Thursday, July 11, 2013

Day 60 - Attending a Philosophy Dialogue Group

I have never been to a philosophy dialogue group. While this is not something that was originally on my “I have never...” list, I have always been interested in philosophy and critical thinking. Throughout my life I have often spent time in contemplative thought, and I have always been willing to engage in civil discussion of topics most might find off limits due to their sensitive nature. As such, I have always sought forums for free thought and open discussion, but I rarely found recurring outlets for such activities. As a result of this pattern, I was excited when my “I have never…” research recently guided me to a notice about a Socrates Café philosophy dialogue group in Madison. After confirming the meetings were open to the public, I decided I would carve out some time for this new experience relatively early in my “I have never...” journey. In turn, I made plans to attend my first philosophy dialogue group this evening and prepared for what was likely to be a fruitful and insightful experience.

Steep and Brew
My first experience with a philosophy dialogue group began with a trip to the designated meeting location for the group, the Steep and Brew Café on State Street. A brief drive from my house found me in the frequented haunts of the 500 block of State Street, which had been the location of my recent experiences with Afghan food and Ethiopian food. Walking down the sidewalk, I took in the sights and sounds of a bustling crowd making the most of a beautiful summer evening. Although the walk was short, my observations of my surroundings helped me shed the thoughts and stress of my earlier workday and focus on the new experience before me. After traveling little more than a block up the street, I saw the familiar sight of the Steep and Brew canopy extending over the sidewalk on the opposite side of the street.

The sign
Continuing in my path, I crossed the street and approached the café in anticipation. Walking through the door, I was at first concerned the dialogue group was cancelled. After taking a few glances around the visible portion of the café, I approached the front counter and asked a barista if the philosophy dialogue group was meeting at the location. “Yeah, they should be up on the second level,” the young man said gesturing toward the back of the building. Relieved, I thanked the young man and made my way up a small flight of stairs near the café’s front door. Reaching the top of the stairs, I noticed a middle aged man sitting at the head of a small grouping of café tables. The man flipped through a newspaper resting on the table before him as I walked closer to the aggregation of tables. Reaching the tables I paused for a moment until I noticed a worn, hand written sign reading “Socrates Café” stretching across the tables in front of the man.

“Hi there,” I said breaking the silence. “Is this the philosophy dialogue group?” I asked as I looked over the empty chairs around the tables. The man looked up from his paper and gave a puzzled look at an unfamiliar face. Folding the paper closed he responded kindly, “Hello. Yes, it is. My name is Richard. This is your first time to the group, is it?” I confirmed that was the case, which prompted us to briefly discuss the group’s purpose and 12 year history. Our conversation continued, turning to my reason for attending the group. Richard asked a few questions about my “I have never…” idea before explaining he expected about nine attendees to trickle in around the group’s scheduled start time of 7:00 pm. Just as Richard wrapped up his explanation, another man walked up to our tables and greeted Richard. We made some brief introductions as the man took a seat at the table and setup for the evening. After a brief conversation, I thanked the men for the opportunity to attend and checked the time. With about 10 minutes to spare before the meeting began, I excused myself and walked back to the front of the building to grab something to drink.

Some ground rules
Returning to the table, I took a seat against the far wall and made passing conversation. The three of us chatted about topics and went over some ground rules for the dialogue session. As we spoke, more people periodically made their way to our location. With five people in attendance we began the session with a topic the group previously voted to discuss. The man to my right began the conversation by laying out the topic in a fluid statement. “Is the education system in the United States fair and does is best benefit the student and society?” he stated in a confident and inquisitive tone as he looked over the people in attendance. Continuing, he went through a list of sub-topics generated during a previous thought session he had on the question. Once finished, he gestured to the group to start the conversation. The group sat in silence for a brief period as we weighed the question and our thoughts. Eventually, a man to my right, Amin, broke the silence by asking the group how education is to be defined, which kicked off a variety of responses and an equal amount of contemplation. Over the next 30 minutes we discussed the differences between formal and informal education, the role of societal structure in education, and American predispositions to the value of education. As we talked, various perspectives and deeper questions on the subject emerged, facilitating conversation among the group.

Over time, the group slowly grew to 10 people as more attendees made their way to the café. As our discussion bloomed in the presence of more minds, I periodically offered thoughts and leading questions in homage to the philosopher that served as the group’s namesake. In response, each participant offered unique perspectives and thoughts as topics bounced around the table, which exposed the intellectual diversity and experience maintained by each member in the group. Surrounded by passion, reason, and unfettered openness, I lost myself in the discussion as we pressed deeper into the topic. With the group striking at the heart of the issues affecting our education system, I listened to each person speak from their heart and mind as I sat, lifted by the caliber of our conversation. Striving to keep the conversation moving toward the subject at hand, I offered some perspectives tying our thoughts together around education. The group acknowledged my effort and regained center on solutions to the issues discussed previously before moving back to oft discussed subject of critical thinking. In what seemed like minutes after we had started our discussion, we had covered an unbelievable amount of ground on education, society, and biology in one of the most open discussions I have experienced in my life.

With group full engaged, Richard gathered our attention and made us aware two hours had passed since the meeting began. In a state of disbelief, I looked up at a nearby clock to confirm his statement and saw it was 8:50. With the café nearing its closing hour, our discussion wrapped up quickly as members of the group grabbed their belongings and prepared to leave. I gave my thanks to the members of the dialogue group and expressed my gratitude for the open, thoughtful discussion that had occupied the previous two hours. The group responded in kind, with several members extending me an invite to future meetings.

The dialogue group
After saying my goodbyes, I headed back out to State Street and walked toward my car. On the walk I thought about my expectations for the event before it began and how they compared to my actual experience. I quickly determined I had underestimated the quality and depth of conversation that would occur in the dialogue group. Stated plainly, the understanding, consideration, and intelligence offered by the members of the group are something I’m lucky to have experienced. While I don’t know when my schedule will permit another visit to the Socrates Café, my first experience with a philosophy dialogue group makes me glad I made the event a part of my “I have never...” journey. I took a lot away from the experience, and I learned I don’t have to travel far to find welcoming people equally open to outward contemplation.

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