The Magic of Conversation[1]


Michael Greenberg


When youre in a situation where you can do anything you want with your day, the fact is that most of what people do involves talking.  Id say the number one activity that everybody participates in is talking.

Why are they talking?  What do they get from it?

Think about the mediums of expression for one second and youll see why people talk.  Ive argued for a long time that there are three activities everybody does regardless of culture:  make music, decorate things, and talk.  The rest is up for grabs.  Not every culture by a long shot even has writing.  Talking, making music, and decorating things are the three things that seem to be basically hardwired into the brains of everybody, that seem to happen in every group no matter how large or how small.  The fact is that people invent their own languages, no matter how tiny the group; all have a very specific way of decorating their pottery or their bodies or something whatever it is they can decorate, they decorate; and all have some kind of music that comes out of their own experience.  To me, this says these are three modes of expression that almost tumble out of the human brain unbidden, as it were.  Theyre just part of who we are.  The rest is technology, so to speak.  Writing is technology, no doubt about it.  Writing and reading are just representations of talk.  Theyre not their own language in any really meaningful way.  Theyre ways of representing sounds we make, words we say, and expressing them in another medium where they can be picked up and manipulated, in a similar way that you write down a piece of music; its not the music itself, but it exists as a symbol of music that can be recreated at any time.  Words on the page mean nothing until you read them and you reassemble them as words that you might speak and speak them to yourself in an internal dialogue.

The thing thats so useful about language is that words mean more specific things than colors and musical notes do.  Painting and making music are judged by many to be far more expressive and emotional than talking.  You can create a beautiful tone poem that evokes a place, or you can create a painting of that place, but when you describe that place in words you start using words like, The black chair in the corner of the red room.  They tell someone exactly what youre talking about.  They can be very evocative too, of course, as in poetry, so they also have some of what music and painting have, but they have a specificity that none of the other modes have.  There are certain things you can get at with music and painting that you cant get at with words, or people would have stopped painting and making music a long time ago.  There are certain emotional states that are best understood through music and painting.  But there are a whole host of specific detailed thoughts, states of mind, arguments, and other things that can really only be expressed through language.

Talking is the first form of language.  Its the part thats the quickest; its the most interactive.  Having a conversation with someone is much more dynamic and flexible than an obviously one-way street like reading because there you have no chance to ask the author your questions.  Ive always judged reading to be more along the lines of watching a movie or television.  Its a one-way ticket someones giving you some information to do with what you will, but you have no chance to ask them to be part of the conversation, except perhaps after the fact.  The book doesnt change, no matter what you think of it.  You might change, from thinking about the book, but the book itself is unchanged, whereas in a conversation two people who talk to each other change as a result of that conversation.  Both parties change, both people have input, and both people go somewhere with it.  And newer forms of communication that have the simplicity of talk like the way kids are Instant Messaging each other have a lot of the same attraction that talk does.

For practical purposes a telephone call isnt that different from talking to someone face-to-face.  There are people who are more uncomfortable on the phone, and others more comfortable on the phone.  Some miss the visual cuing of someones face, others are happy to be without it.  But essentially when you talk to someone on the phone, words flow back and forth instantly.  With Instant Messaging, theres the time that it takes to write out words which is much slower than talking.  Even if youre the best typist in the world, typing out words is putting something between you and the thing that youre doing.  Its not a big enough thing to really get in the way, and sometimes its fun because it gives you a moment to think about what youre saying and it gives you a different context in which to be humorous.

But basically it all comes down to the fact that talking is still the most engaging and visceral thing that people do when it comes to exchanging the content of their minds.  No one will say that writing something is easier than just saying it.  It might be clearer you might have a better formulated argument and to me the real value of writing has to do with the reflection that goes into it.  Its the impediments of writing, the very fact that its not a natural expression and that you have to organize your thoughts.  Someone writing a ten-page article takes great pains to organize their thoughts into that ten pages.  Someone writing a book takes great pains to make sure that over the course of this 300-page argument things flow smoothly.  You could have a conversation that easily uses that many words where of course the people dont take as many pains to make sure things flow precisely, but the conversation has its own flow.  One of the lovely things about conversations is the way, even right after having them, theres something inherently mysterious about them.  You cant necessarily recall the way the conversation evolved; its almost like the act of the conversation is as important as the conversation itself.  Its the places you go with the other person as the conversation turns from light things to heavy things, from humor to sadness, and the personal to the general.  Its almost like a little journey.

Even as the pressure of certain kinds of commercial necessity has made people more and more isolated in a cubicle, dealing with a computer, being kind of removed from conversation, theres still this massive human thirst for human contact.  You might talk to someone on the computer for a year, but when you go to actually sign the deal you want to be sitting at a table with them.  Why is that?  Why is it that theres something about people that just trusts the person whom they see face-to-face more than the person they simply interact with at a distance?  Its almost as if something about the way they look and act is going to tell you things that the words alone dont say, which is a widely respected judicial principle in the sense that witnesses are judged by their demeanor, not just by the transcript of what they actually said.  The juror always look at the person and how they act; thats a big part of it.  So, too, when kids are left to their own devices, its natural for them to spend most of their time getting the most bang for their buck, as it were.  A direct interaction with a person is going to be so much more charged with possibilities for learning than an interaction with a book.

