Listening: A Pathway to Civility

To promote civil discourse is to promote active listening, not the polite nodding of the head when someone speaks, but a thoughtful appraisal of spoken words.






Publication: Momentum
Author: Marino, Joseph
Date published: April 1, 2011

A number of years ago, as I was teaching a sophomore class in New Testament studies, the subject of cheating in school came up and I suddenly realized that the interest of my students was piqued. Frankly, I don't recall the specific connection that somehow brought this theme into play but I do remember a comment made by one of my students that has become part of my arsenal of anecdotes, especially whenever I sense a need to inject a bit of adrenalin into a lagging discussion. I decided to take a very informal survey, anonymous of course, asking students to express, in writing, their attitude toward cheating on school exams.

On one particular ragged and crumpled half sheet of loose leaf paper a student wrote, in big bold block letters. "Cheating is wrong, it should never be done, and it has no place in school. It is something that students should never resort to and I myself wouid never cheat." Then, in a remarkable shift in print size, almost to the point where I had to squint to read it, the student added: "unless I really had to."

The most cursory glance at the development of educational issues in the past 50 years tells an interesting story, a story worthy of our consideration even if, at times, it becomes a frustrating exercise in what appears to be futility. While other professions make tangible progress- medicine and pharmaceuticals giving us new and more effective therapies that promote healing: architectural and engineering technologies that have created new possibilities for living and work spaces: the digital world where communication has now become instantaneous, it seems that, "education-speak" has lagged behind and can't seem to shake itself free from the perennial debates that weigh it down and prevent it from keeping pace with other professions.

Dealing with Complicated Entities

I do suspect that there is a fundamental reason for this wheel-spinning in the world of education and it has to do with the simple and yet complex fact that, as we deal with human beings, we are involved with the most complicated of entities. While there are specific and somewhat predictable laws governing the physical universe, the chemical composition of matter and. perhaps to a lesser degree, the behavior of animais, human beings have this annoying habit of being unpredictable, unique and wildly interesting in the way they respond to the world: hence, the challenge to education.

This is not the place to re-visit the entire history of education but we can see in that history a dynamic tension unfold between distinct ways of understanding how teaching and learning actually relate. We witness the healthy debate between teaching content and teaching skills; between the back-tobasics movement and critical thinking approaches; between teaching to tests and teaching to the talents of individuals; between focusing on math and language skills and addressing "multiple intelligences." Even the question of "values education" has sparked interest as educators question which values do we teach.

Perhaps the most prominent theme is the ongoing series of reform efforts that are fueled by the recognized need in school systems everywhere to show results. Politicians demand them because they are a tangible sign that something actually is happening in schools: parents enjoy them because we can advertise the accomplishments of our students with bumper stickers and students, who make the grade, appreciate the recognition. It should be said, in all fairness, that these are not bad things. We should not decry positive results that are measureable and authentic indicators of progress. Clearly, this is a real objective of any educational project.

The problem, however, is when schools idolize the scores and forget what the real focal point of educational discussion should be. The scores undeniably are important and there is no need to adopt some cavalier attitude that they're not. This would be an irresponsible stance because it promotes a disjointed approach to teaching and a lack of form to the important content areas, which serve as the backbone of learning needed by progressive societies to grow, not just economically but, most importantly, in their humanity. There are things to be learned. But it doesn't stop there and while the content areas are a necessary element in education, they are not sufficient.

As a teacher, school administrator and college instructor for the past 42 years, I've participated in my fair share of the perennial discussions regarding curriculum issues and teaching methods. There is the ever-expanding gamut of trends, all of which promise to accomplish what past practices failed to achieve. If you're in education long enough, you can't help but realize that the conversations are almost self-perpetuating. They become mandatory in a ritualistic kind of way as they seem to coincide with the evolving generations of new teachers who come out of graduate programs where they completed their research projects on what is most promising in education.

There are definite phases of preoccupation in the education world and it becomes such a glaring reality that many of the most experienced and seasoned teachers rate these recurring agenda items on a scale ranging from the annoying to the tedious. This is not to suggest that these conversations are unimportant; they are, in fact, key parts of any true attempt at understanding where education has been and where it can go. But, before these "more mature" teachers are accused of being jaded or worn out, their weariness and frustration need, I think, to be understood for what they are.

Increasingly Uncivil Society

Perhaps it's different in some other corner of the world, but few people I know would argue with the glaring fact that we live in an increasingly uncivil society. Medicine has made it possible for people to live longer, but have we made it possible to live more humanly? Without a doubt, the primary locus of responsibility for teaching civility remains within the family, but we would be hard-pressed to deny that church and school have some role to play as well.

In her article in the Summer 2010 issue of American Educator, "In Need of a Renaissance," Diane Ravitch states, "The goal of education is not to produce higher scores, but to educate children to become responsible people with well-developed minds and good character" (16).

Perhaps the reason why so many educators find the recurring traditional discussions tedious and uninteresting is their inherent failure to find their mark. The systemic dualities between this point of view and that on teaching to the test or teaching to the child/ teaching content or teaching skill all seem to generate the monotony of unanswerable questions. We can find reasonable grounds in forming hybrids out of these dichotomies. There is enough truth in each side to be taken seriously and, yet, where can we begin to re-focus with some freshness on what will make a difference to future generations of "responsible people with welldeveloped minds and good character"? Without a regard for civility, without a concern for making our young people more human, i.e. more connected in a vital and concerned way with other human beings, all of the high-powered sounding methods, strategies and reforms will be words "blowing in the wind." Civility is, I suggest, the necessary ground for all other educational efforts to be truly effective because it is genuine civility that connects us.

