When I was getting ready for college, I expected that everyone would be sitting around under the trees discussing Plato. I could hardly wait; but when I got there, everyone was sitting around under the trees discussing “boys.”
When, after long years of graduate school, I finally landed a job as an Assistant Professor at a big university, I expected intellectual conversations among my peers. Although I facilitated philosophical discussion among my students, as the years went by my fellow faculty developed lockstep loyalty to a theory called deconstruction and were impatient when I refused to adopt it. If I asked a question like “What do you think is the meaning of life,” they answered that all meanings are “socially constructed” and reprimanded me that, if I thought otherwise, I was being deplorably “essentialist.”
When I quit all that to become a full time writer, I discovered, from a book by Christopher Phillips, that I might find stimulating intellectual conversation if I started a Socrates Cafe like his. He also developed Democracy Cafes and Constitution Cafes, conducting them not only on campuses but in elementary schools, prisons, and public squares.
That was in in 2007, and it wasn’t long before I enjoyed probing, explorative discussions on every topic we could imagine. Where in universities (and especially, in law schools) “Socratic Dialogue” involves such intense argumentation that it easily slides into attack mode, in Phillips’ style of discussion we avoid challenging, interrupting, or rebutting each other. As a teacher, I insisted that my students avoid that kind of viscerally verbal competition because it stirs up such strong fright and flight emotions that their brains are flooded and they can’t think at all. Phillips also finds that respectful discussion and active listening, rather than scheming your rebuttal in your head, opens rather than closes the mind.
The resulting atmosphere of open-mindedness, where opinion gives way to thought and one question leads to another, makes every participant a true intellectual. Anyone who wants to submits a question anonymously; then we vote for which one we will pursue that day. We don’t expect to find a final answer to our questions, just leave with a lot of new ones.
Here’s a random pick –
Where is your center? What is the center? What determines belonging? Define normal? Which truth is “truth”? What is Common Sense? What did Jean Paul Sartre mean by being “condemned to be free?” What is a fact? What is a good death and do we have a right to one? Why are we here? What is integrity? If we each have “our own worlds” how do we manage to get along? What is character? Can it be taught? What is “doing the right thing” and what is that all about? What is time!
And what do you think?