Have We Given Up on Conversation?

The other day, on the train, I was sitting next to two teenage girls who were talking with such shrieks in their voices that I thought, “why so loud?” Then I glanced over and saw that both were wearing earphones and had music playing. That is, they were talking over the music playing into their ears. They probably had no idea how loud they were.

Then I transferred to an express train and witnessed the same thing, all over again, with different teenagers. I suppose this is a trend.

But my complaint here is not about teenagers or technology. On a much larger scale we are giving up conversation: letting it be interrupted, drowned out, and compromised. Technology has something to do with it, but we ourselves are to blame for not defending our conversations more staunchly. The wish for a conversation can come across even as an affront: “I don’t mean to be rude, but I would like to talk with you.” For the sake of clarity and focus, I will consider one-on-one conversations only.

First of all, why are conversations important? They allow for more than the “exchange” of ideas, information, feelings, and experiences; through a conversation, you take another into yourself and are changed as a result. You hear things coming from a mind different from your own; not only the words but the gestures play a part. Nothing like this is possible in group discussions, which have their own purposes and possibilities.

The kind of conversation I describe above used to be a staple of my life. It is now a rarity. Why?

First, we have given in to the interruption. I remember the common practice (and etiquette) of returning to a conversation after it has been interrupted, of picking up right where it left off. Today that is considered not polite but brazen; one is expected to honor the interruption and let the conversation go. Broken off in mid-sentence? Oh, well! You would be a fool to resist that.

Second, we have come to exalt the group over the pair. Suppose you are in conversation with someone, and someone else comes along and joins in. Of course, even in the best of circumstances, one should be as gracious as possible: welcome the third person into the discussion for a little while, change the topic accordingly, and so on. Graciousness is one thing—but what I see today is indifference. Group discussions take over because no one acknowledges a loss in this. The group (or dreaded “team”) is the ultimate formation; few go against it or defend anything outside it.

Third, we are too nervous and jumpy to focus on dialogue. We think we might be missing out on some important email or other update. People can go only so long before checking their handheld devices. This is the issue that people often emphasize, but it’s part of a larger phenomenon.

Fourth, we distrust the desire for a true connection. The person who wants to be our friend must be lacking a “life.” The “normal” person is scattered, well-connected, and casual—and sophisticated enough to distrust the concept of sincerity. If there’s no such thing as a “good person” (or, for that matter, an “interesting person”), then those offering or seeking individual attention can be blithely dismissed.

Oh, lighten up! some will say. Have a bit of a sense of humor. It isn’t that bad if you can laugh. True, but the best wit comes from relation, from laughing with another about something or laughing at oneself with another. Take away the relation, and what wit is left? Some slapstick, maybe; some puns; some political humor; but not the deeply funny, not the convulsion of the soul.

What is the cause of all of this? There are many, but I would blame our acquiescence first and foremost. We do not protect our conversations. It’s easier and more stylish to let them slip away.

I say “we,” but I am divided. I both participate in this and resist it, as many others likely do. The challenge, then, is to gather up the resistance: to dare to speak with another person, just one, for a stretch of time.

The Dialogue of Thought with Others

I have not yet read Hannah Arendt’s The Life of the Mind, but it will be among my next books. In an article in the Times Higher Education Supplement (quoted by Cynthia Haven), Jon Nixon writes, “For [Arendt], thinking was diametrically opposed to ideology: ideology demands assent, is founded on certainty, and determines our behaviours within fixed horizons of expectation; thinking, on the other hand, requires dissent, dwells in uncertainty and expands our horizons by acknowledging our agency. It is the task of education — and therefore of the university — to ensure that a space for such thinking remains open and accessible.”

What kind of thinking is this? We talk often about “critical thinking” but don’t define it carefully enough. According to Arendt, it is the “dialogue of thought.” It is both introspective and responsive. Both aspects are essential.

Let me play with this idea a bit. If your thoughts are introspective but without dialogue, you end up in a rut; you have nothing to temper or shake your view of the world. You go around and around with the same thoughts; maybe you negate them, maybe you insist on them, but you get used to seeing them swirl around, clockwise and counterclockwise, the same ones over and over.

If you are only responsive, then you have no response at all; you depend so much on what others say that you cannot understand their words. You seek wisdom but then accept or reject it flatly instead of taking it in. You seek knowledge but apply it without imagination or play. You fear the opinion of others but crave it at the same time.