Connection is more than the current wave of fleeting and superficial communication made available by the technologies of e-mail, texting, tweeting or "IM"ing. Never have so many said so much and so little at the same time. I often tell my students that, in my next life, I'll return as an orthopedic surgeon with a specialty in thumbs. The constant texting has reached epidemic proportions and borders on an inane and ironic lack of real connection to others. The impersonal and distant sending of messages actually challenges our ability to "face" others, to see them, to read their thoughts or sense their emotions.

This technology is not going away and I don't suggest it should, but it needs to be recognized for what it is and what it isn't. Regrettably, for all of its pragmatic value, which is significant, it neither promotes human contact nor teaches young people civility. It fails to put us in real touch with one another and it actually increases alienation by conditioning us to view others as distant "ports of call." It becomes easy to forget that a real human being is at the other end of that electronic pathway. We have, in effect, diluted the power of authentic human discourse by losing sight, in too many ways, of the power of human connection.

Apart from the good citizenship rightfully taught by public education systems, Catholic schools can take great pride in their mission to teach a specific approach to being human with clearly defined values. In fact, our Catholic schools can and must teach a civility that goes beyond an empty semblance of respect. I suggest that the model for this element in the Catholic school mission is prayer itself and that by using such a model we approach the reality of an authentic civil discourse which, in turn, leads to the possibility of developing that community, as Ravitch describes, of "responsible people with well-developed minds and good character."

Stop Speaking and Begin Listening

The notion of civil discourse must include the discipline of listening. We are taught that prayer is certainly more than the recitation of words. While the saying of prayers is a form of dialogue with God, an essential piece of this or any dialogue is the ability to stop speaking and to begin listening. Intrinsic to a civil discourse is an active listening, an ability to be humble enough to allow for the possibility that someone else actually may have something meaningful to say. Without the ability to listen there is no civility, only an appearance of politeness, a vacuous form of civility that is not a sign of an educated spirit, but rather the mark of a well-trained actor. The news media discussion programs are stocked with shouting heads that care nothing about what others have to say. Each one is armed with pre-devised opinions jockeying to be heard above the others.

The very concept of civil discourse is an ancient and still a current element of being truly human. Philosophers have made all sorts of claims about the distinctiveness of humankind. The human person has been called the only "rational" animal, the only entity capable of speech, and even the only animal with an ability to laugh. What I suggest is that above and beyond any of these designations, humans are the only entities capable of "listening." Listening implies the extraordinary ability to pause, to stop reflectively and to bring within, to make one's own that which someone else is sending our way, offering to us for our consideration.

Listening is what distinguishes us and it is the power and discipline of listening that must be at the epicenter of education. To promote civil discourse is to promote active listening, not the polite nodding of the head when someone speaks, but a thoughtful appraisal of spoken words. Listening actively is an act of humility as well as an act of respect and it serves as the seed for authentic civil, that is human, dialogue.

The ancients recognized that a most significant personal encounter with another was most genuinely realized by an exchange of words. And what is there about this notion of "words"? It's through words that we fashion a sense of meaning about all things within human experience. Words are where we locate a sharp, focused, purposeful and deliberate presentation of meaning. But meaning is derived and is evolutionary, Meaning oftentimes is born of the shared expressions of thoughtful people who, above all else, know how to listen. It is this ground of listening where the expression of knowledge, truth and meaning takes root.

It becomes a truism, I believe, that our educational efforts need to begin with and remain steadfast in the teaching of listening, not merely as a technical skill in politeness, but toward a view to becoming a community of respectful critical listeners who have the tools to decipher truth from falsity and who have the humility to recognize the humanity around them. What greater example of this regard for the word than John's proclamation that "In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God." What more profound statement of human connection than the linkage between the divine and the human: what greater model for authentic listening than the divine call to all of creation to stop and pause, to put aside the noise of the world, to suspend our own self-importance and to listen quietly for something more than what our pride offers us.

I return to my young sophomore who surreptitiously let me know, perhaps unwittingly, that his morality was based on two competing loyalties- one to his learned code that "cheating is wrong" and the other to his personal expethencies, a dilemma we all know too well. But to take my own advice. I need to go beyond merely recalling his comment and using it as an amusing anecdote. I need to listen actively to it. I need to learn from this sophomoric remark, the comment of the "wise fool," what really is being said. I need to listen to the true meaning in what was said by this real human being who revealed in this comic-sounding remark a real point of struggle in his attempt to figure out the world of right and wrong. I need to learn what it is that I, as a teacher, need to think about as I try to teach conflicted human beings as they confront life and the dilemmas we all face.

All of this serves as the fodder for our teaching, true life material for compelling our students into thinking vitally about how their lives are conducted, what really matters, where our values truly reside, what our lives mean. But none of this can happen without the desire to confront ourselves. To confront ourselves we need to empty ourselves of all the distractions and the noise and to reestablish, through the way we educate, a sense of real connection to people. None of this can take place without an education grounded in humble and respectful listening. And we need to start with ourselves.

Reference

Ravitch. D. (2010. Summer). In Need of a Renaissance. American Educator. 34 (2), 16.

Author affiliation:

Following retirement from Xaverian High School in Brooklyn after 27 years of service as teacher, department chairperson and administrator, the last 11 years as principal, Joseph Marino, Ph.D., served the Diocese of Brooklyn in the Safe Environment Office, which supervised the administration of educational programs for children and adults dealing with the prevention of child abuse. Currently he teaches philosophy to undergraduates at colleges and universities in the New York area (jmarino144@aol.com).

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