You have to have them, but you ought to do them well and not badly. Sadly, almost nobody teaches you how to do it and one bad discussion class at some point in school can make you avoid them for the rest of your natural life. You know the bad discussion well: one person talks and nobody else does or the teacher asks leading questions and gives a lecture with periodic interruptions or everyone sits and stares in uncomfortable silence.
Great discussions can lead to great things with the right people. Tolkien and CS Lewis would gather with other literary friends at a local pub. They read, drank beer, and discussed their work. The result was genius.
Plato says the drinking is helpful, but it is not necessary. We are not Tolkien, so finding CS Lewis will not enable us to write works of great genius, so that is not a worry. We can have great discussions in any case.
If you have never been in a great discussion, then let me tell you what it is like for me. Time passes without my even noticing, people open up, the topic evolves, and I understand the topic and my fellow discussants better at the end. When a great discussion ends, I want to start again, even though I cannot. So how can we all have this experience?
First, a great discussion begins with many good discussions.
Any group, short of a miracle, needs time to be able to have a great discussion. This means work and work is rarely felt as a transcendent experience. A good discussion stays on topic, allows everyone who wishes to speak, and ends having moved forward. This may feel like “going in circles” during the good discussion, but the circles are like an upward corkscrew. We think about justice, think some more, and often end where we started, but with a more profound understanding of what that truth means.
When my Constantine colleague Dr. Bartel reads a poem, he might not describe it differently than I would, but his intellectual and emotional experience of the poem are deeper. We both think Wordsworth “beautiful,” but he has much more to say and more importantly greater emotional experience to confirm the truth.
More than a few good conversations, solid, not-so-exciting conversations are necessary to achieve the periodic breakthrough.
Second, a great discussion takes preparation.
Don’t ask why you have bad discussions if you have not read the book carefully. Don’t think you can do your work and have a great discussion if the other members of your group are lazy. Sometimes God blesses you (grace!) to sit in on a great discussion when you have not prepared, but this is like seeing an Olympic medalist from the stands. You are not creating the beauty, you are consuming it. Too many consumers in a discussion, and too few participants, and the discussion will fail.
Of course, many discussions amongst friends are spontaneous and the very life you lead makes you fit for that great gift: the great discussion that comes from great friendship. If you read, live a full life, get out and do things, then you will be ready to discuss many things. This increases the odds that a group of friends will gather, you will be there, a topic will arise and you will learn, see goodness, truth, and beauty-all because you read a book a year ago that in God’s good grace prepared you for this pleasure!
Everyone I have ever met knows you cannot have a good discussion if everyone is false, puts up masks, or refuses to share. Discussion requires honesty. If you don’t know, say so. If you didn’t read the section, say so. If you hate the idea or are bored, express it.
For every discussion that dies due to a refusal to share, I have been in two where someone (or a group) shares too much. Discussion is not group therapy unless it is group therapy. You will know because then the discussion will have been labeled, by a therapist, group therapy. How do you know when to share less?
Is your experience relevant? Have we heard your pain recently? Is it so big, so emotionally nuclear, that the entire discussion will be sidetracked to your pain? Generally, you should not substitute a group discussion for talking to your pastor or mentor.
Fourth, a great discussion will have a leader, but the leader will shift over time.
Most great discussions begin with someone having something to say. They will lead. A great discussion can even be dominated (for a time) by a teacher or a student who has something valuable. How will you know when it is valuable and not just pontification? A good beginning will lead to new leaders and deeper questions. One person might begin with a (longish) insight that he has, but this insight segues naturally to someone else.
If your rant closed down discussion, it was for your inside the head voice and not for your outside the head voice.
Finally, a great discussion will begin in a great question.
A good question is hard to form . . . and much of a liberal arts education should center on giving a student the data, the skills, and the reasoning ability to form a good question. A great question is a gift from God, but when it comes, it will have to last for years. There are questions that have engaged my best thought for years. They may not be great on a planetary scale, but they are great to me.
One way to know if a discussion is going well is if any member of the group can say, with only a bit of thought, the question that is being pursued . . . or the goal, the end of the matter.
Adults are best educated by discussion, but few of us have ever known the joys of a great discussion. This is sad and one reason that even those of us well trained in our jobs, fairly well read, and open minded are not well educated.
Don’t despair! Start seeking good discussions now. If you want someone to teach you to lead a discussion, you might contact The Saint Constantine School or Wheatstone Ministries. Both groups are here to help.