Three Disciplines of Dialogue (2013 Student Graduation Talks)
At Gutenberg’s 2013 commencement ceremony on June 14, three students spoke: Becca Manley, Madelaine Wheeler, and Samuel Weisse. Their theme was “Three Disciplines of Dialogue.”
Criticism by Becca Manley
The speeches you will hear today are about the three disciplines of dialogue that our class has come to value based on our past four years together. These disciplines are criticism, charity, and self-reflection.
The discipline I have chosen is criticism. This word usually carries a negative connotation because criticism is destructive without the goal of true dialogue, and true dialogue is a rare goal.
The goal of reckless criticism is to avoid understanding. I will describe two characters who are recklessly critical: the social misfit and the dubious nihilist.
The social misfit numbs himself from understanding because he finds it much more comfortable to remain aloof. He is not lazy; no, rather he slaves away at making ideas irrelevant to him. His beliefs are rigorously methodical, discovered by measuring the mean between the most extreme opinions of his social circles. His intoxication is slow and steady; he is careful never to binge. He numbs his senses in defense, in self-protection. His criticism is quiet, condescending, and evenly dispersed. His subtle, almost undetectable hostility makes everything, including himself, irrelevant.
The dubious nihilist wreaks havoc on understanding because it detracts from his power. He belligerently deconstructs ideas merely because he did not think of them. He approaches dialogue as an opportunity to rise in the social hierarchy by appearing more intelligent, competent, or respectable than his opponent. But he is dubious in that he is never satisfied by his achievements; rather he is angered at his own success. Because he thrives under stress and with chaos, he constantly requires new opponents. And although he despises defeat, he prefers it to the numbing presence of peace.
Sober criticism is not so easily embodied by a character. It contains both the dubious nihilist’s willingness to fight, struggle, and suffer and the social misfit’s willingness to maintain a peaceful distance. Its sobriety is just as useful as the nihilist’s and misfit’s intoxication, but with the opposite goal of increasing, rather than avoiding, true understanding. It does not respond out of mere habit, in anticipation. It has the discipline to forgo instinct out of commitment to understanding. It recognizes that neither discomfort, boredom, nor numbness is the enemy and wars, instead, against self-deceit.
It takes discipline to accomplish sobriety, and it takes a worthwhile goal to accomplish discipline. The man who is soberly critical must be first committed to understanding the truth, despite the pain that often accompanies it.
My classmates and I have been privileged enough to spend four years of our lives getting an education that emphasizes the value of true dialogue. We have each been the social misfit and the dubious nihilist, and we have warred with each other, the great books authors, the tutors, and ourselves. But I think my classmates would agree with me when I say that Gutenberg has nurtured our confidence that the truth is well worth the disciplined sobriety that it requires.
On an individual level, I have by no means arrived at sober criticism. I often take one step forward and two steps back. But I have made leaps and bounds in recognizing that true dialogue is a worthwhile goal, and I am forever grateful to the tutors, students, and community surrounding Gutenberg who have committed themselves to true dialogue.
Charity by Madelaine Wheeler
Four years ago my classmates and I met each other for the first time. Shy and awkward, we quickly made a reputation as the “quiet class.” For most of us, there was not a little irony in the fact that we were attending a discussion-based school. I know I wasn’t the only one who experienced a slight feeling of panic when our orientation schedule listed not one, not two, but three separate talks on “how to have discussion.” Ron Julian, our speaker today, was the first to explain to us a vital component of discussion: the principle of charity. To have charity in discussion is to be a listener, to give the one to whom you are listening the benefit of the doubt. Charity involves an attitude of openness and a willingness to change yourself in response to what you hear. Charity is owed both to discussion partners and to authors because to read the author of a book is in many ways to hold a dialogue with him. In the next few minutes I will share some glimpses of our orientation week introduction to the principle of charity and what we have gradually learned about charity over the last four years.
