Reflecting on How to Dialogue

I was recently sent a link to “Notes on Dialogue” by Stringfellow Barr by a good friend who has sent this same article to me before over the years.  One may think that this repetitive action may show an onset of demesne but I suppose it is what he sees as lacking in classrooms and in everyday conversation. If teachers are implementing dialogue they probably have never participated in a dialogue, much less been trained. I am trying not o make a negative generalization, but out of observation over my years as a teacher, professional development focuses teachers away from lecture presentations toward group, partnering, and team work.  More so today, technology is thrown in the mix, so now you have even more variations depending on the equipment your school has to offer for use in the classroom.
Upon my discovery of St. John’s College, I have been fascinated with how they have implemented dialogue throughout their curriculum since the 1930’s.  In 1996, I participated in my first Great Books Training which opened my eyes to how introduce, guide, and implement the dialogue in the classroom.  Since that introduction, I have included different styles and phases of the dialogue in the classroom, mostly with great success.  Over the years, I gained further knowledge from Michael Strong’s The Habit of Thought: From Socratic Seminars to Socratic Practice and from John Senior’s writings and students who have shared with me their experience of taking classes in the Integrated Humanities Program at the University of Kansas, such as James Taylor, author of Poetic Knowledge.
Barr’s reflections are written many years after the implementation of the dialogue at St. John’s, which allows us to acknowledge that these notes come from years of experience. He reflects that most conversations particularly those in the classroom tend to move toward a competitive nature where each person is trying to out maneuver or win the argument.  All of this action is done ultimately out of pride, rather than a joint pursuit toward truth, “the impressive personal vanity that prevents each ‘discussant’ from really listening to another speaker and that compels him to use this God-given pause to compose his own next monologue;”
What stirs heated conversations in the classroom or over coffee is that, “We yearn, not always consciously, to commune with other persons, to learn with them by joint search.”  Socrates is the basis of understanding dialogue and its purpose, “The heroic effort to achieve political democracy was an effort to increase dialogue between men while that master of dialogue, Socrates, sought with Apollo at Delphi and died rather than cease from asking his fellow-Athenians awkward, important questions.”  Barr continues in stating, “So deep is the human faith in inquiry.  Before we resent or reject the idea that the scientist is ‘in dialogue’ with his object or objects he investigates, let us observe that, like Socrates, he is humble, patient, imaginative, and deeply attentive.  He ‘listens’ with all five senses and with ‘the mind’s eye.’”  This is the heart of why dialogue leads man to the truth and that it is a mutual effort between the participants, but each has to give themselves as a whole.
Barr goes on a tangent on the possible importance of dialogue in the 20th century, one of brutal violence…this aside is based on his views as an ardent supporter of world peace and the idea of one world government, he refers to such thinkers as Martin Buber, Telhard de Chardin, and Pope John XXIII’s “call to all men of good will, regardless of their particular religious faith, their race, their economic status, their nation, their political creed, or their technological development.”  He ponders that “the most relevant sort of dialogue, though perhaps the most difficult, for twentieth century men to achieve and especially for Americans to achieve is the Socratic.”
I may not whole heartedly agree, but as Barr continues his thoughts on the importance of dialogue, he presents from the Republic, Socrates’ early discussion with Thrasymachus as one of “courtesy,” and he goes further in describing “Socrates is, as it were, the personification for purposes of discourse of the love for one’s neighbor that Judaism and Christianity prescribe.”  Most of us are Thrasymachus and fear losing the argument, thus I have always viewed the beginning of the Republic as Socrates being harsh and abrupt with his interlocutor.  This is not the purpose of the dialogue, but rather to journey toward truth.
In the latter part of the essay, Dr. Barr presents ten rules for dialogue.  As he presents these rules, he makes note, “One hesitates to suggest rules of thumb for a kind of discussion that is essentially spontaneous.  But it is hard to see how these particular rules could stifle spontaneity.”  Here are a few quotations from eight of the rules:
  • “I take Herodotus’ ‘anecdote’ that the Persians deliberated while drunk and decided while sober implies that in the early stages of a dialectic exchange a ‘wild idea’ is often more fruitful than a prematurely prudent opinion.”
  • “In dialectic, a quick question is analogous to ‘point of order’ in political assemblies.  ‘Do I understand you to be saying…’ always has the floor.”
  • “Experience brings a sixth sense in Socratic dialectic too..  The will of self-insistence gives way to the will to learn.”
  • “The point is that, in dialectic, it does not matter whose mouth gets used by the dialectical process, provided all are listening intently and exercise the freedom to interrupt with a question if they do not understand.” The next statement I bold out what I see as a crucial requirement to dialogue: “On the other hand, reading or writing while ‘in dialogue’ is a grave offense against the common purpose of all, not because they diminish the number of speaking mouths but because they diminish the number of listening ears. (Doodling and smoking are permissible aides to listening).
  • “…we should follow the argument wherever it leads.”
  • “The chairman, [like St. John’s tutors] now has the more delicate task of intervening, preferably by question, only when he believes that there is a misunderstanding or an unprofitable (not a profitable) confusion…”
  • we “…will need to be close listeners, in the event that we take Socrates’ advice; we shall, indeed, have to be closer listeners that we now are.”
  • “When free minds seek together for greater understanding, they tend to move…with playfulness and a sense of the comic…The truly relevant jest is never out of order, so long as we can pursue our dialogue with high seriousness and with relevant playfulness.”
Barr ends his thoughts on referring to Plato and Shakespeare’s use of the “mind’s eye” and he suggests that “there is a mind’s ear too, a listening, mindful ear. I suggest that the chief reason that conversations deteriorate is that the mind’s ear fails.”  As the teacher reflects on dialogue for the upcoming school year, I suggest we and our students clean out our ear wax (pride) and open our ears to listening.  Perhaps our conversations in the faculty rooms, professional development and in the classroom will take us a little closer toward the truth.