Then theres the relationship between talking and thinking.  Thats another reason I think people spend a lot of time talking.  The human mind is in a flow thats very like a conversation in a certain sense.  Ones own internal self isnt neatly organized into chapters and paragraphs and nice conventions of writing.  Its much more like talking, because who you are and who you become over the years of being yourself has, in a certain grand scale, a lot of the same elements that a long, deep conversation has.  Its got its unpredictable ebbs and flows, its odd little moments of pure bliss, its sudden sharp turns into despair, its unraveling in no particular order and yet, at the same time, its character is its own definition.  Who you are is this weird accumulation of all those random thoughts youve had lined up in a row, the way a conversation is, the way all those things you talk about line up in a row.  How you talk and who you are are very much linked together somehow, and you cant just separate one from another without a feeling of falseness or a feeling of being removed from the reality of the situation.

Certainly, people realize the value of being able to look at something and understand it in a detached, analytical way.  But people also realize that a much more important kind of analysis is the kind that takes place in the moment.  Take, for example, what goes on in a School Meeting. You have a written agenda where people write down a concrete proposal for something or another.  But what really makes or breaks whether that thing flies or not is, to a great degree, the free-flowing, unrecorded, unwritten conversation about it.  The ability to talk about something, sort it out in that moment, make some connections, put your arguments out there, listen to what other people say, integrate that, and reformulate your own thinking, is a critical thinking skill which almost everybody needs.  Everybody needs to make sense out of their own tumbling thoughts about something in order to tell another person about it, and then be able to understand that in that moment, someones going to improvise their own response to those thoughts, and they have to be able to improvise right back.  The whole thing has to have a certain clarity to it for you to be an effective person with other people.  It really doesnt matter whether you know youre right or not; if you cant explain it to another person, youre just whistling in the dark.  The ability to explain it to another person is the ability to be in the world and to transmit to others whatever you think.  In every situation in life, the thing youre constantly faced with is that improvisational quality of thought of being able to say to someone else, Lets sit down and read this and discuss it, and to read it and then to be able to turn around and say, Okay, heres how it stacks up to me, and to make some kind of framework for what youve just experienced, and then to be able to listen to another persons critique of that framework, to take that critique and then integrate that into what you just thought and either refute it or incorporate it into what your thinking is all in the moment, all in real time.  These are processes that you have to be thoroughly comfortable doing in the moment.  The saddest thing to me is inarticulate people.  Often its not so much that theyre totally inarticulate; its that they never think of what they should have said until two days later.  Why didnt they think of that in the moment, when saying it would have meant something?  Theres that horrible quality of having missed the moment whenever youre in that position.  Its not as if you can go back to that person and suddenly bring up the point you missed.  The moment has been defined and is over and maybe in the next moment youll take the lessons you learned and go on with it, but really the moment is gone and youve blown it by being inarticulate. 

Human beings are social animals.  Almost anything meaningful you can get done in the world is done in the company of others.  Even the biggest loner in the world sooner or later takes the product of that loneliness and then tries to give it to other people.  You can do a lot of things by yourself, but they rarely have meaning until other people encounter them.  The notion of meaning for people comes out of their existence within a group.  So it comes down to understanding the most effective way a group communicates.  You might say that the group expresses itself through its beautiful sacred dance.  True, theres a deep form of expression there that may not even exist on the plane of words or anything else, which is why the group has kept its sacred dance going for these ten millennia; something about that is real and very important.  But at the same time, most of life isnt about that kind of experience.  Most of life is, Lets go plant the field and start at the back end with corn and work up to carrots.  You cant dance that out, youve got to speak it out.  And when someone says, Why are we putting the corn there?  The corn should go over here.  Last year we put it here and then we did really well, its a conversation again.  Its always about saying something to someone that seems to make sense to you, that they might agree or disagree with or they might want to modify slightly, and their saying, Well, lets do this, and your saying, Well, lets do that.  The whole gist of human experience at every level seems to be someone has an idea and someone else wants to modify it, and someone else wants to modify the modification, and its an endless endless modification of things to the point where the original idea hardly matters.  Its all the modifications and their agreed upon outcome that matters.

Thats what a conversation is, essentially.  Its that going back and forth.  Thats why, in discipline after discipline, the basic building block of each thing is people talking to each other in one way or another.  Even in highly technical disciplines it seems as if theres still that element.  You have to go back and forth.  Anybody who writes about something talks about it first; then they might sit down and write about it.  The big, huge implication for kids is the importance of talk and being able to converse.

