The Best Audience Is One!
AUGUST 01, 1969 by LEONARD E. READ
Time and again, over the years, friends of the freedom philosophy have urged FEE to go on radio, TV, and into other public media. Or, "Get that excellent article in the Reader’s Digest; it reaches millions."1 Implicit in such advice is the notion that ours is a selling rather than a learning problem, that the job is to insinuate our ideas into the minds of others rather than having something in our own minds that others will wish to share. Theirs is an inversion of the educational process.
Let me state my own position at the outset: Were some philanthropist to say, "Put FEE on TV and I’ll foot the bill," my answer would be, "No, thank you." And that would be to turn down millions of dollars. Why would I reject such an offer? Not because of any objections to the use of our material in public media; far from it! I simply frown on wasting other people’s money and I have an aversion to kidding myself.
Any experienced lecturer or personal counselor, who ignores applause and accurately assesses results, knows full well that the best audience is one, though he may not know the reason why!
The biggest live audience I ever addressed was 2,200. But the applause must have been for "a good show" rather than for any ideas that might have been garnered, for I have yet to find the slightest trace of any ideological impact or of any lasting interest aroused by that lecture.
Often, when I have been scheduled to address a convention or an annual meeting, a friend in that community has at the same time arranged for a small, invitational gathering. The big affair pays my expenses in dollars, and little more. But the small one invariably yields handsomely in terms of FEE’s objectives.
Experiences with Groups
My experiences over several decades attest to the fact, and I believe many teachers would confirm, that the smaller and more personal the audience the better are the educational results. From the inexperienced, however, comes the general insistence on "reaching the masses." Nor should we expect any change in this fallacious attitude unless we are able to explain why the best audience is one.
In the case of a national convention, for instance, the program chairman may share my ideas on liberty and invite me for this reason and this alone. His aim is to "educate" the members or, at the very least, to get them interested in the freedom philosophy. Overlooked is the fact that he may be the only one attending the convention who is really interested in these ideas. The others, by and large, couldn’t care less; they are not looking for my ideas and, as a consequence, do no "drinking in" at all. I might as well have spoken to so many cemetery headstones.
However, if the message is presented in a highly entertaining manner, audiences will loudly applaud and, on occasion, give the speaker a standing ovation. And the speaker, unless severely realistic, may think they are approving his message rather than the entertainment he furnished. More often than not, the program chairman is primarily interested in "a warm body" who can amuse. If all of his speakers are rousingly applauded, his associational fellows will adjudge him the best chairman they ever had—and that’s the reward he seeks. But from the speaker’s standpoint, the honorarium comes pretty close to all that counts.
The smaller invitational gathering is another matter. Only those accept the invitation who are interested in the ideas for which the speaker is reputed. As a result, such sessions often continue for hours with a give and take of ideas edifying not only to the guests but to the speaker as well. Parenthetically, of the small gatherings, a FEE Seminar with many hours of concentration on and discussion of the freedom philosophy is the best of all when viewed in the light of our aims. But in all of these smaller sessions the "drinking in" is incalculably greater than in the large, wholly impersonal conventions.
However, even these small get-togethers, rewarding as they have been over the years, do not measure up educationally to the man-to-man confrontation between two individuals, each in a high spirit of inquiry.2 One times one beats 2,200 times zero!
A lecturer, if at all experienced, "feels" an audience. He knows whether or not they’re listening. There comes to mind an audience of 500 really first-rate people. I knew they were not tuned in, that I wasn’t even entertaining them. Later that night, the reason dawned: the lighting or, rather, the lack of it; I had been speaking in near darkness, as ineffective as if through the loudspeaker of a radio.
A few weeks later, when asked to give the same lecture before an equally first-rate audience, I arranged to be spotlighted. Never have I had a more responsive audience. There’s a good reason why stages have footlights. I do not wish to leave the impression, however, that the responsive audience "got the message"; only that they were listening and were, at least, entertained.
Such are the highlights of my experience which lead me to the conclusion that the best audience is one. Bearing in mind that "getting the message" of the freedom philosophy is the sole problem here at issue, let us now examine how the educational process works as related to our aims.
