It’s pretty obvious really, humanity as a whole loves to talk. Call us a “social animal” or a “species being” or what not, there’s something essentially human in the way we communicate, quite probably built right into our genetics. We are incredibly adept at projecting our thoughts, needs, and desires into the world around us. So a place like Shimer, where we focus so heavily on education through dialogue, seems well suited to developing our human minds (and while I vehemently disagree with the idea that any one of us has to earn our humanity, I do think we need to cultivate it). In and out of class we are forced to hone, refine, and focus our thoughts. But I wonder if it’s so simple.
While talking seems so intuitive, listening is perhaps less so. It’s just so much harder now days; the hum of the world has grown into a roar. Technology has saturated us with media, and media has overwhelmed us with input. Historians like McNeill and Hodgson use the term ecumene (the “known world”) to describe the relative scale at which societies and cultures interacted with each other. In a way, we each have our own personal ecumene, which expands more and more as we grow: family, grade school, high school, etc. In the media age, our ecumenes have exploded: voices (existences really) from around the globe constantly barrage us on tv, computers, telephones, even cereal boxes. And these now comprise our much wider “known world.” Durkheim would doubtless blame all manner of social ills on the phenomenon; I’ll only go so far as to say our balance of intake to output has grown precarious. As poet/punker Dick Lucas put it, “They used to wrap chips in newspapers, now they microwave fast food.” More and more it looks like whole grains are the way to go.
I find that more than learning how to speak well, I’ve learned quite a bit
about active listening. Think about it: you’re in a class with 9 other people.
Yes, you express your own opinions, but only about a tenth of the time. The
other 90% is spent listening to 9 other sets of ideas and opinions,
interpreting and following different perspectives and interpretations. It’s
fairly intense. And if it’s demanding it’s no less rewarding; that moment when
a classmate gives you the words to bring your own hazy picture into focus is
sublime. But more than this, you find that somehow you’ve become a more
critical listener. I find it almost humorous watching television commercials or
media punditry now, where all the manipulation and misdirection are laid bare.
I’m reminded of Oliver Sack’s story of a ward of aphasia patients laughing
uproariously at a former
In our day we need a greater filter for the information we’re bombarded with, if only to resist high-volume Jack Lalanne Juicer sales pitches and seedy political ads. But there’s something more in this dynamic process of speaking and listening, something that goes beyond communication. Last week in class, we discussed a poem by Lavinia Greenlaw, entitled “A World Where News Travelled Slowly.” The last stanza begins:
Now words are faster, smaller, harder,
…we’re almost speaking in each other’s arms.
Coded and squeezed, what chance has my voice
To reach your voice unaltered and to leave no trace?
What an odd sentiment
in our age of global communication. Why would anyone want their voice to reach
another’s altered? May be something
to consider next time your choosing a long distance plan.