When Dinner-Table Arguments are a Good Thing

Josiah Bunting III
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Posted: Nov 20, 2007 12:01 AM
When Dinner-Table Arguments are a Good Thing

Here is something parents might want to ponder as they celebrate Thanksgiving with their children: A friendly argument around the dinner table could be a good thing--especially if it involves current events or history.

A new scientific study shows that students who come from families that frequently discuss these topics learn more in college about American history, government, international relations and economics than students who come from families that don’t.

Nor is this the only aspect of traditional family life that can help make children into better college students.

Last fall, the Intercollegiate Studies Institute surveyed 14,000 randomly selected freshmen and seniors at 50 colleges nationwide. Each student was given a 60-question multiple choice “civic literacy” test that focused on American history, government, international relations and economics. Students were also asked about their family experience, including whether their parents were still married and living together, whether their parents had college degrees, whether the family had frequent conversations about current events and history, and whether English was the primary language spoken in their home.

By subtracting average freshman scores from average senior scores and controlling for other variables that affected students’ performance, researchers were able to measure how much civic knowledge, on average, students gained during college as a result of each of these aspects of their family experience.

The data demonstrated that higher quality family life led to students learning more about America’s history and institutions during college. This finding is important for all Americans, not just those who are particularly concerned about family life, because the survey also showed that students who learn more about America’s history and institutions during college also tend to be better citizens, showing a greater tendency to vote and participate in other civic activities.

The students who did the best on the test were those who came from homes where the parents were both college graduates, were still married and living together, spoke English to their children, and frequently talked with them about current events and history. On average, seniors who enjoyed all these advantages scored 6.52 points higher than students who lacked them.

The test also showed, however, that parents need not be perfect to give their son or daughter a significant advantage. In fact, the factors that improved student performance the most turned out to be those parents can most readily control.

The most significant factor, for example, was frequent family discussion of current events and history. It typically added 2.32 points to a senior’s score. Among students who were U.S. citizens, using English as the primary language at home—something immigrant families can strive to do—was the second most important factor. It added 1.80 points.

The combined effect of parents staying married, speaking English at home and frequently discussing current events and history added 4.82 points to a senior’s test score. That was five times the gain from having a father who graduated from college and six times the gain from having a mother who graduated from college.

The iconic image of an American family sitting down to dinner and a lively conversation has been captured in our popular culture in forms ranging from Norman Rockwell illustrations to The Cosby Show. ISI’s survey of civic learning among college students demonstrates again that there is deep wisdom in this traditional vision of family life.

It also reaffirms another American value: We are a merit-based society. How parents choose to raise their children matters more than where they were born or whether they went to college in determining whether those children become successful students and active participants in the civic life of our country.

Now, that’s something worth discussing over turkey and stuffing.