In the epigraph to A Jacques Barzun Reader, one finds a surprising statement: “The finest achievement of human society and its rarest pleasure is Conversation.” To me, Barzun’s assertion serves paradoxically as a challenge and a comfort. A conversation is organic but defined, rambling but focused, a journey undertaken with a final destination in mind but an apparently infinite number of paths to reach it. The participants in a conversation listen as carefully as they speak, and they discuss what they care about with those about whom they care. The challenge of a school is to engage students in good conversation.
Good conversation allows students to discover their role in the world, to understand that they are part of something far greater any one person, and to value societal contribution at least as much as personal gain. This conversation, which must take place throughout the sweep of one’s education, should also equip each student with the ability to make complementary use of this discovery, understanding, and value. In short, a school should teach students not simply to think, but to think well. Students must learn to think within a context and to think armed with knowledge, principle, and humility. Perhaps most demanding, schools must teach students to bring this thoughtfulness to bear positively on the world. The best way to meet this goal is for schools to approach interactions with students as conversation because in the end students must own the decisions they make concerning how to live well in the communities they will inhabit. They must be led, not dragged, into the world that awaits them: they must participate in creating the meaning of the diplomas they will receive.
I find it comforting to know that in order to meet the challenge, educators need only bring their best selves to school. Given that this is anything but easy, it is relatively simple, and it means that students need teachers to be knowledgeable, honest, clear, and, to the best of their ability, fair in dealing with the young people in their charge. Great teachers meet this challenge without hesitation and find fulfillment in accepting and pursuing this avocation.
The beauty of good schools is that they engage students in what Barzun tells us is life’s “rarest pleasure.” We find the beauty of this conversation not only in learning for its own sake, but also in the fact that the larger community is among the beneficiaries of student learning because the community needs the thoughtful citizens that good schools help produce. Schools where teachers and students know each other, care for each other, and are committed to the shared dialogue of learning are therefore an imperative goal for more than simply parents, teachers, and students: everyone who is invested in a community should participate in the stewardship of good schools.
In order to help create citizens willing to engage in the difficult conversations of the world, schools must create opportunities for students to converse and to contribute—in the classroom, on the stage, on the athletic field, and in the community. Thus, in great schools and through the influence of great teachers, students learn perhaps the most important lesson of education, that is, we do not, nor can we pretend to, operate in a vacuum. Schools should be the place where young people learn to have a voice and to hear the voices of others. In this way schools can make the world both larger and smaller for students—larger because students will see the fullness of ideas present in the world and smaller because students will have the desire and ability to affect real influence on it.