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What Constitutes Conversation

January 27, 2017

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today's blog.

“What is the ultimate goal of conversation? It is to produce a meeting of minds.” - Mortimer J. Adler

Not all conversation is legitimate, in the terms of Mortimer Adler, founder of the Great Books Foundation. In this 45 minute presentation, he discusses different types of conversation and focuses on the types of conversation that help us become better people. He gently admonishes people who have no skills in listening, though he claims it is more a fault of our educational style, than of any individual fault. In claiming that an open mind and the ability to listen is an essential piece of every conversation, he also shows how every human already has the potential to engage in meaningful conversation. Adler defines conversation as mind to mind discussion. This is especially profound to me: two minds actually meeting excites me. In fact, without two open minds, there is no discussion at all, but rather two sides of a story passing along parallel lines, without intersect.

There is much proof to back up Adler's comment that listening is a most difficult skill for humans. We study in lectures, learn to speak, write and read, but are rarely taught how to listen in a way that requires thoughtful response. Schools devote a lot of time to writing skills. Yet, as compared to speaking or reading, we use writing the least on average. And unlike reading and writing, Adler notes that listening flows only in one direction. We cannot turn a page back while listening to a discussion. Again, this strikes me as important, particularly in an age of Google and Siri in which we think information always exists at our fingertips. To listen, one must be present and actively engaged. Arguments are often subtle, especially philosophical arguments, which require much depth and concentration. It makes sense that we begin to understand philosophical arguments from texts. I also believe that it is not so terrible to devote much of our time to reading and writing. In fact, these skills are necessary precursors to Adler's ideal conversation. Before engaging in a lively debate, it is best to know a little bit about your subject. Therefore, one will be able to understand difficult terminology – or at least ask for critical clarification – and also address the main issue of the conversation. The skills learned in reading and note-taking enable us to listen in a sense. Yet, still, reading enables the turning of pages, which is not possible in conversation.

Many people believe that reading is passive, that one can sit down and relax with a book. Certainly, there are books that offer relaxation, but today's post is intended more towards ideas that challenge us. This type of reading is not at all passive. Instead, it activates the mind by connecting personal experience to the book's experience. Better yet, reading melds into communal action. We begin with author to student discussion, in which the student writes questions and comments in the margins of a text. Then, expanding these comments into a group discussion is not such a big leap. Fully understanding a difficult book may require a meeting of minds to discuss the content. Otherwise, the action of reading takes place within the same self that judges the material using the same voice and the same metrics as the only gauge of a book's quality. It is only when we step outside of our own boundaries that we actually come to find new information. It is true that one can learn much from simply reading. But one can learn much more, in a shorter time, if one applies dialogue to the difficult reading.

Mind to mind discussions – either instructive or persuasive – can only exist between two open minds. In other words, we must attempt to, even if only for a moment, silence our own argument. The creation of an argument comes only through dedicated learning and an open mind. If we are to advance our understanding of an issue, it must be through an open mind. We often approach literature this way, so why not live conversation? Once a thought is spoken, it passes. If no one challenges that thought, then it stands. Likewise, if no one agrees with the thought, then it stands alone.

I encourage you to listen to Adler's lecture on how to begin a discussion. Next, put your thoughts into action and try out a discussion. Harrison Middleton University follows this Socratic method in the one-to-one discussions with students, in which the student engages with a text, but also shares their questions. These fruitful discussions offer the best educational model that I have ever experienced. From there, jump into a small group discussion, which expands the conversation to a variety of opinions. A meeting of minds creates a kind of verbal map of how the mind works and how a piece of literature affects us all.

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