Grow Your Own Plants

In an era in which real dialogue is largely displaced by enclaves of the like-minded, colleges should focus on giving students effective ways to listen, think, converse and cooperate, Ryan Hays argues.

July 17, 2015

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.


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