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The Art of the Coffeehouse Conversation

       Over the course of this semester, students of all backgrounds will sit in the Jammin’ Java or their favorite coffeehouse off-campus to have conversations. These conversations will range from the casual to the political, but they will all share a certain intrigue. Is it the subtle music in the background, or perhaps the smell of hot coffee brewing out of sight? What mysterious quality draws so many people to the corner couches and high tables for debate? Like any art form, the conversations had in these public settings are means of expression. The dorm or classroom would be just as suitable for such an undertaking, but the coffeehouse offers something more. In the coffeehouse, ideas flow freely and people step in and out of normally restrictive social circles. You might end up contemplating some deeper meaning with a complete stranger. You might be put on trial by your peers to stand for your beliefs. There is a certain beautiful chaos to the way the open air stimulates these interactions.

       There is a formal tradition to the art of the coffee house conversation. As academics, we are always searching for some higher truth. To some, that truth is in the joy of the company of others, but to some, there are pressing issues that need to be addressed and questions that need to be answered. Together, we engage in these conversations to find truth. It is foolish to argue to achieve victory. It is not productive to sit down at the table, mind made up, ready to debate your side and nothing more. If we are wiser, we approach with more humility, ready to learn together with our peers. The art of the coffeehouse conversation lies in the ability to listen. It is an art as much about receiving as it is about giving. There is a delicate balance to be considered in the coffee house. We weigh the desire to speak our minds with the need to listen, sipping away at our coffee. It is difficult to achieve that perfect balance, but as with any craft, practice sharpens the mind and brings with it patience and wisdom. Like a master musician or great painter, becoming a great artist in the art of the coffeehouse conversation is no easy task. The unnoticed significance of these uncounted, seemingly unimportant, meetings is that it was meetings like these that gave rise to the very ideals that shape modern society.

       It is believed by many historians that the arrival of public spaces like the coffeehouse in Europe gave rise to democracy itself. These venues were unique in that they welcomed a wide range of people from different classes and social standings. In these places, political topics that were often shied away from the common folk were treated with more honesty and presented to a wider audience. Long-held beliefs were questioned, and the legitimacy of the current system was examined much more closely. Another socially significant invention of the time, the print newspaper, was always readily available in coffeehouses. Many people at the time gathered a better understanding of the world around them through these papers, just as we do now, coffee in one hand, smartphone in the other.

       Will the next great thinkers sit down in our very own Jammin’ Java, discovering new ways of thinking as they laugh and enjoy warm, freshly-brewed coffee? It’s possible. Even the most mundane parts of life can take on an artful quality. We shape words like a sculptor cuts marble. Artists often find their relationship with God in their desire to create. If the conversation is indeed an art form, then what the artist desires to create is an idea. What makes the coffeehouse conversation unique is that the great work we create is created together.

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