The Process of Education
In the first place, no person can ever grasp these ideas who has not done some thinking about them on his own. A truism: "A man only understands that of which he has already the beginnings in himself." In a word, regardless of how powerful a magnet may be, it can never attract straw or sawdust. This fact drastically limits the number of those who are educable in economic, moral, and political philosophy. It makes nonsense of the notion that educating the masses is even a remote possibility.
Next, of the few who have done some thinking on these matters for themselves, only that fraction of them are further educable who eagerly seek additional enlightenment. A person who is satisfied with what he knows will never add to his knowledge, and one might as well talk to a book as to him.
There is a further crucial point, well expressed by Cardinal Newman:
The general principles of any study you may learn by books at home, but the detail, the color, the tone, the air, the life in it, you must catch all these from those in whom it already lives.3
"You must catch all these from those in whom it already lives"! You can "catch" the idea that the best audience is one far easier when it is made available for reading than you can by listening to the same idea over radio or TV or as a member of a large audience. When reading, you can reread but you do not relisten to the difficult ideas in speeches, that is, not when the speaker is before large audiences. But if you are one of a dozen in a discussion session, where you are in personal contact with the one "in whom it already lives," there is a back-and-forth exchange which brings you and the other to a common level of understanding, that is, if you "have the floor" to the exclusion of the other eleven.
When the audience is you and you alone, you do, in fact, "have the floor." Assuming that the teacher is intelligent and that you are at once eager to know and perceptive, you will become a better teacher yourself as a result of the experience. There is no other get-together in which the transmittal of ideas is so assured of success as in this one-to-one arrangement. The best audience is always one!
The experiences and reasons I have cited are enough to convince me that the best audience is one, but there is a deeper reason which, if I understood and could explain, would be even more convincing. It’s in the area of radiation. There is an enormous dissipation of radiating energy in large audiences. The "sending" is weakened by spreading it out, and the attention—"receiving"—markedly diminishes. I know this to be true from experience and not from analysis, just as I know that the law of attraction—magnetism—works its wonders, though I do not know why.
Hurrying in Wrong Direction
The rebuttal to these observations is heard over and over: The process is too slow.
Overlooked are two unassailable facts. The first is that no ground is gained except as new teachers of the freedom philosophy come into existence. And good teachers are not made from large audiences. Any effort, such as FEE’s, which does not result in more teachers is meaningless. And the hope must be that they will far excel our own capabilities.
The second is that ours is definitely not a numbers problem in the sense of tens of thousands or millions; like every constructive movement of ideas throughout history, ours is exclusively a quality problem. Studying the history of movements, it is clear that you alone could turn the world toward freedom were you competent enough. Until you reach that state of competence, it will behoove others of us in our varied endeavors to try to fill in where there may be deficiencies.
True, the educational process is slow, but it alone merits our attention and effort. While the propagandizing, proselytizing, selling the-masses techniques get quicker results, the results are no good; they lack any upgrading quality. Indeed, they tend to turn uncommitted citizens away from the freedom philosophy. It is folly to hurry in the wrong direction! As Charles Mackay expressed it in the preface to the 1852 edition of Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds, "Men, it has been well said, think in herds; it will be seen that they go mad in herds, while they recover their senses slowly, one by one."
Above all, we must bear in mind that good results depend on the power of attraction which, in turn, rests on excellence. Any individual can assess his own competence in this respect by merely observing the extent to which others are seeking his tutorship on free market, private ownership, limited government, and related concepts.
If, hopefully, the seekers be numerous, may they appear one by one, for that is the magic number of the perfect audience.
1 No one "gets" an article in the Reader’s Digest any more than in THE FREEMAN. Editors and publishers do their own getting precisely as you get your own ideas.
2 "My definition of a University is Mark Hopkins at one end of a log and a student at the other." Attributed to James A. Garfield in a letter accepting nomination for Presidency—July 12, 1880.
3 From "What Is a University?" reprinted in The Essential Newman, ed. V. F. Blehl (New York: New American Library, Inc., Mentor, 1963) p. 162
The Maturing Process
Those on our side who are looking to the young to lead this nation back to freedom will look in vain. For most of us, it is only with age, if ever, that we acquire the wisdom to be content to live under always imperfect rules that will permit us imperfect men to make our own imperfect decisions, with consequences for each man and for all men that no one can fully predict and that will always be something less than the New Jerusalem.
BENJAMIN A. ROGGE, What’s Past Is Prologue