Everyone knows how to talk:  even babies all learn how to talk.  But talking and conversing are two very different things, and your skill level in those is critical.  By skill I do not necessarily mean vocabulary, although vocabulary is certainly part of it.  Its almost like a vocabulary of concepts, rather than the vocabulary of words.  Its knowing how to argue, knowing how to say something in a way that makes sense to another person and then to realize what theyre saying to you and to be able to build the instant framework back to them, the bridge back:  Well, I see what youre saying, but what about this?  Conversation requires all the tools of the writers trade in the sense that you need to be able to use simile and metaphor, in real ways, because thats the way people explain themselves, is by saying, Its like this other thing, or Its kind of like when the egg turned into the chicken.  People have to be able to use expressive forms like that and to be able to think of them.  Orwell has a whole thing about how the only true similes and metaphors are fresh ones; that similes or metaphors that have become like a piece of stock-in-trade lose their power as similes and metaphors, and a lot of them actually jump so far away that people forget whats what.  For example, people talk about being the hammer and the anvil, but theyve forgotten that in its original context its always the hammer that breaks, not the anvil.  People think the anvil is getting the worst of it because they dont really think about the image enough.  You can say, We better strike while the iron is hot, but its almost as if people dont even think of the iron and its glowing hotness and the fact that you struck while the iron was hot because the iron is actually a piece of molten metal that youre hammering into shape before it cools down because youd have to heat it up again.  Its too much.  Its become shorthand for, Lets do it quickly.  But if you really want to put that across, for the metaphor to have meaning as a metaphor, you have to invent them on your own all the time.

I have this inverse rule of importance:  the more you can nail down a specific thing, the less important it is as an overall thing in your life.  In other words, to me the really important things that are out there are things that tend to be so large that they border on the indescribable, for which describing them is a huge amount of work.  Take a subject like history.  If you can say that a battle took place on a certain battlefield on October 14th, 1918, thats saying almost nothing about World War I.  We can agree as an historical fact that this thing happened at this point in time, but in and of itself this is really nothing.  It doesnt tell me anything about the war why it happened, what the outcome was, why its important, why anyone should cares.  It just tells me that on a certain day a group of people met and slaughtered each other.  And maybe if I supplement it with a few other specific facts this many people died, this person was considered the victor it might start to take shape as something.  But again, the broad meaning of the war is so much bigger.  Then you say, Well, to really understand the war you have to understand the history before it, and it leads you back practically to the beginning of time.  Because to really understand why people need to kill each other, you end up in a huge discussion of the whole of humanity, and that little battle just dissolves into this tiny dot, a piece of complete trivia.  So, to me, the more you can put your finger on something, the chances are the less important it is in the broad scheme of things.  The more detailed something is, the more you can understand something, the less its worth understanding.  And the more incomprehensible and huge something is, the more its worth grappling with.  This is a personal prejudice of mine.  I think that subjects radiate out from specific essentially meaningless detail to broader spiritual and philosophical generalizations that we make, and that ultimately the whole goal is to work out to those broader generalizations.  The only point of understanding the trivia is to work out to the generalizations.

An open, free school is clearly the best environment for perfecting these skills.  Its one of those things where only practice works.  You cant write a book that tells someone how to converse.  The only school for conversation is conversation.

The thing about education and conversation the reason Ive been saying all this is that its all but impossible to teach someone how to converse.  Think of the huge amounts of work that its taken linguists to understand syntax and grammar and the rules that govern peoples linguistic communications with each other.  And all those rules were arrived at after the fact!  Its not as if the rules were generated and then people followed them.  Its that the rules evolve in this huge complex interface where people are talking to each other and then, with great intellectual struggle, people figure out what was going on and put labels on it, creating the rules, as it were, after the fact in the same way that the earth was spinning around the sun in its orbit long before we gave that orbit a name.  We put a name on it and figured out how it worked for our own convenience.

Now writing is a much more formalized form of expression than talking.  When people sit down to write, they write paragraphs and sentences and chapters and organize their writing in acceptable forms, like the essay and the short story and the novel and the doctorate.  These have very specific forms compared to conversations, which are incredibly more free-flowing and are full of half-finished sentences when you already knows where someones going and your eye contact tells you and you interrupt them.  Think about that.  Think about the usually complex world of written language and how there are all these books out there to teach you the rules as theyve been defined thousands of years after people started writing.  You can study the forms that have been used and you can try to adjust your writing style to follow these forms more or less so that youll be comprehensible to your fellow man in written words.  Then think about conversation, with its endless crosstalk, interruptions, and abrupt gear shifts, and youll realize that theres no way you can even begin to write out a set of rules for someone that explains to them how to carry on even a simple conversation.

The fact that you cant write it is that the bigger it is, the more significant it is thing I talked about.  Just because people can do it doesnt mean you can necessarily understand it.  Just because you can do something doesnt mean you can tell someone else how to do it.  Peoples brains are always way ahead of their ability to describe their brains way ahead.  Theres always a vast chasm between what you can do and what you can actually describe of what you do.  Its going to take all of peoples combined mental power to even begin to understand how the brain works, even though we all have a brain and we all work it.  Thats the key to conversation.

Its by having zillions of conversations that you discover for yourself thousands of little tricks for getting the other person to understand you.  The more you do it, the more you discover, through trial and error basically.  Oh, when I said that the person didnt understand, but when I put it this way he did.  Oh, at the end of the conversation this person did not understand me.  I failed basically as a conversationalist.  If I go back next time, what can I do to . . .?  Its a mental process.  Youre not even thinking in conscious terms about it.  Youre just realizing as you tell someone something that they dont get it, and sometimes youre very depressed and you realize that no matter how much you tell someone, theyre never going to get it, and that youve completely failed in your ability to put across what you want.  But you keep going back because life keeps putting conversations back in your face and so you keep having to try.  No sooner have you finished one conversation than youre in another with a whole different premise and a whole different set of rules and youre just plowing along with that other individual.  So much of it is individual; thats another reason there are no rules.  But you keep doing it, and the fact is, like every other human skill, doing it is what makes you better at it.  What you end up commanding with articulateness is not just words, in the simple sense of vocabulary, but concepts the way people are going to talk to you and the kinds of arguments and ways of putting across what you mean.

