Educational philosopher Robert Hutchins championed the life of the mind, which he encouraged through the study of literature and ongoing dialog with learned peers. He called this "The Great Conversation" and published a book by that name in 1952. I credit Hutchins’ work, and particularly the Great Books series that he fostered, with motivating me to embark upon my pursuit of self-education and to continue the course of lifelong learning that I follow to this day.
Key to developing a life of the mind and learning to think for oneself is the notion of ongoing dialog. Hutchins placed great value on exposing oneself to multiple points of view in order to formulate an opinion of one’s own. Real learning happens not when we swallow whole what someone else believes, but rather when we work through an issue in our own minds.
What has disturbed me about public discourse today, especially in social media, is my sense that it mostly serves as an echo chamber. No one seems to talk reasonably with anyone who has divergent ideas. Instead, disagreements become shouting matches with voices expressed in text, in all caps, and with character bursts too short for satisfactory explanation. Lately, though, I’ve had to admit that beneath the media hype about polarized camps, many people are engaged in meaningful dialog and minds are changing. The growing support for gay marriage proves the point.
For months my email signature contained the assertion that "life is too short to text and too important to tweet." My nephew, however, has convinced me to think of Twitter as a news source, a library index card, or a subject header that opens an opportunity for conversation and further learning. It gives me the ability to delve deeper into a subject when it points me to material that I otherwise would not know about. So, much to my own surprise, I’ve now removed that statement from my signature and have activated a Twitter account.
From the beginning, my skepticism about Twitter stemmed from the current mania for the brevity of bulleted lists and the admonition that everything worth reading must be up front. Introductions and first chapters in books often turn out to be the only text worthy of one’s time. In far too many cases, the "keep it short, keep it simple, put it up front" practice, combined with texting and tweeting, has appeared to result in a lack of the depth necessary for basic comprehension. To my mind, it’s essential to know why and how a person has reached whatever conclusion is put forth.
The Great Books program advanced by Robert Hutchins offered an approach to the humanities through the exploration of our finest literature, a method that today is largely marginalized. These days, advocates for the humanities and a liberal education increasingly attempt to make their case by beating around the bush. Too often they fail to explain why we should value the humanities. And yet, the argument desperately needs to be made because the humanities contain seeds of goodwill that are capable of turning red and blue states purple.
The human condition is the conundrum at the crux of civilization. Our respective cultures provide a barrage of edicts about what we are to do in life with too little regard for how we are to cope with the inescapable anxiety that comes with our fragile existence. This makes us egregiously vulnerable to political manipulation.
Too many of us are ill-equipped to manage the conditions we find ourselves in, unless we have learned enough about our species to deal with our conscious and subconscious angst about our own inevitable demise. We come pre-programmed with a clash-driven political nature that is due, in part, to our split-brain architecture, which enables us to compartmentalize conflicting information. As a result, we tend to readily hate those whom we view as different based upon the flimsiest of criteria.
The promise of faith helps some people by offering the assurance that if you believe this, there is nothing to worry about. For others, though, the fact that their belief system is not universal, in and of itself, is cause for the kind of contempt that routinely ferments into a hatred of nonbelievers.
If one is born into a poorly educated culture, the future portends a life of poverty and a worldview filled with scorn and social paranoia. Taken further, if one's culture is ignorant and socially oppressive, a life of political zealotry may prove to be irresistible and scapegoats will be enthusiastically provided for persecution.
We can't put our own lives in perspective without developing the ability to envision ourselves in a global context. We must also realize that our propensity to view our own respective cultures as naturally superior to all others is a primeval short circuit that fosters ridicule and disdain. Ultimately it can lead to self-destruction.
Life is an existential dilemma, and it is subjective to the nth degree. For each of us, life is an unsolvable mystery, and yet the pursuit of the puzzle can provide enough existential relief to make living pleasurable. Learning continuously along the way leaves plenty of room for those who view the world differently.
We human beings need to know all we can about being human, especially about other cultures with differing customs, traditions, and worldviews. Knowledge of many subjects we consider electives, such as psychology, anthropology, and sociology is desperately needed by all citizens. Promoting that greater level of understanding could dispel the needless social anxiety that’s born of ignorance and perpetuated by our tribal nature for exclusiveness.
Today the amount of time that people waste hating others because of absurd misunderstandings is astounding. The more we learn about the outer world, the larger our inner world becomes. We are less threatened by things we don't understand because we know that the process of trying to understand can relieve us of needless anxiety.
I have joined Twitter with the goal of following not only those with whom I agree but also those with whom I don’t agree—especially those whose messages I think are destructive. The point of entering into a public conversation, in my view, is not to enhance one's career, social standing, and earning potential, or to live a life of ease made possible by magical software. It is, instead, an aspiration to experience the kind of life that transcends our respective cultures, a life with the independence of mind to determine value without coercion and to develop our sense of humanity, regardless of which culture we were born into.
No doubt this is a tall order, and it may indeed be overly idealistic. Still, I think it’s clear that only in hindsight can we judge the effectiveness of something we would characterize as a great conversation. Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature offers a compelling argument that over the long term, we are making moral progress. All we have to do now is speed it up. Twitter has crossover potential. Maybe it can help. Follow me on Twitter: @CDHWasilla
Friday, 16 August 2013