I’ve had bookmarked for nearly two years this exquisite piece by NPR reporter Eric Westervelt , “Is listening a lost classroom art?” Almost brings tears to your eyes in an era in which so much reporting is of, shall we say, the sensational bent, that such a nuanced and thought-provoking piece would air — especially when listening in the hallowed halls gets such short short, long fallen out of favor; rather, courses on debate/forensics, persuasion, rhetoric, are all the rage, and whenever such courses are offered at the college and university level, rarer still is it that there is any focus whatsoever on the art and science of listening.
More’s the pity, since listening is the backbone of any genuinely meaningful give and take — and hence is not only what sets apart Socrates Cafe and all our other dialogue initiatives, but without deep empathic listening, the Socratic Method itself is just a shell of what it can be. If follows, then, that a society of a comparatively open variety that is comprised of people who don’t care to listen is a society that is closing in on itself, closing itself up.
Anyway, the focus of Eric Westervelt’s piece is on how to get kids to listen to one another in the classroom. Listen to it. More than once.
Here’s the deal, though. How many of us older folks in any way shape or form set a decent example of listening? Or are we mostly using the expressed views of others as a launching pad for our next zinger? or, like those taking part in debates, just mainly waiting to exploit any perceived flaw in others’ views to put them in their place with our own brilliance? When oh when do we ever take the time, on a regular basis, to hear others out, to tease out their stories, to find out why they’re coming from where they’re coming from? How many times, fess up, have only been pretending to listen carefully, when in fact, at best, you’re listening superficially?
Okay, let me get back to kids: When I launched my first Philosophers’ Club at Cesar Chavez Elementary in the Mission District of San Francisco way back in 1997 or so, the title of the San Francisco Chronicle feature was, “Socrates’ Children/ A volunteer teaches kids philosophy – and how to listen to one another”
But truth be told, I didn’t really teach my young charges to listen to one another. Rather, I created the kind of environment for our inquiries in which listening was a matter of course.
I remember our first gatherings — they all wanted to speak at once, hands raised or not. Beautiful but unwieldy cacophony. It took many weeks before they realized they didn’t need to do this — that, no matter what, I’d always make sure each and every one of them had a chance to have her say, more than once. They settled down, began to hear one another out.
Because here was the real quandary, I came to realize — they weren’t used to being genuinely listened to by an adult, not by their parents, and to a lesser extent, not so much by their teachers. Quite often the regular classroom isn’t conducive to listening per se, so overwhelmed are teachers with meeting a mountain of mandates.
So when the Philosophers’ Club kids discovered during our during-school and after-school gatherings, over a cup of juice, an adult who really and truly wanted to know what they had to say, was authentically curious to learn their point of view on any timeless and timely we explored, well, it should go without saying that they were all anxious to speak up all at once at first.
In due time, this changed. They no longer even needed to raised their hands. They began to listen to one another because they were tranquil with the knowledge that they would all have their turn, on many occasions, to speak up. So they listened up. I never even had to tell them to. They just did it. So did I. I learned how to be a better listener by modeling them. Sure, they squirmed and fidgeted sometimes, and they listened.
They just needed, first off, an adult who was less interested in controlling the learning/inquiry environment by shushing them, and was far more interested in created the conditions that enabled them to flourish when it came to cultivating the ‘fourth R’, reasoning. The key condition was to model careful listening.
It stands to reason that if an inquiry hinges on following up to whatever view is proffered, then we must listen with all our hearts and minds. So I did model that, without ever enumerating any didactic set of rules or protocol. And slowly but surely, they transformed into the engaged listeners that they naturally were, and they latched onto this Socratic Method of inquiry — or the version I was in the throes of developing — in a way that adults rarely do so quickly.
The rest is history. My first children’s book, The Philosophers’ Club, is largely the product of my inquiries with the kids at Cesar Chavez Elementary School in San Francisco (we now also have a Spanish edition (and a digital edition in Kurdish, but we then were edified to our dismay that Kindle has no platform to support Kurdish translations — so if you want it, write to me, Christopher_Phillips@mac.com), as well as an elementary school in Phoenix where I lived next, William T. Machan, and it led to my next children’s work. Children’s observations and insights are also at the core of much of my written works for older audience, and of course culminated in my Philosophy of Childing.
Let me tell you something: I didn’t just ‘teach’ the children to listen well; they taught me to listen better. They are far better listeners, by and large, than adults, when given half a chance. This idea that we adults teach such skills, and kids learn, is a hierarchical model that is, pardon me, a bunch of blarney. We teach one another, we model for one another. It is a many way street, learning and relearning and becoming ever more adept at the art and science of listening. Just as it is with qualities like empathy — even the most revered adult experts / gurus believe it is something teachers, adults, parents cultivate and coach our younger counterparts to do, when in fact empathizing is second nature to them, as I assert in The Philosophy of Childing, and support not only with my own personal observations and experiences engaging in probably thousands of inquiries with our youngest over the last two decades, but also is supported by the latest findings in cognitive science (I include these in my book).
If we’re ever to make ours a world that dispenses with “people hearing without listening,” as Simon and Garfunkel put it in “The Sound of Silence,” we have to make it possible for kids to show us the way.
Can you hear me now, can you hear my plea?
Or better put: Can we listen now, all together, with altogether open and receptive hearts and minds and ears, to one another? If we can ever make listening the irresistible core of our being, what a world ours would be.