Context, Conversation, Community

Dan Lloyd

Not too long ago I came across a notebook from my first year in college. The course was Philosophy 101, and the first author we read was Plato. Reading my own scribbles 25 years later, I was surprised to see that my dutifully recorded lecture notes remained fairly accurate in their portrayal of the Meno. But in the middle of a page on Plato I found the following comment: “Vittgenstein ‹ private language argument.” Here was my first encounter with the great Wittgenstein, as I now call him, a philosopher I now know to approximately the same depth as Plato. My professor had probably mentioned Wittgenstein in an aside, and I had done my best with a phonetic spelling.

The flashback to freshmanhood reminded me that whatever continuity and solidarity I may feel with my young self, there is, in fact, a great gulf between my eighteen-year-old mind and my present mind. The difference between us is hard to discern because, for the most part, my notes express an accurate and organized overview of Western philosophy, which many years of marinating in the discipline have not overthrown. But of course Plato was in my grasp back then in much the same way as “Vittgenstein” ‹ the notes are the record of a professor’s thought, not mine. I certainly internalized what I had written down, and repeated it sensibly and accurately in various bluebooks, but even so the way I now understand philosophy is very different from my perception of it then. It is not that I now know more facts, more quotations, more names. I do know a lot more about philosophy now, but back then I was stuffed with facts too: I was conversant about calculus, Avogadro’s number, the quadratic equation, and many other things which now are isolated and inert memories.

What has changed since then? I think the difference between then and now is one of the context I could provide for the facts I had conned. Context ‹ setting, similarities and contrasts, causes and effects, presuppositions and entailments, the internal consistency or inconsistency of the entirety of my knowledge ‹ was lacking for my Vittgenstein comment and I suspect for everything else in those rediscovered notes. While I might have survived one or two multiple choice questions about Wittgenstein back then, I could not have told you how the later Wittgenstein repudiated the earlier, nor how Wittgenstein and Russell influenced each other, nor how Kripke developed the Private Language Argument, nor how that elaboration fails…. Not to mention why Plato and Wittgenstein might share a notebook page.

My flashback illuminates two practical morals for teaching that have been reinforced again and again in my career. First, thoughtful teaching springs not just from a grasp of a subject but equally from the exercise of empathy. I must constantly ask: What will this encounter be like for my students? They, after all, don’t know from Vittgenstein. I may say, quoting Wittgenstein, “The world is that which is the case,” and they may repeat it, but what we understand of the insight is quite different. Of course I will try to make the context explicit, but in the effort I encounter the deeper dilemma that the contexts I provide for the insight, considered in isolation, are all just as thin and naked as the insight itself. This leads to the second moral: The process of enriching context is distinct from the process of internalizing isolated facts. Context arises from the repeated use of concepts, extending far beyond their repetition at the final exam. Context grows slowly as a concept becomes part of one’s life, available at any time for application, inspection, or rejection.

The twin principles of empathy and application guide my teaching efforts from overall course design down to the moment-to-moment modulation of classroom interaction. The principles are worth remembering, too, as we look into the new century. We ‹ professors and other veterans of the 20th century ‹ look forward with gee-whiz enthusiasm to millennial shifts in technology and culture. But to those coming of age in the 21st century, the view may be quite different. The changes from, say, 1980 to 2010 will feel like progress only to those who were around in 1980. To the class of 2010, the world of 2010 is simply, as Wittgenstein would say, that which is the case. It will be the only world they will have ever known, and we must assess whether our educational practices are effective for them, independently of the appeal that they may hold for us.

Context and community

How does the ever-expanding mind enrich its concepts with contexts? Socrates espoused an answer which was already implicit in Homer: talk. In conversation, any topic can be brought to bear in any way on any other topic. This vast open-endedness offers a newly coined concept the means to seep into the fabric of one’s life. It also reveals how the concepts of others have seeped into their lives ‹ what reminds them of an idea, what evidence they offer, what consequences they draw, what further associations they form. Conversation is a bad way to learn the quadratic equation (although Socrates used it in the Meno to teach a version of the Pythagorean theorem), but it is an excellent way to explore why the quadratic equation matters. The quadratic equation is a part of oneself ‹ is learned ‹ to the extent that it passes the conversational test. If you can talk about it, heatedly, ironically, seriously, urgently, lightly, nostalgically, regretfully, hopefully, critically, nonchalantly, then you can be said to really know it.