Heres where age-mixing is such a huge factor.  The fact that people of all different ages mix freely at school puts them in different conversational places in a very clear way.  What happens at school is a beautiful thing to see to watch someone straddling the bridge between having a conversation with me at a very abstract philosophical level and then having other participants in the conversation who are much younger who say, What do you mean by that?  I expect to explain it in that same kind of language and its obviously flying right through them and then someone else might say, Well, no, what they mean is this, and say it in another way, and its a completely different simile for the same thing but it operates at a level that a younger person can reach.  For instance, when I was trying to teach the idea of negative numbers, I was trying to describe them using the bankbook theory, which seems like the place in my own personal life where I always use negative numbers the most.  I was trying to explain that you start with a zero balance in the bank and you can put ten dollars in, but lets say you spent fifteen.  You spent your ten dollars and the bank fronted you five of theirs, so they would say that your balance was minus five.  In other words, you owe the bank five dollars, but the way they mark it is as a minus five.  Well of course these kids have never had bank accounts and theyre saying, What do you mean? Suddenly one girl says, Oh, its like with temperature, when its ten below zero.  I had never thought of temperatures as negative numbers, but of course its the same exact principle.  If youre fifty degrees above zero its a certain temperature, if youre fifty degrees below zero its another one.  In temperature it makes much more sense because zero is just an arbitrary point on the scale, from which numbers flow readily in both directions, which is exactly the whole point of negative numbers that zero is an arbitrary point on a scale of numbers.  You cant really have a true zero any more than you can have a highest number because as much as theres no highest number, theres no lowest number once the principle of subtraction exists.  So infinity goes out in both directions and zero is just a point in the middle, although its really no more in the middle than any other number.  Its totally arbitrary.  Of course that opened it up for me and I realized that the temperature scale was a much more living example than a bankbook, especially for a lot of kids who live with temperature every day but dont live with bankbooks.  The point is that her simile was much more apt.  She made that leap because we were trying to explain something and this girl chimed in, Oh, its like that!  That, to me, is totally dynamic.  Thats like someone realizing the outer edges of a concept and then suddenly fusing it with their own simile so that it completely makes more sense than my original simile to someone else.  What we were having was a conversation as much as it was a class.  I was trying to explain this concept and she was firing her lack of comprehension to me until it finally became comprehension; but it was her friends leap that made her get it, not my leap.    There are a thousand examples of that, all of which illustrates the way in which different ages of kids provides different levels of simile and different types of conversation that are appropriate to making a person understand.

The genius of certain politicians, for instance, is their ability to use an appropriate language for their constituency.  You might say that they are not employing a very well-reasoned argument, but it gets its point across and thats what makes them great politicians, while you are just a chump on the side complaining that its not a very well-reasoned argument.  You can go through all the financial hoo-haw you want, showing that by the year 2007 the Social Security system will be out of money, and that might not roust the votes out, whereas going to old people and saying, Do you want to live in poverty? suddenly has tremendous resonance.  A politician might not waste time with charts and things like that when they might just go to people and say, When you grow old, do you want not to have any Social Security?  Because I have this whole complicated proposal here thats a thousand pages long that I think will keep that from happening, the basic gist of which is were going to pay more money now so that you dont have to be broke later.  Thats what people are going to decide on.  There not going to necessarily look at all the formulas that make it true or not because the language of political discourse is not a language of knowing every fact and a reasoned analysis of every possible trend from every possible point of view.  The language of political discourse is often the emotional language of, Do I want to die for a bunch of Serbians?  Its not all the finesse of, Well if you let us set an international precedent, or blah blah blah.  Or, Can I sit here in my comfortable home in America while having beamed into my home pictures of thousands of people being thrown out of theirs?  So then that becomes like, Yes, I do want to die in Serbia because thats the only way I can keep that from happening?  All the layers of everything else for a lot of people are just layers.  The bottom-line question is often, Do you want people going hungry?  Can you afford more to do this?  Do you want to die over here?  Its often in very root terms, and all the underneath layers are just sort of irrelevant.  What happens when stuff is terribly off course and going in a very bad way?  Often its the person who can roll all the underlying reasons down into the nice little slogan who actually makes sense of out everything.  You might see quite clearly what its all about, but can you say it?  Can you convince millions of people at the same time?  Not always.  Often the difference between a great leader and a great thinker is seizing emotion.

