“I thought I gave an excellent lecture. But after my closing remarks no one asked a question.” I reassured him that he was not alone, that other teachers – including myself – had had similar experiences in the recent past and that his unresponsive audience was not necessarily an indication of the quality of his presentation.

             It later occurred to me that what my colleague had actually missed at the end of his presentation was questioning, a realization that led me to think of some of the benefits of the art of questioning. The practice of this art fosters critical and creative thinking, healthy scepticism, information gathering and problem solving abilities. It helps students to render seemingly inert knowledge useful, to invest it with all sorts of possibilities and thus to discover their relevance for the comprehension of serious and mundane events of their everyday life. Furthermore, habitual questioning encourages students to focus on what is not yet known, what is left to be discovered and explored, what are still the mysteries and paradoxes of life. It awakens in them a sense of wonder, of curiosity, and of fun.

However significant these gains are, questioning needs to be complemented by the practice of another important art: the art of conversation.

Indeed, as Jonathan Sacks advised us, “we must learn the art of conversation, from which truth emerges not, as in Socratic dialogues, by the refutation of falsehood but from the quite different process of letting our world be enlarged by the presence of others who think, act, and interpret reality in ways radically different from our own.”

Sack’s request resounds today with a sense of acute urgency. The ubiquity of cell phones and other technological devices has contributed to the eradication from the campuses of the beneficial art of conversation. It is always distressing to see four or more students sitting side by side, leaning on their mobile phones, ignoring the presence of their peers, while missing all the benefits of an enriching conversation.

            But what is a conversation? We tend to define conversation as a give-and-take of questions and answers, of ideas and opinions, of assertions and suggestions, of problems and solutions involving two or more people. However, the mere exchange of thoughts, arguments, definitions, hypothesis, examples, comparisons, conclusions, information and experiences does not necessarily constitute a conversation. Engaging in shoptalk, sending text messages, inquiring about commercial products or directions, relating anecdotes, even engaging in a partisan political debate are not conversations. The two diplomats or two business partners, revealing and hiding thoughts, seeking to gain an advantage over the other, are not involved in a conversation. 

A conversation occurs when two or more persons are genuinely interested in a given topic. As a result of their shared interest, they are eager to explore, with enquiring and detached mind, all of its aspects in the effort to draw lessons for their professional or personal needs. They are so absorbed in the subject of their talk that they experience a sense of togetherness while they speak and listen. Their words are driven not only by their own thoughts and observations and by the ideas and experiences of their partners, but also by the magnetic force surging from the adopted conversational theme.

A genuine conversation implies the partners’ real presence. Beyond the verbal exchange, a certain affective relationship is established, renewed, and affirmed. When we speak to our conversing partners, we are in relation not only with their verbalized thoughts but also with their bodies. Beyond the words we hear and the meanings we attribute to them, we perceive voices, gazes, postures, and a variety of gestures. They give us an access to unique emotional human qualities, to personal atmospheres.

When another person becomes a presence, the social roles, titles, and other abstract designations tend to fade away; we meet a man or a woman at once singular and concrete. We talk to each other with an attitude of generosity and openness. However, the openness is never complete; truthfulness goes together with a certain reserve. We are unable to summon the partner’s authentic presence on command; we can merely experience it as a gift that we welcome with a sense of gratitude.

While we are engaged in a conversation replete with empathy and availability, we are able to see the world with the eyes of our interlocutor and to foster a receptive disposition in presence of what is different, illuminating, and even disturbing. To be sure, keeping alive the unfolding of questions and answers, and getting from the partner fresh thoughts and observations is a skill.

The questions that we ask must be followed by a willingness to listen to the answers and by a sincere readiness to examine things from his or her point of view.

Michael Oakeshott considered the ability to participate in a conversation one of the fundamental traits of human beings: “In its participation in the conversation each voice learns to be playful, learns to understand itself conversationally and recognize itself as voice among voices.” Hans-Georg Gadamer also underscored the playful characteristic of the conversation. In play, the players are open and receptive to the appeals and suggestions of the object of their play. Likewise, in a conversation, the topic determines the approach of the participants, not the other way around. Just as in a play situation, the partners of conversations allow themselves to be drawn into the easy flowing exchange of views. The coming and going of the words, sentences, questions and answers take place in an atmosphere which nurtures adaptation, spontaneity, oblivion of the passage of time and, the enchanting feeling of being-carried along by a shared interest. As in a play, responsiveness, light-heartedness, and gaiety prevails. Conversations bring freedom into our too regulated and controlled existence: they are open-ended activities; their birth, progress, and outcome are never settled in advance.

At any vibrant and free place of learning, the uninhibited and playful conversations among teachers and students should be an integral part of the education. Many graduates correctly believe that they have learned as much from unconstrained exchanges with other students and teachers as from lectures, books, and laboratory experiments. As I have pointed out, conversation encourages students to learn to see things with the eyes of their partners, from a different point of view, and to overcome the persistent temptation of oversimplification and exclusion. It helps them to clarify and formulate ideas and, perhaps more importantly, to propose original insights. They also acquire the intellectual and moral habits appropriate for serious conversations: they learn to speak well and with ease, to grasp a problem from various angles, to discard erroneous thoughts, to tie abstract ideas to living realities, to treat others with tolerance and respect, and to formulate demands in a tactful manner. Students also learn that face-to-face conversation constitutes the primary condition of desirable civic engagements in a democracy.

In his brilliant and still relevant book on the nature and functions of universities, John Henry Newman wondered why the most creative minds came out of schools, where the teaching was the most dreary and uninspiring.

How is this to be explained? “When a multitude of young persons, keen, open hearted, sympathetic, and observant, as young persons are, come together and freely mix with each other, they are sure to learn one from another, even if there be no one to teach them; the conversation of all is a series of lectures to each, and they gain for themselves new ideas and views, fresh matter of thought, and distinct principles for judging and acting, day by day.”