“Dialogue is the yeast that lightens the bread; and should be paid for at double the rate – whereas the word system it counts the same as dough.” 

Mark Twain, letter to Richard Watson Gilder (April 29, 1898)

“We do not and cannot always argue with our friends, even though we scorn the dictums of formal etiquette.  But because we do not argue, it does not follow that we gain nothing. In fact, ordinary conversation has advantages numerous over debate, not the least of which is the comparative freedom it gives from prejudice.

But the value of conversation depends both on what we talk about and whom we talk with. Too much of our talk is on petty matters, is uneducative.  And even if we converse on worthy topics, it will profit us little if we do not talk with worthy people.  When we commune with a dull mind, our thoughts are forced, in some degree, down to the level of that mind.  But dull people do not usually talk of weighty matters, nor do active intellects dwell long on trifles.  Therefore if we rightly choose our companion we can conscientiously leave our path of conversation to choose itself.

One aspect of conversation remains to be treated — its corrective power.  “There is a sort of mental exposure in talking to a companion; we drag our thoughts out of their hiding-places, naked as it were, and occasionally we are not a little startled at the exhibition.  Unexpressed ideas are often carefully cherished until, placed before other eyes as well as our own, we see them as they really are.” 

Henry Hazlitt, Author and Journalist

According to a study from Matthias Mel, Associate Professor of Psychology at the University of Arizona, meaningful conversations make people happier than small talk.  “By engaging in meaningful conversations, we manage to impose meaning on an otherwise pretty chaotic world,” Dr. Mehl said. “And interpersonally, as you find this meaning, you bond with your interactive partner, and we know that interpersonal connection and integration is a core fundamental foundation of happiness.

Conversations do more than simply make us happy, however.   They also make us smarter, as psychologist and research professor Peter Gray suggests in his discussion of Sudbury Schools, where students maintain full responsibility for their own education, learning methods, evaluation, and environment:

“Much of the students’ exploration at the school, especially that of the adolescents, takes place through conversations.  Students talk about everything imaginable, with each other and with staff members, and through such talk, they are exposed to a huge range of ideas and arguments.  Because nobody is an official authority, everything that is said and heard in conversation is understood as something to think about, not as dogma to memorize or feedback on a test.  Conversation, unlike memorizing material for a test, stimulates the intellect.  The Great Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky, argued, long ago, that conversation is the foundation for higher thought; and my observation of students at Sudbury Valley convince me that I was right.  Thought is internalized conversation; external conversation, with other people, gets it started.”

Gray elaborates on how children learn best through conversations and self-directed play:

“Another researcher who has documented the power of self-directed learning is Sugata Mitra.  He set up outdoor computers in very poor neighborhoods in India, where most children did not go to school, and many were illiterate.  Wherever he placed such a computer, dozens of children would gather around and, with no help from adults, figure out how to use it.  Those who could not read began to do so through interacting with the computer and with other children around it.  The computers gave the children access to the whole world’s knowledge – in one remote village, children, who previously knew nothing about microorganisms learned about bacteria and viruses through their interactions with the computer and began to use this new knowledge appropriately in conversations.

Mitra’s experiments illustrate how three core aspects of human nature – curiosity, playfulness, and sociability – can combine beautifully to serve the purpose of education.  Curiosity drew the children to the computer and motivated them to explore it; playfulness motivated them to practice many computer skills; and sociability allowed each child’s learning to spread like wildfire to dozens of other children.”

If children can achieve such incredible feats in an environment that nurtures their curiosity, playfulness, and sociability, imagine what we can do as adults!  These three core aspects of human nature form the foundation of community dining, which goes far beyond making conscious food choices.

Yet we grew up in an environment in which educational authority figures (not to be confused with experts) continually dictated when, where, how, and whether we could eat our own food, preventing us from fully developing a sufficient sense of autonomy, initiative, and personal responsibility.  Rather than being allowed to eat when we felt hungry, we could only eat during a designated lunch hour and received threats of punishment for eating at the wrong time or in the wrong place.  Sadly, children today have no better luck, as demonstrated by the recent cases of an 11 year old Florida student who authorities arrested for bringing a plastic butter knife to school and a 17 year old North Carolina student who was arrested for bringing a small pairing knife in her lunchbox for the purpose of slicing an apple.  Unfortunately, this atmosphere of control that fosters uniformity and obedience and destroys the vibrancy and spontaneity of a free and productive society continues into adulthood as evidenced by Bloomberg View columnist and Yale law professor Stephen L. Carter’s visit to a night court session where he actually recounts a time when he witnessed a defendant being fined for eating in public.

The simple act of people getting together to share a meal in conditions free of the shackles we had growing up that is prepared and sourced in a way that organic farmer, author, international speaker and self-described Christian, libertarian, environmentalist, capitalist lunatic Joel Salatin describes as historically normal represents so much more than merely eating.  It serves as an experience that stimulates curiosity, playfulness, and sociability as well as spontaneous and meaningful conversations with worthy companions who provide us the opportunity to forge integrated, heartfelt social bonds and aid in our development as self-directed human beings by giving our thoughts and ideas the mental exposure they need to grow.