Conversation: the Staple Ingredient

The sub-title was carefully chosen to represent the status I think conversation has relative to the entire process of learning and living.

This is a retrospective series of talks about what we’ve learned over the thirty years, and I find it rather interesting to note how thoroughly we missed this subject in the early years. In our early literature, there is hardly a mention of conversation. We talked a lot about how we expected children to play a lot, and play they did, from day one. They also talked a lot from day one, but we didn’t really understand what was going on. We just casually assumed that talking was one of those things you do, like breathing and eating. The significance of conversation and its centrality really took a long time to grow on us during the years. It’s only recently that we have even noticed that conversation is something ubiquitous at school, that it’s a major activity for children of all ages and the primary activity for teenagers.

When you finally notice a phenomenon like that in a school such as ours, where children are free to do as they please, you are bound to ask, “Why? Why is conversation an activity that is so passionately engrossing?” An incident that focused it all for me was a little scene that I saw from the second floor window one day a few years ago. I saw three rather young girls walking down from the parking lot on the road. They must have been about seven years old. As they were walking down, they were engaged in an obviously intense conversation. I couldn’t hear a word. But it looked exactly as if it were three adults walking down. These were three little girls and they looked completely adult, walking and talking. That little scene made the final transition for me; I realized that what they were doing was as important to them, as meaningful to them, as it is to adults who are engaged in the same kind of conversation.

The challenge for me then became to understand why, and not only to understand why but to get some handle on what it is they talk about. That’s what I plan to explore tonight because I think we’ve gained a lot of insight into that over these decades.

Let’s start with a definition of conversation, so that we know what we’re discussing. A conversation is a verbal exchange between one person and one or more others. Its most common form is oral, but there are other forms of conversation. There’s written conversation through mail. Now, in the information age, there’s email, which is that beautiful crossover between oral conversation and formal mail, where you can communicate rather quickly back and forth, but not so quickly that you have to be on your toes and respond on the spot. There’s that interesting form of conversation with yourself, when you’re talking things over with yourself – usually silently, using words in your mind.

Conversation is a form of interpersonal communication. There are other forms of communication between people, but conversation is specifically a verbal form. It depends on an exchange of words. Its main function is to acquire information, and to affect the environment via words. For example, when we use words to get somebody to do something for us, that’s using words to affect the environment. The key element here is the word. To get a real handle on what conversation is, we have to understand what words are, what language is.

We’re going to enter now into a rather complex domain. Many philosophers have written about language. It’s a difficult subject and it’s still very much under study and investigation. Let me give my perspective on it.

Human beings, like every other animal, as part of their survival needs have to comprehend the world. The way living beings comprehend the world by developing what I call “models of reality”. They develop a picture in their minds of what the reality surrounding them is. Each and every one of us has an individual model of reality. And just as important as having a model of reality, which is a picture, each one of us develops a mode of interacting with our environment, by which we affect the environment, gain things from the environment, and use our senses to interact with the environment. So, there’s both the static picture that we have – the model – and also the mode of creating and refining the model. I needed a shorthand to describe this dual function that each of us has, that’s uniquely ours – our model of reality, which is ever-changing, and our mode of interacting with reality; I’ve called it our “modor”. The modor designates the totality of mechanisms by which a person makes sense out of life. This includes all the instrumentalities of interaction with the environment (for example, those mediated by the senses and all the ways by which the inputs into the person’s system get processed), and all the representations people make of the world around them, conscious and unconscious, cognitive and emotional.

The modor is something very personal. It’s our unique way of seeing the world and our way of viewing and interacting with the world. Each person, from birth on, develops their own specific modor, which is constantly changing, constantly affected by their life experiences.

What evolution has given humans is one specific additional tool that, as far as we know, no other animal has for building modors, and that is the ability to create symbols for our thoughts. A word is a discrete entity, a shorthand, which we use all the time in constructing and developing our modors.

A word is a symbol that has a host of things that it refers to in our minds. The word itself is something discrete. “Chair”, “run”, “love”, “hate” – any one of these words are discrete symbols. But each of them relates to a huge complex of thoughts, of referents, relating to all of our life experiences. Even a seemingly simple noun has complex referents. For example, the word “chair” is connected with a host of things in our minds, different for each and every one of us. It’s connected with things that I may call a chair, but nobody else would. We see that in art and poetry all the time.

