SOME years ago a top national scholarship organization in America commissioned a survey to determine what its winners had in common. To the sponsors' surprise, the survey found only one common formative experience:
A strikingly high number of the successful students came from families that ate dinner together.
That may sound too Norman Rockwell for today's genetically minded behavioral scientists. But there's much evidence - both survey and anecdotal - to back that finding.
And no wonder. One of the most important functions of that most fundamental human institution, the family, is the discussion and absorption of knowledge about life, and goals in life. The home dinner table is, unselfconsciously, sometimes anarchically, one of life's principal forums for understanding life and exchanging information about life. It is also a haven in which to practice interpersonal relations, the backbone of all the team efforts by which much of society, business, and communication progress.
The Thanksgiving holiday is - in America, Canada, and an increasing number of enclaves worldwide - a pause in the year in which a further, very fundamental element is added to our understanding of life: gratitude.
Without gratitude, it's no stretch to assert, life and its purpose are not really grasped. The richness of experience given individual men and women by their Creator is not fully understood without such appreciation. The very word appreciation means both thanks-giving and understanding.
This newspaper first appeared at Thanksgiving time 87 years ago. Commemoration of the meaning of Thanksgiving has therefore had a special place in its life. The paper's founder, Mary Baker Eddy, wrote earlier: ''The dark days of our forefathers and their implorations for peace and plenty have passed, and are succeeded by our time of abundance, even the full beneficence of the laws of the universe which man's diligence has utilized. Institutions of learning and progressive religion light their fires in every home.'' (Again, those scholarship dinner tables.)
In today's world, it's easy to criticize some of the ritual that has grown around this American holiday derived from a very modest 17th-century harvest feast between English settlers and Wampanoag Indians.
After all, Wampanoag descendants and a Mayflower descendant are today negotiating over the running of a casino on the Massachusetts coast. And much news coverage of Thanksgiving centers on airport and highway travel jams and tips for dealing with overeating and loneliness.
The lonely deserve specific note not just because of traditional Thanksgiving concern to include the homeless, the dispossessed, and visitors from afar at the family table, but also because so many American families today are fragmented.
The Monitor's founder once wrote a short essay about Thanksgiving dinner. In the midst of its description of four generations of family joy and warmth, she interposed words about just such fragmented families and lonely individuals: ''for the tear-filled eyes looking longingly at the portal through which the loved one comes not, or gazing silently on the vacant seat at fireside and board - God comfort them all!...''
Deep-felt thanksgiving should provide such comfort.
Without gratitude, it's no stretch to assert, life and its purpose are not really grasped.