Higher Education, Conversation, And The Quiet Virtues

September 2020

One of the critical stories in higher education in recent years has been the rapid growth of online learning, a development dramatically accelerated by responses to COVID-19. Within a matter of weeks, university professors the world over have had to familiarize themselves with the technologies and protocols of online learning.

Online learning makes university administrators happy. The financial outlays for mounting internet courses are negligible, while such courses have the potential to attract thousands of students, or “clients,” as some university bureaucrats prefer to think of them. Predictably, there are now calls for permanently ceding portions of university instruction to online learning as part of the new post-virus normal.

But we need to be cautious about the wholesale technological outsourcing of university instruction. From its inception, “distance education” – the precursor to online instruction – was always understood to be a simulacrum of the university experience, an inferior option to on-campus classrooms. True, distance education could reach students in remote locales or those who were already in the workforce or otherwise unable to attend campus classes. But it was always understood that distance education incurred real pedagogical costs.

Crucially, distance students miss out on the educationally vital experience of conversation and dialogue, of human bodies in a room engaged in a real-time, unmediated exchange of ideas and opinions. Educational theorists from Plato to Terry Eagleton have understood that conversation lies at the heart of higher education. As Aristotle succinctly expressed it, “On important matters, we undertake deliberation in common with others, distrusting ourselves as inadequate to make decisions.”

In his recent book Course Correction: A Map for the Distracted University, Paul Gooch, president emeritus and professor of philosophy at Victoria College in the University of Toronto, argues that the method of teaching in universities should be what he calls “interrogative conversation.” For Gooch, conversation is a profoundly personal method that recognizes the embodied student in time and place. He notes that “the internet … is indifferent to human embodiment, oblivious to the frailties of the flesh. In the age of two-way connectivity, human bodies are irrelevant, and you ‘might as well be nothing more than a brain in a vat.’ ”

Professor Gooch advocates an education that recognizes the physicality of learning. In our rush to embrace technology, we have frequently overlooked the fact that human minds exist in bodies. He argues against the notion of a “placeless” virtual education that can happen anywhere with the internet and a screen: “a well-placed university should embrace embodied education, using technology only in its service. Embodied education respects place and bodily presence, rejecting the mentality of info-technocracy.” (My review of Course Correction appeared in the January 2020 SAFS Newsletter.)

Antonella De Michelis concurs. Dr De Michelis is an architectural historian who divides her time between teaching for study abroad programs in Rome and the University of British Columbia Okanagan. Like other university teachers, she has recently been thinking about online learning. “This semester was my first foray into the virtual classroom. I was amazed that what was a well-honed 3-hr lecture was done and dusted in a mere 90 minutes – exactly half its normal length. What was missing was the usual back and forth classroom chat with the students.”

De Michelis goes on to note, “The technology has the potential to be very useful, but it’s passive. With our ‘virtual’ technologies, we are time-travelling to those dusty lecture halls of old where the professor ‘professed’ behind a lectern. There were no questions, no engagement, no discussion. Students were lectured ‘at.’ Real teaching engages and inspires, and that cannot be done by delivering a canned lecture, whether in the classroom or online.”

Conversation is crucial to democracies, for it implies an openness to and awareness of others and a willingness to listen. For any discussion to proceed – whether around the dinner table with family and friends, at the pub with the hockey team, or in the graduate seminar with our fellow students – participants must acknowledge and accommodate each other in a mutually respectful exchange. Conversation teaches dispositions and habits of mind critical to democracy; honesty, respect for others, courage, fair-mindedness, open-mindedness, thoughtfulness, attentiveness, and all the other quiet virtues that are necessary for free societies to flourish. The cultivation of these virtues is central to our learning to converse with others, which is why conversation is the pedagogical tool par excellence for free and open societies, while closed, totalitarian nations such as China rightly perceive it as a threat and so do their best to suppress and control it.

The British philosopher Michael Oakeshott famously likened education to an on-going conversation. In his view, the proper aim of education is to introduce students to the civilized inheritance of human meanings and understandings passed on from previous generations. These meanings are contained within a variety of human experiences – history, science, religion, mathematics, and so forth. Each of these conversations employs a unique language, and the teacher’s task is to instruct students in these particular languages and enculture the manners, mores, tonalities, and nuances – the protocols, in other words – which allow the conversation to proceed.

Education as an on-going conversation is a powerful metaphor. Still, there is always the latent danger that we come to see our civilized inheritance as nothing more than an ossified relic, an heirloom bequeathed to us from our predecessors and of antiquarian interest only. To immunize against this static view of the educative process, Oakeshott underscores the vitality, variability and unpredictability of real-life conversations. Above all, we need to keep in mind that the purpose of a conversation is not to win an argument or to score points in a debate. Instead, it is to understand the perspective, concerns, values, emotions, assumptions, goals and aims of others. Like genuine scientific inquiry, dialogue does not have predetermined objectives; its outcome is determined only by the standards and characters of its participants. Conversation dies when one participant seeks to impose their views, values, and way of life on others, which is why tyrants, prophets, and priests, are uncomfortable around people speaking their minds. And this is also why the university teacher ideally adopts the role of a more advanced student rather than a paragon or sage. For the professor, Socratic irony is at a premium.

Conversation cannot survive authoritarian hierarchies. The indoctrinator, the preacher, or the overbearing teacher, are all anathema to genuine dialogue. Discussions should allow us to openly and freely express our opinions, our half-formed ideas, our inexact probings, as well as our hopes, our fears and our doubts. We need to listen to others with interest, sensitivity, caring, and understanding, for they, like us, are on uncertain grounds. The conversation is always tentative. It allows us to try on new ideas and different opinions, eventually seeing some as helpful while rejecting others.

