Robert Nash approaches the classroom with Deborah Tannen’s metaphor in mind: our teaching should be a “barn raising instead of  a boxing match.” We work together to seek or build truths… although Nash suggests that worldviews are so impervious to change that we may not really change anyone else’s building, that maybe the best teachers do is promote an openness to reinvestigating the structures of truth in which we live.

The outcome of all of this, when it is working well, is that we end up creating together some important truths in our lives. One of these truths, in Michael Oakeshott’s (1950) words, is to learn to “taste the mystery without the necessity of at once seeking a solution.” Another truth, in David Bromwich’s (1992) paradoxical words, is this: “The good of conversation is not truth, or right, or anything else that may come out at the end of it, but the activity itself in its constant relation to life.” I think that Oakeshott and Bromwich are on to something: their insights, for me, lead precisely to where moral conversations should begin, and, ideally, where they ought to end: in a fondness for mystery; in a commitment to cooperative meaning-making; in the tireless support of the other person’s flourishing; in an ethic of do no harm and do much good; in an awareness that virtue and vice are constructs that people must decide, and act upon, collectively, but always starting from a base of compassion; and in a love of conversation for its own sake, absent all the usual off-putting, dialogue-stopping, ideological prerequisites [Robert J. Nash (2008), “Facing One Another in This Place: Using Moral Conversations to Talk about Controversial Topics in College Settings,” Journal of College & Character (9:4), pp. 1-9].

Does this mean the bull session is the highest form of teaching? No, I think it’s more than that. Don’t forget the moral at the front of moral conversation. David Nelson at SDSU didn’t: I think moral conversation was what he did all the time in class and over at the Student Union.

Bloggers and their commenters (yup, including me) forget the moral and the conversation all too often. So much of the political blogosphere is not about cooperative meaning-making: it’s about scoring points, driving traffic, and catching our enemies with their intellectual pants down. There are some noxious ideas that need to be quashed (or do they? is that my stubborn adversarial absolutism refusing to let go?), but that’s only the ideas, not the people, who are still our neighbors, and who still need us as much as we need them.

So what about academic research and publication? Think about the last review you received… or better yet, the last review you wrote. What was your goal as you sat down with that anonymous paper? To prove your own grasp of the topic and methodology? To dismantle the half-baked thesis and humiliate the authors for submitting such dreck? Or to help the authors improve the paper so we may all benefit from their scholarship?

Now don’t think moral conversations are a happy, consequence-less land of self-esteem building. Nash explicitly quashes that notion in the above-cited article. The “second rule of conversational leadership” (p. 8) tells teachers not to move in too quickly to protect students from “justifiable criticism” for unethical behavior or “illogical, incomplete, too sweeping, poorly defended, vague” ideas. Students — and the rest of us — can take it, and need to take it when we are failing in our obligation to be rigorously thoughtful and moral.

But in moral conversation, in the classroom, online, and in our research and writing, we should criticize from a spirit not of “You’re a bastard!” but of “You’re better than that.”

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