One of our richest cultural inheritances is the Talmud. Its roughly 6,200 pages consists of rabbinic folklore, customs, history, ethics, philosophy and law, oftentimes moving between these topics in the span of a sentence. Since I went to private Jewish day schools my entire life before coming to UCLA, I spent many hours poring over the cryptic texts written in ancient Hebrew and Aramaic. Most youths do not appreciate the text, and although I had a reverence for it, the past few years at UCLA have instilled within me a deep recognition of its importance.
The text is strange in its breadth and depth, but its style is what makes it truly unique. Rather than presenting a single narrative, the text attempts to record debates which were held in the study houses. The various opinions are recorded, and over the past couple of centuries rabbis have dug deeper to analyze what is at the root of the differences between the opposing sides, and to learn how to adapt their wisdom to other situations. The fact that the text is written in an ancient language is often seen as an obstacle, but because language is intrinsically tied to worldview, it is important to study the text in the language it was written to temporarily suspend one’s own mindset for that of the text.
When the rabbis argue with one another, they often bring support of their opinions from the Torah, which is seen as the ultimate source of truth. The question then arises: how can multiple parties claim to base their opinion on truth and yet oppose one another? To resolve this dilemma, the Rabbis introduce the notion of “the 70 faces of the Torah.” Although truth (in this case, the Torah) is rudimentary and unchanging, it must be interpreted by individuals, and each person interprets it differently based on his own worldview. It is up to all individuals to corroborate their own perspectives of the truth they see with all those around them, and this way come closer to grasping the ultimate truth.
Coming from this intellectual framework to that of my current university has been severely disappointing — a feeling which I have held for the nearly five years I have spent here. I hold all of my peers to a high standard and expect them to have insights, but when I walk around campus and overhear what others are talking about, it is almost invariably a slight variation of superficial conversations I have already heard many times before. Given this sound environment, it is understandable why so many students choose to wear headphones, although I maintain that it is important as a member of our community to not shut yourself off in this manner. I like to imagine that vibrant discussion about important issues occurred naturally on campus in the past, but I may be romanticizing the situation.
Perhaps students are worn out from all the thoughtful discussions held in the classroom and need a break? While I do not agree with this logic because the mind is not a zero-sum game, I also do not believe the premise, given my own experience. Inside the classroom, it is usually the responsibility of a select group of students to talk, while the rest passively observe. This is understandable in a large classroom where talking in class is more like public speaking, but less so in the small discussion sections.
There are a number of possible explanations for this phenomenon. Perhaps students are afraid of looking dumb, or are disinterested in the material. Maybe students are merely there for the grade and not for the exploration of the issue at hand. It is possible students just do not want to sound politically incorrect, especially in an age of digital recordings where one bad comment may be associated with you for life. These are all somewhat valid explanations, but there seems to be an underlying structural problem which is to blame. Rather than viewing the classroom as a place to engage in a thoughtful and respectful exchange of ideas, it is seen as a place to receive pre-chewed wisdom. Even when multiple opinions are presented, it is with a “you-do-you, but I have the right answer” mentality, so getting at the connections and underlying differences between opinions is not viewed as critical.
As a result, those students who wish to talk about important issues that are pertinent to their lives usually have to turn to a club. This is problematic and is a large source of divisions between students. A club typically centers on a particular identity or activity and has a specific agenda: accordant members meet regularly in large groups with the goal of accomplishing a certain task or simply for the sake of socializing.
Clubs are inherently exclusionary; if you do not fit in with the vision of the club’s leadership, then you must either stifle your own opinions, or leave and form your own club. This is innocuous for clubs that center around a certain activity like dancing, but is a source of many tensions on campus when it comes to clubs with political agendas. Students begin to see one another as enemies and choose to surround themselves with the comfort of like-minded individuals who confirm their beliefs.
One of the only opportunities for students with different perspectives to talk to one another is over the internet. I find this problematic for too many reasons to go into here. Suffice it to say, since the person is not in front of you, it is easy to forget that they are a fellow intelligent being; any comment of theirs is interpreted through the lens of your own perspective and is explained away. We may even come into contact more frequently than in the past with members of opposing views, but because it is in this manner, this has the reverse effect of confirming our opinions rather than challenging them. The internet is one factor among many which is turning us all into conspiratorialists.
Thought Lounge is a club being formed on campus which aims to tackle these issues by creating a safe, semi-structured environment for strangers to exchange ideas. The club was started on the Berkeley campus, and is now spreading to other UC campuses by popular demand. I heard about the club two weeks ago on BruinWalk, where the founding members of the club at Berkeley were tabling, and I jumped on board. I have a conflict of interest in writing this article because I am involved in the creation of our chapter of the club, but these musings are my own and are not associated with the club.
For the reasons above, I try to stay away from clubs, but Thought Lounge is unlike regular clubs — I consider it to be an anti-club club. Thought Lounge is a hybrid of an activity club and an agenda club. The activity which participants are expected to practice and master is having civil discourse with strangers; the agenda is that students will question dogmas they hold on to, listen to the perspectives of those of a different race, class and religion, and learn to include others’ perspectives alongside their own. There are no weekly meetings for all who wish to associate with the club, but rather small sessions throughout the week in which 4-6 strangers meet. A host ensures that the proper decorum is set and a respectful atmosphere is maintained. Each participant gets 12 minutes to facilitate a discussion on a topic that interests him or her, but each can spend the allotted 12 minutes according to his or her personal preferences.
One can give a prepared lecture or rant for the entire time, or merely pose a question and listen to what the others have to say. A middle ground between these two extremes is what typically occurs. After the conclusion of the 12-minute rounds, the host maps out the various ideas discussed and the group tries to make connections between all of them.
To me this club is not only cool and fun (OK, I may have atypical definitions of cool and fun), but also imperative. Thought Lounge is an adaptation of the Babylonian study houses to fit our present-day need for thoughtful dialogue. There are enough people in a session to get a wide variety of opinions, and few enough to maintain an orderly discussion. There is no hierarchy of opinions; no prior knowledge is necessary for any topic, and appeals to authority are discouraged, so everyone has the potential to contribute and enhance the conversation. Some may be more articulate than others, and some may have more thoughts about a specific topic, but everyone has a valid perspective that is worth sharing. If talking in front of strangers intimidates you, bear in mind that I am somewhat shy and yet I have felt entirely comfortable in the Thought Lounge setting.
I hope you join your peers in making our university a more engaging place for thoughtful and creative people to bump heads, either through Thought Lounge or through your own means. Together we just might begin to build a more truthful vision of reality.
For more information or to get involved in Thought Lounge, click here.