At Trinity, as at many colleges, conversation is celebrated in back-handed manner, through the valorization of writing. Writing-to-learn (as opposed to learning-to-write) is built into our courses, and to good effect. The thoughtful deliberation of the written essay affords a chance to build an edifice of thought, the flying buttresses of context. But in producing (or grading) term papers and their academic equivalent, scholarly research, one can lose sight of the essential presupposition of writing, namely, that it is communication. Three related failures always flock together: failed writing, failed thinking, and an incomplete sense of one’s audience. Professors know this sort of writing all too well, the paper written in a complete vacuum by a student who has not even proofread his or her own words, and who will never return to the paper beyond reading the comments written at the end. But once the writer clearly imagines a reader, or better, an auditor, of his or her words, then writerly development begins. The writer answers the implicit questions of the imagined conversational partner. The writing begins to make sense, the thought becomes cogent, writer and reader connect.

If I am right about the centrality of conversation in intellectual development, then the quality of a liberal arts education is a consequence of the extent and quality of conversations students pursue during their college years. Conversations that thoroughly stretch one’s contexts can occur anywhere, but at a liberal arts college the conversational bedrock always mixes students and faculty, in the classroom and elsewhere. Faculty model for students the many varieties of academic conversation, from the monographic monologue to the hallway shop talk, and students practice these forms with each other and in the presence of their mentors.

With its favorable student-faculty ratio, its focus on undergraduate learning, and its breadth of curriculum, a liberal arts college remains the home of the liberating arts of conversation and the expanding contexts of human knowledge that give life its pleasure and value. But faculty are a finite resource, and even the most devoted faculty will only be available for students during a fraction of each day. What then? Certainly most students will spend a great deal of time in one form of conversation or another. What can a college do to provide expansive conversational opportunities outside the classroom?

There are many answers to this question, but here I will limit myself to just two. Both share an overarching goal, namely, diversity. Diversity may be an intrinsic good, but it is at the same time an instrumental good as a facilitator of learning with an emphasis on contextual enrichment. One way to ensure that conversation ranges far and wide in every corner of a campus is to furnish the campus with a diversified student body and a diversified faculty. By mixing cultures and classes around the dinner table, the conversation is more likely to convey surprises and new ideas to all its participants. Plato acknowledges this principle, at least tacitly, in the diversity of conversational partners he imagines for Socrates, but once again he is echoing Homer, particularly the Odyssey, an unequalled ancient model of cross-cultural contact and conversational acculturation. It was Homer, after all, who introduced the Western world to Mentor, the wise exemplar of good social conduct and the model for every mentor since.

While virtually all institutions of higher education have long recognized the value of diversity, only more recently have colleges and universities sought to expand the horizons of student experience beyond the campus gates. Again, there are a number of models around for educational outreach. One which seems to be a national movement is “service learning,” the marriage of coursework and community service. At Trinity, the movement is represented in about 15 different courses each semester, an impressive number for any college or university. Neuropsychology students work with brain-injured patients to develop new rehabilitation routines; education students tutor bilingual fourth-graders as they study issues in urban education; first-year colloquium students interview police, ex-offenders, and other citizens to produce a cable-TV debate on victimless crime; student artists, photographers, videographers, and writers document Carnival festivity in Trinidad and Hartford as parts of various courses in English, drama, and fine arts; students in research design courses team up with community members to survey Hartford neighborhoods for the data and analysis community groups need to formulate wise policy. These are only a sampling.

Service learning, in its most familiar forms, is celebrated for various reasons: First, it is a way of seeing academic issues in their concrete manifestations, leading to more critical perspectives on both the abstract learning and the concrete observations. Second, it is an engine of social progress, forging new partnerships that enhance both the campus and the surrounding community. Third, it is an education in citizenship and democracy, as one learns the habits of a real member of a community. Finally, through campus-city collaborations everyone participates in the creation of community knowledge, new learning and research that is simultaneously academic and practical, abstract and purposive, scholarly and street-wise.

