The feast of ideas

In my time I have attended a good many conferences, and having recently attended two more I feel qualified to make some reflections upon this somewhat particular way of getting the world's business done. There is much to be said for conferences, but anyone who embarks upon a career of conference-attending must give up the idea that he will get to know the round globe. He may travel far, but he will see little. He may visit remote and outlandish places, but he will sit down in an environment almost precisely like the one he has left at home. Before him will stretch the same expanse of green felt, laden with the same jugs of ice water. In front of his place will be the same nicely sharpened pencil and small pad. If there are windows in the meeting place, the curtains will be drawn, and the climate - whether cold or hot - will be kept at bay by efficient air conditioning.

If one is lucky the schedule may include a tour of the city where one meets. Recently at Seattle we were given a chance to get out upon the waters of Puget Sound, and on a Sunday to see more sailboats than upon a summer afternoon off the coast of Maine. But that was relatively unusual. On other occasions and in other cities I have participated in discussions upon our life and times, yet never have I been able to get outside to see what that life is really like. In isolated chambers we have discoursed, like the prisoners in Plato's famous cave, seeing only the shadows of what passed in the real world.

But conferences, after all, were never devised to provide scenic distractions. It is the people they bring together that justify their existence, and the people can often be varied, intelligent and interesting. They gather eagerly, as if the truth of things might once and for all be run to ground. Here is a young man or woman who is upon a first such mission; one can see in the brisk deportment - or remember from one's own first similar experience - the excited feeling of having arrived. Here is the veteran of a hundred such encounters, authoritative in manner and humorous in style, refusing to be awed by the elaborate surroundings or to be overcome by the plethora of coffee breaks and the glut of good food. They come speaking many languages and often bringing spouses of the most varied sort.

The first task at a conference is getting to know one's fellow-conferees. This is not too difficult, since on most such occasions the company is largely made up of people who have met previously in similar circumstances. A certain minority of the world's swelling population seems to be made up of men and women who spend their time attending conferences. They have shown themselves to be never at a loss for a critical comment or a subtle qualification of someone else's point of view; they have developed an uncanny gift for spinning theories about the most abstruse of propositions. Whoever it is that arranges the world's meetings - presumably some anonymous individual of great power - makes sure that a representation of these professionals is on hand, and then adds a sprinkling of the uninitiated.

It is easy to become facetious about these intellectual symposiums - I fear I have myself fallen into the trap. But they have their uses; they do sometimes light a spark that sets fire to the timbers of unexamined assumptions and conventional ideas. The scholar working alone in his library, the professional immersed in the day's requirements, need to get out and talk. They need to have their points of view challenged by fresh concepts, however outrageous, and tested by confrontations however painful. To ''talk shop'' is not an ignoble occupation, and when the shop is illumined by a perverse insight, it can be a most rewarding experience.

I recall meetings from which I have returned with at least one unexpected idea, and others which have produced an unexpected friend. These are not small matters in a world where we tend to have few ideas and often even fewer true friends. Nevertheless, I do wish that whoever arranges such conferences would open the curtains and let the daylight in. And I wish that a coffee break would not invariably be announced just at the point where the conversation begins to be interesting.

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