In an educational environment which values and cherishes conversation, speech codes are subversive and offensive. In any dialogue about serious matters, there will be disagreements. But disputes should be seen as opportunities to deepen our perceptions, rather than as occasions for self-promotion or triumphant boasting, let alone ridiculing or shaming our fellow conversationalists, as, for example, Richard Dawkins is fond of doing, referring to those who reject his materialist neo-Darwinian account of nature as dim-witted.

Conversations are unrehearsed. They require us to practice the quiet virtues and listen attentively and respectfully. We need to learn to tolerate views which we find antithetical to our own and extend to our co-conversationalists the principle of charity, always seeing their arguments in the best light rather than the worst. Any real conversation will consist of false starts, stops, abridgements, ambiguities, lack of clarity, misunderstandings, meanderings, obscurities, side-tracks, vagaries and the myriad other pitfalls which attend humans speaking to one another. Unlike, say, lectures, speeches, sermons, story-telling, or different kinds of verbal performances, conversations – again, much like science – do not have an end-point or conclusion, but rather set the stage for future theoretically endless talks.

Healthy and sustainable conversations require conscientious discussants who possess tolerance for the voices of others and who are open to the give-and-take of human discourse. None should dominate, nor can we ignore or drown out other voices. Our ideal conversationalists must, in the broadest sense, be hospitable, and tolerant of the ambiguities and uncertainties which are part of conversing with our fellow creatures.

It is probably not enough commented upon that there is an aesthetic dimension to genuine dialogue, one which is violated by self-interest or self-promotion. Like jazz improvisation, an authentic conversation flows with a rhythmic harmony in which the give and take among players is complementary and spontaneous, but always respectful of the rules. It is inclusive and supportive, calm and patient. Without such virtues, there can be no constructive dialogue – merely self-assertion, monologues, and soliloquies.

Dialogue is the enemy of certitude and fanaticism, for authentic conversation is unscripted, and no one knows where the discussion will take us. This is why there is no genuine dialogue in totalitarian regimes. The death-knell of exchange is the dogmatic assertion – the suffocating orthodoxy emanating from political, “scientific” or religious claims or, indeed, from any allegation which brokers no dissent. Examples of this are legion: the repressive dictator or the prophet of the “one true religion” or the rigid assertion that the “science” is now settled. Such claims reduce discourse to the sophistry and casuistry typical of ideologies or belief systems.

It is a sure sign that something has gone very wrong in the public life of a society when authorities seek to criticize or ban certain kinds of discussions. Genuine conversationalists are anti-dogmatists, who know that dialogue means a perpetual exchange of ideas and views; that such talks never really conclude, but take on different forms and textures over time. There is never an end or a terminal point to a genuine dialogue which, by its very nature, stands in opposition to fundamentalism of all stripes. Discussion is the natural enemy of the dogmatist – i.e., the one who knows the truth, and who with the certainty of the righteous, proceeds to bulldoze all objections in the service of this higher truth. For true believers, there can be no room for doubt, only the certainty which emanates from the “dear leader” or the “one true prophet” or the “we now know” school of assertion. As the 17th century French philosopher Blaise Pascal famously reminds us, “We know too much to be sceptics, but not enough to be dogmatists.”

Conversation is also central to the formation of human character and identity, a crucial element of the educational engagement. It lies at the centre of our efforts to enlarge our understandings, to appreciate and engage with the world more fully, and to create for ourselves a unique human identity. By emphasizing the role of dialogue, we acknowledge the ancient idea that a crucial purpose of education is to realize or fulfil the individual to the utmost, and to allow individuals to lead purposeful and meaningful lives through the free exercise of their intelligence and imagination. In other words, dialogue performs a primary function in the development of human character, one that transcends the mere instrumentalist need of preparing students for the workplace.

Conversation lies at the very heart of our notions of selfhood and our understanding of the world. It provides the necessary conditions for human flourishing. It is also central to the educational engagement, for the continuance of such conversations throughout our lives instils in us a desire for learning and knowledge. This passion corresponds to a very significant part of our mental makeup. Education, in and of itself, should be an intrinsically rewarding experience, one which is bound with those qualities of wonder and joy which make us most fully human and which allow us to appreciate human life in all its multiple dimensions. Ultimately, conversations pave the way to what the psychologist Erik Erikson labelled “self-actualization.” Or to cite an ancient expert, to what Aristotle called “Eudaimonia,” by which he means the sense of a life well-lived.

For Oakeshott, the educational conversation is a continuous and unrelenting call, a “repeated summons, rather than a possession.” But it is not a summons to passively take on board the ideas of previous generations, to mindlessly mimic those who have come before or to be a blind transmitter of tradition. Instead, it is to become an active, living part of the inheritance by adding our voice and contributing to the on-going discourse.

Oakeshott’s metaphor of education as a conversation is a clarion call to stand against the myriad retrograde and technocratic forces, which would reduce all of higher education to job-preparation. It is a call to reclaim the greatness of our intellectual, imaginative and moral inheritance, and to return to the Delphic Oracle’s “know thyself” as the basis of our educational philosophy.

But here a caveat is necessary. Conversationalists understand that “knowing thyself” is not the directive of the subjectivist who looks within. Instead, we come to know ourselves by turning our minds outward, and, in the company of others, engaging in the ancient conversation that encompasses the immensity and wonder of the human story.


Mon Mon Myat and Patrick Keeney. 2020. “The New Normal and Conversations Under the Tamarind Tree”