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Pondering Big Ideas, Community - Style

No consensus, but lots of good questions at TC's Socratic Conversations series

No consensus, but lots of good questions at TC’s Socratic Conversations series

By Siddhartha Mitter

What is happiness? Is our technology making us smarter or stupider? Do we really value our children?

Twice a month, assorted Teachers College and outside community members gather for an hour in the second-floor salon of the Gottesman Libraries to ponder these and other philosophical questions. Known as “The Socratic Conversations,” the series has taken on justice, humor, forgiveness, patriotism, the media and whether it is true that Americans are getting “dumb and dumber.” And should you think this all sounds like just so much BS, fear not: a session has been spent debating the essence of that, too.

Now in their fifth year, the Conversations have proven a steady hit, drawing, on average, a couple of dozen participants—generally a mix of regulars and one-offs. More than that might cramp the discussions’ free-wheeling style, says educator Ronald Gross, author of the widely translated Socrates’ Way, who facilitates the Conversations according to a model he has used in settings ranging from corporate seminars to subway platforms. An unabashed Socrates buff whose fascination with the great philosopher began in childhood, Gross is an engaging character who sometimes turns up at the Conversations with a soft-drink can labeled “Diet Hemlock” in hand, and who has been known to roam the streets of New York in a period chiton, channeling the Athenian “gadfly.”

But in truth there’s nothing eccentric about the intent of the Socratic Conversations. The library sees them as a chance for TC students, faculty and staff to step out of their routines and engage with one another around questions that affect everyone. “It’s a wonderful platform for learning,” says Jennifer Govan, Senior Librarian, who runs the Gottesman Libraries’ education programs. “It’s a social and intellectual activity, but also a collaborative one that tries to build community within the College.”

By querying rather than lecturing, just as his hero once did, Gross provokes participants to participate—actively.

On a recent Thursday, the topic was “Challenging the Beauty Advantage”—a choice prompted by recent research suggesting that those whom society deems good-looking are more likely to get hired or promoted. The topic was also a favorite with the ancients—including Socrates, who, Gross pointed out, was considered the homeliest man in Athens.

An hour of discussion ensued, punctuated by a short video showing survey findings. A flip chart displayed comments left by passers-by, such as “I’ve caught myself judging people by their appearance, which is wrong,” or “But is there anything wrong with wanting to look your best?”

Prodded gently by Gross, the participants, a varied bunch ethnically and generationally, shared some of their own experiences. One woman said it was refreshing to realize that other people did not judge her as narrowly on appearance as she had once feared. Others were more pessimistic—even resigned— about what they saw as the near-ubiquitous presence of discrimination. Several attendees from foreign countries said that the problem is even more entrenched there.

No consensus was reached, but the discussion probed deeply into certain questions: the difference between beauty and attractiveness, the role of biology, and the diversity of New York City, which, all agreed, is sufficient to challenge anyone’s biases.

Afterward, Leslie Lifeng Ao, a visiting scholar who teaches English in Harbin, China, said competition for jobs among Chinese college graduates is so intense that appearance is an obsession. “Some of my students come to me and ask, ‘Do you think I look good enough in this dress?’” Ao said. TC doctoral student I-Ching Wang, who helps Gross with the program logistics, said she always participates, no matter the subject. “It’s good practice,” she said. “No matter whether the topic is relevant to your field, you should be able to analyze it and relate.”

As she headed back to her job, Columbia University nursing professor Elizabeth Cohn, a regular attendee, said the discussion had left her feeling invigorated: “It changes me for the whole day when I come to this.”

Published Friday, Dec. 17, 2010


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