Ron first spoke to us that week about the hermeneutical importance of charity. Initially giving an author or a discussion partner the benefit of the doubt makes understanding possible. If I open a book expecting to disagree with an author, I will certainly do so. A reader should approach an author with an open mind—a predisposition to find him right. Likewise, when I listen to my classmate, I should be disposed to agree with him. Later in the week, during our second talk on discussion, Charley Dewberry explained to us the chronological priority of charity to criticism: criticism must wait until real understanding has been achieved. Criticism is not withheld; it is simply delayed. While charity by itself is not enough without an accompanying robust criticism, it is crucial to understanding. Ron urged us to open every book with the expectation that the author is in some respect, however minor, right. There is some insight in every great author that has made him great, and the reader’s task is to find that insight. Likewise my task in listening to my classmate is to search for his insight.
Later in the week we received our final introduction to discussion from two Gutenberg graduates. They impressed upon us the need to remember the humanity of any dialogue partner, whether author or classmate. Charity is a matter of humanity—recognizing the author or speaker as a human person, just like yourself. Recognizing a person’s humanity involves paying attention to their context. Countless times in discussion we have been energetically disparaging an author, only to fall silent when someone reminds us of how the author was responding to his particular historical context. Even the most lofty, obscure, or vilified great books authors were human beings just like I am, and they must be read as such. Likewise my classmate is a human being, and he says what he says because of the context of his own life. When I appreciate this context, I can relate to the author or my classmate as a person and understand and sympathize with his perspective, whether or not I agree with it.
During our freshman year, all of us lived together at the school. This gave us a chance to acquire some familiarity with each other’s contexts, and that familiarity carried over into our school discussions. My classmates’ opinions grew more intelligible to me as I came to better know both them and the particular set of problems and questions that shaped their contribution to discussion. It takes a long time to learn different people’s vocabularies, whether they are authors or classmates. Everyone uses words slightly differently, and a listener must be sensitive to that. Often apparent disagreements are resolved when we define our terms to each other. Soon my class grew accustomed to hearing the common refrain, “I think you two are saying the same thing.”
Finally, charity is a matter of being willing to accept the personal challenge posed by an author—or a classmate. An attitude of charity means a willingness to change the way you view the world. When I listen to an author or a classmate and give him the benefit of the doubt, I face the possibility of adapting myself to a new perspective. This demands simultaneous humility and bravery.
It took my classmates and me almost a year to develop our own voices in discussion. The tutors urged us to talk more, to ask questions, to put ourselves out there. Gradually, through much trial and error, we learned how to be active listeners to the authors in our curriculum and to each other. We attempted to practice charity through the pursuit of understanding, the recognition of each other’s humanity, and a willingness to change. This practice of listening is undoubtedly one of the most important things we will take away from Gutenberg. Leo Tolstoy expressed well through one of his characters the principle of charity: “All, everything that I understand, I understand only because I love.”
Self-Reflection by Samuel Weisse/
On the one hand, four years is just a small drop in the bucket. On the other hand, it is a large investment of time. I have often found myself thinking both how long and how short the last four years of my life have been. At times, things seemed to move so fast that I could barely keep track. At others, they seemed to slow to a crawl, and every second felt like an eternity. The three of us giving speeches chose a theme and divided it into topics. I have chosen to present my topic, self-reflection, in the form of a flow-of-thought narrative.
In this narrative, I have chosen to write with the picture of Gutenberg as a hospital-like institution with my classmates and me as patients. I do not think this is a far stretch from what I was thinking when I first arrived at Gutenberg, and I think it is more true now than when I came. I often refer to a malady with which I am afflicted. This is no joke or exaggeration of the truth. I do believe that I have had a sickness which I came to Gutenberg in the hope of curing. What I wanted cured was my blindness and ignorance or stupidity. What I came to see was that my condition was far more fatal than I realized. I was not just blind and stupid. I was deathly sinful. Again, what follows are fictional journal entries. I assure you that any similarity to persons living or dead is purely coincidental (intentional?).
September 2009. Orientation Week. I have finally arrived at my destination. I am road weary but happy at heart to be here. I am here to seek treatment. Despite all of the reassurances to the contrary that I received back home, I am convinced that I am sick. I am welcomed by the doctors with smiles, nods, and winks. I am known to the faculty and body of patients immediately. Apparently I am the only male to be treated in this cycle. I enter into the treatment happy but with some apprehension.
