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Listening to Podcasts at Oxford in 1374 and Kansas in 1974

Photo by Akhil Yerabati / Unsplash

Why do we love those conversational podcasts?

If you were a student at a medieval university, you listened to lectures.

And listened and listened and listened to lectures, often more than ten hours a day.

But they weren’t like lectures at today’s universities, where hundreds of students sit in a hall and listen to a professor deliver a monologue.

The medieval morning lectures were like that, but come afternoon, the lectures morphed into dialogue. The professor would assert a position, a graduate assistant would field questions or objections posed by undergraduates, and discussion ensued. At the end, the professor would summarize that afternoon’s conversation.

It was the “Scholastic disputation.”

Each session was meant to unfold knowledge gradually, as informed and inquisitive minds rubbed against one another, sharpening each other in the process, like knives rubbing against a whetstone.

Kansas: Early 1970s

The disputation, like everything else Scholastic, evaporated over the centuries and gave way to the mass lecture hall, with one professor doing all the talking.

In the 1970s, three professors at the University of Kansas brought back the disputation.

The three professors were John Senior, Frank Nelick, and Dennis Quinn, and they led the Integrated Humanities Program, a program dedicated to the wild notion of restoring a sense of beauty and poetic knowledge in its students.

The Program had a lot of facets (e.g., waltzes, star-gazing, great books), but its centerpiece may have been conversations among the three professors with the students watching.

The following description of these highly-popular sessions is taken from Fr. Francis Bethel’s John Senior and the Restoration of Realism.

The 80-minute classes were neither planned nor rehearsed. They weren’t even mentally prepared beforehand. Said Quinn in an interview:

We didn’t plan the lectures. We had lunch together before class started and on the way over to class I’d say, ‘Well, what are we going to talk about?’ and they’d say, ‘I don’t know. What book are we reading?”

The conversational style captivated the students. The professors had a solid command of the subjects and could easily speak extemporaneously about them. When one spoke, the other two were stimulated to respond: back and forth for eighty minutes.

The harmony was remarkable, with never a false note — no interruption, no impatience, not even noticeable disagreements. Here were three friends who enjoyed looking at beautiful things together and helping students discover them. The class was something like a Socratic dialogue in that it rose from the sensible to the spiritual, with each of the three men contributing his insights.

Another faculty member called it an “intellectual drama.”

Students weren’t allowed to take notes (it would hamper listening). Students left the classes “enthralled” and often lingered and mused among themselves: continuing the conversation about the great subjects.

The conversations on weighty subjects were always accompanied by a lot of laughter. One former student recalled, “merriment could suddenly turn into the deeply profound; a vision of things where sadness and joy lay down together in meaning.”

The postmodern rise of conversation

Unfortunately, the Integrated Humanities Program (which was Catholic to the core, albeit only impliedly) ran into conflict with the secularists at the University of Kansas and it was choked out of existence.

But its conversational mode of learning made a comeback in March 2006.

That’s when Russ Roberts launched the Econtalk podcast. It wasn’t the first podcast to feature a guest format, but it was one of the first (podcasts didn’t catch hold until late 2004) and the only one I know of from 2006 that featured learned professors chatting about weighty subjects in a light-hearted atmosphere.

It proved remarkably successful. Today, many podcasts feature long, free-wheeling conversations. The Joe Rogan Experience is the most notable example.

And just like the Scholastic disputation and the Integrated Humanities Program, the conversational podcast has become remarkably popular.

It turns out that there’s “something about” the conversational approach to learning.

Four possible reasons we love conversational podcasts

They’re genuine

The podcast conversation is rarely an interview.

Interviews are boring: they’re fabricated.

The interviewer often sends the guests the questions ahead of time or they agree on what questions, in general, will be asked. It’s all planned out. The only time it gets interesting is if one of the participants goes off-script.

It’s also one-sided: Only the guest is supposed to provide information.

A conversation isn’t any of that. It’s mostly spontaneous, with genuine give-and-take, with both parties providing their opinions and information.

The conversational podcast is more “authentic.” I loathe that word (there’s nothing more inauthentic than being concerned about what is authentic), but it’s apt. The conversational podcast is genuine. It normally features amicable acquaintances discussing various topics, just like two friends might in a coffee shop. It’s pleasant: “joy tainted,” even, often giving way to mirth, like the Integrated Humanities Program classes.

We think in dialogue

I also think the conversational approach better captures how we think. Discursive reasoning is dialogic. When we think about a problem, it often takes the form of imaginary discourse: arguments, debates, discussions in our head with a “phantom other.”

How much better when the phantom other is an actual, live, unpredictable person?

Conversations are integrated

Something happened in the fifteenth century that changed our entire mental landscape: the printing press was invented.

The effects were enormous, but perhaps the biggest effect still isn’t fully understood: it changed how we perceived knowledge and it is attained. With the printing press, Marshall McLuhan pointed out, sight came to dominate our learning. We started to view learning as a solitary affair, one of “me and the book: subject-object.”

Prior to the printing press, we didn’t think of learning in that manner. The great Jesuit modern philosopher, Walter Ong, dedicated his doctoral dissertation to explaining how, prior to the printing press, thinking was understood as something that takes place in connection with talking: discourse and disputation. (See John Peterson, Pop Goes the Culture, 119.)

Walter Ong, Marshall McLuhan, and others have spent a lot of ink and analysis, explaining how the printing press’ emphasis on sight stilted and warped our development.

You can read their weighty works.

Or you can just notice the popularity of the Integrated Humanities Program, Russ Roberts, and The Joe Rogan Experience and realize that they’re popular for a reason: reliance on books alone starved us for a more integrated approach to learning, which the conversational podcasts feed.

It’s Postmodern . . . ish

I’d also submit there is something vaguely postmodern about the conversational approach.

Jacques Derrida proved that words are simply not adequate to capture full reality. No word, in Derrida’s terminology, has “presentness”: No word perfectly captures an underlying reality. Words fit into a web where they have reference points to other words to tell us what they mean, but they have no underlying reality. To make it even more elusive, the web of words itself is constantly shifting, providing no fixed points.

Derrida concluded from this that there is no objective reality or truth. That’s absurd, but his fundamental insight isn’t: objective reality or truth can’t be captured by words. There’s always “more” than can be articulated.

The conversational approach better captures truth in this way. The participants bat words back and forth, like the web they exist in bats them back and forth, forcing them to constantly shift and refine their statements like reality does.

Me? I still enjoy books. I’ve always been a reader and I will continue to be a reader.

But I also devour podcasts, especially conversational ones. There is something undeniable about them, something that feeds us in a way that books and other forms of monologic learning can’t.

Some day, maybe Joe Rogan will bring on a guest and flush it out for us further.