It may sound strange to hear that the death of the American family dinner is reflected in our classrooms. The absence of conversations once commonplace at the dinner table are evident in student’s social, intellectual, moral, and even spiritual contributions to class discussions. The cumulative effect on the culture at a school such as Ridgeview is significant. The upside of this particular problem is that a clear solution lies before us. It is neither expensive nor dramatic. No one is demanding that society be changed. We can begin by having dinner and making great conversation a staple in our homes.
At least partially as a result of not having these conversations, students have claimed in class discussions this year that the median household income in this country is around $250,000. They did not know that a state has a legislature or that the executive of a state is called a governor. They held that all courts were federal courts and were unaware that a county’s primary form of law enforcement was maintained through a sheriff’s department. They cannot tell the difference between a primary and general election, nor do they know how many electoral votes their state possesses. They do not know what ISIS is, anything about the Ebola crisis, the Secret Service debacle and the resignation of its chief officer Julia Pierson, the protests for democracy in Hong Kong, or Vladimir Putin’s encroachments into the Ukraine. They do not know when the US undertook a war in Afghanistan or Iraq, and even less do they know that the US previously went to war with Iraq after its invasion of Kuwait in 1991. In an eleventh-grade class, only one student could explain anything about James Madison, and this person was an exchange student. This despite the fact that the school’s summer biographical reading was on James Madison. Many of them do not know that the word English is to be capitalized, they cannot identify a sentence fragment, or explain when to use a semicolon. There is scant evidence that any of them have a mental timeline that makes much sense. Teddy Roosevelt and Franklin Roosevelt are largely interchangeable, but so too are John Adams and John Quincy Adams, and James Monroe and Calvin Coolidge. They speak a great deal about Hitler, but only about a third of them know that his first name was Adolf, and they routinely confuse the First and Second World Wars. They have no idea during which years the Korean War occurred and even less about the Vietnam War. Most of them can tell you that Albert Einstein did something with mathematics, but they cannot tell you what, and the Manhattan Project draws a complete blank. Many of them do not know what their parents do for a living. We can entirely forego assessing their knowledge of local issues. They have no sense of upcoming ballot issues, amendments, propositions, or retentions of judges laid out for them in blue book published prior to each election. Their sense of politics amounts to no more than the polemical crumbs swept from the table without any of the context of history. Asked serious questions, they sit stupefied. Even active church goers have difficulty answering questions of basic biblical literacy when reading landmark texts from Milton, to Dante, to Shakespeare. These examples have all been drawn from students who are seventeen years old and will be able to vote in one year or less. They will share a portion of the responsibility in deciding what your children learn, how you are taxed, what property you are permitted to keep, and what rights you and yours shall have.
A recent anecdote gives us some sense of the practical implications of such ignorance. When Thomas Eric Duncan first entered the hospital in Dallas and told the nurse that he was unwell, that he had recently returned from West Africa where the Ebola virus had risen to epidemic levels, and they confirmed that he had a high fever, the nurses and doctors released him with antibiotics. So little aware of the events of the world were they, that they failed to make the connection, and now more than fifty people are being monitored due to their exposure along with several more who are under armed quarantine.
At the outset of the previous academic year, I noted in a speech that if a passerby in this city should strike up a conversation with a Ridgeview student, he should be able to discern by that student’s carriage, speech, and articulation of ideas that he was almost certainly a Ridgeview student. It would not, in other words, be necessary to announce such a thing. It would simply be evident. I have since given a great deal of thought to that statement, both to its plausibility as an objective and to its hopeful idealism. The important thing, it seems to me, is not so much that a student can string together impressive collections of information, excel on standardized tests, bluff their way through pretentious college applications, or even gain admissions to major universities. The true test should be whether they can think well and behave as a decent and thoughtful citizen. For anyone who has not already read Donald Kagan’s recent editorial for the Wall Street Journal entitled “Democracy Requires a Patriotic Education,” I would highly recommend it.
Ridgeview cannot make such students. By make, I mean that it cannot fashion, manufacture, in short, bring into being such a person. No school can. School is too small a part of the student’s life. Even the best teachers are like children drawing shapes in the sand that the surf erases within mere moments. Ridgeview can provide a culture in which thinking is respected, and it can expose students to information that causes them to think, but it cannot make them think, be thoughtful, or induce them to behave morally. It cannot make them do anything. That sounds dire, but unless one wishes to sound like an advertisement preying on parental hopes, one should be forthright about the limitations of schooling. This raises a question about where education is to happen if not here, and it is a sign of our great and still growing dependence on government services that this too is assumed to be a job fit for government. This dependency results in the home, the church, and the family being treated as last resorts rather than first.
After teaching and witnessing firsthand the successes and failures of many different types of students, I can firmly attest that what happens at home can be carried into school every bit as much as what fails to happen at home. A great school cannot fix a broken home. Students from homes without conversation when asked to discuss and told that it is a matter of their participation grade, are asked to do what they have no experience or opportunity to do at home. This is true not only in conversations about matters larger than themselves, but writing a legible sentence, deliberately listening to a piece of music, commenting on a work of art, debating the merits of a law, giving one’s opinion on a news article, or merely expressing a consideration on another’s ideas. We are told that children are essentially too solipsistic, egotistic, lazy, oafish, inexperienced, etc. to participate in these types of conversations, but people generally rise or fall to the expectations set for them. The reality of our time is that most children in America have more practice chasing after a ball of one kind or another by the time they are voters than they do considering ideas or engaging in meaningful conversation.
Many of these students I have mentioned come from “good” homes where they are rushed around from one activity to another, and while they may have busy schedules and good grades, they cannot speak publicly about much of anything. It is not only an indication of their inexperience, but more akin to the nutritional problem identified by an MRI technician as TOFI (thin-outside-fat-inside), in which an individual appears lean but carries a disproportionate amount of fat internally. With TOFI, the problem is a sedentary lifestyle and a poor diet. The analogy to the mind is this: an individual flourishes only with a steady diet of books, music, and art, and it too needs exercise through practice which finds its primary medium in conversation. Americans unique approach to secondary education, however, creates a problem in which a great deal of emphasis is put on a binge-and-purge educational system in which students do well enough when they know the test date, but approached in casual conversation, they rarely impress. They look fine from the outside. The test scores tell us that they are fine, but there is not much indication of a lot happening inside that would allow them to connect with the world. As a result, more work at the dinner table would go further than more work on the field or in the classroom in many cases.
Students mimic what they see. In a home with either few or no books, no periodicals, and no newspapers, reading is considered a school activity – not a life activity. When there is no respect for serious matters, children become treated as a special class of people – adolescents, a distinct group and not one conscientiously groomed for adulthood. In this vacuum, popular culture sweeps in because it has things to sell, trends to popularize, and agendas to advance. What is left of the adolescent is apathy and someone whom Bloom might have described in The Closing of the American Mind as simply ‘nice’, meaning inoffensive. It is ultimately someone who might be encouraged out of pity, but who is rarely deemed competent enough to be seated at the adult table of life. There is no test to determine admissions to such a table. One simply proceeds along chronologically until they are lobbed into play whether they ready or not. It is not, then, really about schooling, but about what type of society we wish to live in. We have some idea of the type of society not having dinner will produce. Rather than a call for more government intervention into our children’s lives, or more money for the schools, or better facilities, or the pursuit of one educational fad over another, let us have a call to dinner and accomplish for ourselves what cannot be bought or voted on.