Last night at dinner with Georges and his daughter, I fell into my usual role as a mere observer while they talked together in French. While I will admit there are times -- and Georges is aware of this -- when I sometimes feel a bit left out and frustrated when around any group of les Français as they discuss something in their native tongue, last night was not one of those times.
Even though they were discussing a subject about which I know very little: Philosophy and Plato. And actually, it was precisely BECAUSE they were talking about philosophy and Plato, often known as Platon, that I was more than happy to remain silent and just observe what was happening in front of me.
It wasn't that I found their discussion so interesting in and of itself -- in truth, I understood just enough of the rapid-fire French to "get" the subject matter but not the details, so it wasn't as if I could have participated even if I knew anything about Plato. Which I don't, and I'll get to that in a moment. But there were two aspects of the dinner-table conversation I found really fascinating. The first was how much Georges was clearly loving having this kind of conversation with his 17-year old daughter. Georges has a brilliant mind and was a graduate of one of the Grandes Ecoles (the equivalent of the Ivy League schools in America), and so he is very well educated. Plus he loves classic literature and books of all kinds, as evidenced by the THOUSANDS of books in our library upstairs, which has ceiling-to-floor shelves and even a stepladder (I keep nudging him to make some space for my American books -- hint, hint, sweetie!) I think he has saved nearly every book he has ever read. And that comes in handy when one of his kids is working on a school assignment, like his daughter is doing now, where she needed to read something about Plato and oh, la vache! Quelle coïncidence! Georges had the book right here already.
So I loved watching the two of them discussing Plato together as he helped her to understand some of the more complex aspects of the work she'd been reading. On top of him loving to talk about philosophy in general, it was clearly an opportunity for him to have an actual discussion with his teenage daughter who is normally just a blur as she comes and goes from school and social activities... that is, when she's not installed in front of the TV catching up on her favorite American television shows (I have found I no longer need to spend the time to watch Desperate Housewives. I just ask her for the recap.) It was really lovely to see the enjoyment on Georges' face and when he sometimes looked over at me to try and include me, I just sort of waved him off to let him know it was fine that I wasn't participating, because after all this was homework in action.
But as I observed, I also realized how unusual this conversation was -- for ME. Meaning that in all my life, I don't think philosphy was ever once discussed at the dinner table. Certainly Plato was never mentioned. Nor Socrates, unless it was joking about the pronunciation of his name in Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure. And I don't come from ignorant, under-educated people. My parents went to college. My sister and I went to college, and she studied journalism among other things, and is now a school teacher herself. My sister's son is a senior in college now. I'm a professional writer. We ain't aren't uneducated hicks.
However, it is often clear to me that French education places emphasis on far different things than what is taught in America. In France, for one thing, they are taught about their own great philosophers, and those from other countries as well. They are taught critical thinking and analysis as part of their normal education, and this happens well before they enter University. How many American teenagers do YOU know who could talk intelligently AND with enthusiasm about philosophy, poetry, and classic theatre? In my experience, they're rare, and I think that part of it is that our culture simply isn't interested. We'd rather watch sports on TV or the latest reality TV show, or go shopping at the mall, than to read a book and discuss it afterwards.
And when it comes to education and limited government funding for it, America tends to focus on what it considers "practical" for getting a job and making a living, and literature, the arts and philosophy "aren't gonna pay the rent, you know!" So unless you are fortunate to have been raised by someone who is interested in things like the arts, literature, theatre, or philosophy so that you're exposed to in in your home, you are unlikely to get much of it from your public schooling. In America, if I had wanted to study Plato, I would have had to wait until college and then sign up for courses accordingly; it was simply never an option in public school. I was lucky to get out of high school, even as an Honors student in English, with the ability to construct basic sentences; great literature and the discussion thereof was something with which we were provided only a passing acquaintance. And that acquaintance usually involved buying the Cliff Notes to avoid actually reading Dickens or Shakespeare (which I now LOVE, by the way).
So noticing the mostly-French table talk last night was, for me, an interesting opportunity rather than the exercise in frustration it sometimes is. An opportunity to see the glow in my husband's eyes at being able to impart his love of literature and philosophy to his only daughter, and how she was actually paying attention and participating with him rather than feeling lectured-to. She wasn't sitting there, rolling her eyes... she was debating and asking questions and quoting passages from the book.
And it was an opportunity to notice yet another cultural difference between where I lived the first half of my life, and where I now find myself living the rest of my life.