There are good but troubling reasons to predict a redesign of the K-12 curriculum in the next decade to explicitly teach conversation skills.
It’s easy to imagine that our absorption with digital media will soon require adjustments to school curricula to formally model the process of engaged conversation. With rates of attention to screens at astronomical highs, Americans seem to be spending less time directly conversing with each other in the same physical space. And while it has become a cliché to bemoan “the lost art of conversation”—virtually every parent of a thirteen year old will express this in some form—there are good reasons to expect a redesign of the K-12 curriculum in the next decade to explicitly teach and model the skills of direct engagement. Schools with low teacher-to-student ratios already do this as a pedagogical style. It’s natural to put learning within a conversational frame.
To understand the importance of conversation we need to remember that the central model for communication is the dialogue. From the dialogues of Plato to the advocacy-saturated screenplays of Aaron Sorkin, the act of talking with another is taken to be the generative source of how we discover who we are and what we believe. By comparison, a monologue can seem like an orphan: a living thing withering without its natural counterpart.
The Greeks were among the first to enshrine the truth-testing as a representative purpose of entering into direct discussion. The power of “dialectic”–the give and take of discussion–is not simply as rhetorical decoration for professional philosophers. We know what’s at stake every time our ideas or preferences are challenged by others. Can we successfully respond? Can we defend what we believe? Conversations do not have the sparkling repartee of a dinner with André. But they need the feature of putting two people in the same space to be immediate interlocutors with each other. Anonymous comments added at the bottom of an online post just won’t cut it.
Consider Richard Linklater’s wonderful trilogy of films about love gained and lost—Before Sunrise (1995), Before Sunset (2004), and Before Midnight (2013). All of these popular features are constructed as extended conversations over the life cycle of a relationship. Linklater wrote the films with Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke, the actors who fully embody the couple. A viewer ends up enthralled not because of what they do, but because of what they say. They are alive to the world and the choices they’ve made. They appear to know each other in ways that couples who have become mute cannot match.
Another important writer/director makes the same point by giving us just the reverse: fascinating models of conversation that have metastasized into something more toxic. David Mamet is known to audiences and actors as the creator of encounters crippled by stilted exchanges. His characters typically flounder in a choppy surf of incomplete sentences, corrosive asides and blank stares. In films like Glengarry Glen Ross (1992) and The Spanish Prisoner (1997), they mostly pay the price. Misunderstandings are compounded. Distrust begins to flourish. And characters are unable to complete thoughts without resorting to abusive threats.
By contrast, young kids are natural conversationalists. Most like to talk. They want to exercise their growing curiosity about others. Reading a book with a child is often a delight (unless you are in a hurry) because almost every page is an invitation for commentary and questions. Reading is not the solitary activity it becomes in adulthood. With more age, the conversational impulse isn’t necessarily killed, but it’s smothered in packaged media content that is still mostly one-way. As it is now, a child in a home brimming with screens seems to be pushed to move from early loquaciousness to comfortable spectatorship. Most of my colleagues note that coaxing even high-performing college students into conversational can be a challenge.
This will all need to change if we want to produce a new generation of active listeners and engaged problem-solvers. We are simply going to have to start earlier to teach and model the kind of animated conversational skills that define what it means to be fully alive to the moment.