Friday, September 12, 2014

Nuggets From "The Seventeen Traditions"

* For Mother, the family table was a mosaic of sights, scents, and tastes, of talking and teaching, of health, culture, beauty, history, stimulation, and delight.  For Dad, it was a time to pepper us with questions, never thinking for a moment that they might have been over our heads.  So what about the leader theory of history? he would ask.  Do leaders make changes, or do they largely reflect dynamic pressures on the ground?  Or: How did the Treaty of Versailles affect the economic conditions facing a devastated Germany after World War I?  Much of our upbringing happened in our compact kitchen - tucked between two pantries in our Winsted home - and at our family table.

* Dad's most instructive lesson to us was his avoidance of extremes in his daily life.  No matter how hungry he was, for example, or how delicious the meal my mother prepared, I can't remember a time when he said he overate.  He used to tell us, especially at Thanksgiving, that the difference between a great dinner and a failed dinner was perhaps two or three mouthfuls too many.  He didn't sleep too much or too little, didn't walk too much or too little, didn't try to shovel the snow too rapidly, drive too quickly, or spend too rapidly.  He was the soul of moderation, and we could not help but notice.

* Our childhoods were livelier because my parents always put a premium on the lessons of history.  Learning from the past, they taught us, was crucial for understanding the present and shaping the future.  It was a rich journey Mom and Dad took us on - worldwide, nationally, regionally, and locally.  We relished their stories of heroes of history, though not so much for what side they were on as for the stories of what they did or said - the wise phrases of Lincoln, the gallantry of Saladin in his twelfth-century victory over the European crusaders, the liberational voices of Arab patriots against the French and British rulers, the frugal sayings of Benjamin Franklin, and, of course, the poetry of several long-forgotten poets.  Mother often shared such stories at lunchtime, when we rushed home from school - not just for the food but also for the next installment of her latest historical saga.  And this storytelling approach to history whetted our appetite to read more on our own, including historical novels from the Revolutionary and Civil War to tales of Genghis Khan.

* One day, when I was about ten, I came home from grade school.  When my father saw me, he asked a simple question: "What did you learn today, Ralph? Did you learn how to believe or did you learn how to think?"  For some reason, that question was like a bolt from the blue.  It has stayed with me ever since as a yardstick and a guide.  In my adult life, I have thought back on it countless times: Is this new movement or politician trying to make us believe, by using abstractions and slogans or advertising gimmicks, or inviting us to think through the issues, using facts, experience, and judgement?  It has helped me to interpret people's style of persuasion in normal conversation - whether they are sharing how they think, or merely what they believe.  And it has helped me find weak spots in countless arguments I've entertained through the years - whether in real-time debates on radio or television, or in the more thoughtful form of the printed word.

This is not to discount the importance of belief, without which, after all, we couldn't hold to the principles and ethics that shape our daily lives.  Rather, my father's point was that we should reach our beliefs by thinking through them.  In public school we received instructions, which was largely a matter of belief; it was at home that we received our real education, which had more to do with thought.  There was nothing wrong with this combination: Both instruction and education were the better for it.

-- Ralph Nader, The Seventeen Traditions

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