"It was impossible to get a conversation going; everybody was talking too much." Yogi Berra
“. . . due to scarcity, two intelligent talkers seldom meet.” Truman Capote
“Ideal conversation must be an exchange of thought, and not, as many of those who worry most about their shortcomings believe, an eloquent exhibition of wit or oratory” Emily Post
Surfing without a board (the only way I know how) recently, I came across a webpage called Conversations in Literature* which is described thusly:
…a professional development workshop series for language arts teachers working with students in middle and high schools…remembering why you love literature and exploring [ways] to awaken this same sense of joy for the readers in your classroom.
The promise and premise:
In these programs, you will meet a group of people not unlike yourselves...some are teachers, some are professors, and others are authors... [A]ll feel that being engaged in literature is one of the most satisfying and enriching experiences of their lives...are passionate about teaching literature...[and] believe that it is important for all students to know the joys they themselves feel as they interact with poems, short stories, drama, and other works of fiction.
We are told "they all feel…" a certain way (really?), not why we should we care how they "feel" or why our students should care how we "feel" about the subject matter. Isn't formal education first and foremost about thinking? All we know so far is that whatever crumbs of wisdom we can expect will have little or nothing to do with good writing.
So what exactly is the point of the exercise? I quote:
We brought these readers together to talk about some important works of classical and contemporary literature. As you observe their discussions, we hope you will do three things:
- Observe these readers and their discussions as examples of the ways effective readers interact with a text and each other.
- Explore the habits of the mind these readers employ and how they help them form unique and intricate interactions with the text.
- Think about the ways you can encourage these habits of the mind in your own students.
Note: "[observe]…ways readers interact with a text and each other" and "[explore]…unique and intricate interactions with the text." The exercise by design is passive, not active. One is invited to "observe", not participate. So much for the false promise of conversation.
Interactions with "the text" are presumed "intricate" to the process of learning. But exactly how is interaction with a text different from merely thinking about what one reads? And what does it have to do with the art of conversation?
As a lifelong student, sometime professor, and ardent partisan of conversation, mirabile dictu, I find nothing is more "intricate" to my own ever-changing understanding of the world than the kind of conversation I had with two close friends over coffee this morning. They're both avid readers who have mastered the art of conversation – not only the best friends one can have, but the best kind.
Which raises a question worth exploring, but seldom explored. What is a conversation, and what isn't?
Since 2000, the University of California Television (UCTV) has produced a wonderful series called "Conversations with History". On closer examination, these "conversations" are, in fact, interviews. The difference between a conversation and an interview will not be lost on anyone who has ever been "involved" in a three-way conversation that suddenly turned into an "interview". One operates on the principle of inclusion, the other exclusion. The two are different in principle as well as practice. Who doesn't know how it feels to be excluded from a "conversation" in boorish company?
As the great Irish poet and novelist Oscar Wilde remarked, “Conversation should touch everything, but should concentrate itself on nothing." Until I became involved in regular conversations with gifted conversationalists, a breakthrough that occurred quite by stealth and accident at a time when my formal education was a distant memory, I dare say I'd have been puzzled to parse Wilde's point. However, having taken part in regular Tuesday-morning conversations at an open-hearted place called "Eddy's" (like Wilde, the eponymous proprietor is a thoroughbred Irishman) for the past several years, I now know what Wilde meant.
A Chinese proverb says “A single conversation across the table with a wise person is worth a month's study of books.” That was before the iPhone Age. Before Tweets and text-messages replaced real conversation. When an "Eddy's Café" was in walking distance of everybody's front door.
In the Old World, pubs, cafes, and salons were places of and for conversation. Such places have given way to sports bars and "man caves" (private sports bars), places decidedly inhospitable to the sport of conversation. Ironically, even to conversation about sports. To say nothing of books about sports.