The life of the mind, the kind Arendt holds up, requires a combination of aloneness and dialogue — but what combination? It is unique for each situation and person; it does not stay constant but must be recalibrated again and again. It breaks apart and comes together. There are moments of clarity and rapport and longer stretches of fumbling. The very search for the right proportions is individual and particular; my thinking will not be like anyone else’s, but its very character makes it capable of dialogue. In other words, to have a life of the mind, one must be prepared for constant and subtle dissent: not the opinionated kind, but the kind that allows for the unusual.

Depend on the opinions of others, and your thoughts become rags, with no firmness or fineness of their own.

Insist on your own opinion, and your thoughts become sticks.

The ideal, though, is not a pair of knitting needles with yarn, although that has its own place. There is no instrument or product here, at least not the kinds that can be delimited. There is only life, and in life there is everything.

The Ubiquitous Team

Humans enjoy (and sometimes suffer from) a richness of relations. We first form bonds with family members, then start to make friends of different kinds. As we get older, we join groups, collaborate with others, and participate in many kinds of associations. Throughout all of this, solitude allows us to make sense of our relationships, come back to ourselves, and regather our strength and thoughts. Often relations change or break; often they renew themselves in different forms.

Today the concept of the “team” has overtaken all other associations. Just about every group gets called a “team”; and relations outside of teams get short shrift. It is even common to address people as “team.” The problem is not with teams or teamwork but with their ubiquity: the insistence that everyone be part of a team and the suggestion that any resistance at all to the team is a show of personal selfishness or weakness.

The team is just one form of association. Its role is to work toward a concrete goal in a tightly coordinated manner. For instance, if you are an athletic team, your goal is to score more points than the opposing team. You work together toward that end. No single athlete’s brilliance matters unless it contributes to that goal. Likewise, if you are working with others on fundraising (for instance) and have a specific target to achieve, then those contributing to the achievement of the goal are acting as team members.

But there are many forms of collaboration and association that are not quite team-like. A musical ensemble, for instance, is not typically called a “team” (though this is changing as the “team” denomination spreads over onto everything). Although musicians work tightly together, there is a soul to what they do, a kind of solitude to each contribution. Also, the goal is somewhat concrete but not only concrete. A concert goes beyond attaining a goal.

In addition, many associations benefit from the differences and divergences of the members. The work may not be tightly coordinated at all. For instance, in a college English department, the faculty may have different areas of specialty and different approaches to literature. Insofar as they can engage in dialogue, insofar as they have enough common ground, and insofar as the students benefit from their differences, it is good for their efforts not to be too strictly defined and pieced together. As the economist John Jewkes noted in 1958, overemphasis on teamwork can diminish not only individuals, but dialogue between them.

Beyond that, the richest personal and professional associations are often not group relationships, but one-on-one collaborations, friendships, and partnerships. Rarely can a group attain the understanding, rapport, and sympathy that exists between two. When the team is treated as the pinnacle of relations, even personal conversation, even original ideas get subordinated to the team. There is subtle pressure to include others in conversation at all times, to avoid saying things that stand out, to give others credit for one’s own work, and to reserve one’s highest praises for the team.

Teams and teamwork are not bad in themselves; they have an important place in daily life. Most of us have situations where we need to work tightly with others and where our own thoughts and wishes must recede for a while. Yet there is also work that we do better alone or with select others–and work that isn’t quite teamwork. Also, we must not always be working; there must be room and time for thought, exploration, rest, and laughter.

Learning to serve a larger endeavor is also valuable–but there are times not to do so, and many ways of doing so. It is at least as important to diverge from the group–when such divergence is genuine–and to question group assumptions. This may interfere with “teamwork” in the sort run but may actually enrich the work and the relations. As far as I know, we only get one life on earth. It would be a shame to waste it by flattening oneself.

So, without disparaging the team in itself, without dismissing its specific value, I resist its ubiquity with all my heart and soul. There are many more ways to be with oneself and others.

The Privacy of Speaking One on One

Lately I joined Facebook in order to do specific things. I had joined before, a few years ago, then quit because I didn’t like it. This time around, I was bewildered all over again by the prevalence of group updates—the practice of telling a large group about life events, major and minor. I couldn’t keep up with these conversations and didn’t want to join them. I miss the old-fashioned practice of speaking with an individual.

