The Colgate Scene
September 2007

A message from President Rebecca S. Chopp
Conversation matters

[Photo by Zack Seckler]

Last winter in the Chenango Valley, while not brutal, was long. On the first warm day of spring, many of us turned out on the fields and trails of campus. As I walked across the old golf course, I came upon a group of students enjoying the sunshine. When I asked them what they were doing, one young man said, "taking time off to enjoy a conversation."

Engaging in conversation, of course, is never far from the center of college life since one of the goals, and strengths, of a Colgate education is to enable people to engage in and enjoy conversation. To be able to converse with friends, talk with people in new situations, communicate information, and engage in civic debate — all these components of a life well-lived depend upon mastering the art of conversation.

What is more satisfying than a stimulating dinner conversation? What is more important than a business conversation that creates new ideas or opens up new opportunities? What makes this country feel more troubled than the inability to engage in substantial political conversation? Colgate educates men and women for lives of success, citizenship, and personal satisfaction — to each of these goals conversation is crucial.

Some may think that conversation comes "naturally," but much of Western tradition assumes that one has to learn how to listen before being able to engage in conversation. Greek, Roman, Christian, and Jewish traditions all have models of education that include formation in dialogue and conversation with others, and in the religious traditions, it is a way to interact with God. The vital relationship among conversation, education, and democracy was fundamental to the origin of this country. Franklin, Washington, Jefferson, and America's other founders believed that one has to be educated to engage in conversation, and conversation — both civic and social — is essential to the culture of democracy.

Challenges to conversation
The art of conversation faces many challenges today. One alumna told me she thought that one of the hardest things on a college campus must be to get students to slow down and reflect long enough to have a conversation. Students, like the rest of us, live very structured and incredibly busy lives. Conversation requires a kind of "play," a willingness to take the time it needs to evolve and grow. A highly structured life can make finding that time and space difficult.

Students (like so many of us) are very "wired," communicating instantly and constantly, through text messaging and Facebook, for example. Although I think electronic communication is beneficial in many ways (and essential to running a college these days!), I don't believe we have figured out a way for it to replace the benefits of a long discussion around a seminar table. And although "texting" may allow us to connect on one level, it does little to teach us how to gain true knowledge of the world, which, to paraphrase Henry Fielding, is only gained by conversation.

Another challenge to learning the art of conversation is that our current culture struggles with it. The predominant state of political discussion or discourse today — the basic model of conversation in the West — is more about one-sided expression of position rather than engagement in conversation. Sometimes I wonder if we have lost the ability to listen deeply to what people are saying, or as Augustine called it, "to listen with ears of the heart." We have much to say and little time to listen. A Colgate faculty member once told me that he spends a lot of time helping students "listen to the text" and "hear one another."

Creating opportunities
Certain physical spaces can be very conducive to good conversation. Our new Case Library and Geyer Center for Information Technology, for example, has many common areas, including the beautiful Hieber Café on the 5th floor that will be the site of many conversations. Since at least the 15th century, coffee shops have served as public spaces where people can engage in discussion of public affairs, the arts, and commerce, or simply enjoy one another's company.

Small classes led by dedicated faculty members are one of the special aspects of a liberal arts college. Be they in the lab or around a seminar table, our professors don't just convey information; they also create environments in which students can have substantial conversations, whether discussing marketing in China, moral philosophy in the West, or Mayan archaeoastronomy. Large universities where classes have 300 students in them may provide information, but they don't do so by teaching the art of conversation.

Having a variety of viewpoints represented in a conversation adds richness and depth. No college can offer all perspectives, so professors and student groups invite outside speakers to campus to bring in new ideas and perspectives. As an example, Colgate's Society of Families recently established the Global Leaders Lecture Series to bring significant people of the day to speak and converse with our students. The message shared by the inaugural speakers, Freakonomics authors Stephen Dubner and Steven Levitt — that there is always another question to ask or another way to ask it — couldn't have been more fitting.

Debate is also a great way to master conversation. Someone once said, "Conversation is an intellectual sport that will improve the mind," an apt description of a Colgate debate! Many of our graduates will remember Colgate winning the world debate championships in 1977. The Colgate Speaking Union, which today includes the Debate Society, Model UN, Mock Trial, and the Student Lecture Forum, continues that tradition of intellectual sport and provides our students with many great places to engage in a variety of conversations on campus.

When I talk with recent graduates, many remember with great fondness long conversations with their friends about art, philosophy, politics, religion, sports, and other topics. Many not-so-recent graduates point out that the ability they developed at Colgate to converse in settings that have social and intellectual aspects continues to guide them in business, journalism, law, and other careers. Conversation is useful for our lives.

But conversation is also an end in itself. Good conversation, be it about arts or athletics or history, adds richness to our lives. Friendship — something Colgate students and alumni cherish — is about the ability to stay in conversation with one another, speaking truthfully, hearing deeply, and enjoying each other's company. Fielding called conversation "this grand business of our Lives, the foundation of every Thing, either useful, or pleasant."

Rediscovering what could be called "the lost art of conversation" is critical to our mission of enabling our students to learn, practice, and enjoy the foundation of every Thing.

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