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Education and the Way Home

Posted By Jeffrey Polet On January 30, 2012 @ 10:03 am In Articles,Education & Liberal Learning,Region & Place | 13 Comments

Holland, MI

The recent dispute between Joe Carter over at First Things and various occupants of the Porch has already received a good deal of attention, but also demonstrated a regrettable level of talking past one another. This, in no small part, is due to a lack of definitional clarity. If political philosophy be about anything it’s about clarity concerning definitions.

In this instance, it seemed to me, there persists a lack of consensus about the meaning of “liberalism.” Mr.Carter seemed to indicate that liberal systems value human choice and place the onus of choice, and thus responsibility, upon each individual person, and that this freedom to choose for oneself, while not absolute, provides the measure of freedom that is essential to a life well-lived. The distributist ethic, he fears, requires restrictions on freedom, usage, innovation, and mobility that are corrosive of the fundamental good of freedom.

Choice of action can never be the measure of a good or well-ordered society, for human beings never find themselves in positions where they don’t have choices – a point clearly articulated by thinkers such as Solzhenitsyn and Frankl, who discovered this in the belly of the totalitarian beast.

For those on the Porch, “liberal” often connotes a mode of social organization that is atomistic, non-teleological, mercantilist or plutocratic, highly ambulatory, and destructive of intimate social institutions. Or maybe, alternately put, we fear that America is not, properly speaking liberal (being too concerned with national greatness), but in any case the particular set of liberal principles adopted in America, with their faulty anthropological assumptions, simultaneously elevate and isolate the self, abandoning us to our freedom, and fracturing the sorts of healthy communities required for human thriving.

To this, Mr. Carter, if I read him rightly, seems to be saying either “Would you have it any other way?” or, simply, “This is the price of doing business.” And, offering as evidence of Porchers’ bad faith, he suggests that so long as distributists, or their kissing kin on the Porch, live the peripatetic life of the philosopher, not only in ivory towers but also in suburbs, their actions belie their words.

Some dismissed Mr. Carter’s comments as snarky, but I think they ought to be taken seriously. Just as many conservatives would rightly, in my judgment, cast aspersions on limousine liberals, so also, I would think, the ethos of the Porch is susceptible to charges of hypocrisy in terms of whether we are actually seeking out and sustaining the sorts of communities we celebrate. And, with the recent announcement by one of our Senior Editors that he will be leaving his current community to seek out another which offered him better prospects of employment, it may well seem that the Porcher ethic fails at a personal as well as at a social level.

As I said, Mr. Carter’s suggestion that he will start taking Porchers more seriously when they leave the ivory tower and return home strikes me as a serious one worthy of our engagement. Then too, while I do not presume to speak for Mr. Deneen – and Lord knows he can defend himself better than can I – I am inclined to rally behind my friend and colleague, in no small part because I too faced the choice (Mr. Carter will take note) that he has, and made a similar move. Reflecting on this may help shed light on the issue and help us forge a response to Mr. Carter’s challenge.

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.

Not long after the birth of our third child we moved to Canton OH, having accepted an academic post at a small Christian college there. Two observations about living in Canton: first, we were constantly perplexed as to what to do if one of us were to die. Neither of us felt connected to Canton, felt it as home. Neither my wife nor I went there thinking we would spend the rest of our lives, and all of our deaths, in that place. This question – where should I be buried? – was a troubling one that opened up the sense that we were people without an axis mundi, and that we embodied, in some way, the lostness of modern man.

Secondly, it introduced a rupture between ourselves and our children, for while we never considered Canton “home,” our children clearly did. This is where they worshipped, played, learned, explored, and developed. They were “from” Canton in a way I never was and never could be. The place was in their marrow in a way it wasn’t in mine (as an aside, as a convert to the Catholic Church, I am also struck by this in terms of the difference between me and my children as regards being Catholic). This rupture made real the ways in which we had been unable to escape our freedom.

That sense of homelessness was a persistent tug on consciousness, and in some ways informed the work I was doing. But one also felt profoundly unfree to do anything about it. I had chosen to go to college, chosen to go to grad school, chosen to pursue an academic career, chosen to move to Ohio, and all those choices made me feel estranged from the most fundamental things in life, and in some ways they all seemed to lead to a life I couldn’t escape. In my sinews and bones I longed to return home.

When my brother and my best friend, both of whom live in Michigan, contracted cancer, the sense of estrangement deepened further. As my parents aged the sense of loss deepened, not only because the precious time I had left with them was slipping away, but because my children were being deprived of the very thing I was deprived. Not as drastically, to be sure, but seeing my children with my parents made me realize what a heavy price my siblings and I had paid for immigration, and it filled me with great sadness, and intensified my sense that my children needed their grandparents.