I think all of these rationales link service to other valuable ends. The first, in particular, emphasizes the educational benefit of course-related service, a benefit we have seen realized again and again in service learning courses at Trinity. Yet even this direct academic benefit does not identify the richest learning opportunity students discover in the community. They find ‹ no surprise ‹ conversation. I sometimes think the “service” part of service learning is a front for the real mission, which is to get college students to sit down and listen to folks they might not otherwise meet, folks well outside of the social orbits of classroom and dorm. Here the diversity is impressive. In recent semesters our students have formed ongoing conversational friendships with, among others, homeless individuals at shelters and soup kitchens, those with advanced AIDS, schizophrenic patients in a psychiatric hospital, patients recovering from brain injury, recent immigrants from around the world, elderly residents at a home for the aged, bilingual children growing up in extreme poverty, and a range of the people from all walks of life who live in the neighborhood and work in its shops, shelters, schools, and hospitals.

From the neighborhood perspective, our community partners are also enjoying the landscape of conversation with our diverse pool of students: from Scarsdale and the Bronx, Puerto Rico to St. Petersburg, many are in the 18-to-22-year age range, but many are also returning to college after long experience in the working world. In short, these conversations, like all conversations, are mutual explorations. Accordingly, I think it is apt that at Trinity we have avoided the term “service learning.” Instead, we refer to these neighborly encounters as “community learning.” The term “community,” though overworked, captures the mutuality of the dialogues, and underlines one positive result of all this talking, namely, the creating and sustaining of a real community embracing both the campus and the surrounding city. Embedding community learning in a course also gives students many opportunities to reflect on their experience, especially in light of issues a particular course might raise. Aristotle observed, in the Poetics, that humans are distinctive in their passion for continual learning. College conversations, whether in the classroom, dorm, or community, feed this passion, as well as stimulate it.

In a new century

So far I’ve suggested that an important aspect of learning is the expansion of contexts for what is learned, and that an effective means to that end is conversation in every form, every medium, and with a wide range of conversational partners. In conversation and discussion, concepts find application, becoming both meaningful and memorable. This can happen anywhere. But the traditions and structure of liberal arts colleges favor a range and depth of conversation ‹ think tanks for the broad-minded. Initiatives like community learning can enhance new conversational learning opportunities for students. When it all works, college is a transforming experience.

The academic conversation and its extension in community learning are old ideals and low-tech. Meanwhile, the world is changing. Higher education is changing too. On our campus, as on many others, the buzz is loudest around two related themes: technology, especially computer technology, and globalism. To assess the importance of these changes, it will be helpful to remember the principle of empathy. The world may be changing rapidly, but to see what these changes mean, we should make the imaginative leap into the minds of college students. From this perspective technology and globalism are mixed blessings. Their value depends on how they are woven into college life and learning.


In 1988, as a part of a course called “Computers and Philosophy,” I provided all of my students with email accounts on the College VAX, and thus began my first foray into electronic discussion. Each student had an address list for the rest of the class, and so we all wrote letters to the whole group about course issues as they arose. At that time, students could use the VAX only through terminals and networked PCs in the dim and cavernous computer center. Screens were monochrome green or black and white, and displayed text only, in a blocky font with a blinky, square cursor. The experiment was a success. The impersonality of the “interface” left my students with the opportunity to distinguish themselves through the substance of their words, a kind of intellectual intimacy uncompromised by the accidents of appearance and presentation. Since then I’ve used four other programs, each with more bells and whistles, more “options,” than its predecessor. Students seem to enjoy fiddling with color, size, and font, although each tweak takes time away from the business of thinking and writing. Fortunately, static text has not yet been banned on the Internet, and so the basic structure of written dialogue continues.