The first people to talk philosophically about language were Greeks. One of the major functions of Plato’s dialogues was to try to understand words, to figure out what something means. Plato created a whole system of thought just to try to explain how we get to the root concept of “chair”. Those of you who have studied philosophy will remember his theory of ideals (or archetypes) – that there’s an “ideal chair” out there, and the word “chair” represents the ideal chair. I don’t want to go into that here, except to point out that even such a simple word was quite clearly understood by the Greeks to be very complicated. What we understand now is how intricately woven is the set of relationships between any given word symbol and all the myriad referents that it represents.

An additional complication is the nature of the interlinking of words with each other. Just as a word is linked with a whole web of experiences and thoughts, so too words are linked with each other through these webs. You see that in word association exercises. You learn a tremendous amount that is subtle about a person’s individual way of looking at the world, just by understanding his/her free association of words. That’s another way of saying that every word is organically linked to every other word in our mind somehow, and that unearthing these linkages that are very private and special to each of us is a key to understanding who we are. That’s how rich the concept of “word” is.

Let’s turn to the usefulness of these word symbols. Why did evolution give us language? What’s the tremendous evolutionary benefit we get from having a word symbol that’s so complex? Actually, it gives us two really significant advantages. The first is that it enables us to organize our thoughts in a much more efficient way. When you’re bathing in an ocean of thoughts and experiences, you’re overwhelmed by everything. Think of a pre-verbal child, and the tremendous perplexity of reality for that child because, among other things, not only is the child inexperienced, but by not having words, by not having that wonderful handle on which to hang sets of complexities, it’s so much harder for the child to make sense out of his environment. There’s just too much to process. Infants are brilliant. The pace at which they learn is staggering. Nevertheless, one of the reasons it takes them so long to learn certain things despite being so brilliant is because they don’t have this wonderful shorthand, the word symbol. The word symbol is an organizational act of genius for evolution. It enables us, by short handing a huge bundle of experiences and referents into a symbol, to relate very complex experiences and thoughts in ways that we can then process and make use of. That’s what conversations with ourselves are about. When we talk to ourselves, when we think to ourselves with words as opposed to pure meditation, we’re doing this processing, we’re reshuffling our ideas. We’re trying to reorganize our thinking. We do it by shuffling words around and by reorganizing and putting them in different places.

In this connection, Alan White showed me a wonderful quote by Oliver Wendell Holmes; “I rough out my thoughts in talk as an artist models in clay. Spoken language is so plastic. You can pat and coax and spread and shade and rub out and fill up and stick on so easily when you work that soft material. There’s nothing like it for modeling. Out of it comes the shapes which you turn into marble or bronze in your immortal books if you happen to write such.” Nothing can describe better the way in which words are used by us to create and mold our own ideas.

But there’s a second much greater evolutionary advantage that words give us that transcends even the ability to organize our own thoughts. Words enable one person to link into the modor of another. Through words, we can not only better organize the world on our own, but we can tap into how everybody else organizes the world and thereby immensely enrich our ability to understand reality and to make sense out of life. Suddenly, instead of my having only one mind – my own – with which to cope with reality, I have a tool by which I can probe other people’s minds. Words are a medium of exchange between minds. They enable you to trade information concerning modors and thereby to make your domain of understanding much more universal.

This phenomenon is, in my opinion, quite miraculous. How it works is almost incomprehensible. How do I tap into your modor by using a word that might mean something so different to me than it does to you? Indeed, how can we ever get the same word to mean the same thing to both of us? It’s a staggering task. Again, think of the struggle a child has to go through to figure out what a word means. It’s not so much that the child has trouble with forming sounds. The sound part is the relatively easy part. The hard part is to figure out how to use the sound. “Why is that adult using that particular medium of exchange? What is the reference that I’m tapping into? If I use it, what will I elicit from her? If I say this word, what will happen?” Figuring out how to bridge the chasm between people’s modors is the task of verbal communication. It’s lengthy, it’s arduous, and when successfully done, it’s a tremendous achievement.

