Education as Conversation

The intellectual life is a conversation. Hopefully, as students progress through college or graduate school, they will become captivated by the reality of this simple statement. This is true regardless of whether the student’s goals are pragmatic or theoretical.

Conversations can occur between those with equal or unequal mastery of a topic. A magnanimous conversationalist desires and invites others—from any starting point—to become involved in a topic and grow in proficiency. Such a person is, ipso facto, a teacher.  In three decades of teaching, the best aids that I have found have not come from attempts to manage education in technical terms. It is not, I believe, that teaching cannot benefit from limited scientific study. But rather it is that much of teaching simply is an art. Another typical failure in programmatic studies of education is mistaking of practice and goals. Each discipline, be it history, biology, mathematics, etc., has its own inherent goods. Much of succeeding, both as a teacher and as a student, is the entrance and immersion of oneself into the goods of the particular discipline.

Permit me to begin by mentioning three aids, two that are classics, that I find helpful for guiding my own attitudes and practice. Where there is reason to recommend a general guide to study techniques for the introductory student, Virginia Voeks’, On Becoming and Educated Person (1979), is an excellent primer. For the scholar and the advancing student, A.G. Sertillanges’, O.P., The Intellectual Life: Its Spirit, Methods, Conditions (1992), is a practical and inspiring work. I return to it myself every few years. There are books specifically about doing laboratory work, experimental design and specific methods that are good, but are too narrow in scope for mention here: we are about general education at the moment.  (We will hopefully discover those things elsewhere at this website.) In combination, these books provide apt reminder of the duty of the instructor to practice superabundant generosity and humble patience. This attitude facilitates the commitment to the craft of teaching—be it in the lecture hall, laboratory or elsewhere where one communicates with individual students or the class en masse–in those modes founded on a giving and receiving that make for genuine intellectual exchange and progress.

Intellectual growth within informal settings, or within institutions and for the purpose of some accreditation, is sustained by intense and developing dialogues with oneself, aided by external resources and experiences, and expands with developing confidence into meaningful conversations with others. The thought of the contemporary philosopher, Alasdair MacIntyre, provides excellent guideposts for conversation that are conducive to the art of teaching as well, for which his work, Dependent Rational Animals (1999), is an accessible and brief outline.

This argued perspective that MacIntyre provides is the best accommodation of the necessary reality of vertical and unequal relationships (e.g., imagine you and your dean, a company bureaucracy, the IRS, or the nursing staff of a hospital in which you may have found yourself as patient), with the inexorable and wholesome press for horizontality that communicating, by its nature, demands. In the movie, Cool Hand Luke (1967) –as an extremely satirical illustration of vertical hierarchy–was it not the “Captain” (Strother Martin), and not “Luke” (Paul Newman), who truly just could “not be reached?” Less dramatically, one could ask how a contemporary professor could provide, for his or her students, the explicit and exemplified curiosity and promptings to inquiry and intellectual growth, without conveying a pedantic style. And this is where I argue that MacIntyre lends aid and comfort. Acknowledged dependence of every person is the predisposing adjustment that permits a more just outcome in and from communication and those actions that result. Acknowledged dependence mitigates the recurring flaw of the “Captain.” The relationship of professors and students is no exception. The patient instructor appreciates his or her own limitations of apprehension in absolute terms as well as in their own history of intellectual growth. Educational practice that displays a predisposition, preference and effort to make conversations as horizontal as prudently possible, affords not only personal benefits, but makes for a more just society with welcomed checks on structural abuse.

The striving for horizontality carries with it a responsibility for individuals, the professor first among humble learners, to act as a voice for those unable to express their interests, permanently or within an unfolding developmental passage. This responsibility simply reflects the uniform reality that we all struggle to be able to express ideas more accurately and more effectively and that that effort is inherently and profoundly satisfying as well as being critical for society. This orients the instructor to strive in identifying the communicative elements and capacities of the other, in this context the student, and to collaboratively acquire commonality of terms and at least a moderately serviceable semantic framework.

The much-maligned lecture is precisely the situation where the generosity and diligence of the professor can produce much fruit. Properly executed, the lecture is a mode for providing students within a shared setting a common lexicon and a system of thought—not the final system, but one from which the creativity of the student can be launched. There is probably no need to elaborate, here, the specifics of the art form of commendable lectures, made replete with experiences of the professor that complement those of assigned texts and those of each hearer. Attention to the physical and psychological animalities–the pacing, the need for cognitive orientation & repetition, as well as such things as the benefits of judicious and tasteful, humorous relief–all coalesce into well-executed lecture style peculiar to each instructor.

