To me, a professor asking a question is a professor expecting a response. In my Classical Conversations seminars, students rarely failed to provide some kind of comment when asked. More often, in fact, tutors had to help choreograph the admittance of so many eager answers. I remember innumerable occasions on which I could not wait for class discussion, because I had a thought to share or a genuine question to pose. Some of my favorite moments of enlightenment still stem from the vibrant back-and-forth of philosophical high school debates.
Half the fun of school was the freedom to participate, to explore ideas, and challenge each other. I grew up educated by those who delight in providing such an environment, truly believing with W. B. Yeats that “education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.”
So it shocked me as a college freshman when the questions of my professors were often met with deafening silence. I would look around the room and see students texting nonchalantly, doodling contentedly, or blankly staring back at the professor. They seemed completely detached from the silence I found disrespectful and uncomfortable.
The expectant silence compelled me to offer my thoughts, but my classmates viewed it as a mute game of chicken. They ganged up on the professor with their empty stares, feeling no desire to participate in conversation.
My classmates seemed possessed with this notion of divided responsibility. Because there were fifty students in the room, each student’s responsibility to participate was one fiftieth. Therefore, they could stare at the professor with audacious indifference and feel no sufficient obligation to speak.
This was a foreign concept to me. The number of bodies in a room does not magnify or divide a classically educated student’s compulsion to discuss. If we have a contribution, then we should feel 100 percent of the responsibility to offer that contribution.
I am so grateful that I was educated in an environment where indifference was not an option. Discussion was mandatory and enlightenment inevitably followed. Classical students share responsibility for discussion by taking it individually. Instead of fifty fiftieths, a classical classroom contains twelve 100 percents. And that is a lot more effective.
I choose not to be part of a generation who discounts personal responsibility with such aggressive apathy. I believe my classical education has a lot to do with this choice—and ability—to deliver.
Classical students have an advantage, because we understand how discussion works. We understand that sometimes the right answer is not the immediate goal. Sometimes, the professor is inviting you to explore a concept and if you instantly shirk responsibility, you will not only miss the “right answer,” but the rewarding journey of reaching it yourself.