In Praise of Conversation
by
Ian Johnston
1998

[This document is in the public domain, released July 1998]

In a recent edition of Harperís, Mark Edmundson, a professor at the University of Virginia, laments the impoverished intellectual climate of post-secondary education. His analysis rounds up all the usual suspects, including many factors in the surrounding culture (e.g., television) and within the university (e.g., soft grading, consumerism). The result is bored students, whose academic life lacks intellectually energizing debate which might challenge a complacent endorsement of a superficial status quo. Liberal Arts education, according Edmundson, is in big trouble.

Anyone familiar with what goes on in Liberal Arts departments will probably heave a sigh of agreement in many places. Still, I do have a reservation or two before signing on, mainly because Edmundsonís analysis, like so many similar indictments, spreads the blame very widely, invoking factors about which it is very difficult for anyone to do anything immediately effective, but fails to take into account what stands right at the heart of the problem, namely, the dynamics in the classroom--something much more directly under the control of those applauding such jeremiads. There may be little one can do about, say, the deleterious influence of television, the ideological confusion in Liberal Arts departments, or widespread public cynicism about politics. But these factors may be less immediately important than something apparently more mundane, the daily activities that go on in Liberal Arts courses under the direct supervision of the complaining professor. Before we surrender to some cosmic despair about our campuses, it might be in order to consider how much we ourselves might be contributing to the malaise or at least failing to address it intelligently.

What Edmundson desiderates so much on university campuses is intellectually stimulating conversation about important issues, the sort of continuing interchange through which much of what is most educationally valuable in life takes place. His complaint invites at least one important question: To what extent does the Liberal Arts classroom, including his own, foster such conversations? Itís a legitimate question, because if the courses themselves do not create and sustain such conversations, then where are the students to acquire those interests and skills which he finds so absent?

For itís all very well to think that the specific skills that students need to engage in continuing intellectual debate are something they should automatically bring with them from their previous education or something that they can easily pick up from the surrounding culture. So if they donít have the ability, then the fault must lie out there somewhere, among all the usual sources of intellectual mediocrity on and off campus. There may be a more obvious answer, however: students may be unable to carry on as Edmundson would like simply because they have never had the chance to learn how to do it. For educationally valuable conversations do not just happen. There has to be an appropriate forum, and students need to practice a range of skills in listening, thinking, speaking, analyzing, and so forth; they need to develop a certain self-confidence and an ability to interact with others, capabilities which come only from practice, in order to contribute intelligently and to learn from the experience. Hence the obvious response: What are Liberal Arts courses doing to foster the conditions and activities necessary to provide what is required?

The short answer is not very much. In fact, they are, as often as not, part of the problem. For the Liberal Arts undergraduate the curriculum and the institutional arrangement of the timetable and the classroom not only do little to foster intelligent conversation, but often seem deliberately designed to inhibit it in every way possible: large class sizes, a fragmented curriculum, a pedagogy that encourages (or at least does not discourage) passive listening and periodic regurgitation, and so on. Above all, the distribution of power in the standard classroom tacitly but effectively encourages students to keep quiet and anonymous.

Students quickly learn that in the undergraduate classroom the professor is all-powerful. The professor organizes the curriculum, sets the agenda day by day, controls the delivery of the material, distributes the discussion according to her particular desires, sets and marks the assignments, and has total control over the studentís final grade. In most classes the only interactions which really matter are those which take place between the student and the professor. In fact, it is frequently possible to achieve a fine result in a Liberal Arts class without ever speaking directly to anyone but the instructor (sometimes not even to her) or successfully to complete a four-year degree program in Liberal Arts without every engaging a fellow student in a meaningful conversation about anything.

Liberal Arts teachers frequently seek to promote classes full of discussion and tend to measure the success of a class by the extent to which such discussion has taken place. But in such classes the discussion is typically mediated by the teacher; the flow of questions and answers goes through the instructor and back out to the class. We justify this process by an appeal to the Socratic method, forgetting sometimes that Socratic dialogues, then as now, as often as not take the form of what Thomas Wolfe has called a monologue punctuated by worshipful interruptions. The spatial arrangement itself determines that whatever interaction takes place will have this character. Students all face the front in rows; the instructor stands before them, fully in control. If there is a student whom the instructor does not wish to hear from, it is very easy to exclude that student from speaking. If a student does not wish to speak, there is often relatively little the instructor can do that will not intimidate the student into further silence in a setting so hostile to easy interpersonal candour. Frequently there is a sense that the students are in competition, since they carry out much of their work in isolation from each other and are marked relative to one another. There is little in any of this to encourage a sense that what is going on requires any unmediated interaction at all among the students.

