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Something to Say

Something to Say
Brett Harkey, Director of Advancement
Recently, I found myself sitting in a wood-paneled parlor of a stately granite building on a college campus in the Morningside Heights neighborhood of New York City. Parents sat at the edges of the room while approximately ten respective high-school seniors were gathered in an imperfect circle in the center. We were there to chat with a college dean who was sharing information about her department’s academic program.
As she spoke of the various unique aspects of the school’s approach to instruction in general and her department’s goals in particular, something she said was noteworthy: “It’s not enough that you say something. You must have something meaningful to say.”
Mind you, this was not a dean of the “department of persuasive, important, and weighty speechmaking." Instead, she is the dean of the vocal-arts program at a music conservatory. The goal she shared was related to her school’s required courses in the humanities. As burgeoning artists, the students at the conservatory must possess a deep understanding of human history, literature, language, philosophy, art, and religion. They must understand how their artistic endeavors fit within the "Great Conversation.” And only then, she argued, would they be prepared to make a meaningful contribution.
In his volume titled The Great ConversationMortimer J. Adler makes a case for the study of great books as the principal instrument of a classical-liberal education. There, he quotes Sir Richard Livingstone:
“We are tied down, all our days and for the greater part of our days, to the commonplace. That is where contact with great thinkers, great literature helps. In their company we are still in the ordinary world, but it is the ordinary world transfigured and seen through the eyes of wisdom and genius. And some of their vision becomes our own.”
This ongoing process of writers and thinkers who reference, build upon, and refine the work of predecessors is the embodiment of a classical-liberal education. It is the tradition of Western society which Adler coins the “civilization of the dialogue.”
Only a few weeks ago, Tracy Lee Simmons spoke at a Thursday evening gathering hosted by Liberty Common School and other like-minded institutions. He spoke of five traits of a classically educated person, the fifth of which was “a classically educated person ought to be the world’s best conversationalist.” He wasn’t necessarily referring to perfect elocution (though he did make an earlier argument for precision in language). He wasn’t referring to possessing a magnetic personality or becoming the life of the party. Instead, his assertion was that a classically educated person ought to have something to say that extends beyond the shallow events of the day. She should be conversant in many matters. He ought to be able to engage and contribute to the Great Conversation.
At Liberty Common School, we aim to be participants in the Great Conversation. This requires gaining knowledge and understanding of thousands of years of human history. This requires rigorous study of writers and thinkers who have come before us. This requires that we understand not only our context in the present day, but our place within the ebb and flow of all humanity. Only then will we have something to say that is imbued with meaning and substance.