So even in the broad world, conversation operates at many different levels.  A lot of times with younger people you have to put things in much more direct emotional terms without explaining the whole background of everything.  You have to go to the level on which the people themselves want to conduct the conversation.  Its not just an age factor, of course; its a maturity factor too.  Whats interesting is seeing people conducting the same conversation at all these different levels, because when you have different ages, youre likely to find that a four- or five-year-old has a much less developed sense of philosophy, but an equally highly developed sense of emotion as you, and because theyve got a less of highly developed sense of philosophy, the emotion is what you have to deal with.  Youre saying, Its not fair.  Youre not necessarily describing the whole reason its not fair, youre just saying, Look, when you want to play with the toy you dont want them hogging it.  So its do unto others as you wish they would do unto you, but in a direct way.  You have to share this because how would you feel if you were trying to play a game and they wouldnt let you play?  Oh, Id feel bad.  You put it in terms they can relate to, because to get your point across you have to.  If you say to them, Do unto others as you would have done unto you, theyre thinking, Whats that got to do with this?  Im holding a ball here.  You just said something that doesnt have the word ball in it, therefore its not going to go anywhere in this particular moment of heated passion.

Adults at school have to learn that as much as kids do because a lot of times adults at the school will be trying to explain something in ways that seem reasonable to them and the kids will be talking about almost a completely different thing.  Like when an issue will come up and kids will be talking about how it makes them feel when something happens.  They might be saying, I dont care whether its right or wrong, the tone that that other person used with me is unacceptable.  Its become about that now its about tone.  Its not about the merits of what you were saying or not.  Its now: No matter what you were saying you had no right to take that tone with me.  And the person will be saying, Well, I took that tone with you because you werent agreeing to this, this, and this, so the only place I had to go was to take that tone.  No.  Im not even going to think about the things youre talking about if you have that tone with me.  Whos right in that situation?  I see both sides, because you cant expect someone to listen to your logic if youre taking a tone with them that is so disrespectful that theres no way that theyre going to even proceed with the conversation.  So adults have had to learn as much about the emotional priorities of an argument whether youre arguing just the argument itself or whether the context is equally important, and all those kinds of things.

A concrete example of that is the whole issue of trust.  A person who is trusted can say things that a person who is not trusted cannot.  Even if theyre saying the same thing, if you hear the same thing from someone you dont trust, it doesnt matter what theyre saying because you dont trust them.  Its like if the head of the CIA says to the average American, Blah blah blah, the average American is going to be thinking, Hes the head of the CIA.  I cant trust him.  Whereas their own mother might say the same thing and theyre now totally OK with the same exact point, because you trust your mother but you dont trust the head of the CIA.

Power is another huge motivator for learning how to converse, because a lot of a persons power resides in how effective a communicator they are, and part of being an effective communicator also has to do with trust.  You can have the most eloquent words in the world, but if you have completely lost peoples trust it means nothing.  And trust is often not just based on eloquence and rightness, its based on the perception of respect and how youve treated a person in little ways.  Its such a deep and mysterious concept, like everything else thats worthwhile understanding.  How one earns peoples trust is a completely amorphous thing.  Why is one person trusted and another not?  The kids themselves would be the first to say that they realize that any adult whos involved with the school is probably involved for the good reason of wanting to be a part of an enterprise that guarantees them their freedom.  Yet, at the same time, they would not trust each person just because you happen to be an adult and happen to be at the school not at all.  You have to earn their trust through a zillion different little things that show them that youre not just another person condescending to them, or another person whos suspicious because they wear their hair a certain way, or another person who writes them off because theyre six years old, at the expense of older kids, and stuff like that.

Privacy is another issue that relates to all of this.  The quality of a lot of the conversations people have has to do with a weird sense of privacy.  The deepest things are often things you dont feel like sharing with everyone.  The things youre really concerned about, the things youre really scared of, are often things you only feel comfortable sharing with a select group.  The ability to be in that select group and not have everybody else around is key for meaningful conversations to happen.  You have to be free to choose who the conversations with, and be private in that.  Yet, in a funny way, Ive also noticed at school a counterpoint to that, which is that people will be having what are essentially very private conversations with other people in earshot for instance, two teenagers having a conversation about something, like about their relationship with their own parents.  Thats not a conversation they would necessarily have in front of every staff member, or other teenage friends.  And yet, theres a group of small kids playing ten feet away who are clearly listening to everythings that being said who, for some reason, are trusted as if they know that those kids wont go and tell their parents or other kids.  For some reason, they think that those kids will respect their privacy.  I see that over and over again, and Ill be asking, Do you want to have this in the other room? and theyll answer, Oh no, thats alright.  Its as if theyre in another world, realizing that those kids arent going to use that information in some selfish way like one of their contemporaries might.  So little kids are often privy to all kinds of conversations that they would normally be nowhere near that are very useful to them, I think.  These are also very confusing, so a lot of it is filed away for future reference.

So the way privacy is measured is not an obvious thing.  People can be having a private conversation in the middle of a busy room, but they still feel like the conversation is private because they know that no one else will suddenly be in that conversation, for instance, or will offer their two cents worth or that no one whos not in the conversation will tell somebody what its about.  Its very interesting and complex and Im not quite sure what its based on sometimes.              Because privacy is a key element, the right of free movement emerges as a key right.  Unless you have a right to choose your space and to control it to a certain degree like to say, Im going to go over here where nobody is and have this private conversation the whole point of conversation is severely diminished.  You cant separate the two.  You have to have freedom of movement in order to have freedom of conversation be meaningful. 

