Education and the Way Home

There are at least two issues here to consider, and I think they both emerge from the Social Encyclicals: one pertains to the claims of distributism itself, and whether some of us on the Porch are distributists in good faith. Since I for one take a central claim of distributism to be that the wage-labor system of employment is itself a kind of restriction on one’s freedom, I’m not sure that Mr. Carter’s position amounts to the kind of defense of freedom he was hoping for. On this, I am with the distributists, for employment is indeed a kind of servitude. Operating in the modern academy with its consumerist, scientistic, banausic, and multicultural ethic frequently forces one (if that’s the right word) into compromising positions. I am routinely asked to sell the school to prospective students, trying to satisfy their questions, the demands of my employer, and my own sense of integrity simultaneously. This is not always easy, or possible.¹

Then too, distributism and agrarianism don’t require that one farm. It requires that one be attentive to the role of agriculture in a healthy and sustainable economy. The Popes frequently emphasize this. John XXIII pays special attention in Mater et Magistra to the role of agriculture, and Benedict also discusses it in detail in Caritas in Veritate. Farming is fundamental to all civilized life, and the removal of food production from our consciousness has many negative effects. The ethic of the Porch, as I understand it, simply asks us to be attentive to the relationships between rural and urban life, and to ask how to make these connections more sustainable and humane.

But my point here is not so much to defend distributism and its important assumptions about ownership, or even argue why I don’t live on a farm. My main concern involves the peripateticism of the academic life, and why I seem not to live up to the Porch’s highest ideas or aspirations about home and place.

Part of this is my family’s history, and the dislocations caused by modern warfare. My parents immigrated to North America around 1950 as a result of their family’s perception that there was no future for their children and grandchildren in Europe, a continent ripped apart by two catastrophic wars. They gave up the family steads in small Frisian farming villages in fear that they might again be occupied, and in hope that North America provided a refuge from European wars.

My upbringing, then, was framed by a family narrative that involved high-risk moves and the fracturing of families. My mother’s family mostly stayed in the Netherlands, with the result that she didn’t attend the funerals of either of her parents, both of whom I never met. My dad’s large family spread out over the Canadian continent, with he and my mom later taking their children and relocating to Michigan, which they did just before my birth.

Under these circumstances a young person is not likely to question the appropriateness of moving. True, I experienced the lack of grandparents, aunts and uncles, and cousins as a loss, but it was hard to know what kind of loss it was. It is hard to miss something you never had, except in the abstract.

My parents, neither of them having schooling beyond the 8th grade, believed that education was going to be the key for their children’s future happiness. In part, they didn’t know the full story about what formal education does. And, in part, they didn’t know enough about this society to understand the consequences of educating children. So they encouraged the development of my intellectual gifts, even if they didn’t really know how to cultivate them. I was expected to go to college, and so I went. While there I had professors tell me I ought to go to graduate school, and so I went.

And none of this seemed ambiguous in any way. It was the accepted pattern, and I accepted it, not knowing any better. When the time came to leave for graduate school it seemed a sensible enough path to take, and frankly an adventure, leaving the “provincialism” of western Michigan for our nation’s capitol.

My first glimmering that all this education and its concomitant mobility might exact a price came when my wife and I had our first child. Now I began to sense in earnest what it meant to raise a child away from the nurturing support of loving grandparents, aunts and uncles, and in a highly ambulatory and rootless community such as Washington DC. It didn’t seem an appropriate human habitat. True, I had never thought of it as home, having seen it as a stop toward an academic career.

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