In order to understand better the social use of language, I’d like to talk briefly about what I call “concentric circles of language”. The first place a person learns to use words is in the family, and that’s no accident because, in the family circle, a child is subjected to the constant environment of the same people, the same parents, siblings, etc. It’s a case of total immersion. It’s like learning a new language for adults. What’s the best way to learn a foreign language? In class? Forget about it. Take somebody, put them in France, don’t give them a dictionary, and don’t give them any companion who knows English – they’ll learn French, for sure. Especially kids who don’t have the inhibitions that adults have. Ask yourself, how does a seven year old who has never spoken a word of French, and who is dropped into Paris, end up chattering in French a month later? It’s no different a question than how it happens that a two-year-old learns to speak the language that his/her family is using – by immersion, by constant exposure over and over again. The child starts to figure out what his parents or his siblings mean by specific words and tries to relate their use of the words to the symbolization that he’s beginning to develop himself. “Love” is a perfect example. What does he do with “love”? He hears his parents say, “I love you,” and then they jab him and practically squeeze the life out of him. He’s wondering what this means. Or they plant a big wet kiss on him. What is he going to make out of this? He hears all kinds of cooing associated with the word. He’s got to put this together coherently. Eventually, he forms a complex of experiences around that word symbol “love”, and he starts using it. He may start using it in ludicrous ways, and then, of course, the adults around him interact with him and modify his use of the word.

Slowly, over a period of years of interaction between a child and his/her family, there develops an inner circle of language where the people in the family have a huge overlap in the referents of many of the words they use. Everybody is familiar with the “private language” that families develop. Every family has developed certain unique vocabularies and meanings. They can glance at each other and say a particular word, and a whole bundle of referents come to the fore, and they laugh, or wink at each other, and everybody else is clueless as to what is going on in that inner language circle.

In addition, as time passes, every social circle that we’re in develops its own private language. But since we have less frequent contact, less immersion, in social circles than we do in the family circle, the overlap of word meanings among individuals decreases, and communication becomes more difficult. The challenge to understand becomes harder. So when you’re in a social circle of people – say, those you’re working with – you develop a common vocabulary, but it’s not as intimate, not as comprehensive as the vocabulary in your family. When you’re with your friends in school, you share a common vocabulary, but much of it is different from the one at work. There’s a whole group of other words and other meanings, and even the same words have different meanings, when you’re talking to your friends in your club. As the circle broadens, the ability to communicate, the ability to link into other people’s conceptual schemes, becomes weaker and weaker. It becomes more challenging to know what they’re talking about.

When a President stands up in front of the nation and uses words in a speech – any President, this is not a political statement – think of the challenge! Think of the challenge any person faces, standing up there with the Presidential seal behind him, and using words that are supposed to affect the affairs of the nation. There’s no way everybody is going to have the same understanding of what he means. Every word has a slightly – or vastly – different meaning to each of the millions of people who are out there listening, and every connection is different, every linkage. How much more so with international relations, where you not only have to bridge differences of meaning using the same language, but you have to bridge translations between languages in which the very mechanics of putting words together are different.

I’ve gone into this at length because this ability to use words is a two-edged sword. This fabulous advantage, words, that evolution has given us – this ability to tap into other people’s minds, this quantum leap of ability to understand the world, because suddenly I am not restricted to the use of my brain alone – has a down side; namely, that it’s so difficult for me to figure out what these word-symbols mean to any other person.That’s what conversation is about. Conversation is about is about using words over and over again, in whatever concentric language circle we’re in, in order to try to learn what we mean and what the other person means by their use of words to comprehend the world. That’s why conversation is so important, so insistent. That’s why you have to engage in it for so many hours. What do you say when a person laconically gives a one-sentence reply to a very deep question you’ve asked? You say, “What is he talking about? I don’t understand. That person never speaks. That person never says what’s on his mind. You can never understand what’s behind his thinking. He’s always just giving you a one-sentence answer.” And, if you challenge them and you say, “How come you’re not saying more,” they say, “I’ve said everything I have to say. That’s what I mean.” What you want to do is draw them out with more words and more words and more words. It’s that sculpting process. “I want to know what you mean by this. What does it really mean to you and how can I relate that to what it means to me?” That’s the whole purpose of those three hour telephone conversations that we have, that our teenage children have, and that little our 8 and 9-year-old children have. They’re constantly trying to figure out, “How can I see the world more broadly, with the help of other minds as well as mine?” There’s no greater tool that evolution gives us for success in life. The person who has mastered conversation, the person who has mastered the ability to tap into other people’s modors, is the person best equipped to go out into a quickly changing world and tap into what’s going on at any given moment. And the person who hasn’t mastered this has been deprived of the most effective way possible to learn.

The power of conversation has been well recognized over the ages. The Greek academies were places where people walked around and talked. The scholars in Aristotle’s school for philosophy were called “peripatetics”, from the Greek for “people who walk around”. They walked around and talked, and as they walked and talked, they developed great concepts, many of which were recorded in their immortal books. And in the other great ancient Western civilization, Judaic culture, the Rabbinic academies were all oral. Hundreds and thousands of learned rabbis over a period of 2,000 years talked and talked about the intricacies of Judaism, of Jewish law, of theology, of ethics, etc.

