The Dinner Table University

“Felice, what did you learn today?”

“Felice” (fell-EE-chay) is Felice Leonardo "Leo" Buscaglia, a professor at the University of Southern California whose father instilled in him a sense of curiosity and a habit for learning that lasted his entire life. Dr. Buscaglia went on to write books about love and give talks that were broadcast on public television in the 1980s. That’s where I first heard him tell the story of the dinner table university he experienced as a child, and it stuck with me since. 

Leo grew up in a large Italian immigrant family. They were poor, but they were surrounded by people and love, by food and opera. His father, who was taken from school at an early age to work in a factory, was determined that none of his children would be denied an education. 

“Papa believed that the greatest sin was to go to bed at night as ignorant as when we awakened. To ensure that none of his children ever fell into the trap of complacency, Papa insisted that we learn at least one new thing each day. And dinner time seemed the perfect forum for sharing what we had learned that day. Naturally, as children, we thought this was crazy.”

Not having an answer wasn’t an option. So before dinner, the children would scramble to come up with something they could offer. Out of desperation, they might frantically turn to the encyclopedia to find some fact they could use. "The population of Nepal is…"

“Silence. It always amazed me and reinforced my belief that Papa was a little crazy that nothing I ever said was too trivial for him. First, he'd think about what was said as if the salvation of the world depended upon it. "The population of Nepal. Hmmm. Well." He would then look down the table at Mama, who would be ritualistically fixing her favorite fruit in a bit of leftover wine. "Mama, did you know that?” Mama's responses always lightened the otherwise reverential atmosphere. "Nepal?" she'd say. "Not only don't I know the population of Nepal, I don't know where in God's world it is!" Of course, this only played into Papa's hands.
"Felice," he'd say. "Get the atlas so we can show Mama where Nepal is." And the whole family went on a search for Nepal.”

Each child’s contribution was carefully examined and considered no matter how trivial it was. It wasn’t so much the specific bit of knowledge that was important, but the sharing of that knowledge.

“Without being aware of it, our family was growing together, sharing experiences and participating in one another's education. And by looking at us, listening to us, respecting our input, affirming our value, giving us a sense of dignity, Papa was unquestionably our most influential teacher.
‘How long we live is limited,’ he said, "but how much we learn is not. What we learn is what we are." Papa's technique has served me well all my life.” 

Listening to Leo Buscaglia tell the story himself is a special treat. (You can find a longer version in Papa, My Father, and it’s condensed nicely here.) Clicking on the video below will take you directly to it at 45m06s. Watch the whole video if you can, and you’ll get a sense of someone whose passion for life, love, and learning inspired many thousands of people, including me.

Note: I liked this story so much I included it as an exercise in Week 9 of the WOL Circle Guides. It’s meant to help people experience their own Dinner Table University, to practice sharing their learning as a contribution.