Online group communication can be a boon at times. For instance, someone with a medical emergency could keep her friends posted without having to write individually to each one. A medium like Facebook can be useful for announcements as well–of events, special occasions, and so on. The problem lies not in individuals’ use of Facebook or any other online medium, but rather in the general drift away from private association. I am uneasy with the ubiquitous group conversation and the pressure to surrender private conversations to the group.

The problem is not restricted to the internet. In many situations, individual conversations are subject to interruption and curtailment, and people are not staunch about defending them. There’s a general assumption that a conversation belongs to anyone—that it is up for grabs. When people interrupt, they are often not conscious of interrupting, or don’t see the interruption as a problem. Thus, most conversations don’t last long.

Growing up, I saw and heard excessive quotation of Emily Dickinson’s poem “The Soul selects her own Society” (especially the first two lines). I don’t hear it quoted any more. It isn’t in the air.

The Soul selects her own Society —
Then — shuts the Door —
To her divine Majority —
Present no more —

Unmoved — she notes the Chariots — pausing —
At her low Gate —
Unmoved — an Emperor be kneeling
Upon her Mat —

I’ve known her — from an ample nation —
Choose One —
Then — close the Valves of her attention —
Like Stone —

The poem is stark no matter what the times, but today it stands out so severely against everything we are asked to do. The repetition of “Unmoved” in the second stanza seems defiant now, and it’s a defiance I miss, even though I have it to an extent. We are supposed to move along with things, to be responsive to as many people and events as possible. To stay “unmoved” in the face of demands is to shirk one’s unwritten obligation. But it may be a way of keeping a greater obligation.

And what comes next? “I’ve known her — from an ample nation —Choose One —” Who gets to do that today—except when choosing a spouse? It is possible, of course, to meet with particular friends, but it’s challenging, given people’s complicated schedules and tendency to do things in groups. The problem is not new, but it has taken on new forms. A Yale professor remarked to me recently that he doesn’t see students talking to each other one on one any more. He used to see them on the lawn, on benches, in dining halls. Now he sees four, five, six students talking with each other or walking through campus together.

Is that all terrible? Of course not. But some of it is.

Granted, there’s something terrible on either end. The poem is not sweet. Even in my childhood, I got a chill from the last two lines: “Then — close the Valves of her attention — Like Stone —” (where “Like Stone” sounds like stone clapping, and the dash aftwarwards, like an unknown). Even then, there was something disturbing about the poem: a suggestion that an intimate friendship required hostility of a kind. (I loved Julie Harris’s rendition in The Belle of Amherst—I think she brought this out.)

But that hostility can be a kind of protection, an enshrinement. The poem has a subtlety and surprise: the “Society” of the first line is the “One” in the final stanza. This One is a society, in that the soul can associate with it as it could not with a pausing chariot or kneeling emperor.

It takes courage to lift one person above the “whatever”—to meet with one person, to write to one person, to listen to one person. It takes the willingness to shut others out for a stretch. There is solitude in this.

I am not talking about limiting one’s entire company to one person; that is dangerous and confining. Nor am I saying that all meetings should be one on one. There are no mandates or policy prescriptions here. I am talking about the simple practice of spending time with an individual—and having strength and room for such a meeting.

Dickinson’s poem suggests an absoluteness of attention that people in any era might find terrifying. It goes a bit beyond what I am describing here–but is part of it all the same. There is a stalk of such staunchness even in a dialogue over coffee.

To speak to a particular person as one would speak to no one else; to notice things about the other that others may notice too, but not in the same way; to hear stories take shape, stories that belong to the two, because they come out of the listening and telling—this is the privacy that I defend.

Note: Just after posting this piece, I added what is now the penultimate paragraph.

Teaching in Vastness

I am ambivalent about Parker J. Palmer’s 1998 book The Courage to Teach, but I return to it as I assemble thoughts on teaching. I treasure passages in this book and admire its durability overall. Palmer makes a vitally important argument: that good teaching comes from the teacher’s identity and integrity. There is no single “successful” pedagogical style; one teacher may teach through lecture and another through dialogue, but if both are deeply connected to the subject and aware of themselves and their students, they can both do powerful work.