Or consider physics, your basic “hard” science. The most famous physics institute of the 20th century was the Niels Bohr Institute in Denmark. Bohr is the man who created the quantum theory of the atom, which lies at the heart of modern physics. He collected around himself the greatest physicists of his time, and hung out with them. That’s what they did, they hung out. I’m using that phrase because we hear it a lot in this school. In his Institute, they’d come for a season to hang out. They’d take walks in the woods, they’d sail on the ocean, they’d swim, and what they treasured more than anything was talking. They talked about physics, they talked about theories, they talked about God, they talked about philosophy. What they were doing, all these greater and lesser physicists, was trying to understand about each other: “How does he see the world? What is he thinking?”

The fact is, we all spend a lot of time talking. There isn’t a single person I know who doesn’t spend a major part of their day talking. It’s not just 100% functional talk. In fact, it’s 99% non-functional talk. If you’re honest with yourselves and you go through a day and ask yourself, “Of all the things that I say during the day, how much is directly functional?” I wager with you that you’d find out that well over 90% of what you say does not lead to a direct, useful outcome. It’s mostly about learning meaning, exchanging meanings, and trying to figure out what’s going on in other people’s minds.

That’s the primary importance of conversation. That’s why kids do it, and that’s why kids who are allowed to be free in a Sudbury school do it all the time. Parents sometimes worry that their children don’t seem to be talking enough about functional things. “Why aren’t they talking about algebra? I wouldn’t mind it if they talked about algebra. I wouldn’t mind it if they just sat down and read a play of Shakespeare.” In the long view of things, the ability to do algebra doesn’t hold a candle to the ability to figure out what’s going on in the world as it’s changing under our eyes, and to tap into what other people are thinking about it. If you have that ability, and you ever need some algebra along the way, you’ll be skilled enough to get it very quickly because the ability to learn by tapping into other people’s minds is the key here, not the ability to store any particular subject matter.

There is an odd paradox that I want to mention as I close. One of the things that the outside world always stresses is the need for greater communication. This is a very modern thing. When I was young, in the ‘40's and ‘50's, people did not talk all the time about the need for communication skills. My father and mother never mentioned the word. But as we became more sophisticated, in the ‘60's especially, that began to change. People began to realize that communication is an important skill. Nowadays, everybody’s stressing communication. Yet, it’s a paradox that even as people stress how important it is, they shy away from it in school. In traditional schools it’s absolutely forbidden. In traditional schools, the last thing you want is for kids to open their mouths all day. “You’re talking. You’re disturbing the class.” I had a professor who wouldn’t even answer a question in class. He walked into the room the second the bell rang, and started writing on the board and lecturing. If somebody raised their hand because they didn’t know what was going on, he would just look at them and say, “You’re not paying your money to hear yourselves talk. You’re paying money to hear me talk. If you have a question, come and see me in my office hours.”

Our culture knows how important communication is, but in our schools, the place where we’re supposedly preparing people to take their place in the real, ever-changing, rapidly-developing world, communication is kept to a minimum. What we at Sudbury Valley have learned over the past thirty years is that free communication is one of the greatest strengths of the school. When you let people be free, they communicate. They talk all day. And now we understand why.

So next time you see kids hanging out, think about how much they’re getting out of it. Think of the school place as a modern day Aristotelian academy, where people develop their minds through talking.

I’d like to end with a wonderful short quote from an article written by Bruce Thomas2: “So what are words worth? Obviously a great deal. But words are to our conscious social selves as air is to our physical selves – an aspect of life so taken for granted, so familiar in its essentiality that it becomes invisible. Moreover, in their form as conversation, words are a constituent of school that is deeply troublesome to both psychometricians and economists. How do you measure the relationship of conversation to student achievement? How do you measure conversation at all? How does the economist calculate an input that expands and contracts all the time, that can be created in an abundance that contradicts the scarcity-driven character of our traditional schools? Untidy and elusive, conversation lies beyond the range of measurement and defies incorporation as a variable into cause-and-effect relationships. But that’s alright. Let’s all just keep talking.”



1. During the school year 1997-98, as part of Sudbury Valley School’s Thirtieth Anniversary celebrations, a series of six talks was presented on the theme: What We Know Now That We Didn’t Know Thirty Years Ago. This is an edited version of the second talk, presented November 17, 1998. 

2. “What Are Words Worth?”, Sudbury Valley School Journal (Vol. 27, No. 2), p. 39.