If people were honest with themselves about the way they learn things, they would realize how often they come into a job and dont learn what they needed to learn through a manual, but learn throughout the primary vehicles of doing and talking.  The way most people learn a complex task is by talking to the people who already do it who are already in the environment where its done and by doing it.  The method of trial and error and communication is still the main way people learn things.  All the pamphlets and brochures and other things that are made up to help people learn things, those are just the starting gates.  Given the choice, most kids too would much prefer to learn by talking and doing than by secondary ways of doing stuff, like reading and watching demonstrations.  Theyd rather just do it and make mistakes and talk about them and keep on going.  Thats been going on forever; its only in the last couple of hundred years that people have at all gotten away from that.  Not doing it that way is the aberration; doing it that way comes completely naturally to almost anybody and is a pure outgrowth of the way the human mind works.  The lack of real opportunity to converse is probably the single worst thing about the current traditional school system.  The whole one-way conduit of teacher, book, question, answer limits so much of it.  If people were just in a conversation about a subject, it would be so much better.

Im amazed by the degree to which people dont really want to be instructed so much as told a few basic things and then left to discover on their own.  The degree to which people will choose to reinvent the wheel, just so that they can feel how the wheel works.  The degree to which theyll choose to just say, Show me how to use this, and then run off and use it and not necessarily ask what the best ways to use it are.  People really want to learn hands-on, and because they really want to learn hands-on, a lot of kids I was this way too will just ask you for what seem like the most rudimentary instructions.  In my own experience, I had a teacher for music theory with whom I really didnt do that much.  Im sure from his point of view, he taught me nothing of consequence.  Yet, what he taught me have been the basic tools with which Ive been able to memorize as opposed to write down my music.  Before I went to my music theory teacher I didnt have any background at all as to why different tone clusters were called different kinds of chords.  By giving me a language with which to describe musical intervals, he let me have a language with which, when I plunk down a bunch of notes, Im able to tell myself what key this is in and what kind of structure this kind of chord has.  Having a name for it helps me remember it later on.  I needed a set of names to call things as a mnemonic tool to help me remember all the different sounds I was making.  To him, Im sure, in the grand scope of musical theory, he felt that he had barely scratched the surface with me and had given me nothing.  But I really didnt need someone to help me with my interior dialogue of how to write songs.  What I needed was someone to help me with some tools that would help me remember what Id done, but I didnt know what to ask for.  I just went and asked for music theory because it seemed like the thing to do and once I had the names, it was, Thank you, >bye.  And then I went on for the next twenty years writing music without any of that other music theory that Im sure would be lovely to have, that Im sure goes into deep structure and all that, because thats not the kind of composer I am.

Each person takes a different thing, but that was a classic example.  The most important things to me Ive taken a smidgen of formal training in, like guideposts.  Show me how to do this basic thing and Ill do everything else.  Point me at the machine and tell me how it works and Ill figure everything else out myself.  Have I achieved professional levels of achievement?  Yes, I have.  Because I think a lot of people do that, and kids do it all the time.  They dont want to be told every last detail.  They want to just be pointed in a direction and then fill in the blanks in their own personal way because then its their achievement, its their thing that theyve come to.  For me, that was a huge educational insight when I finally realized how I myself had worked and I realized that people I considered my great teachers and my great inspirations were people who had simply told me the most rudimentary aspects of what that subject is, things anybody could have told me, things that wouldnt qualify anyone for great teacher status.  Just show me a simple thing and get out of my way is often what makes you a great teacher in a free context because people are really pursuing their own way.  In that regard, I figure that Ive taught people a lot because Ive showed them one basic thing and then gotten out of their way.  To the extent that another person might say, Well, Ive taught my students how to do this, this, and this,  I reply, Well, I havent.  Ive just showed them one thing and stepped away and let them talk about it.

A lot of the kind of things that people want from you dont even seem to impinge directly on the things theyre studying.  People will be asking your opinion about totally secondary things and then, later, theyll say, You inspired me to do something because you were doing this thing for yourself and it made you happy.  Just coming in and sharing with them some of the stuff Ive been doing that had nothing to do with them or with school is the best thing I did, so to speak just them seeing me doing something, because Im a person doing something.  I have a photo student, and all Ive done is really shown her the camera, and given her a few of the most basic principles of what I consider photographys about.  Almost everything I think about photography can be boiled down to the fact that when youre taking a picture you should ask yourself what youre taking a picture of, and take a picture of that.  Of course, I mean it on a deeper level.  I mean if what youre trying to take a picture of is a certain mood, then you have to decide what visual elements will give that mood.  If you see a certain thing and realize that its beautiful and want to convey that beauty, you have to figure out what it is about the setting and the thing that conveys the thing and then convey that and only that.  Thats what will give you effective pictures if you just step back for a second and ask yourself those questions.  Then part two is about really seeing, really looking in the camera and realizing that everything thats in the viewfinder is whats going to be in the picture.  You look in the corners of the picture and look everywhere and find the balance there and dont think that theres anything outside of that thats going to impinge.  Theres going to be no smells, no sounds, no thing right next to the thing youre looking at for the viewer to see.  Its all going to be right there in the viewfinder and so you have to make sure thats telling your story.  These are basic, simple things that take five minutes to learn, a lifetime to master.  Just by saying those few things a couple of times and helping with a few things like that, this person has become an incredibly creative photographer, and shes only fourteen years old.  Shes going to be like I was if she keeps going:  when I was eighteen I already had much more of a voice as a photographer than a lot of people in their twenties do because I didnt get all screwed up with a bunch of other stuff.  I just spent my time looking and seeing.  And Im not weighing her down with a bunch of nonsense.  Im just saying, Look at things, because Im taking it as a given that shes bombarded with thousands of images every day that are professional images media images that are created by people who have spent a long time learning how to get that good at what they do, magazines that are shot by the best photographers in the world its already all in front of her.  Shes already using all of that, so its just a matter of whats she going to do with it, and I cant presume to step in and show a bunch of things.  Ive seen all the silly things that people do about the rules of composition and this and that; those rules are the same as the rules of grammar.  Theyre all arrived at after people have spent thousands of years actually doing it.  Theyre all explanations afterward of things that exist, theyre not the way you do the thing.  Theyre a way in which people might say, This explains the way everyones always been doing it.  Theres a consistent pattern.  But theyre not the way you do it.

