Read Plato, St. Augustine, Jonathan Swift, Emily Bronte, or any other classic work and you’ll notice the authors’ composition, vocabulary, and coherence in thought far surpass those possessed by the vast majority of educated people today. Even students of our best liberal arts universities don’t emerge from their studies with the ability to write, speak, and reason as well as students from the early 20th century. How did we lose our ability to think and communicate effectively?
The Decline of Speech
Many factors have contributed to our sharp decline in these skills: the adoption of pervasive public education, the takeover of technology in classrooms and homes alike, reduced parental roles in teaching their kids, poor curricula, and a general disrespect of education in pop culture. Many of these are societal level problems that could require policy reform and the general improvement of whole communities to overcome.
However, there is another contributor to each generation’s declining intelligence: poor conversations. I’m no Aristotle, but when I was a kid, my family had real conversations. The dinner table was the epicenter where we debated or conversed about things outside a normal day’s experience, topics ranging across politics, religion, and to the limited ability of our young minds, philosophy. We weren’t experts on any of these topics, but we did have thoughts about them and a willingness to share those ideas with each other.
These family conversations are the way to kindle the critical thinking and speaking skills of the next generation, a way to reverse the trend of declining intelligence that has occurred over the past century.
Great Minds Talked
Good conversations and asking questions were the methods of philosophical discovery for the Greek schools of Plato and the like. St. Augustine of Hippo similarly debated theology with his friends throughout his journey from a Manichaean to a Catholic, paving the way for his works to become cornerstones of Western thought.
Historically, one’s intelligence was often measured by his wit in speech. Great examples of this are found in Plutarch’s account of Alexander the Great . When Alexander finally conquered the Persian king Darius, he challenged the Persian scholars to answer his philosophical questions with their best wit and eloquence, whereby the participant offering the least intelligent answer would be executed. (Luckily, Alexander was dissuaded from this draconian consequence afterwards.)
This same emphasis on clever speech pervaded other parts of antiquity, perhaps most famously in the Greek city-state of Sparta. Again according to Plutarch, young Spartans were often tested with responding to philosophic questions with pithy answers.
Although education in the sciences would ebb the emphasis of education in speech, the rhetoric and reasoning skills of educated men and women in the 19th and early 20th centuries still embarrasses our rhetoric today. Compare the speeches of Abraham Lincoln (a largely self-educated man) to any speech from the last thirty years. There are very few that will require reading beyond the first sentence to distinguish the difference in skill with the pen.
Re-Education Begins at the Dinner Table
Though all I’ve presented is a depressing reminder at the baseness of our latest generations, the one bright ray breaking through the dull clouds is the fact that one remedy is so easily implemented. The malady to our inability to reason and deficiency in speech is simply to talk – not just any talk, however. We must converse about ideas, potential futures, questions about the past, what is right and wrong, where truth lies, how to live a good life, and the nature of the things around us. It doesn’t necessarily have to be deeply philosophical either. Politics is a fine and relevant topic, but the discussion should really be about politics, e.g. policies instead of “I don’t like his hair.” (The Greeks regarded politics as the highest science, after all, so be sure to give some credence to that science.)
The dinner table is the perfect place to begin this U-turn in education, to begin thinking and speaking at a level our world has lost. Real education might be regained alongside a helping of mashed potatoes and greens beans.
If you find a spontaneous conversation about something other than sports is difficult to get started, try reading something after dinner together as a family. When I was younger, reading a devotional often sparked many of those cherished conversations.
If you can’t get to the dinner table with your family or good friends, the modern world leaves no excuses for avoiding good conversation. The COVID19 lockdowns inspired my family to implement weekly group calls that humbly began as a means to share what’s new in our lives. However, these group calls often diverge into those very same good conversations we used to have around the dinner table when I was growing up. (Ironically, we could have been doing these calls for years but never converged on the idea.) Modern video calling is a great way to have these good conversations, no matter how much distance is between you and your family and friends.
Cheers to you in your next real conversation.
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