Winter 2010. We were informed when we were first admitted that the treatment would be intense and that some might not be able to make it through the entire treatment. We have already lost two patients. I was sad to see them go.
Fall 2010. I have successfully made it through my first year of treatment and am excited to begin my second. I have been informed that the second year is the most intense time of treatment. I am ready, come what may.
Winter 2011. I have made a new discovery recently. I first believed that my newly recognized irritability was due to my sickness. I have recently understood that it is another symptom, not an unhappy side effect. I begin to see more and more that it creeps in upon me and silently consumes more and more of who I am. I seek the help of the doctors here. Surely they know how to combat this malicious virus. I am greeted only by smiles and knowing glances. They seem proud of my progress.
Spring 2011. We are to take some tests [second-year qualifying exams] soon. I am told that these will not be tests to see if we are cured or not. They will simply test to see if we have been diligent with out treatments. I am told they will be intense and tiring.
Fall 2011. I have had much time to contemplate my condition. I realize that my condition is far worse than what I had thought when first I entered into this treatment. I have a fatal condition. I am also suspicious of the doctors here. They seem to act more and more like patients. They are constantly referencing their superior and doctor I have never seen. They say that the treatment which we are all taking here at this institution has been prescribed by him. I am determined to get to the bottom of this mystery, with all of the free time I should have now that I am at the easiest point in the treatment.
Spring 2012. Whoever claimed that the third year of treatment was the easiest was very mistaken. It is true that the number of treatment sessions which I must attend has diminished, but the intensity of the treatments has seemed to grow exponentially. As for my intended investigation into the status of this house of healing, I have made a few discoveries. First, I was correct in questioning the ‘doctors’ here. They are medicating themselves just as heavily as their patients. It would appear that they are just as infected as the rest of us. I guess they are truly treating us for something which they know well.
Fall 2013. The final year of treatment. I know now that I will not be cured when I leave this place in one short year. What am I to do? The head patients assure me that the doctor will continue to provide treatments to me so long as I continue to seek aid, but is that all I need? I know now my condition is fatal. What has this treatment been for?
Spring 2013. I understand now! The treatment was the entire point! I have given up entirely on the idea that I will be cured of my condition. I understand now that I am instead meant to monitor my condition and fight it when I can. Whether I succeed or whether I am consumed is in the end not in my hands, but my Doctor’s. He has prescribed my treatment, and I am to diligently follow his instructions. Wherever he has me go from here, what is important is that I continue to take the medicine he has given me. It may be uncomfortable at times, but I will happily take it. I am happily bailing water out of a sinking boat over seventy thousand fathoms of water.
To step out of this fictional account, what is the point? My fellow classmates have very articulately described two crucial aspects of dialog and discussion. We must be critical when necessary and charitable at all other times. We are all on a journey. And we recognize that there is a third aspect to discussion: self-reflection. The first two aspects have been described to you as ways by which we interact with the outside world, with other people. Reflection is how we interact with ourselves. We must gaze into a mirror just as often as we gaze into other peoples’ faces.
When we do this, we bring the same skills of criticism and charity to bear on the art of reflection as when we interact with others. We must be willing and able to accept ourselves even when we see things which we do not like. We must be critical of ourselves when we can change those things which are wrong inside of us. C. S. Lewis once pointed out that the gods could not meet us face to face till we have faces. Well, this principle holds for human interaction too. As we come to reflect upon our own faces and understand ourselves better, we are to interact better with everyone else. How can we truly interact with and understand others before we understand ourselves?
As a final comment, I hope no one here thinks that my class has been presenting the things which we have mastered here at Gutenberg. No, we have simply been challenged. These are the areas where the tutors have challenged us to do better. Criticism, charity, and self-reflection are three challenges at which we will continue to seek to better ourselves as we continue on in our lives after Gutenberg. For this challenge and for helping me understand my true face, I will be forever grateful to the tutors, to my class, and to all of my fellow students at Gutenberg. Thank you.
Copyright September 2013 by McKenzie Study Center, an institute of Gutenberg College.