The Value of Conversation | September 6, 2013

The Value of Conversation

During one of our conversations this summer, my family and I debated the top skill students need to know. I put in a pitch for critical thinking. My youngest daughter argued for the importance of knowing how to make yourself happy. My oldest daughter made a strong argument for the skill of decision-making, and my wife and son, as English teachers, emphasized the importance of knowing how to use language. They pointed out that beyond the classroom and beyond school, we all need language to express our sense of the world, our sense of who we are and who we are not and our values.

Through this exchange, we collaboratively arrived at the recognition that the most important skill for students to learn is the skill of face-to-face conversation, and this skill includes the ability to engage in rigorous dialogue, the ability to ask questions, and the ability to work collaboratively.

About the time that my family and I were having this extended conversation, we heard on the radio that a new app had been created, one that writes a breakup text for you. That is, if you do not feel like having a conversation with the person you are dating about why the relationship may not last, you can simply download Breakup Text and send a break up text to your boyfriend or girlfriend written by someone who knows neither of you.

This invention allows you to avoid having face-to-face conversation.

For lots of reasons, this is a bad idea.

We need to talk to each other, and I do not mean screen-to-screen conversations. I mean face-to-face conversations that can be hard and messy and demanding, conversations that will take longer than a text or an email. I hope as you move into this school year, you will embrace all opportunities for dialogue. Communities are built by conversation. That is why, at MBS, we ask that you do not use your cell phone during class or morning meeting.

In the late 16th century a man named Michel de Montaigne wrote 107 essays about how to live a full and satisfying life. He wrote exploratory, whimsical pieces that are celebrated today, 430 years after he wrote them. When my older daughter entered college, some of his essays were required reading for incoming freshmen.

I want to share with you a short excerpt from his essay "The Art of Conversation."

This is what he says: "To my taste, the most fruitful and most natural exercise of our minds is conversation. I find the practice of it the most delightful activity of our lives. That is why, if I were now obliged to make the choice, I think I would rather lose my sight than my powers of speech or hearing..."

Montaigne goes on to say: "Studying books has a languid feeble motion, whereas conversation provides teaching and exercise all at once. If I am sparring with a strong and solid opponent he will attack me on the flanks, stick his lance in me right and left; his ideas send mine soaring. In conversation the most painful quality is perfect harmony."

What Montaigne suggests by denigrating conversations of perfect harmony is that we need to disagree, we need to debate, we need to have different views of the world in order to have fruitful conversations, in order to learn who we are and what we believe. When we converse with someone who thinks differently from the way we do, we are invited to consider ideas beyond our own. We are invited to re-consider what we hold to be true, and in this way, we learn more about ourselves and the world around us. This is what we do n the classroom every day!

But clearly, not all conversations need to be about verbal sparring. Conversations can be soft and intimate, joyful and rewarding, jarring and off-putting. The point is that we all need to know how to converse. It is a skill that requires an understanding of tone, of body language, of eye contact, of language and of people.

Last spring at graduation we celebrated members of the senior class who were recognized for their academic achievement, and one thing that struck me as Dr. Mascaro described these accomplished students was their inclination to engage in conversation. This habit of mind, this approach to learning is partly what allowed them to get the most out of their education. In class these students were described as playful explorers, rough and tumble debaters and story-tellers. I want you to strive for this kind of engagement this year.

As returning students know, I frequently roam the halls to see you in action, and once in a while I feign mock horror when I see a large group in the Student Center focused on their iPads rather than engaging in conversation.

My wife calls me the mayor of our fitness club because whenever I go there I talk as much as I work out. I refuse to carry my iPhone because I do not want to miss a potential conversation or opportunity to distract someone from their workout.

While I might joke about the electronic replacement of human exchange, I am serious in my effort to get you to practice in the art of conversation. Here are some facts that may convince you of the need to develop your conversational skills and your ability to work collaboratively.

As many of you know from studying child development, babies and young children are socialized by studying faces. Newborns can discriminate their mother's face from a stranger's face after 8 hours of mother-infant contact spread over 4 days. By 3 to 5 months of age, infants respond differently to happy, surprised, and sad faces.

Through human interaction, babies and young children learn to interpret facial expression, body language, and tone of voice. What will happen to the development of these young children if instead of staring at faces they stare at iPhones or iPads? How will this replacement of a human face with a touch screen affect a child's ability to engage in dialogue and to read social cues? How will these babies develop empathy and the ability to connect with others?

Larry Summers is an economist who is a former president of Harvard University. In an article written last year called "What You (Really) Need to Know," Larry Summers says that with the explosion of knowledge that has occurred in the last decades, collaborative work will be in much higher demand than independent work. Says Larry Summers: "Collaboration is a much greater part of what workers do, what businesses do and what governments do.... One leading investment bank has a hiring process in which a candidate must interview with upward of 60 senior members of the firm before receiving an offer. What is the most important attribute they're looking for? Not GMAT scores or college transcripts, but the ability to work with others."

Your ability to work with others through conversation is, perhaps, the most important skill you can develop, and I would like to end with a statement by the former US Ambassador to Afghanistan, Karl Eikenberry, who implicitly reinforces the important skills of conversation, dialogue and negotiation when he says this: "If you have been a general, you know that weapons are the least effective weapon in your security arsenal. If you don't know anything about cultures, if you don't know anything about histories, foreign languages, you are going to find yourself in places where all the weapons in the world can't solve the problems you went there to solve. "

What he means is we all need to develop our ability to work with others, to converse and to understand other perspectives. This skill is a critical component of our curricular philosophy. So my charge for you this year is very simple: Talk to each other.


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