarly beautiful passage in Bromwich’s book (I say “peculiarly” because its meaning does not open up at once):

To a teacher who has mattered (as to parents and to certain friends), one has, by definition, a kind of debt that can never be paid back. The consolation is that the teacher has his or her debts, too; and so the source of the debt recedes, back to the beginning of time. As Kierkegaard pointed out in The Case of the Contemporary Disciple, the only way to achieve the illusion of escape from such a debt, without falling into vain pretense or despair, is so to intensify the aspect of the teacher which has mattered most that student and teacher come to seem identical for moments at a time. One then thinks of each as a transparent medium for the other. This is not accurate, of course—not how things could ever look to an intelligent and properly detached observer. It is merely the inward—the psychological, rather than the socialized—way for the disciple to unload the weight of a debt.

If I think of the aspect of a teacher that has mattered most to me, it has to do with the inward. It might be the teacher’s way of speaking about a particular poem (John Hollander speaking about Frost’s “Never Again Would Birds’ Song Be the Same,” for example), or a question that the teacher asked, or an insight or wise remark that I remembered, or the trust I felt when approaching the teacher with an idea, question, or problem. It has nothing to do with rapid group work or the appearance of interaction. It has everything to do with a shimmering and elusive conversation, something that does not leave me.

I admire both books and am grateful for their existence. I do not wish to suggest that Delbanco favors group thinking; that would be incorrect and unfair. We all have to find our way through “innovations” and decide slowly what to make of them. Some are too recent to allow for definitive judgment. But this subtle difference between the two books is not trivial. In college and elsewhere, conversation often takes place in a group setting, but it cannot be subordinated to the group. It must retain the soleness and attention of a person alone with a book: a mind enlivened and fortified, tasked with living up to what it has learned.

For an index to the nine pieces on this blog that comment on Politics by Other Means, go here.

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