Today in my seventh period Humanities class - essentially an AP World History course that integrates the study of artistic, musical, and philosophical/religious developments over time - my teacher turned to the class and posed an interesting question: what is “conversation”?
We had been discussing the intellectual culture of the Middle Ages, specifically the rise of ecclesiastical universities and the school of thought known as scholasticism. During the lecture, we were given a glimpse of what a typical day in the life of a medieval student looked like: rise at 4am, breakfast, mass, copy lectures verbatim as the teacher reads from the only available textbook, lunch, disputations, more lectures, self-study, bedtime by 9pm.
Makes high school look like summer vacation, no?
Anyway, apparently these students LIKED intellectual debate. They actually enjoyed friendly discourses on Aristotle’s Metaphysics and theological doctrine - or, as my teacher puts it, “foamed at the mouth” at the thought of conversing over the virtues of poetry, Benedictine monasticism, and whatever Biblical interpretations they had. Medieval scholars spent their free time meticulously dissecting sections of literature; often, a single conversation on, say, the concept of the afterlife could go on for hours. And therein lies the key concept - conversation.
My teacher then recounted one of her own self-proclaimed “nerdy” experiences during an AP grading convention. She and her other history teacher friends were casually talking one night when somebody in the group asked what their favorite historical periods to teach were and why. They then proceeded to spend three-and-a-half hours talking Mongol invasions, Cold War, WWII, and post-classical China - sharing individual opinions, mulling over difficult questions, arguing for and against certain points. In the end, my teacher said, each person’s viewpoint probably did not undergo some radical transformation. There was no yelling, no screaming; nobody cried and nobody cheered. Instead, they all walked away from the discussion with new-found perspectives that they might have overlooked previously. Obtaining perspectives leads to understanding, and the accumulation of understanding births intellect. And that, I’d argue, is what makes a meaningful conversation.
Her words led me to think about the role conversation plays in my life - and its existence (or lack thereof) in society in general. When do I truly converse with those around me? Too often, we take the words of others for granted. Our “conversations” are short and exceedingly trite in nature: “How’d you do on the math test?” “Fine.” Or, “Hey Mom, what’s for lunch today?” “Chicken and rice, it’s in the fridge”. Technology seems to precipitate this quality decay. Now, it’s so easy to grab a cell phone and punch in some words or symbols (or an odd, hybrid mixture of both). While this method of interaction may work just as well for relaying a message, the gift of perception and comprehension we gain from truly consequential conversation disappears. Don’t get me wrong, I am no 21st century Luddite - I confess, even, to using and loving the convenience of technology, whether that may come in the form of my TI-84 Silver Edition, laptop computer, or social networking sites.
I’m just worried that the declining meaningfulness of our day-to-day chit-chat discloses a frightening truth: has the once-treasured art of conversation been lost for good?