A teacher, says Palmer, works on the border between the public and the private—“dealing with the thundering flow of traffic at an intersection where ‘weaving a web of connectedness’ feels more like crossing a freeway on foot. As we try to connect ourselves and our subjects with our students, we make ourselves, as well as our subjects, vulnerable to indifference, judgment, and ridicule” (18). To ward off this danger, according to Palmer, we tend to disconnect—and this disconnectedness hurts education and those involved in it.

All true—but when I read Palmer’s words, and continue to read, I get restless for something more. (He recognizes the danger of sounding pat–but falls into that trap repeatedly.) Yes, identity and integrity are essential to teaching, but there’s something beyond both of them. To have identity and integrity, you must go into something larger than yourself. To hold up at the intersection between public and private, you must be aware of something beyond public and private, something that transcends the two.

Or maybe this is not necessary for all; I have no way of knowing. What is it, though? What is this space or sound or presence that can shape a teacher’s work?

Every day in the classroom, I run up against my own imperfections: I make a mistake, misunderstand something that a student said, get slighly irritated, answer a question too quickly, or find myself combating something internal—an area of ignorance, an excess, a sadness, even a rampant joy. In the moment, there’s nothing much that I can do beyond using my best judgment, which is far from perfect. Then, later, when I sort through the events of the day, something else happens.

I don’t just “reflect” on what went right or wrong. That’s an important (and much touted) part of teaching, but only a part. Reflections, after all, must be informed—and where does that form come from? First, it comes from immersion in subjects—any subjects. I learn as much about teaching philosophy when immersed in Russian or Hebrew as I do when reading Machiavelli. Learning to consider the sounds, shapes, roots, and different meanings of words—learning their tones, weights, and connections—all of helps the teaching. Also, when I study anything beautiful or important, I find out, all over again, what education means and how it happens. That said, there are special reasons to immerse myself in the specific subject I teach—to read and reread Machiavelli, Locke, etc. I find out, over and over again, that there’s far more than I presented or even suggested in the lesson. New lesson plans light up in my mind.

There’s still another kind of immersion. When I go through the events of the day, I find myself in a silent, private dialogue—not with myself, really, or with God (I don’t claim such direct access), but with something a little beyond myself. I am able to sort out not only the practical aspects of what I did that day, not only the ethical aspects, but something else, something that puts the events in their proper place, a place I wouldn’t have seen on my own. Without this, I would lose perspective and become overwhelmed.

For example, last week, in one of my classes, I found myself telling my students about a dream in which one of the assistant principals appeared. (The subject came up because had just popped in the classroom a moment earlier, and a student had mentioned having a dream about him.) My dream was strange and brief, with no embarrassing events. It wasn’t too far off topic, since we were discussing Saul Bellow’s Seize the Day, which is filled with dreams of a kind.  Still, I felt a bit off kilter after telling it. I didn’t know whether I had done the right or wrong thing.

From a practical standpoint, it was a bit of a digression, but it didn’t do any harm. From an ethical standpoint, it was mostly harmless, though it feels “gossipy” to tell about a dream that involves a colleague, even though the person isn’t really involved at all. That said, there was nothing gossipy about the dream, in which I was the conductor of a mostly empty train, and he was giving me driving advice (I think).

But there’s something else to reckon with, beyond practical and ethical matters. I recognized, as I went into rumbling thought, that I was feeling unwell on that day and that my gauges were a little off. I also saw that I was starting, in general, to relax around my students and tell them stories now and then—and figuring out when and when not to do so. There would never be a final, fixed answer, but I was finding my way. This meant that there would be errors, or semi-errors, or things that seemed like errors. It is an important question, when and when not to tell a story, since we are made of stories. I loved the stories that my teachers and professors told me over the years. They didn’t distract from the subject; rather, they made things more vivid overall.

How is this different from “identity and integrity”? It differs from them only insofar as it is their source. I find, again and again, that I am up against immensity, or maybe not up against it at all, but walking and thinking in it—and that this is the honor of teaching. Those running the system ask us to show results, to show that the students have moved from point A to point D. That is a reasonable request, if put in its proper place. Palmer would add that a teacher should teach from the self–a self that inhabits the subject. Yes, I grant that as well. But there is something beyond the self, an invisible teacher without lessons, maybe, who shakes me out of my limited senses and points out signs of life.

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 (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.

I have updated this piece in a comment below.

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