The internal and external conversations that make up society and education equally presuppose the existence of elements of linguistic terminology and meaning. Emphasis on these elements, or learning detail, need not lead inexorably to superficial learning. To the contrary, details make up the essential vocabulary that enables more complex ideation, understanding and expression. Regardless of whether the discipline is anatomy or philosophy, it is the basics that lead efficiently to the grasping of the conceptual–especially when rote practices of mental disgorgement and examination are avoided in lieu of lively exploration of etymological richness and well-exampled presentation of foundational concepts. Here is where (for certain classes, especially in the introductory sciences) a selective use of robust and challenging multiple-choice assessment, carefully constructed, is supportive of a testing program that rightly is directed progressively toward expectations of competence expressed in short-answer and essay questions on tests and through written papers produced during and ending the semester. In higher level classes, the latter should be clearly the norm where practical.

Many options presented during the semester for in-depth and independent expression is an encouragement for those students reaching higher levels of ongoing development and prevents the frustrating experience of intellectual straitjacketing. In turn, high-achieving students deserve a due reward for extraordinary efforts. For instance, this could be through the opportunity to receive extra credit on tests in introductory courses or as part of independently developed work products systematized in advanced courses, essentially transitioning them toward independent study, practicums and colloquia.

It is in recitation, laboratory and seminar courses for introductory students, and during practicums and colloquia for advances classes, that opportunities are especially conducive for peer-to-peer learning in a substantive way—though even the lecture setting should provide some vehicle for such as well. It is the seminar situations that students can bring to bear their products of solitary study and internal conversation to bear and for sharing, critique and rigorous, self-confident dialogue. Doing so in a generous and self-respecting manner affords chances to acquire and perfect skills directed toward common goods and flourishing. These formal situations, as well as those they arrange for themselves independently, foster commitment to reasoned conversation and negotiated responsibility for ideas and actions in response to others.

As with detail versus conceptual learning, so too with the incorrectly assumed dichotomous and antithetical relationship of the practical with the theoretical, both in methods and in goals. The resolution (phronesis) is found in the appreciation for the circular and iterative flow of information through the sensory, cognitive and motoric–and on to the externalia of objects and events existing in the person’s environment–before returning through the windows of sensation and perception to repeat the cycle again. In this way, interaction with the externals, especially in deliberate effort, informs the internally sculpted view of the world and the artifacts therein created–and vice versa. Act and imagination can only be realized in integral combination and iteration.

Finally, there is the matter of assessment. Over many years I developed a successful instrument, approved by all of my deans to date, whereby I mathematically correct what is best interpreted as the instructor-induced difficulty of a given assessment. Thus, I apply a theoretically justified algorithmic adjustment (“curve”) that uniformly works to reduce such bias. The application of this curve is predicated on the recognition that the instructor-induced difficulty unevenly affects the high- versus the low-performing students. The adjustment is indexed to reliable canonical points. This practice equitably and proportionally rewards the best students in their own right and without coupling to the performance of less-well performing students. At the same time, it mitigates what would otherwise be a punitive and perhaps even arbitrary setting of standards by the instructor in designing the assignments or tests. In accomplishing the latter, it reduces a disproportionate pressure upon the student who is still coming to grips with various fundamentals of competency—thereby providing them with additional encouragement in a manner that possesses a continuously quantified, theoretical justification.

A teacher sees potential in every person and makes available the tools for broader and more meaningful conversation in all of its forms.


An important and provocative interview is that of Jordan B. Peterson and Camille Paglia discussing the destructive effects that post-modernism and feminism have had on civilization, by their analysis, through a deviation from generally laudable social impulses arising from modernism in the 1960s [5].  These destructive effects derive from the denial of any genuine meaning to anything–leaving only relationships of power. Professor Göran Adamson discusses the danger of a student simply pushing “the red button,” as he calls, and the professor being discharged, or at least losing months of their life.  The multiculturalists have inverse-exponentially approached and have achieved a fascistic condition.  But this was predictable, based on other descriptive schema: we become who we hate–and I would add that only happens when we hate irrationally.  It is in the irrationality, I speculate, that people have hidden the dirty, little secrets of things that people hate about themselves, the motivations and explanatory systems that they have not reconciled or the sins they have not had absolved [6].  These case studies illustrate failures of conversation, obviously good-faith conversations, the only kind of conversation there is, conversation qua conversation.

Another professor we have access to because of the internet is Victor Davis Hanson.  He is an able proponent of studies in the classics [7,8].


[1]  Voeks, Virginia, On Becoming and Educated Person, 3rd ed. 1979.  Philadelphia: W.B. Saunders.

[2]   Sertillanges, A.G., The Intellectual Life: Its Spirit, Methods, Conditions. 1992. Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press.

[3]   MacIntyre, Alasdair, Dependent Rational Animals. 1999.

[4]  Cool Hand Luke.  [Movie]  1967.

[5] “Modern Times: Camille Paglia & Jordan B Peterson”

[6] “Göran Adamson – the Swedish Jordan Peterson,” video at:

[7] Victor David Hanson on “The Classical Tradition.”


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