By Listening, We Learn

As children, we learn from parents, teachers, and peers that our encounters with language encompass two aspects: comprehension and production.

As children, we learn from parents, teachers, and peers that our encounters with language encompass two aspects: comprehension (listening and reading) and production (speaking and writing). Students of foreign language might agree that the latter is usually regarded as more difficult than the former. As just one example, my mother, who once spoke and wrote German and French fluently on top of English and her native Greek, can no longer produce more than a couple sentences in either tongue. Yet she can still comprehend plenty, as when she overhears tourists chatting about their travels in the airport.

I believed this too, at least until I sat around my first Harkness table in Cultural Studies during freshman fall at Lawrenceville. There we were, 12 14-year-olds collectively exposed to this strange method of learning through discussion rather than lecture, of treating our teacher more as a facilitator than an authority figure, of no longer raising our hands in response to questions. I quickly realized that in this setting, production was far easier than comprehension. Middle school had instilled in me the importance of making my voice heard, but it had not shown me how to recognize and respond to the voices of others. I would often catch myself plotting my next contribution to the conversation at the same time that a classmate was offering theirs. Of course, I would take notes on only what the teacher said, strategizing its possible integration into my own thoughts. Class discussions were battles, and I aspired to earn the title of “Harkness Warrior.” I could speak, but I did not know what it meant to listen.

This lapse did not go unnoticed by my academic adviser, who gave me the single most influential piece of feedback I received during my high school education. In my first house report, she wrote: “[Panos] can sometimes appear over-confident and at times even arrogant with both his peers and…with his teachers. It can be easy…to answer every question or in some instances not realize how demanding he may sound…he and I plan to work on having a level of humility and understanding when it comes to academics.” I wish I could say I accepted this comment with grace, but in reality I was crushed. Humility? I had conceptualized school life as an individual endeavor, believing I held no more responsibility for the learning of my classmates than they did for mine. It took me a long time—indeed the rest of freshman year—to grasp what my adviser had written and to react not with indignation but instead with gratitude.

Humility. This is Harkness in a nutshell. I recently read a piece in The New York Times by journalist Euny Hong in which she reflects on the Korean concept of nunchi. “Nunchi is the art of sensing what people are thinking and feeling, and responding appropriately. It’s speed-reading a room with the emphasis on the collective, not on specific individuals.” Hong establishes comprehension as a precondition for production. One must listen before speaking. (One must read before writing, too.) Harkness is Lawrenceville’s nunchi. What ensued when I embraced this radical vision of communal scholarship in which my purpose turned from domination to compassion? Meaningful collaboration with classmates and teachers, improved understanding of the material at hand, and above all, a pursuit of learning as an end in itself. There is no reason to treat the classroom like a battlefield, when it can be so much more as a welcoming space for mutual comprehension and joint production.

Harkness tables are nowhere to be found on my college campus. Professors hold all the power in lecture halls. Hand-raising has returned with a vengeance to my courses, even in seminars the same size as classes at Lawrenceville. Yet whenever I see a fellow student sitting across from me preparing to speak, I ready myself to listen. “Active listening” is a phrase tossed around so often in pedagogy that it has lost meaning for me, but I remain committed to the core concept. Hong injects humor in her presentation of this idea when she writes: “Nunchi requires that you admit the value of collectivism, of introversion, and above all, of never passing up a good opportunity to shut up.” It is only in silence that we can listen with attention as well as intention.

This conviction has empowered me to resist giving in to the perception of higher education as war. We speak of certain universities as being “cutthroat,” we call the competition for internships a “rat race,” we hear horror stories about desperate measures taken by students to score higher, to finish faster, to be better. In this view, there are winners and losers, and one should strive to be a winner without regard for the loser. Harkness revealed the absurdity of this worldview to me. If just one member of my community—whether it be a class, a club, or a house—loses, I lose too, and so does everyone else in that community. I am deeply indebted to those at Lawrenceville who helped impart this lesson to me: my advisers, my teachers, and my peers. We are all inextricably bound to one another, and we have in common an obligation to make the most of this shared life.

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