I grew up in an environment that a friend once called “unrestrained gentility.” Even the most informal of dinners was an extremely organized, somewhat elaborate affair consisting of good china, cloth napkins and place mats, wine, and three courses: a main course of at least two dishes, a salad course, and dessert. Table manners mattered; conversation was varied; we served from the left and cleared from the right, and heaven help anyone who tried to stack a plate. The dining room (as with every other room) had art on the walls, and was a formal space used almost exclusively for that purpose: dining. In some other era, all this might have been called bourgeois – not in the negative sense, merely as an accurate description of the scene: an upper-middle-class family that understood the social codes that went along with eating a meal. It was never pretentious, it simply was what it was; other than my periodic, teenage complaints about the time requirements (making, eating, and cleaning up from an extended meal every night took time), I don’t know that I thought much about it.
Table manners and formal dinners may be the least of the worries for most of us, but they serve as a useful entry into the process of socialization, and the challenges we face as a society – even if we do not necessarily recognize those challenges as such. Take the current national debate about immigration which, when presented in Congress, from the lips of the President, or in the news media, tends to focus on seemingly-rational economic issues: do immigrants “steal” jobs from Americans? do they drive down wages, or are they taking jobs most Americans don’t want? is it better to have immigrants taking our jobs here than to have U.S. companies outsource those jobs to workers overseas?
What most people are too polite to express are their fears about how those immigrants will affect their lives and their communities in other ways, such as hearing more Spanish than English spoken in certain neighborhoods, or new restaurants serving strange foods and wafting out foreign scents. People worry that the immigrants will not adapt, and will change our society more than our society will affect them – even though, historically, these changes have been mutual. To take but one example: pasta and pizza were once considered foreign foods, but are now staples of the American diet, while the Italian immigrant community has assimilated into American culture as successfully as any other. That is what most immigrants want: to adopt our culture while giving something back to it. They want to learn our social skills and habits – they do not want to stand out as “foreign” – but to do so without feeling forced to give up their own sense of their culture or past.
Another undiscussed challenge for socialization concerns the American educational system. As with most aspects of our society, we are all too focused on the extremes: either addressing the children with “learning disabilities” in a special environment, or pushing everyone else towards standardized tests that are all-too-standard. These tests do not do a good job of measuring someone’s ability to think because, for the most part, thinking is not taught: our schools teach content, not the process of learning content; we teach the need to follow rules, not the need to understand why the rules are there, which in turn carries an implicit message about one’s right to break those same rules. Even discussions about whether our schools focus too much on teaching for standardized tests, rather than on other areas, do not engage these questions – because what schools (and teachers unions) argue should be taught is just more content, more of the content not found on the tests themselves.
None of this addresses the underlying problem that different people learn differently. We needs students equipped with an understanding both of how they themselves learn, and of how to teach themselves. And we need structures – schools, teachers, and curricula – that can accommodate the differences from child to child more effectively and flexibly.
During and after college, I would often joke with my family about our family meals in relation to aspects of upper-middle-class socialization, because college was supposed to teach a kind of social awareness. At least, that used to be the theory; anyone who went to a school like Harvard or Princeton would surely have learned such things as table manners as an implicit part of their education, if they did not know them already. Sometimes, these skills are learned positively, by observing others around us and picking up their habits, particularly when those traits are widely shared. I know people who figured out the “proper” way to hold a knife and fork because they sat and watched others around the table, and there are no lack of pop-culture examples of this kind of experience; anyone who has seen the movie “Pretty Woman” will likely recall the restaurant scene with flying escargots and a profusion of seemingly-unnecessary silverware. Other skills are learned negatively, the result of teasing or insulting mimicry by a group against the person who does not know or follow the proper social codes. This kind of hazing is brutal but, usually, effective. Not always, though: I can also think of a few people whose table manners are bad, and who never altered their habits, either through group observation or as the result of being teased.
The joke, though, was how often my alma mater, Hampshire College, seemed to fail this socialization test. It is no surprise: that just is not what Hampshire is all about. But it serves as a useful foil for this very issue, of how to create an environment that focuses on teaching the process of learning, not on teaching content – and of what happens when you construct an educational model predicated on understanding why and how a person might want to break some of the rules that exist in our society. Social skills may fall by the wayside because students decide that they do not care, or in some cases because they are not necessarily capable of caring: they have made a decision about their priorities, and are willing to accept the consequences of discarding certain social norms and rules. The “proper” way to hold a fork is dismissed as irrelevant.
I sit not in judgment but in awe. All of us, daily, make mistakes in etiquette or disregard certain rules of how people normally function in society. Most of us, though, do not do so with ever-conscious intent: we do not decide not to say “thank you,” we just forget. When we err in some elemental area of social interaction, we do so because we do not know any better. Few are those among us who make conscious decisions about how they wish to behave in this area – people who know the rules and opt, for whatever reason, to disregard them.
Perhaps what this says, though, is we should worry less about how or whether we teach different rules, and pay more attention to teaching why we teach them – that we should pay more attention to the underlying issues behind and about learning, rather than just being worried about the lessons themselves. Americans concerned about the integration of the millions of immigrants (legal and illegal) coming the the U.S. might find comfort in knowing that people coming to here were instructed about not just the whys and wherefores of how our society functions, but about the social and philosophical constructs behind them. And our entire culture would be transformed if we changed the focus of our educational system from one that seeks a bland, banal kind of equalization – everyone should be able to do well on a standardized test! everyone can get a B.A. degree! – and instead taught according to need, according to ability, and ultimately with an eye on the underlying framework of learning itself.