Im always surprised by how much stake people put in the aftermath.  When people talk about teaching kids English, they spend all this time teaching them what a noun is and all that stuff.  Thats what someone figured out afterwards!  If you want to teach someone language, talk to them.  If youre going to teach them how to write, there has to be some framework within which theyre going to want to write or, failing that, something real you can give them to write about where their skill will actually come into play.  Thats why most school writing is so atrocious.  What is the point?  I just dont understand it.  It doesnt function at any level, except as an exercise in futility.  It doesnt bring anyone closer to real expression, it doesnt deepen any understanding, it just creates a huge mass of mediocrity.  People have to have a better reason than that to organize their thoughts on paper.  I think a lot of people dont find real reasons to organize their thoughts on paper until theyre in a situation when thats the only way you can organize your thoughts, like when you have to submit a written report.  Now, its scary to think that people will have never written a report until they have to submit a written report, but in a way if you think about it, its like the JC reports and motions that we write all the time at school.  You know what they have going for them?  Theyre totally terse and economical, and theres no extra prose.  When we write up a report of what happens, it usually runs to a sentence or two.  The most complicated motions usually run to a couple of sentences.  To me, thats the most important thing about writing: economy of expression.  Sure, if you have to write something bigger youd have to write something more, but you should never lose the fact that each sentence should tell something.

I think all good writers have that in common.  Its all about editing.  Its not about producing a mass of words; its about producing the least amount of words that will say the most somehow and making each thing count.  And I think this notion of writing a ten-page report as if somehow the meaning could be listed by the amount of pages is like telling someone, Write a 550-page novel.  Either the storys going to be a certain length or not.  You cant box in meaning.  I mean, sure, people can put out any kind of mediocrity to whatever length, but is that what youre aspiring to train people for?  People who are creative can create mediocrity fairly easily; the hardest thing to do is to create something really good.  I get the feeling that a lot of it is job training for jobs that no longer exist.


An Excursus on Exercising the Right to Vote

There have been times that Ive had to take serious issue with people about the way you use your franchise to vote.  Theres this whole notion of little kids coming into a School Meeting and voting about things that they know nothing about.  There have been times when a bunch of kids who are on the periphery of a meeting have suddenly trooped into the meeting proper.  In other words, they were playing at the edge of the meeting during the debate and have suddenly arrived in the chairs to vote and didnt necessarily vote the way certain people thought was right.  For instance, Im thinking of a time when I was espousing one position and some other people were espousing another and at the last minute a bunch of little kids sat down and voted for the position that I happened to be espousing.

A bunch of people at that point took issue with the fact that these kids, who werent paying attention and didnt know what the motion was about, had suddenly come in and voted in what was clearly just a completely irrational way.  Im thinking, So, the only reason someone could agree with me is if they werent even paying attention and it had no rational sense behind it?  I view the fact that people agree with me as not necessarily a confirmation of their wild irrationality.  I said, So because they agreed with what I was saying, youre saying somehow they had to be out to lunch and werent really listening to what was being said?  They answered,  No, of course not, and then they backtracked and said, It wasnt that they happened to be on your side, but it was the fact that they werent in the debate paying attention to it.

For me, the point that I defended was that you couldnt be inside another persons head to figure out how they arrived at what they thought was right.  Just because someone hadnt been participating actively in the meeting didnt mean they werent listening to what was said, and just because someone couldnt explain or defend their position didnt mean they didnt believe in what they voted, and didnt give them any less of a right to vote what they cared about.  Its sort of like saying that just because a bunch of Americans arent part of the Democratic or Republican parties they should have no franchise or right to vote for a Democrat or a Republican.  I dont participate in party politics but I have my opinions about the candidates.  Someone could say that, for all intents and purposes, I am just part of that shapeless uninformed mass of the political electorate that votes because a particular candidate promised them something or was cute or won a stupid debate on television.  And I would say, Look, I have my reasons.  I dont have to go out into the political arena and give my reasons or go out and bust my butt trying to get support for my candidate.  I can just go and vote for him.  I have that right.

