At different times in my life I have seen a baboon in the economics section of a public library, a dinosaur in the fading light of a construction site, and Richard Nixon in church. The Nixon thing is completely understandable: a former college president I knew was a dead ringer for Nixon when Nixon occupied the White House. Seeing him onstage in church during that college’s centennial celebrations gave me a momentary jolt, since Nixon is gone but not forgotten, while our college president was forgotten (briefly) but decidedly and blessedly not gone.
As for the baboon and the dinosaur. . . well, let’s just say that the human mind can misperceive a lot of things. One minute I’m looking at a full-grown brontosaurus, the next minute at a crane manufactured in Japan. The baboon is a little harder to reconcile with reality, particularly since it apparently presented itself to me posterior first. After a double take and then a closer look, it was determined that some students had rolled a red beach ball into the aisle and then forgotten it. My mind had indisputably seen a baboon rudely mooning me; a quick but firm reality check restored things to their boring normality.
I mention this only to point out the obvious: things are not always what they seem. However, they are more like what they seem more often than not—it’s the “than not” bit that can throw us. To wit: I have spent hours writing an exam, a beautiful little gem of an assessment device, one designed to call on the best and highest orders of the educated mind—in short, idiot-proof—and then a student finds the one dark corner of repressed idiocy latent in us all and blows the whole thing wide open. Off this student goes on a track of musing I could never have thought up on my own, and yet to my wondering eye what should appear but a short, misshapen figure of twisted logic. Right there before my eyes a beach ball morphs into a baboon’s behind—and all I can do is shake my head in a kind of reluctant admiration: I thought we were here but now we’re there, and how did that happen?
Please, don’t misunderstand me—I am not assuming that my communication is crystal clear nor that students exhibit more idiocy than the Masters of the Universe who slink among us. Quite the opposite: I am in awe that people get as much communicated between themselves as they do. Between the mind and mouth there is a veritable minefield of obstacles to clear communication such as prejudice, haste, selective perception, inadequate vocabularies, and ego. As communicators we must do everything we can to think and speak honestly, clearly, and persuasively. But let’s be fair: in a two-way symmetrical discussion both parties have an equal opportunity and responsibility to communicate as best they can. In the classroom that means also exercising our powers of listening carefully and actively, both as students and as teachers.
It puts me in mind of a situation I saw as a college student in which a group in the back corner chattered amongst themselves while our professor reviewed the class for an exam. When he was finished and began putting his things away, one of them protested that he had spoken too fast: could he repeat what he had said? “No,” said the teacher simply, and shrugged. “You’ll have to learn to listen faster.”