We talk, we text, we tweet. And that’s fine. We needn’t require ourselves to think deeply at all hours, in all weather. Some things just don’t need the time, space and gravity we associate with such terms as “discourse,” “debate” and “dialogue.”
But many things do. And one of the dangers for a society that gets too used to the frenetic and featherweight -- and to media tailored to delivering little else -- is that when a real issue comes along, with conflicting ideas and multiple facets, and complexity and weight and much in the balance, we simply have no way to discuss it.
Think immigration in Arizona, justice in Ferguson, religious freedom in Indiana, water wars in California, Confederate iconography in the South, sexual assault on college campuses.
And, importantly, issues like these don’t “come along.” They’re always with us, constantly testing us, and our decisions about them matter. They determine what lives we lead, and what world we’ll leave behind.
So it makes a difference that discourse today, when it happens at all, is often rife with personality, politics, opinion and noise but short on facts -- much less analysis and insight.
This predicament touches on a counterintuitive point that goes to the heart of the problem: facts are not enough. Daniel Moynihan’s eminently quotable “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts” is true enough as far as it goes. But simply memorizing those facts, then trading them with people who already agree with you, advances no argument and makes no decision easier or wiser.
To argue in the sense of debate, to hold a constructive, reasoned conversation with the potential to change minds, we first have to engage the minds we would change: our own as well as others’. Students don’t necessarily arrive at college with the skills to do that, unfortunately, and it’s no wonder. Our digital bubbles and the social media hall of mirrors make it possible to seem connected to every person alive, discussing every topic under the sun, when in truth we’re often engaging merely with enclaves of the like-minded.
A hall of mirrors doesn’t add perspectives, it only multiplies your own; its depth is all pretense.
This is a major paradox of our time. Think, for example, of the heyday of broadcast TV, when news networks numbered exactly three and were indisputably more homogenous than today. And yet they routinely offered opposing points of view. Today our options for news and views have grown exponentially, but paradoxically so too have our tools for sorting ourselves into virtual silos. Two points of view are rarely sufficient in any case, as almost nothing worth arguing about has just two sides. But now, with 1,000 channels and countless blogs that double as echo chambers, we don’t have to listen to even that many.
And while real debate would doubtlessly improve our current landscape, perhaps “dialogue” is the best word for what is most needed today, and always. For true dialogue, two things are required, besides the will to think for oneself rather than accept some authority’s shrink-wrapped opinion package.
The first is to find a sense in which we’re in it together. “We” can be students in a classroom, business competitors, House and Senate colleagues, or newly established neighborhood associations, but the default position has to be the same: if an “us vs. them” dynamic prevails, everybody loses.
In this way, dialogue is equally pledge as practice: it urges us to uphold a sense of community above all, no matter the size of the controversy or the intensity of the conflict. It’s more huddle, less face-off.
It’s also our best tool for delivering productive, civil and nuanced results from even the most passionate disagreements -- which, it’s worth pointing out, is not only inevitable but desirable in a place dedicated to the life of the mind.
Here higher education plays a role that can be easily obscured by the very proper focus on difference. College should most definitely put young people in touch with the vast variety of human thought and experience. But if we do it right, they should also have a growing appreciation for what unites us beneath our differences in color and country, class and gender, age and era: the reassuring bedrock of the genuine human needs, abilities, drives and virtues that we hold in common.
And let’s not pretend any of this is easily done or effortlessly taught. It takes considerable self-awareness, patience and discipline to contribute to such complex conversations, and it takes even more to lead them, to say nothing of the skills and wisdom needed to teach others to do the same. It should be the goal of every intellectual community to advance the depth, breadth and sustaining power of face-to-face dialogue.
The second requirement for true dialogue may be even more important. It depends on a mind-set that can be expressed in four words: I might be wrong.
“The spirit of liberty,” Judge Learned Hand famously said in a 1944 speech, “is the spirit which is not too sure that it is right.” The rest of his sentence is less often quoted but equally pertinent: “The spirit of liberty is the spirit which seeks to understand the minds of other men and women … which weighs their interests alongside its own without bias.”
That’s a high bar for a species as tribal and fallible as ours, but it’s a worthy one. Truth be told, it’s the only way we’ll ever make progress in judging how best to live together, whether that means in colleges, communities or countries.
The best way to start clearing that bar?
Helping our young people to value reflection over reflexes, giving them effective ways to listen, think, converse and cooperate -- not offering them “cut flowers,” as the educational leader John Gardner once put it, but “teaching them to grow their own plants.”
Ryan Hays is executive vice president at the University of Cincinnati.
The most distracting thing about costume dramas set in any period before roughly the turn of the 20th century -- in my experience, anyway -- is the thought that everything and everyone on screen must have smelled really bad. The most refined lords and gentry on Wolf Hall did not bathe on anything we would regard today as a regular basis.
No doubt there were exceptions. But until fairly recently in human history, even the most fastidious city dweller must have grown accustomed to the sight of human waste products from chamber pots that had been emptied in the street. (And not just the sight of it, of course.) Once in a while a movie or television program will evince something of a previous era’s ordinary grunge, as in The Return of Martin Guerre or Deadwood, where almost everything looks soiled, fetid and vividly uncomfortable. But that, too, is exceptional. The audience for costume drama is often looking for charm, nostalgia or escapism, and so the past usually wears a deodorant.
