My parents are the most literate people I know. They are in their 80’s and still attend a monthly book group where group members, including retired English professors, discuss an important book they have all read. They still learn and grow from such an experience. As a group they understand, connect, enrich, and enlarge upon the stories they read and tell.
There is nothing quite like a discussion of a good book to bring us face to face with not only a great work and the craft of writing, but also ourselves and humanity in general: our past and future, our deaths and births, our conflicts and resolutions. Of all my experience in academics, a well-orchestrated discussion has led to more learning and understanding for me than any other method.
Albert Borgmann in his erudite book Technology and the Character of Contemporary Life: A Philosophical Inquiry describes what he calls “focal experiences.” These are experiences that are centering or orienting points that gather certain contexts of relationships and emanate meaning. In chapter 23 of his book, he elucidates this concept with a discussion of the history of the word “focus.” In Latin the word means hearth. In pre-technological times, the hearth was the “center of warmth, of light, and of daily practices” in most homes. This is a beautiful image to use in understanding “focal” things: things or experiences that gather things and enlighten us—what he calls a “gathering and radiating force.” Some of the examples he offers of such focal things include works of art, the wilderness, and the culture of the table.
One of Borgmann’s important messages about focal things (if I read him correctly) is that technology, if we are not careful in how we relate to it, can scatter and/or clutter our focal experiences as humans. It can therefore interfere with the practices we establish to maintain our focal experiences and their meaningful force in our lives. If we lose our practices, we lose also their enlightening power; we lose an important part of our humanity. Perhaps this is what parents today are thinking when they bemoan the loss of shared mealtimes with their families due to their busy schedules.
I have been concerned as I see the changes taking place in Language Arts classes today that discussion has become a lost art, a lost focal practice. The elders of our generation know its value and continue it on their own even though they are retired–beyond school and career. Alcoholics Anonymous and Al Anon understand the transformational power of shared storytelling—their method is consistently the most successful one in battling substance addiction. Junior Great Books, the Paideia Program, and Philosophy for Children are also successful educational models that are based on discussion or seminar pedagogy. Why aren’t these programs flourishing in our public schools?
As Borgmann mentions, technology is probably one important factor. We can do so much with video, computers, and multi-genre projects now that a simple discussion seems pale by comparison. Another factor is the “Reading/Writing Workshop” approach where the primary pedagogy is individual reading and writing, mini-lessons, and conferencing with peers and teacher. Another factor is the shift in emphasis from content to skills in Language Arts. Language Arts teachers today focus much more on reading and less on content curricula (due to pressures of testing and the ever-widening range of student abilities?). A final factor seems to be teacher training or confidence. A well-managed discussion requires maturity, knowledge, and critical thinking skills, yet we have fewer and fewer veteran teachers. We need training programs and schools that value discussion and sharing of common knowledge and great artifacts. These values are harder and harder to find in today’s public schools.
I hope we return to appreciating focal experiences in education, things such as storytelling and art. They teach us to listen, to share, to construct layers of meaning from narratives, to appreciate clear expression, to agree and disagree respectfully, to imagine similarities and differences, examples and counter examples, to express ourselves clearly, to substantiate an opinion, and a host of other important skills and knowledge. They are the practices that expand us as humans and help us realize what a world fit for humans should be like.