The Great Conversation

4 Aug

I have had a number of rather remarkable teachers over the past few years who have taught me much about what it means to be a good scientist and thinker. These professors have not come from the same discipline nor were they interested in whether or not I would agree with their conclusions from their presentation of evidence. They all, however, share the same convictions that ideas matter and that we are all part of a larger discussion whether or not we are consciously aware of it. My education has been saturated with people who see the major debates and discussions as primarily existing beyond the classroom, lecture series, and academic papers. Arguments are something we have with ourselves as much as other people and even the most mundane chatter can demonstrate the massive history of ideas that precipitated it.

One professor explained the nature of idea sharing within academia: imagine you are outside of a building and inside it there are people discussing something. You enter the building, take a seat, and listen to the debate. Eventually, there comes a time where you have an opportunity to speak and you can take that opportunity or refuse it. You could rail against everyone the room with dogmatic certainty or you can attempt openness, clarity, and subtlety. By now, many of the people in the room when you first entered are gone – new ones have taken their places. At some point, you decide that you’ve contributed to the debate as much as you desired and you leave the room. You have entered “The Great Conversation.”

Nearly every waking moment people are trying to persuade you to act in a certain manner. Rarely are they in armchairs with pipes musing about the morally legitimate structure of society. The presentation of evidence is often so seamlessly integrated into our normal habits of thinking that it is frequently only after are minds have changed that we realize such a transition was in place. Many times the conversations people try to involve you in is upfront: “Buy Miller Lite,” “Be a responsible parent: talk to your kids about drugs,” or “Hello, neighbor, we’d like to have you over for dinner.” Sometimes we aren’t convinced. The key feature of the Great Conversation, however, is that you are a part of it.

The more expansive and encompassing the idea, the more evidence required to make it credible. Though these teachers are in the Great Conversation with other thinkers in their respective fields, they are in a more unique and nuanced conversation at the same time. Throughout my undergraduate education I’ve been fortunate enough to get the right kind of tools to approach a subject. There is really only one tool: questions. The difference in questioning between the standard and stellar teachers is clear. Stellar teacher are not only interested in questions regarding outcomes, but also processes. What is necessary to demonstrate something is true? How do you know? Is there any piece of evidence that would prove you wrong? Is there some piece of evidence that would help make your case? Is this thinking logical and do the results make sense?

When presented with foreign ideas, these kinds of questions give a completely new earpiece to hear the Great Conversation in a fundamentally different, and more enriching, way. My instructors go beyond the realm of asking meta-questions. The Great Conversation for them is less about ideas and their consequences and more about ideas about ideas. How do we think about information? What prevents ideas from connecting? In this debate, the questions build the infrastructure to house the Great Conversation. These “institutional questions” are only half of their approach to this larger debate. The other half is the application. They never act as if they want to outright refute my ideas with a wave of data and theories. People are unconvinced and annoyed when you flatly tell them they are wrong. The goal is not to disprove, but to persuade.

We will always have difficulty conveying ideas. Some of my ideas will be wrong and people will demonstrate that. Some of my ideas will be correct but people will still try to demonstrate my incorrectness. But the most dangerous thing I can do is to dismiss someone’s ideas when they have entered the conversation. This is perhaps the most important idea my professors have circuitously provided me: trivializing ideas in the Great Conversation will only result in one’s own trivialization.

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One Response to “The Great Conversation”

  1. A. Joel Rupert August 4, 2010 at 7:04 pm #

    on J.M. Keynes-

    “…A sincere professor of a discipline, an intellectual innovator to whom truth is key and fact is not otherwise instrumental, cares not whether or not his pupils agree with his thesis, but for what reasons they hold their respective positions on his premises. Keynes, however, for whom not theory but only power was a concern, was always totally happy to have his train of beatnik finger-snappers. Not to mention the approval of the powerful, whose wholesale confiscation of Americans’ economic and social sovereignty his book was written to excuse and promote…”

    -from “What Should Be a Valid End to Keynesians”

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