Gridlock in Washington, DC, has been the status quo for some years now. Our representatives from the two major political parties accomplish very little because they cannot talk to one another. They talk past one another to their local constituents, their financial backers, and active interest groups. They sometimes talk at one another when they state and restate their talking points or their non-negotiable principles. But they seldom talk to one another in any meaningful sense, in any way that could result in consensus on the legislative issues of the day. Some would rather see the government shut down than come to a common understanding.
And Washington is not the only place where gridlock reigns. In state legislatures, county boards, and city councils the situation is often the same, unless one party can gain enough power to simply disregard the concerns of its opponents. Tyranny of the majority is often the only way that anything gets done. Outside of government, too, things are not much better. Employers and labor unions fail to reach agreements; different factions of homeowners’ associations battle each other to a standstill; relatives with different ideological commitments stop speaking to one another. It seems harder than ever to arrive at a meeting of minds.The same inability to communicate appears to have made its way into our high schools. In July, St. John’s held its annual Summer Academies in Annapolis, Maryland, and Santa Fe, New Mexico, which give rising juniors and seniors in high school an opportunity to come to campus for one, two or three weeks and experience something of our unique mode of study. After four seminars on Sophocles’s Antigone, Plato’s Republic, the Book of Job, and two speeches by Abraham Lincoln, one of the young women who participated told a faculty member, “This is probably the first time in my life that I’ve had a real conversation about schoolwork. Usually we just state our opinions and move on. Here we actually listen to one another and really get somewhere!”
What is so distinctive about conversations at St. John’s? Why does our particular practice allow discussions to “get somewhere”? There are many reasons. First, we insist on spontaneous discussion. We do not hold fake conversations, set up in advance by a teacher in order to “cover material” or by a moderator in order to allow participants to express predetermined viewpoints. Second, we assume that we can learn from one another, that we do not already know everything we need to know. We accept that we owe it to ourselves and others to listen to what is being said and to ask for clarification of the things we do not understand. This leads to a third practice that we follow: all participants have the right to speak and the corresponding duty to try to explain themselves as clearly as possible. Fourth, we neither dismiss anyone else’s opinion out of hand nor refuse to give an account of our own opinion to the best of our ability. And fifth, we do not argue in bad faith. We mean what we say. Other things could be added, but these are sufficient to produce discussion that is at worst genial and cooperative, at best dramatically productive and even revelatory.
It turns out—who would have imagined it?—that people honestly speaking their minds, questioning one another seriously but respectfully, discovering unsuspected hidden assumptions and unsatisfactory explanations, and coming to understand one another’s points of view can actually produce mutual understanding and individual insight. And it can also, if necessary, lead to consensus based on areas of overlap in the participants’ viewpoints.
Oh, and one more thing: we do not allow ourselves to fall into easy and socially acceptable relativism. As another one of this summer’s high school students told her Resident Assistant, “I learned that nothing kills a conversation faster than the attitude ‘everyone is entitled to his own opinion.’ I used to think it was polite, but now I think it’s really rude, because it means we don’t take others seriously enough to think about what they are saying.”
So will politicians, employers, workers, homeowners, and relatives be able to get any better at understanding one another, arriving at compromises, or getting things done? Not unless they come to understand the art of conversation at least as well as these intelligent and thoughtful high-school students and our own St. John’s alumni.
Christopher B. Nelson is president of St. John’s College in Annapolis, and an outspoken champion of the liberal arts. St. John’s College, with campuses in Annapolis, Maryland, and Santa Fe, New Mexico, is an independent, four-year college that is devoted to liberal education. Its richly varied curriculum focuses on an integrated study of philosophy, literature, history, theology, political science, mathematics, music, and science. Students and faculty engage directly—not through textbooks and lectures but through study and discussion—with original texts and ideas that are at the foundations of Western thought. www.stjohnscollege.edu