Joining the Human Conversation
Humans talk, often to ourselves, sometimes to machines, but mostly to each other. We chat in cafes and virtual rooms where non sequiturs don't seem absurd. We pursue dialogue with adversaries. We listen to politicians debate, then debate with each other about what we heard. Though one can talk too much, conversation appears to be an unequivocal good--ink to transcribe our social contract. Conversation is patient and generous; it suggests alternation between giving and receiving, between teaching and being taught. Its origin in the Latin conversari (to turn oneself about; keep company with) evokes an ethical sociability that makes possible healthy democracies. It characterizes collaborative leadership and student-centered pedagogies. In 1991 an extended eulogy for Michael Oakeshott summarized the recently deceased British philosopher's understanding of the ethos of conversation:
Conversation . . . was . . . the very basis of education, and a metaphor for civilization itself. Each educational encounter was in its small way an initiation into civilized discourse. . . . The languages of science and mathematics, of arts and letters, of sport, religion, the trades, and the professions were all for him part of a "conversation" that made up the human inheritance. Only in entering this conversation could one become fully human. Education was everywhere the price of entry. . . . The ultimate business of education, then, was learning how to be a human being. . . . The calling of a teacher was neither more nor less than to initiate the public into the "conversation of mankind."
Of course, Oakeshott was not the first, the last, or perhaps even the best to praise conversation. In the last century philosophers Jürgen Habermas and Richard Rorty, for example, developed theories of conversation and collaborative inquiry that have been broadly influential. Closer to home, Greg Clark's essay in this issue on jazz, democracy, and "civic happiness" builds on his 1990 book Dialogue, Dialectic and Conversation and describes the productive tension between the soloist and the ensemble, between an individual voice and the larger conversation.
Oakeshott's claim that the calling of teachers is to initiate the public into the human conversation applies in particular and unique ways to Humanities teachers and learners. Access to the conversation begins with the study of language, its structures and features, and with the recognition that language is an organ of perception--that it is through language we perceive and experience the world. We discern other voices in the human conversation when we become fluent in one or more of the four-dozen languages taught in the college, thereby gaining access to how others perceive their world, and ours. Literature, philosophy, art, music, and dance also are languages and have textured traditions and dialectical variations. Fluency in these languages helps us understand and articulate what it means to be human here and abroad, now and in generations past. The ideal of the human conversation is at the heart of Alexis de Toqueville's observation, "The only way opinions and ideas can be renewed, hearts enlarged, and human minds developed is through the reciprocal influence of men upon each other." This "reciprocal influence" lies at the heart of a "liberal" (as used in James 1:5) education, is nourished by fluency in the languages of the human conversation, and promotes moral and civic stewardship. We invite you to join us in the Humanities conversation.