Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

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I Like The Way You Talk

On Principle, v3n1

February 1995

by Peter W. Schramm

I often meet with high school students who are interested in coming to college. Although each is different in character, background, and capacity, most have some important things in common.

The other day I met Tony Lalo. He is tall, angular, and moves with the vitality and grace of youth. I introduce myself, he mumbles his name, looking away. I get out of him that he is from Cleveland and wants to study politics. Instead of talking about pleasantries, I get down to the main issues. I ask him why he wants to come to college and does he have any sense of what it means to become a student. He is uncertain. He is a reluctant interlocutor at first, but I can see that he is thinking about the questions. The questions continue. What kind of student are you? Do you like to read? What do you like to read or think about?

Aside from the fact that he wants to become a politician in order to help people, as he puts it, he is uncertain of everything. He wants to help people because he thinks that is what politics is supposed to do, and he is a nice boy. I press him on this. Leaving aside the question of what the real purpose of politics may be, I ask: what makes you think that you can or should help someone other than yourself? Are you better, wiser, more learned than they are? Why is it that they need help and you don’t? What is the connection between education and politics?

He takes his time in answering. He slowly becomes more direct and begins to look up. He notices that I listen to his answers and consider them. Our conversation forces him to look me in the eye and pay attention. Clearly, he is not in the habit of doing so. But I am not surprised that he takes to it. Within minutes we are talking to one another on equal terms. We are learning from one another. I can tell he likes it. This is a new pleasure for him. He is surprised by the new delight.

He is not a reader. No one has asked him, or persuaded him, that reading is good, that it has something to do with thinking. What he thinks he knows is not knowledge gained from books. Although no one has ever asked him to extend himself, he has absolute confidence in his ability to do and accomplish anything he sets his mind to. He is full of all the contemporary jargon about self esteem, values, and becoming a role model. I explain to him the difference between those who are called role models nowadays and heroes. We reflect on why the standard was lowered. We talk about individual accomplishment, about a person’s character, about that which is worth esteeming. He is with me now, very interested. Concepts of excellence, of hard work, of fine minds and great hearts enter the conversation.

I explain to him that the way we study political science is essentially indistinguishable from liberal education. We talk about the liberal arts, the arts of free men. We touch on the fact that this society has pretty much taken care of the necessities of life, and four years in college is both leisure and training in how to use leisure. College allows you the leisure to begin to think. And this means that the mind has to be trained to be able to do it, just like the body needs to be trained for a sport. We assert that this is very difficult work. He begins to see my point and offers that he has not yet had that training. He has never been told that he needed it. He suspects that they did not think him capable. He is clearly irritated at the thought.

We talk about language, about reading. He asks how he could begin to learn to be a reader of books. I tell him to take a good book and just do it. But don’t do it silently, not enough senses are engaged. Don’t just use your eyes; use your ears as well. I tell him to read out loud. Listen to the sounds, the rhythm and the music in the language. I tell him to savor the taste of the language. I read a paragraph from Richard Rodriguez’ Hunger of Memory. I let the words roll around in my mouth. He hears the words, the cadence, the movement. He sees what I mean. I give him the book.

As he gets up to leave he thanks me and says: “No one has ever asked me these questions, I like them, I like the way you talk.” I am moved. But as he walks away with the book I wonder how it could be that a young man with over a decade of so called education behind him has never been asked questions, has never been introduced to learning. As the elevator goes down, I become angry at all those teachers who corrupt over-praised youth by not asking them any questions. I return to my books.

Peter W. Schramm is Associate Director of the Ashbrook Center and Professor of Political Science at Ashland University.

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