At a school like this, a kid could just say, Well I like him a lot so Ill just vote the same way he does.  People at school were saying that they thought that wasnt an adequate reason, for instance.  Again, this was something I was a very conscious and forward defender of.  Even if the only reason youre voting for something is because you like that person, that is a reason that people decide things.  Why is voting for something because of a principled stand on the issues any more or less a priori valid that voting with your friend?  I think that friendship and loyalty are principles too.  I think that voting for your friend because you are their friend is itself a principled stand on something.  Im damned if Im going to live in a society that values only procedure over friendship.  Where I come from, loyalty to a human being can certainly be as much of a principle of human conduct as right or wrong.

The notion of an ideal democracy as one where you vote on ideas and not on political affiliations is not a human democracy.  For any system to have any meaning or content it has to include human beings in it.  You could almost say that an authoritarian form like a tribe, in which one person is the chief whose word is law but where everybody knows each other and where the chief weighs like peoples needs and personalities before making their decisions could be a far more just place to live than a democracy in which individuals luck and things like that are not taken into account at all.  The whole basis of the welfare state, as far as Im concerned, is that people have realized that some people have bad luck and need help.  Why do we steal money from the pockets of the people who are working and put it into the pockets of people who cant get jobs?  Because we realize that not everybody who cant get a job is doing it on purpose, that they may have a lot of horrible things that happened to them and that they might need some help.  In a compassionate society, you cant always go by whats right and wrong.  I mean, whats righter?  Basically stealing money from one person to give it to another person, or letting people who dont have opportunities starve in the streets?  There are arguments on both sides.  I dont a priori assume that just because someone is needy, that makes it okay to steal from someone else who isnt, which to a certain degree is what taxation is.  People arent willingly giving the government their money, theyre having it extorted from them by governmental fiat.  We dont pay taxes out of some lovely sense of duty.  The government makes us pay or we face prison.  To me, there are arguments on both sides of a thing like that.  With personality, my point is that the degree to which politics is personality in the real world in our democracy or in any democracy is the degree to which its also personality at a school.  You dont pick a leader, for instance, in any democracy just on their positions on all the issues, because honestly they may not get half their legislative agenda done.  I often pick on my perception of what they would do in a crunch.  Im less interested, lets say, in someones health care plan, which I know is going to be stymied by Congress and is going to be totally at the mercy of a thousand lobbyists and everything else.  My perception of how they might act facing a genuine crisis, like a war or the sudden unpredictable collapse of the economy, is more important.  Im somewhat more interested in whether a leader has compassion for people.  Would he do the right thing when millions of people are starving?  That kind of thing, rather than what their plan is about this or that or the other thing.

A lot of people would say, Well, thats a personality thing.  Thats a very evocative judgement of someone, the way they present themselves as either a caring or an uncaring leader.  But thats, to me, by far a more important quality.  Whats a persons quotient of compassion versus reason?  Will they be able to make compassionate decisions reasonably, or will they bankrupt the country following every compassionate thing?  Everybody draws the line in a different place, but I need someone whos willing to say, Lets not destroy the entire country so that every industrialist can make a million, billion dollars, but on the other hand wont destroy our economy to save a snail.  For me, the line gets drawn somewhere in the middle there.  But the point is, thats a personality thing too.  Someone might back a certain person because of their perception that theyre usually right.  Someone else might back a certain person not because of the cogency of their arguments, but because a certain sense of mercy takes over.  At school, for instance, someone might feel that even though a particular student is wrong and the school is talking about punishing them for being wrong, that they have suffered enough, that they have learned from their mistake, that the whole process of going through a whole School Meeting and having everyone tell you that youre wrong is already a punishment, and that theres nothing to be gained from suspending them for a week.  Someone else might say, Youre just voting for that person not to get suspended because youre their friend and you dont think they should be punished and that sucks.  And someone else might say, Im voting for my friend not because I think they deserve to get away with everything, but because I feel like theyve already been punished and really frightened and because I think that this punishment that everyone else thinks is so reasonable is in fact way over the top.

My whole point was just that there are a lot of reasons to vote for something, and dont be so quick to judge other peoples reasons for voting.  That was a tack that I had to take a lot at School Meeting, in various contexts.  Not that I agreed with the way a certain person voted, not that I thought it was right, but that experience had taught me that one shouldnt be so quick to judge the reasons other people do things in general, and the way they vote in particular.  Because peoples votes werent something that you could just say were always going on for reasons that you accepted.  People have a right to vote what they want for whatever reason they want.



[1].  From the transcript of an interview of Michael Greenberg conducted by Rhonda Goebel as part of a work entitled, Research on Manifestations of Critical Thinking in Childrens Spontaneous Talk.  The transcript has been only lightly edited, so as to retain its flow as an oral interview that is, as a conversation.  An edited version of other parts of the interview appeared in The Sudbury Valley School Journal, Volume 30, Number 3, January 2001, pp. 8ff., Sudbury Musings, by Michael Greenberg; a few excerpts of this selection appeared there too.


Copyright The Sudbury Valley School Press, Inc.