I’d like to show you two different scenes. At first glance, both would appear to be a discussion, but if inspected closely it becomes apparent that the two scenes couldn’t be more different.
Setting: A classroom filled with one professor and about 50 students at one of the largest universities in the USA.
Action: The professor finishes up reading her extensive notes off the projector, and announces that now the class will discuss the book Warriors Don’t Cry by Melba Beals. Some students scramble to finish taking down the notes, some rest their head on the table, and some pull out the book, opening it to a highlighted section. The professor begins asking questions about the 100 page reading assignment. “What were some of the experiences that shaped Melba’s childhood?” “How did Melba show non-violent resistance to those verbally and physically attacking her?” “Can you draw any similarities between this reading and the Mary Prince reading from earlier in the semester?” As is customary with this particular class, there are a handful of students who will regularly answer questions, a smaller number who will answer questions when forced, and an even larger number who very rarely, if ever, speak. Previously, that had been enough participation for the professor, but today it isn’t. Ten minutes into the discussion, she sets the book down on her table and says, “As I can see you are not prepared for discussion today I am ending class early. I know I say all the readings are important, but I had really hoped you all would have paid particular attention to this reading since it is by a girl close to your age…also it is due to her and others that some of you are even allowed to be in this classroom today.” And with that the class files out the door, 30 minutes into the hour and fifteen minute class.
Setting: After a community event organized by a small community college.
Action: It is dark and chilly, a girl and her boyfriend mix cups of hot chocolate as they prepare to help clean up after the event. The boyfriend’s philosophy professor comes over to grab some hot chocolate as well and introduces himself to the girl. Quickly and for no particular reason, the two start talking about the Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis. They talk about the scene from “The Last Battle” where the dwarves refuse to see the truth of Aslan:
Aslan raised his head and shook his mane. Instantly a glorious feast appeared on the Dwarfs’ knees: pies and tongues and pigeons and trifles and ices, and each Dwarf had a goblet of good wine in his right hand. But it wasn’t much use. They began eating and drinking greedily enough, but it was clear that they couldn’t taste it properly. THey thought they were eating and drinking ony the sort of things you might find in a stable. One said he was trying to eat hay and another said he got a bit of an old turnip and a third said he’d found a raw cabbage leaf. And they raised golden goblets of rich red wine to their lips and said “Ugh! Fancy drinking dirty water out of a trough that a donkey’s been at! Never thought we’d come to this.” But very soon every Dwarf began suspecting that every other Dwarf had found something nicer than he had, and they started grabbing and snatching, and went on to quarreling, till in a few minutes there was a free fight and all the good food was smeared on their faces and clothes or trodden under foot. But when at last they sat down to nurse their black eyes and their bleeding noses, they all said:
“Well, at any rate there’s no Humbug here. We haven’t let anyone take us in. The Dwarfs are for the Dwarfs.”
“You see,” said Aslan. “They will not let us help them. They have chosen cunning instead of belief. Their prison is only in their own minds yet they are in that prison; and so afraid of being taken in that they cannot be taken out.”
Their conversation leaps from Narnia and its symbolism, to C.S. Lewis’ spirituality, to modern Christianity, to the fallacies that dissuade people from being faithful. They tackle questions such as “Is man born good or evil?” “How is man saved?” “Is faith a matter of grace and works?” They attack these deep questions that have bothered humanity for ages with gusto and enjoyment…and humility. The girl, a young apologist, feels a little like a fool the whole time, but doesn’t care. She wants to test the limits of her knowledge and reason. An hour and a half later, the three, for the girl’s boyfriend has joined the conversation, begin to slow down. It is late and they begin to say their goodbyes. Hands are shaken all around, and the genuine respect and enjoyment of each other’s contributions to the discussion are grossly apparent.
As I said before, both situations fit the definition of discussion: “An extended communication (often interactive) dealing with some particular topic.” But oh how they differ in spirit. In the first example, the discussion was forced and the vast majority of students had no inclination to participate. This lead the professor to grow irritated and feel stymied. Her agitation is understandable, but perhaps there are steps she could have taken to foster a mutual desire of discussion. In the second example, two strangers found a starting point of commonality and slipped easily into a deep discussion. It was not planned or mediated. It wasn’t always linear and the participants went away from it with a slightly dizzy feeling.
Discussion is a powerful means of learning, because when it’s done right it leaves the participants with a deeper, personal knowledge of the subjects covered. Each involved in the discussion will come away with a different take on the material, but each will remember and own whatever it is they do remember. The first example of discussion gives real discussion a bad name – real, fruitful discussion isn’t forced or stagnant. The first example of discussion will be a part of the world as long as there are students who don’t like the reading assigned by a professor or who oversleep the morning of class thus running out of time to read. My hope is that this ugly stepsister of real discussion won’t make students slow to acknowledge the merits of true discussion. As Thomas Huxley says, “Freedom and order are not incompatible… truth is strength… free discussion is the very life of truth.”