Listening in Order to Learn–What a Thought!



Funny, you might say, how often the topic of speech suppression comes up in the context of modern academia.  You might get the idea speech was being suppressed somewhere rather than encouraged in the Miltonian-Madisonian tradition!

Nobody would confuse UT-Austin with Jerry Falwell Jr.’s Liberty University, but UT’s College of Liberal Arts, in its quarterly magazine, “Life & Letters,” makes a contribution to understanding how commitment to free speech seems always to be getting stepped on these day.   Staff writer Rachel Griess doesn’t look so intently at political rage as she does at the question of what openings our culture has left for political rage to enter the room.

Philosophy professor Daniel Bonevac, in talking with the author, fingers “what appears to be a rise of relativism and a fear of stepping on toes. More and more I notice students are holding onto this supposedly sophisticated notion that there is no truth; there’s just your perspective.  If that’s your attitude, what’s the point of discussion?”  Bonevac fears we too often debate whose biases trump whose, “rather than approaching conversations with the sense that there’s a truth to be achieved.”  Nobody seems to know any more “where the boundaries are.”

Anthropologist Elizabeth Keating finds Americans disposed to seek agreement in conversation.  “[I]t’s what people do easily and quickly.”  But where’s agreement to be found in an era like the present one, wherein, says classics professor Karl Galinsky, people keep rewriting the past in the light of the present, “projecting all these modern notions into it that were not necessarily there,”  giving it dogmatic implications?

Harder and harder it becomes for Americans to talk with people who think differently than themselves.  Instead they seek refuge with the likeminded. And therefore, says psychology professor Art Markman, “the more different we get, the harder it becomes to engage in conversation because at some point, if you now get with those people and try and talk with them, you don’t even understand what they’re talking about because they see the world in a very different way.”

“We’re not trying to build a nation of consensus,” Markman goes on, “but a lack of understanding shows room for improvement.  No progress can be made without finding common ground.  And finding that requires listening to those with whom you disagree, learning their perspective and the experiences that contribute to it and negotiating a mutual understanding of the way the world is.”

What a thought! – listening in order to learn.   Not a very much odder concept is that of caring to learn anything–through conversation, reading, Facebook-checking, or osmosis.  Not the tightest opening to political rage, one might say, is the one many modern universities have helped create through encouraging the notion that, as Prof. Bonevac puts it, “there is no truth; there’s just your perspective.”    Looks like Charles Murray, with his unfashionable perspectives about civilization, should have anticipated the punch coming his way at Middlebury College – and practiced ducking.

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