What Is to be Done?

I’ll give one personal example of this. Shortly after I finished my Ph.D., I received an invitation to interview at a college that was quite close to where I had grown up. I was inordinately excited at this possibility, thinking that it might work out that my wife and I and newborn son might be able to settle close to family and childhood friends. When asked about accommodations, I proudly informed the college that I would be staying in my bedroom that night – my childhood bedroom, that is. During the two day interview I related in every conversation that I was native to the area and had a longstanding relationship to the campus, having attended its plays, movies, and used its library for many years. I believed my local connection would make me an especially attractive candidate, sure in the knowledge that a school would be attracted to someone who already had deep roots in the community and was likely to build a long life and career in that place.

Yes, I was incredibly naïve. I learned later that this proud display of my nativeness went over badly – it was discerned as a compromise of what should have been my true and only motivation for seeking employment at that institution, which was its objective and universal academic excellence. And, more generally, it is now almost universally the case that institutions will not hire faculty who have been trained at the same institution, or even an institution in the same state. Any such hiring would be suspected of nepotism – or worse, “in-breeding” – as if there are not positive features of such connections having to do with particular institutional identity and loyalty and memory. However, no less than the international and global economy, academia is now an international “marketplace” as well, and we only become valuable when we enter the stream of international intellectual commerce that is at once nowhere and everywhere.

Most of us, then, live in “the real world” as it is, and as it will persist to be for a foreseeable future. Yet, I think all of us genuinely struggle with second-bests – how to put down roots where one is; how to introduce a different ethic into a profession and way of life now defined by the dominant liberal ethic; how to raise good families amid the wreckage of this culture; how to live in ways larger and, more often, smaller, that reflect a resistance to the dominant culture, to support the sustenance or renewal or even creation of communities.

Secondly – for most of us, I think, the process of coming to an understanding of what was wrong with our current way was an “intellectual” discovery. Speaking personally, while I grew up in a small town and was catechized in the faith of my fathers – and imbibed the values that were embedded there – I was also unconsciously raised to accept the dominant presuppositions of mid- and late-20th century American liberalism. For me, the process of reconciling (or ultimately properly ordering) those two parts of my upbringing ultimately was assisted through books and thinkers who had made various parts of that journey long before I was born. Much of this discovery has been remarkably and even regrettably recent, with much of the foundation having been laid long ago, but somehow the scaffolding only having been erected in recent years through a prolonged encounter with the writings of Wendell Berry and a mini-conversion (or re-turn) back to the faith of my fathers. More than ever, many of our countrymen will not have had the experience of growing up in small towns or on farms, or visiting grandparents or friends in such settings, as ever-more Americans lose all contact with a way of life now disreputable and transcended. Increasingly, those who seek to understand what is wrong in the world they inhabit, or even how to articulate vague misgivings, will need first the words to guide them to some possibility of an experience they will not have personally stored. And here, I and others hope, FPR can be a place where some of those articulations and arguments can be made.

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