September 28, 2007
For a change, this letter does not deal with events coming up, or buildings, or school news. Rather than writing about what is happening, I am writing to you about what may not be happening: creating and developing a culture of learning at home. We all know that contemporary social trends make developing a strong family culture challenging. For the purpose of this letter, I would define culture as the accepted behavior among a particular group of people. Such a group could be formed among people in a particular region, a certain generation, ethnic population, or many other possible categories. We can even talk about the culture of quite smaller groups, such as schools or even families. Thus, you could talk about American culture, the culture of the 60s, and teenage culture, as well as the culture of The Heights and your own family culture. Whatever the group or category it is we are referring to, the culture of that group influences the members within the group. We and our families are influenced by the culture in which we are immersed.
We deal with our culture as we would navigate a river aboard a raft. Just as the river current will direct the raft where it may, so will our culture direct our lives. The trip may be shockingly fast or imperceptibly slow, but the current, not the traveler, will choose the destination unless the traveler applies his will to the trip. In a river, to ignore the current is to go with the current. In our lives, to ignore our culture is to become a child of it.
I don’t pretend to be able to define our national culture, nor even the culture of the DC metropolitan area, with one all-encompassing term, and thus provide you with a neatly packaged category. I merely intend to bring to your attention an aspect of our culture that specially influences the education of your sons: entertainment. Although we are all influenced by this aspect, pre-teens and teenagers are most vulnerable to its absorbing powers. And it takes the application of your will as parents to create and maintain a culture of learning in your homes.
The entertainment industry – TV, film, video and Internet games, etc. – has exploited modern technology and our natural curiosity to create in us a need to be entertained. And so, we may spend hours watching TV, listening to music, or surfing the Net. Technology makes it ever easier for us to have unlimited access with speed-of-light rapidity to any form of entertainment. We may not be aware of the change our behavior has taken over the last few years since it has happened gradually, but I would assume that most of us do not spend leisure time in the same way our parents did, nor in the same way we did growing up. Think about how much time you may spend at home passively entertained, as opposed to reading or conversing. Think about how much time you may spend in the car listening to music or talk shows rather than in silence, engaged with your own thoughts.
Of course, I am not arguing for abolishing all entertainment. Who among us does not enjoy listening to the tunes of his youth while driving on a sunny spring day, or watching a fine film or a Redskins victory with friends and family? But there ought to be a balance between the time we spend entertaining ourselves and the time we spend enriching ourselves, and that balance is likely off for most of us.
Besides, that which developed gradually around us has surrounded your children since birth. The danger for them is that they will have a much harder time recognizing the deficiencies of the present entertainment culture they live in because they have nothing to compare it to. We remember pre-video game days, perhaps even when the first electronic tennis games appeared in selected hotels, but your children don’t. For them, the Internet has always existed, TVs are basic home features, and movies, electronic games, and music are ever-present. And as a result, schoolboys are reading less, writing less, and conversing less. They are also using their imaginations less – no need to come up with their own games when all they have to do is connect to the Net or turn on the TV – and cooperating less with one another: they no longer need to coax the reticent kid to join the game so as to have even sides. Nature has also taken a back seat to electronic images. It isn’t as static as the pages of a book, but it is unable to compete with the graphic images of a computer or large screen TV.
Obviously, I will be among the first to suggest that schools have a large role to play here. But schools cannot by themselves steer your raft through the cultural current. Schools can teach academic content to their students even when they do it alone. But schools are insufficient in conveying cultural behavior when the family is not also espousing a similar cultural vision. Learning to live in a certain way requires even greater dedication than learning a language. Immersion is the best way to learn a language, and it is the only way to learn how to live. Such immersion must be provided by the family, and supported by the school. It must be in the context of the family that the boy learns to spend his leisure time. And it is in the context of the family that the boy develops a habit of learning through leisure: love of reading, ease of writing, comfort and refinement in conversation. The school will sharpen those habits and entrench them in the character of the student for life, but they certainly grow and develop first at home. It is in this regard that I talk about the need to develop and protect a culture of learning at home. I am not suggesting any type of artificial approach to such a culture, but rather a family culture where it is natural to read, and to read age-appropriate good literature because that is what sons see their parents do and there are books around at home that a bored teenager could pick up and read. I am referring to a home culture where writing matters, where sentence structure in a letter is respected, and not where grammar is kidnapped and removed from e-mails; a family culture where a boy learns to tell stories because storytelling is a family tradition.
There are many ways families could develop and protect this culture so each must find its own way. I add here a few suggestions for facilitating the development of a culture of learning at home, knowing that no family has to follow this advice and many families will come up with ideas a thousand times more effective and wiser. I believe that parents talking among themselves will come up with the best approach for their family. These suggestions are intended as nothing more than conversation sparkers for you parents. Here they are:
- Set an expectation for your sons of daily study at home, even if they have little free time after their organized activities, and even if they claim they have no work to do. At the very least they can do leisure reading or get ahead on their schoolwork.
- Designate a quiet study area for your sons at home. Setting aside such an area will show to them how serious you are about their work.
- Encourage your sons to challenge themselves by taking hard courses, but do not battle for grades. You want to let them know that you have high expectations for them, but not make them think that you see their studies exclusively or primarily as a tool for getting into a higher ranking college or for getting a higher paying job.
- Your sons benefit from experiencing a strong unity between you and the school regarding their academics and discipline. They should sense that you are conspiring with the school for their good.
- Have a library at home. It takes time and money to build one, but you can do so gradually by adding a few books every year. Sales at public libraries and used book stores are a good way of growing your library.
- Make a point of reading yourselves. It will facilitate your talking with your sons about reading, and it will show them that reading is not a school-mandated activity, but a personal choice.
- And finally, use dinner time and other meals together to have family conversations. Descriptions of the day’s happenings, discussion of current events, and conversations about family topics make for better conversation than the interminable repetition of superficial movie lines.
I know that each of you will come up with, if you haven’t already, many other ways to preserve and develop a culture of learning at home. Among other topics that may come up, I look forward to discussing this one at the next coffee on Thursday, October 4.
Alvaro J. deVicente