This historical reference is not typical of posts on this platform, except for when one of our contributors was in the midst of historical coursework that led to riffs like this; and then during his archival research that led to riffs like this.
We are riffing now from a current need (to put it mildly) for better conversation, with hindsight to a widely respected man’s approach at a time full of contentions. Thanks to Andrew Marantz for this brief note, whose accompanying illustration below belies the seriousness of the situation. Click the image to the left above to go to a historical archive with more background on this Talk of the Town item below:
Conversation clubs, inspired by the Founding Father, have never felt more necessary.
In 1727, when Benjamin Franklin was twenty-one, he and a few friends—among them a scrivener, a joiner, and two cobblers—formed a conversation club called the Junto. They met on Friday evenings at a Philadelphia alehouse. “The rules that I drew up required that every member, in his turn, should produce one or more queries on any point of Morals, Politics, or Natural Philosophy, to be discuss’d by the company,” Franklin wrote in his autobiography. The United States was not yet the United States, but already he sensed a civility problem. His solution: structured, secular chitchat, “conducted in the sincere spirit of inquiry after truth, without fondness for dispute, or desire of victory.”
Those were the days. “I don’t think anyone, anywhere on the political spectrum, thinks our civic discourse is in good shape right now,” Asha Curran said recently, around the time that a sitting President and a former Vice-President were publicly threatening to beat each other up. Curran is the chief innovation officer at the 92nd Street Y, which is both a building on the Upper East Side and a nonprofit encouraging “American pluralism” and “participation in civic life.” She and her boss, who had recently read Franklin’s autobiography, started discussing discussion clubs. “We asked, ‘What does the modern version of a Junto look like?’ ” Curran said. It ended up looking like BenFranklinCircles.org, a Web site that offers a few printable conversation prompts and a video trailer. (“The concept is simple: you gather a small group to talk about big ideas.”) There are now about a hundred and fifty Ben Franklin Circles around the country—one at a homeless shelter in Detroit, one at the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture.
A local citizen, seeking communion within a reasonable commute radius, joined a Circle on the Upper West Side. It was a Wednesday night, not a Friday, but the group continued the tradition of meeting at an alehouse. (Well, a “modern Mediterranean tavern,” with meze and eight-dollar I.P.A.s.) Convening the Circle—which was actually more of a Thin Parallelogram, owing to the restaurant’s long tables—was Klay Williams, of the Bronx, who wore a dark sports coat, an orange T-shirt, and a diamond stud in each ear. He calls himself a “holistic lifestyle expert specializing in personal and professional development”—half life coach, half makeover consultant.
Each Circle discussion centers on one of Franklin’s thirteen virtues—a list of personal attributes worth striving for, one of Franklin’s many attempts at life coaching. The night’s theme was the second virtue: silence. “Is there any way you could turn the music down just a bit?” Williams asked the manager. A techno remix of Sade’s “Smooth Operator” throbbed in the background—or, really, the foreground. “I was planning to start off with a silent meditation,” Williams said. “But instead I think I’ll spark a discussion around ‘How can you get to a silent place when you’re surrounded by distraction?’ ”
The participants arrived: a freelance editor in her fifties; an opera singer, a university administrator, and a church fund-raiser, all in their forties; a woman who was about to leave management consulting to become a midwife; and Williams’s boyfriend, a middle-school science teacher…
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