Many teachers, of course, work diligently against these set conditions, often with considerable success. But that is difficult, partly because the studentsí experiences with the institution routinely train them to be passive recipients of knowledge, answerable only to the authority figure at the front of the room and partly because the arrangements of the room and the timetable create tiresome obstacles. With a good deal of effort to get to know the students and help them to learn about each other and a willingness at times to lug furniture about and create a situation with smaller sub-groups within the class, an instructor can work to set up a learning environment more conducive to conversation over the length of a course. But that is only one course, and soon enough the semester is over, a new combination of students presents itself, and the task starts again. It is no wonder that many professors find bucking the institutional arrangements finally just too tiring and unproductive.

The results of this fact are obvious enough. The social component of a Liberal Arts class is sadly neglected. Students who start the class strangers are very likely to end the class no better acquainted. Unlike some other courses which feature a variety of cooperative tasks or which keep together the same combination of students across most of the curriculum over a full year or more (as in, say, some technology or fine and performing arts programs), Liberal Arts classes tend to perpetuate the fragmented and isolating features dictated by the conventional arrangements. Consequently, there is little curricular pressure to overcome the obstacles in the way of those qualities necessary for a useful continuing conversation: a sense of friendship, a self-confidence in oneís own skills, a willingness to test oneís insights against those of oneís peers, a desire to listen to others and assist them if necessary, a sense of cooperative participation in a shared endeavour, even a knowledge of peopleís names, backgrounds, and interests.

When we contemplate the well publicized problems with the undergraduate experience--the attrition, absenteeism, cheating, narcotics, harassment, suicides, depression--we might do well to focus on the extent to which the experience in the classroom itself offers little immediate help in making the student, especially the student who already feels a stranger to the city, the institution, and the discipline, feel welcome. Then we might understand better why it is that there is so little support provided informally by students to their peers, why so many students regard their social life, if they have one, as something quite apart from their academic work, necessary to relieve the pressure of the undergraduate setting as quickly as possible by whatever means are most readily available and in a way that separates the social life from the academic work. The dichotomy between these two is one of the most pernicious features of modern Liberal Arts education, but it is an almost inevitable consequence of the institutional arrangements.

We might also be driven to understand more about how the changes in undergraduate education in the past decades have dramatically aggravated these problems. For the present arrangements of the curriculum, with its built in distribution of power and fragmentation, were set up in very different circumstances, at a time when the social quality of the studentís experiences on campus were something the professoriate could afford to ignore because, as Gerald Graff has pointed out, there was such splendid support in the surrounding campus culture in the various societies, athletic teams, intramural activities, fraternities, residencies, and so forth, some of which were compulsory and all of which were readily available to students because undergraduates were overwhelmingly enrolled full time and thus spent a good deal of their lives on campus outside of class, often with the full participation of members of the faculty. These factors, combined with the much greater uniformity in the social backgrounds of the entering students and the smaller size of the institution, ensured that on campus the social experience of the student was by no means limited to what went on the class and that the integration of the academic work with a rich social experience developed more easily in the total context of the institution.

Nowadays that surrounding campus culture is dramatically less effective. Many students are part-time and confine their stay on campus only to their classes; campuses have grown immensely by the standards of the day when the present structure of the curriculum was introduced; under the pressures of the research ethic, professors have every incentive to minimize their interaction with students; class sizes have increased dramatically; the social backgrounds of the student body have become much more complex; facing the rising costs, many students overload themselves so that they can finish more quickly or hurry off to part-time jobs as soon as classes are over; the intellectual confusion in many disciplines redefines the nature of departmental courses for the student every semester; the semester system guarantees a built in stop-start rhythm to the process; the increasing demands of the various specializations and the multiplicity of elective options add to the confusion and to the length of time necessary to complete the process. Such conditions help to make the college campus an increasingly bewildering and intimidating place, as much an ordeal as an educationally valuable experience with a rich social component.