The wider public may not have heard of it, but a “sensory turn” among American historians has made itself felt in recent years -- an attention, that is, to the smells, tastes, textures and sounds of earlier periods. I refer to just four senses, because the importance of sight was taken for granted well before the turn. In their more polemical moments, sensory historians have even referred to “the tyranny of the visual” within their discipline.
That seems a little melodramatic, but point taken: historians have tended to scrutinize the past using documents, images, maps and other artifacts that chiefly address the eye. Coming in second as the organ of perception most likely to play a role in historical research would undoubtedly be the ear, thanks to the advent of recorded sound. The remaining senses tie for last place simply because they leave so few traces -- which, in any case, are not systematically preserved the way audiovisual materials are. We have no olfactory or haptic archives; it is difficult to imagine a library of flavors.
Calls to overcome these obstacles -- to analyze whatever evidence could be found about how everyday life once sounded, smelled, felt, etc. -- came from American historians in the early 1990s, with a few pioneers at work in Europe even before that. But the field of sensory history really came into its own over the past decade or so, with Mark M. Smith’s How Race is Made: Slavery, Segregation and the Senses (University of North Carolina Press, 2006) and Sensing the Past: Seeing, Hearing, Smelling, Tasting and Touching in History (University of California Press, 2007) being among the landmarks. Smith, a professor of history at the University of South Carolina, also convened a roundtable on the sensory turn published in the September 2008 issue of The Journal of American History. A number of the contributors are on the editorial board of the Studies in Sensory History series published by the University Illinois Press, which launched in 2011.
The series’ fifth and most recent title is Sensing Chicago: Noisemakers, Strikebreakers and Muckrakers by Adam Mack, an assistant professor of history at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Beyond the monographic focus -- it covers about fifty years of the city’s history -- the book demonstrates how much of the sensory field of an earlier era can be reconstructed, and why doing so can be of interest.
Overemphasis on the visual dimension of an urban landscape “mirrors a set of modern cultural values that valorize the eye as the barometer of truth and reason,” we read in the introduction, “and tend to devalue the proximate, ‘lower’ senses as crude and less rational.” Having thus recapitulated one of sensory history’s founding premises, the author wastes no time before heading to one site that must have forced its way deep into the memory of anyone who got near it in the 19th century: the Chicago River.
“A bed of filth,” one contemporary observer called it, where manure, blood, swill and unusable chunks of carcass from the slaughterhouses ended up, along with human sewage and dead animals -- all of it (an editorialist wrote) “rotting in the sun, boiling and bubbling like the lake of brimstone, and emitting the most villainous fumes,” not to mention drawing clouds of flies. A letter writer from 1862 mentions that the water drawn from his kitchen hydrant contained “half a pint or more of rotten fish.” Many people concluded that it was safest just to drink beer instead.
Laws against dumping were passed and commissions appointed to investigate the problem, for all the good it did. The poorest people had to live closest to the river, so disgust at the stench combined in various ways with middle- and upper-class attitudes towards them, as well as with nativist prejudices.
The horrific odor undermined efforts to construct a modern, rationally organized city. Imposing a grid of streets on the landscape might please the eye, but smell didn’t respect geometry. The same principle applied to the Great Fire of 1871, the subject of Mack’s next chapter. The heat and sheer sensory overload were overwhelming, and the disaster threw people from all walks of life together in the streets in a way that made social status irrelevant, at least for a while. The interplay between social hierarchy and sensory experience (exemplified in references to “the roar of the mob”) is the thread running through the rest of the book. Thinking of the “‘lower’ senses as crude and less rational” -- to quote the author’s phrase again -- went along with assumptions about refinement or coarseness as markers of class background.
The sources consulted by the author are much the same as any other historian might use: newspapers, civic records, private or otherwise unpublished writings by long-forgotten people, such as the recollections of the Great Fire by witnesses, on file at the Chicago History Museum. The contrast is at the level of detail -- that is, the kinds of detail the historian looks for and interprets. Perhaps the next step would be for historians to enhance their work with direct sensory documentation.
A prototype might be found in the work of John Waters, who released one of his movies in Odorama. Audience members received cards with numbered scratch-and-sniff patches, which they consulted when prompted by a message on the screen.
On second thought, it was difficult enough to read Mack’s account of the Chicago River in the 19th century without tickling the gag reflex. Olfactory realism might push historical accuracy farther than anyone really wants it to go.
Adjunct faculty members at the Community College of Allegheny County have voted 394-64 to unionize with the American Federation of Teachers. Another AFT unit has represented full-time faculty members at the college for more than 40 years.
Historians are reacting with outrage to the ruling of a German court that the estate of Joseph Goebbels, the Nazi minister of propaganda, may claim royalties on excerpts from his diaries in a new scholarly biography, Times Higher Education reported. The suit itself raised concern from many scholars, who have assumed they could quote freely from diaries of long-dead Nazis. “It’s quite shocking,” said Neil Gregor, professor of history at the University of Southampton, “that these diaries … are being used, effectively, to profit so shamelessly from one of the chief culprits of Nazi genocide.” The suit involved Goebbels, by Peter Longerich, professor of modern German history at Royal Holloway of the University of London. Random House Germany, Longerich's publisher, is planning an appeal to the German Supreme Court.