Monday, April 27, 2009

Conversation and Education

This weekend I had the pleasure and honor of being part of a small, invitation-only academic conference, Advanced Topics in Liberty, hosted by the Institute for Humane Studies (IHS) and Liberty Fund. Something rather remarkable happened at this conference: 15 intelligent, educated people with diverse viewpoints and interests gathered to talk about a controversial political issue and did so in a kind, unargumentative, and productive fashion. Frankly, given my past experience with an IHS seminar (which from talking to others about their own experiences, was a rather anomalous experience), I expected to have a room full of people with rather similar views, inclined to agree with one another too easily and not to challenge one another. What I found instead was an intensely diverse group of people who were both willing to challenge one another and disagree, but whose doing so always seemed to have the goal of coming together to the truth.

The topic for the weekend was “Education, Compulsion, and State.” We resolved a rather limited number of the rather complex questions we raised. We ended the conference with a variety of views (though I think it is fair to say that most of us are convinced that a greater degree of school choice is necessary than is now available, we have a great diversity of views about what such choice should look like and why). We kept joking around about the fact that it seemed like all we ever did is figure out how to better ask questions, only to find out that the better framed question that really gets to the heart of a problem is rather difficult to answer.

The great beauty of this, of course, is that the process we experienced is perhaps the most important aspect of education: conversation. I am fond of Plato’s distinction between conversation and debate. In a conversation, he recognizes, people work together to bring the participants to the truth, while in a debate people work against one another to convince observers of their claims. The former is aimed at truth, the latter at mere persuasion. Too often, gatherings of academics for political discussion become little more than debates, or perhaps trading of pontifications so unrelated to one another that they aren’t even quite debates. Such discussions lack what to me is the most fundamental virtue of conversation: in a conversation it is entirely acceptable to simply say, “I don’t know.” In a debate this simply will not fly. This weekend we took full advantage of this feature of conversation. I cannot count the number of times this weekend that someone, myself included, was forced to admit we had reached a question he or she simply did not know how to answer. This was education in action. Liberty Fund, who partnered with the IHS to provide this conference, states in its founder's bio “Liberty Fund continues in the conviction that the best way to promote the ideal of a society of free and responsible individuals is through full and open discussion among people of varying ages, backgrounds, and occupations.” My weekend could not possibly be better described.

Hopefully, sometime in the next couple of weeks I will be able to write out some of the conclusions I came to after reading and discussing the material for this conference. But for, now I simply wanted to praise the IHS and Liberty Fund and to encourage those who are tired of mainstream political debate or meaningless academic bickering: I have tasted the alternative and it is good.