The effects of these conditions on the education of undergraduates manifest themselves, too, in the frequent complaints from employers about the lack of general skills, especially the studentsí inability to interact intelligently with others, to communicate effectively, to integrate material from a range of different sources, and to participate in consensus building or cooperative discussions of common problems. In the past two years, I have been a participant in a number of curriculum committees charged with organizing university degrees, undergraduate and graduate, closely linked to particular areas of work. It is remarkable how often the employers and government officials on advisory boards insist, as a first priority, that more emphasis needs to be placed in the degree programs on those general skills most appropriate to such matters. Whatever we are presently doing, in Liberal Arts and elsewhere, we do not seem to be providing, at least in the view of those who evaluate graduates on the job, many of the most important general skills which the students are going to need as soon as they leave the institution and later in their work. Yet many of us defend the Liberal Arts precisely because they allegedly educate students in those very skills.

These problems have been well known and extensively written about for years. What is surprising, in view of the copious literature, is the scarcity of effective attempts to deal with the source of the problem. There is no shortage of minor tinkering, but wholesale restructuring of the way classes are delivered is much harder to find. But it seems obvious enough, given the present conditions, that any measure which fails to address directly the social experience of the classroom is going to miss the main point. Yet that is what so much of the discussion seems to be doing. Many of the arguments which focus on the problems with the education of undergraduates in the Liberal Arts take place largely within a context defined by the perspective of professors, administrators, ministry officials, and philosophers of education, most of whom are products of the present system, who work in it, and who thus are reluctant or unable to explore any connections between its very nature and the problems they wish to deal with. This arena has room for plenty of arguments--especially about books, interpretative methodologies, admission requirements, ultimate purposes, distribution requirements, ideological implications of competing book lists, appointments of Assistant Deans of Substance Abuse, hiring more counsellors, the deleterious effects of television, and so on--but for obvious reasons it often tends to give insufficient weight to the perspective of the student, to the totality of the lived experience of the undergraduate proceeding through the system and beyond. If we wish to address that with anything more than ineffectual adjustments, then we must go to the heart of the problem: the social experience in the classroom.

In the light of this situation, the continuing interest in the short-lived experiments of Meikeljohn and Tussman and the remarkable success of the few modern programs inspired by them take on a particular significance, something out of all proportion to the lasting effects of the experiments on the undergraduate curriculums at Wisconsin and Berkeley. Discussions of Meikeljohnís and Tussmanís programs among a traditional faculty often focus almost exclusively on the putative merits or demerits of interdisciplinary attention to Great Books or upon the stated objectives of such programs. What tends to receive far less attention but which is at least as important a factor in the transforming effect of these reforms is the radical alteration of the classroom and the major redistribution of power which that creates.

The really dramatic element in Tussmanís program, for example, is the idea that the seminar must form the heart of the matter; it is there not as an occasional supplement to the standard lecture but as the very reason for the program. The vital point is not just that the students read, say, The Republic or The Oresteia, but that they discuss the works together as equals in a continuing conversation, a classroom arrangement where the professors sit around the table as equals, not as controlling presences. That students will find the task difficult at first, that their insights or reactions may often be ill-informed, that the process may well be slow--all this goes without saying. But the insights they garner will be uniquely their own and will occur in the midst of a group of friends and intellectual comrades. The transforming power of such an arrangement is so impressive that it is very difficult for those who have been through it as students or professors ever to forget. It puts to rest any notion that we might have after reading complaints like Edmundsonís that modern students are incapable of intelligent conversation, that the cultural forces arrayed against them are too powerful.

That point seems confirmed by the success of at least two university programs in British Columbia inspired by and closely modelled on Tussmanís insights: Arts One at UBC and the Liberal Studies Program at Malaspina. The former, now in its fourth decade, has long stood as a mark of excellence in the first-year of undergraduate education; and the latter, now in its seventh year, has shown that a similar emphasis is an extraordinarily valuable way of organizing the studentís upper-division education. Both offer convincing evidence, through the testimony and later success of the students, that major reforms which address the ills which so concern Edmundson and others are possible if we are prepared radically to rethink how we conduct Liberal Arts classes.

The demand for those qualities of mind and social skills which Liberal Arts courses have traditionally defined as their major concern is clearly increasing, yet little is being done to alter the structure of our curriculum so that Liberal Arts courses can address more effectively the concerns that the traditional curricular structure is failing our students in some important ways. In many institutions, especially the BC university-colleges, the major push seems to be to extend as quickly as possible the very conditions which create such major obstacles for the development of effective Liberal Arts courses. Yet the opportunity is still there. The institutions are still sufficiently small and flexible to effect the sorts of changes which might shift the emphasis from lecturing to learning, from a carefully mediated talk to an emancipating conversation. It remains to be seen whether any more of them will take up that challenge before the rigor mortis of the traditional curricular structure sets in permanently.