It seems less exciting to the class of 2001, however, than it did to the class of `88. The Internet is rapidly become a mass medium, and it shows every sign of sinking to the least common denominators of consumer culture. More and more, computer screens are delivering images, movement, and often sound and video. The chief problem with all these formats is that they are much harder to reply to. To assess a multimedia web page, it is not enough to know how to read and to think. One must also have a visual literacy and a good grasp of the techniques available to manipulate and distort photographic images. I fear that manipulation will be harder to perceive in this very flashy future.

Moreover, there’s so much of it, millions of pages, and current technology is marketed around the ideal of instant access. My computer may be able to download the Encyclopedia Britannica in a few seconds, but I’m still reading at around 300 words per minute, the same speed as in 1975. My thinking and writing progresses at a baud rate that is downright Neanderthal by current megahertz standards. More is not more; the amount of time I spend winnowing the information harvest is dismaying, and the World Wide Web fosters the expectation that with just a little more searching, I will find the ultimate source of answers to my most specific (or at least most frequently asked) questions. All of this takes time, and no matter how fast my computer is, my hours and days are just as long as they always were. My students next century will have grown up with net surfing and as native speakers of Internet, so to speak. But with their speedy downloads will they also enjoy a highspeed discernment of what is credible? Possibly, although I’m yet to see any signs of a upgraded debugged new release of the faculty of critical thinking. In any case, surfing is not conversing. Hit-and-run web surfing is action, but it is not interaction.

These considerations suggest to me that, just as I might select the reserve reading list for a course, I’m the one who should be doing the surfing. If I can offer my students links to a few relevant, credible Internet resources, then they might be able to use those resources thoughtfully, and talk about the substance of their learning. Of course, the embarrassment of riches means more work for professors, at least during these salad days of world wide computing.


Along with the advances in communication comes a feeling that more than ever we live on a shrinking, densely interconnected planet. McLuhan’s lovely metaphor of the Global Village is ambiguous, however. In a real village, villagers form specific relationships with each other, and these relationships are given and inescapable, much like relationships within families. Finite humans can sustain only a limited number of village relationships, quite a lot fewer than the five billion citizens of the planet. Advancing communications may allow personal relationships to transcend great distances, but nonetheless a real village, whatever its geographical size, must be small in population.

Right now, and I imagine well into the 21st century, the only real villages will be real villages ‹ small institutions or settlements with a great deal of interaction and individual mobility. The college campus will remain an exemplary village, with everybody minding everybody else’s business. This is just as it should be, for it’s from the intellectual bustle and even logjams that the best experiences of college develop, both for students and faculty. What makes a village global, then, is simply the presence of villagers from around the globe. What makes a global village valuable is the transcultural relationships that form within it, and the expansive conversations that result. These relationships might be mediated by cappucino as well as computers, but regardless of distances between conversants, they will require the same attention and deliberate nurturance that authentic relationships have always needed. The alternative is a voyeur’s tour of the exotic cultural locales, with quick stops for shopping and the adornment of one’s “life style” with a few hip native practices.

Once again, less is more. A single profound encounter with an articulate representative of a culture other than one’s own is preferable to a seven cities-in-seven-days tour. Foreign travel is now a part of the de facto curriculum at Trinity as at many colleges and universities. This is valuable to the extent that students abroad really do emerge from their American enclaves and interact with local citizens. But it may be equally valuable to encourage a rich international mix of students on the home campus. Community learning has its part too in the formation of global villages, for in the neighborhood of any college, but especially those in urban settings, will be networks of immigrants with stories to tell and much to teach.

In conclusion, even in the 21st century human beings will start out small ‹ innocent, ignorant, bewildered ‹ and will be able to accommodate and assimilate only a fraction of the blooming, buzzing confusion around them. The art of discernment, the perception of relevance, application, and context, arises through long practice in genuine social encounters, encounters in which someone is listening, and talking back; in which one must explain, defend, and negotiate; in short, in which one must learn to see from other points of view. Relevance does not have a home page, nor is Context explicit in the tour guide’s itinerary. As has long been the case, college leaders and especially faculty have the opportunity and the obligation to stock every student’s life with diverse opportunities for every kind of conversation. That, more than the ability to recite the quadratic equation or to spell “Wittgenstein,” shall set them free.