Why?

Though it was, admittedly, many years ago, I recall vividly the very first seminar I attended as a Freshman in college. This was a real seminar, where the students were expected to carry the ball; not a “seminar” where students sat and listened to an “expert” talk at them. We had been reading Homer’s Illiad and about midway through the two-hour seminar I made what I thought was a salient point about the reasons Hector dragged Achilles’ body three times around Troy after killing him. Almost immediately another student looked at me and asked “why?” I was stunned. I thought the point was obvious. Why should I have to give reasons for what otherwise was as obvious as the proverbial nose on your face?

My blogging buddy Keith recently mentioned that his daughter, a college Freshman, was praised by her professor for writing a paper in his class in which she took exception to what the author had said. She was praised because she was one of the few students who disagreed with what she was reading and being told. She had asked herself the question: “why?” She was praised because she was one of the few who had done so.

Little kids ask the question “why? repeatedly out of their natural curiosity. Their fathers and mothers answer until they are finally forced to say “because I said so.” Perhaps this stops the question, but not for long. The child soon begins again: “Why Daddy?”  “Why Mommy?” Eventually they stop asking the question. And the schools rarely encourage students to ask the question, so the kids stop asking questions and increasingly believe what they are told  — even by chronic liars who couldn’t tell a fact if it came up and bit them in the butt.

Why is this? I never stopped asking this question after that first seminar. In fact, we had four years of seminars twice a week in which students were constantly asking the “why question.” It led me to philosophy where I have continued to ask the question ever since. Indeed, I wrote an ethics book that centers on the question “why?” in an attempt to encourage the students to ask that question at every turn — just as they did as little children. The “why question” requires that reasons be given for claims being made. One doesn’t simply accept as fact the things people say or write. One demands evidence and argument support — even in ethics, where we too frequently dismiss complex issues with the lazy response “who’s to say?”

Complex issues demand thought and the refusal to stop asking the why question until we have reached a point where the answer seems to be staring us in the face. When the weight of the evidence seems to have provided the answer, it is time to stop (subject to further review). But we never know when we have reached that point until we have examined the issue from both sides and have eliminated all possibilities. It is an exhausting process, but it is what makes us think when we might otherwise allow our mental faculties to sleep and simply accept as true a claim that is blatantly false. You know, the kinds of things that certain politicians say all the time.

There has never been a better time than the present to ask the “why question,” and we should not stop until it seems pointless to ask it any more. And that point cannot be reached without persistence and determination to know what is true and separate the true from the false, the absurd from the plausible, the reasonable from the unreasonable. We will never know where that point is until we have reached it. And it is best to have someone asking it with us, because two heads really are better than one — as I learned lo those many years ago in that seminar.

The Civilization of the Dialogue

This post is about conversation (or the lack of it): the gentle art of conversation in which folks actually listen to one another and, attempting to keep an open mind, seek to rethink issues no matter how deeply they feel about them. In a word, it is about the “civilization of the dialogue,” a phrase that arose from a discussion at the Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions in Santa Barbara, California in 1968 focusing on the place of civil discourse in a democracy, a place that everyone involved agreed is central. Of chief interest in that discussion was the publication of several papers — one of which was written by a Senior Fellow, John Wilkinson, a man of considerable sagacity, a wordsmith, and master of the art of dialogue himself. The Center was known for its discussions of public issues, many of them heated, but all deserving of serious attention and almost always productive of insights into the condition of the nation at that time.

It is no secret that the art of conversation has been lost. It has been replaced by the loud voices of two or more advocates of differing points of view whose minds are closed like steel traps and who are simply concerned to have the listener shut up and agree. I use the term “listener” loosely, since the art of listening has been lost as well. Assuredly, television is one of the main causes of this condition, since it features, day in and day out, the shouting and interrupting voices of “talking heads” who hold forth on issues they may or may not know anything about, from sports to politics to feminine hygiene. I would also fault the lecture system in our colleges and universities which fail to instill what Walter Lippmann referred to as “vital intellectual habits” — such as “the ability to follow an argument, grasp the point of view of another, expand the boundaries of understanding, debate the alternatives that might be pursued” — all essential elements of the civilization of the dialogue. College classes must be small enough to encourage all to participate, not just the lecturer.

And one must also consider the eradication of the Fairness Doctrine during Ronald Reagan’s presidency, a policy passed in 1949 that was designed to guarantee equal time to both sides of complex (usually political) issues in the public media.  With the elimination of this Doctrine the public path was clear for louder and less civil voices in the expression of conflicting points of view. Indeed, there no longer needed to be opposing points of view at all: television producers and newspaper editors could simply present one side of an issue and do so again and again — witness Fox “News.” Preaching to the choir replaced genuine dialogue and any effort to grasp both sides of complex issues. But even before the Fairness Doctrine bit the dust, there were clear signs that the art of conversation, the civilization of the dialogue, was in serious trouble — as was our democratic system. To quote John Wilkinson’s  occasional paper printed in the Center Magazine in December 1968:

“The American republic is running on the momentum given it by a galaxy of political virtuosos nearly two centuries ago. It is vain to rail against any one thing or any one group of persons as the cause of our loss of political momentum.. . . We need not believe that there has been some conspiracy. It is tempting but not necessary to suppose that our oligarchs meet secretly, swearing to do everything in their power to harm the people. The effect is the same as if they had. If democracy is the civilization of the dialogue; if, as Scott Buchanan held, ‘persuasion is the life of politics’; if, as Robert Hutchins has written, ‘With an educational system that does not educate and a system of mass communications that does not communicate, we have become incapable of the discussion of which political issues are determined,’ then it is easy to see why the self-styled political elite must be a cacistocracy when not a single one of them could bring forth a clear and distinct idea if he had lived as long and written as much as Varro himself.”

Aside from the fact that I had to look up the word “cacistocracy” to discover it meant rule by the worst and most ignorant elements, I found this passage particularly thought-provoking. Wilkinson is very concerned that the life is going out of our political body because conversation has forsaken us, we have lost the ability to express ourselves clearly, and very few of us are willing to listen to what the other has to say. And this “we,” of course, includes our  so-called “leaders.” Indeed, in his paper Wilkinson notes that before coming to the Center he had taught at six different universities (all of them so-called “prestige” universities). During that time he tested the vocabularies of his students and found to his dismay that

“More than ninety percent of the students proved, as Freshmen, to have a usable, active vocabulary of about eight hundred words. They could passively understand a further five hundred words in something vaguely resembling their proper meaning. Another fifteen hundred or so words lay in such a penumbra of understanding or misunderstanding that more could hardly be averred than that they remembered having heard them before. Beyond that, Stygian darkness.”

This was before texting and the onslaught of electronic toys, and is sobering indeed — especially in light of the fact that Panbanisha, the chimpanzee, is said to have a vocabulary of 3000 words! But in any case, whether or not one is in sympathy with Wilkinson, or believes that his vocabulary tests prove much outside those six institutions, I can attest that in my more than forty years of teaching at the college level my students increasingly exhibited the same inability to grasp meanings and write and speak clearly that was the case with Wilkinson’s students. They were “verbally challenged” and, as a consequence (since we think in words), their thoughts were frequently jumbled and incoherent. Thus we have in our time not only the reduction of genuine dialogue to a shouting match where the goal is simply to speak louder than one another, but we also have growing numbers of people who cannot express themselves coherently even if they have something important to say. And this in a democracy where dialogue is central to its survival.