So I began to see that in this world one often had to choose between vocation and location. We are told that vocation should always triumph in such selections, and that one place is as good or as bad as any other. I gradually came to see the falseness of this, however, and that my choice of vocation had cut me off from family, friendships, and a place in the world. I had worn my calling like a cloak, but the world I lived in determined it become a shell made of steel.²

Lacking the courage or imagination to figure out how to return to my own shallow roots, I began to look for employment in non-academic venues in Western Michigan. Then, for reasons I still don’t fully comprehend, I was fortunate enough to receive an academic appointment at Hope College, a mere 5 blocks from where I grew up. My wife and I convinced ourselves that whatever the difficulties for our children would be more than offset by their newfound proximity to extended family. We have the satisfaction of knowing we are now “home,” and we know where we will spend the rest of our days. I pray our children will judge us mercifully.

In this, our education has been in some way its own gravedigger. It took us away from home, and we are among the lucky few for whom it has been the way back. But it is not always so, a proposition that becomes all the more real to you when your own children reach college age. My oldest attended Hope, and my youngest will attend Hope. With my middle child, however, I went through the gut-wrenching protocol thousands of parents go through every year: dropping her off at college hundreds of miles away and the realization that she is henceforth a visitor at home, and is unlikely ever again to live within walking distance. As for the other two: who knows whom they will meet while in college, and what relationships or careers will pull the. ever farther away from us? The thought of it fills me with sadness.

These observations, thoughts, feelings are often nascent in a busy young couple in their early 30’s. But as age and life and loss intrude on our minds, we seek to better understand and articulate our own condition. For me, like for many of us, reading Wendell Berry was a sort of cleansing of the intellectual palette, a bringing-to-mind and bringing-to-language of what I already knew to be the case.

Consider, for example, Berry’s telling of the story of Hannah Coulter. She was not a native to Port William, having spent her early years in Shagbark. She was encouraged to move to Port William to “make something of herself,” to find a place where she could deliver on her promise and native gifts, leaving behind her own family. Repeating this narrative, when she had children of her own she sent them to be formally educated, believing that she owed it to them. Berry writes:

“The way of education leads away from home. … The big idea of education, from first to last, is the idea of a better place. Not a better place where you are, because you want it to be better and have been to school and learned to make it better, but a better place somewhere else. In order to move up, you have to got to move on.”

And then later, when reflecting back on the absence of her children from her life, Berry has Hannah say something I could easily imagine my mom saying:

“When I think back to the childhood of my own children now, I remember that the thought of their education was always uppermost. … We wanted them to have all the education they needed or wanted, and yet hovering over that thought always was the possibility that once they were educated they would go away, which, as it turned out, they did. We owed them that choice, and we gave it to them, and it might be hard to argue that we were wrong. But I wonder now, and I wonder it many a time, if the other choice, the choice of coming home, might not have been made clearer.”

That, as well as anything, sums up the paradox within which many of us on the Porch operate. Education was not simply a way up, it was an appropriate development of our native gifts. But the way up led out, and we were never told there was a choice of coming home, only a choice of leaving – which is, of course, not a choice at all. The deep suspicion for some of us on the Porch is not that we want to restrict people’s freedom of choice, but that our choices aren’t as rounded, aren’t as full as we often believe them to be, for it is not our willing and doing, but that which happens to us above and beyond our willing and doing that is the proper province of our thinking.³ But knowledge always comes too late.

So we are inclined to ask whether there is a way that leads home again; or, if not, how it can help us make where we are a better place. For place matters. Asking those sorts of questions and relating them to the concrete formation of our communities is not an incidence of coercion but an expression of freedom.

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¹The charge that distributists are socialists has dogged them from the get-go, but I think it an unfair one. Distributists certainly don’t argue for the abolition of private property, Quite the contrary. From another angle, one would have to look at the relationship between ownership and production. While some socialists might seek to redistribute property post-production, distributists seek a fair distribution prior to production. It is, after all, the concentration of wealth that allowed for large-scale capital investment that led to the wage-labor system and the tenuous life of the employee – a point Leo XIII makes rather clear.

²The reference here is to the famous, and mistranslated, passage from Weber’s Protestant Ethic: “The Puritan wanted to work in a calling; we are forced to do so. For when asceticism was carried out of monastic cells into evervday life, and began to dominate worldly morality, it did its part in building the tremendous cosmos of the modern economic order. This order is now bound to the technical and economic conditions of machine production which today determine the lives of all the individuals who are born into this mechanism, not only those directly concerned with economic acquisition, with irresistible force. Perhaps it will so determine them until the last ton of fossilized coal is burnt. In Baxter’s view care for external goods should only lie on the shoulders of the ‘saint like a light cloak, which can be thrown aside at any moment’. But fate decreed that the cloak should become an iron cage.”  It was reading Weber that first gave me the tools to understand my own condition, and thus to understand my freedom or absence of it from the inside.

³A reference to the central idea of Gadamer’s Truth and Method.


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