A Little Theory (Even More So), If You Don’t Mind Too Much, Part Two

Last week, I began to write about a question that emerges in the very center of the work we are trying to do here. The question is: What does it mean to take responsibility for one’s education. This question does indeed reach the heart of what we’re trying to do, and I said last week that my letter would be about the theory behind it. Even so, I tried to raise that theoretical question in a concrete, and therefore dramatic, way. This week,
I’m going straight theory. There are no compelling characters or specific events in what I have to say, but I hope it will be worth reading nonetheless.

Though there are many ways in which we do or don’t take or accept responsibility, I defined taking responsibility as taking a share of control. We are responsible for our own education in a very special way when we are in a position to push our own questions and to encourage those of our peers, when we are in a position to search together with them for answers to our questions and theirs.

But the notion of helping people take control is a complex one. It can be well expressed as a logical problem, though it is also much more than that. In logical terms, the problem is this: If I, as a teacher, give my students control our class, haven’t I already kept control for myself? The act of giving is my act, my decision, my initiative. My students, in taking control, would be doing what I am telling them to do. I myself am no logician, but I smell a contradiction in there somewhere. How do we give up control without retaining it at another level?

The simplest answer might be that we don’t. There are aspects of the Touchstones process, the process we are working with here, that a discussion group leader is likely to manage for as long as his or her group works together. These aspects may shift as a group’s work progresses, but a teacher is never likely to give up all control permanently.

The trick is to understand responsibility, or control, as an issue richer than the logic of yes and no, black and white. Rather than viewing myself, as a discussion leader, as someone who gives control to my students, I try to think of myself as helping to open empty spaces in which student initiative, or student control, might emerge. This weird-sounding claim can be reduced to something more straight forward: I focus on nurturing the possibility of silence.

Even this – maybe this most of all – needs explaining, along at least two lines. First, how is silence a way to help students take control? Second, how do I nurture the possibility of silence?

The first question is relatively easy to talk about. Most of us are uncomfortable with prolonged silence in our conversations, let alone in a discussion class in a school. We fidget. We start to wonder what is happening and what should be happening. Often enough someone will break the silence with a joke, “Don’t everyone talk at once.”

I think what makes us uncomfortable is a sense that the orderliness of what we’re doing is dissipating. The pleasant feeling that we know what we’re doing and, very roughly at least, what will happen next starts to fade. What’s being lost is the directed-ness of the conversation. As that directed-ness dissolves, a couple of things could happen. Often, students will look to me, their discussion-leader, to get the conversation back “on track,” whether by refocusing us on whatever we have been discussing or by proposing a new
question. I often could get things going again, and sometimes I do, but that is not my first choice. Another possibility is that a student will get us back on track, or will offer a new track.

This is more what I am hoping for, but consider what’s happening in either case. A student, whether asking for my help or charting a new course without me, has decided that the conversation needs direction and is acting to remedy the situation. This is already the first step towards taking control. Even if he or she is only asking for my help, that is a step. If the student re-focuses our work without me, then his or her assumption of
responsibility is that much greater. In neither case am I handing control to anyone. In both cases, I am merely watching my own control die a slow death.

The more difficult question is how I can, as a discussion leader, nurture such silence. It’s rarely adequate, or even desirable, for me to simply watch a conversation die. Interest in our shared activity can easily die with it. My own sense is that I best nurture silence when I am working to make the comfortable flow of the conversation hard. I believe it is my job to challenge all the easy aspects of the conversations I lead.

That means first and foremost challenging to-my-mind easy understandings or assumptions about the subjects we’re discussing, most especially when those easy ways of talking involve too-easily dismissing a class’s most useful tool: the book or text it is reading. It is part of my job to help authors speak to us forcefully. Much of what I do in a class involves helping students to see how hard I find the most important questions, whether questions of interpetation or questions of much larger scope. But it can also involve challenging the comfortable ways the process sometimes moves: our comfortably reducing some participants to silence, whether by the force of our own personality or our lack of interest in their voice; our comfortably talking without listening – really listening – to what others have to say; our comfortably banishing difficult questions from discussion; our comfortably ignoring any of the difficult aspects of our shared task.

It would be a mistake for me to push to make working together impossible – we all need to feel as though we’re getting somewhere. But neither should conversations ever be too easy. Is it somewhere in Aeschylus that there’s mention of the beauty of difficult things?