This past Thursday, I rang the doorbell of a stranger while holding a bucket of fried chicken. Before you stop reading, this isn’t as awkward as it sounds. It was the beginning of my Kentucky Kitchen Table, an interesting experience with some equally interesting people. I, along with Hannah and Camille, participated in a dinner hosted by Blake and his mother Stacy at their home in Bowling Green, Kentucky.
Sitting around the dining room table with my fried chicken and heaping helpings of mac-n-cheese, baked beans, corn, and chocolate cake, we began our dinner with some timid introductions. Blake is a film major at WKU with a great interest in film production, and his mother Stacy is a nurse practitioner. They have lived in the Bowling Green area for around 12 years, and Blake has a brother who also attends WKU. Hannah is a social psychology major with an interest in performing research, and her friend Camille recently transitioned to an engineering major. After some brief talk about where we are from, including the coincidental realization that Camille and I grew up in fairly close towns, we started our conversation with a big question: What does citizenship mean to you?
I decided to get the ball rolling by describing my friendly neighbor ideal of citizenship within a community, where each member of the community is active in helping improve the community and helping each other. I added that this also means letting others live their lives in peace, unless their actions are harmful to the community. Everybody else seemed to have a similar definition, and Stacy emphasized that what we believe is harmful to the community is subjective. We then discussed how this is often the cause of debate within a community, as debates are often about problems that don’t have clear cut solutions, which we call wicked problems in our class.
From here, we transitioned to a conversation about how well we knew our neighbors/members of our community. While all of us knew some of our neighbors, we all agreed that we didn’t know all of them, including some of the next door neighbors. However, for some of us this wasn’t always the case. For example, Stacy said that during her childhood on the family farm, she knew everyone from the surrounding farms very well, and either Hannah or Camille commented that they knew all of the kids their age that lived close by. Blake commented that now he didn’t see kids outside as much anymore, and that nobody seemed to be around the neighborhood, especially on weekends. We thought that perhaps this isolation among people was due to an increase in technology.
While speaking about other people in our community, we switched topics and talked about people we knew who had very different backgrounds from ourselves. I had a hard time thinking of somebody as I realized that I don’t surround myself with very diverse people. Hannah talked about an exchange student she knew from South America. She described how one of the most peculiar things about him was how intense his work ethic was for school work. He and those that he traveled with all seemed to have this strong desire to work really hard on their school work, showing how different education is portrayed in different cultures. Blake also mentioned a German exchange student from high school who somewhat lacked a sense of humor. Stacy then remembered a man from the Middle East who is still here in Bowling Green. He is a friend of Blake’s brother, and he was taking classes to become a translator at WKU, but when his country fell into war, he couldn’t continue to receive money from his parents. So now he lives with the Baptist Campus Ministry, while trying to learn to drive so he can get a job. However, even under such circumstances, he was very respectful, and at a meal at Stacy’s house, he would even stand up when an adult male walked in the room and introduce himself. We find this odd in our culture, but to him it is just a sign of respect.
After some more food, we continued our conversation with a question of my own. I wanted to know what everyone’s thoughts are on the increasing price of a college education. I pointed out how it has changed the way that colleges operate, as they act more like businesses than they used to, causing things like grade inflation. I also mentioned how much harder it is to get a sustainable job without getting a college education. I continued to point out a couple characteristics of the problem, and then Stacy asked us if we knew the root cause of the issue. We didn’t have an answer, and we agreed that this is due to the wicked nature of the problem.
From there we changed topics to a conversation about obligation to those in our communities. The first aspect of the question was whether we have any obligation. Stemming off of the citizen conversation earlier in the meal, we all seemed to agree that we have some sort of obligation to help those within our communities live their lives peacefully. Then Blake asked if we felt the same obligation to somebody who wasn’t in your actual neighborhood or town, but halfway around the world. I felt that there was an obligation, depending on how close your relationship is to the person or community you are helping. However, I also brought up that some people help those far away from them while ignoring those closest to them in need. Stacy asked us if we thought that was common, and we all seemed to agree that while everybody doesn’t do it, it can be easier to send money or aid to a distant place rather than spend your time helping locally. Hannah said she thought that in a capitalist culture like ours, that we would be greedier about our money, but Blake and Camille pointed out that often people would rather lose some money if they can be lazier.
To finish up the meal, we then talked about how often we sat down at meals like that with our families. Stacy told us how she was required to sit and eat dinner with her family at the same time every day, and how she tried to continue that with her family. She pointed out that with the scheduling of activities, it became hard to find a time that worked, and that practice slowly faded away. I talked about how I regretfully didn’t often eat with everyone in my family. While we all in the same area during meals, often the television was on, and the focus wasn’t on conversation. Blake mentioned how he wishes his family sat down and ate together more often, even though he didn’t like it when they still did it. He said that as he got older he started to appreciate that time together, and that sometimes he just wants that time back with his family.
After this, we decided that we needed to go, and we cleaned up and headed out. Thinking back on the meal, I find that I really enjoyed it. While I am not too socially anxious, I often don’t like to put myself in situations where I don’t know anybody, since I hate awkward conversation. However, I found that some prompted questions in addition to food helped get rid of those awkward silences, and created a meaningful conversation that helped me get to know everyone a little bit better. The idea behind the Kentucky Kitchen Table reminds me of Nussbaum’s article, “Socratic Pedagogy: The Importance of Argument.” While this wasn’t a Socratic town hall debate, the concept behind such a debate is reflected in the way we conversed at our meal. The ability to listen to respectfully hear the point of others in a constructive way and speak for yourself to obtain a constructive result (which happened to just be a thoughtful conversation) is central to our democracy, especially in local government. Meals like this are a great way to teach this core aspect of democracy, and I was amazed after leaving the meal at how natural it felt. Perhaps such meals need to happen more often in our communities. A central point of our class is how do we get along with each other, and such conversations are may be the key. The nature of the situation gets rid of that tension between people, and brings out a peaceful conversation that feels like it can resolve any conflict.