Gridlock and the Art of Conversation

St. john's College, Santa Fe, NM

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.Seminar at St. John's CollegeThe 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.

St. john's College, Santa Fe, NMIt 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.

10 Comments

  1. G. Ekman   •  

    It took me many months as a freshman at St. John’s/Annapolis to realize that in seminar I was so busy anxiously formulating and rehearsing my own brilliant contributions to the conversation that I wasn’t even really listening to what other people were saying. When I finally realized it, I began to force myself to concentrate on just listening to and trying to understand the other seminar participants, before composing my own thoughts. This ability to listen, really listen, to others sounds easy, but for me, at least, it’s always been difficult and needs constant repetition and reinforcement. I think this is one of the most valuable things I learned at St John’s.

  2. Max Duncan   •  

    Very well written and so true. I treasure my association with St. John’s.

  3. I particularly appreciate this candid statement: “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.” Thinking must be “brought back into style.” We can all do our part and in that way maybe real conversations will begin to happen. And maybe, just maybe, they can rise from the ground up. By “ground” I refer to ordinary citizens.

  4. Frederick Brown   •  

    I have observed such interactions among my son’s friends when I have visited campus for the past four years. It is wonderful to see (hear). Often when they are in dorm discussions, they will address each other as “Ms. Smith,” or “Mr. Jones” to indicate their respect for each other. Remarkable.

  5. Neal Gross '65   •  

    Look, St Johns is not the US Congress and the US Congress is not St Johns. Let’s be real here. The fundamental premise of St :Johns is that participants come to open their minds, expand their perspectives, and LEARN from the sources [the texts, the other students, the tutors, etc]. Not so for the US [or virtually any other] Congress. That premise is that participants come to GET SOMETHING measurable and tangible for themselves and their sponsors [constituents, donors, party, etc]. I love St Johns and the New Program and the methods, but let’s not fail to distinguish between the rose and the thorns. Thanks, Pres. Chris.

  6. Elizabeth Carlyle   •  

    It seems to me that the skills of formulating a reasoned opinion, stating it coherently, and conversing with others about their reasoned opinions is EXACTLY what is lacking in American politics. I learned to do it at St. John’s. Whether one is discussing Plato’s Republic or the latest actions by the Republican Party in Congress, the skill is the same, and it is sorely lacking in much modern discourse.

  7. Chuck Reuben   •  

    Thank you for reminding me what St. John’s is all about and how it can be applied in my interaction with my neighbors and co-workers. Indeed, the world does have a way of wearing down on one’s dialectic but I suppose a person can set a good example by employing the discussion techniques we learned at St. John’s in our daily life, despite the odds.

    I was also captivated by that young, insightful student who pointed out the “conversation killer” but I confess there are times when I’m glad when certain sensitive subjects hit that brick wall. There certainly are some issues out there that seem almost impossible to resolve but I suppose it’s better to bite the bullet and boldly confront these subjects than become self-righteous or bitter.

  8. Janet Sunderland   •  

    Listening and respectful conversation was probably the most important skill I took from St. John’s and ones which I use daily in teaching, writers’ critique groups, and social occasions. I’m still learning – or rather, practicing. And sometimes my passion and intuitive prods get the best of my intention, but I keep practicing. I’m passing through Annapolis for a walk-through – for the first time – on the afternoon of the 17th and so looking forward to it. Janet Sunderland SFGI ’95.

  9. Cindy Lutz-Spidle   •  

    Yes! And this is exactly why I am very careful to avoid using the word “debate” when explaining how classes work at SJC. Debate implies that the participants pick a side to argue, just for the sake of making a good argument. That can be fun, but it’s not what we do at St. John’s. It was a given around the seminar table that we were all speaking honestly and in good faith. When everyone comes to the table with that spirit, amazing things can happen!

  10. Pingback: on pluralism | mackenziekuhns

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