Readers of this blog know that I have a certain agrarian streak in me. Perhaps it is because I have read too much Wendell Berry. Maybe it has something to do with the working class Catholic culture in which I was raised. It may have to do with the fact that I was raised on a small mountainside in northern New Jersey–a place filled with fields, woods, and trails that has now been largely overrun by a housing development of McMansions.
Many professional academics are worried about the term “agrarianism.” And their concerns are often well-founded. The term, and the philosophy that informs it, is too often associated with the antebellum South, racism, and some of the worst forms of tribalism. I support localism, but I reject some of its darker tendencies. As Martin Luther King Jr. argued in his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” local traditions must always be challenged when they promote injustice.
Yet, with these very important caveats in mind, I still believe human beings flourish best when they are grounded, rooted, connected to a “place,” and have a sense of “home. I actually believe some of the things I wrote about in The Way of Improvement Leads Home. I believe that cosmopolitan dreams and attempts at self-improvement can be cultivated–like Philip Vickers Fithian’s “rural Enligthenment– in the context of a particular place or locale.
Brian Walsh and Steven Bouma-Prediger have recently argued that American culture today prepares us for homelessness. College students do not envision their undergraduate experience as a means of gaining wisdom and skills that they can bring home to improve their local communities. They are instead trained for mobility and leaving home. Actually, few have lived in one place long enough to even have a “home.”
For the last decade or so I have been challenging students–largely outside of the classroom–to think about the ways that they can use their education to improve their local communities. It is not surprising that such exhortations rarely find traction in an age of globalization, relentless ambition, and world citizenship. But every now and then they do.
Today I attended a wedding of a former student. Jordan (not his real name) graduated from Messiah College a few years ago. After graduation Jordan went to a top tier law school and is now one of that school’s highly ranked students. Jordan grew up on a farm in a small central Pennsylvania community. His childhood and teenage years were shaped by the Anabaptist and agricultural world of his parents and grandparents. What I admire most about Jordan is his “cosmopolitan rootedness.” He has a bright future ahead of him as a lawyer, but he has committed himself to moving back home and using his expertise to contribute to the local community that helped to raise him. He has even talked about being close to his family so that he can help his father with farm duties.
A country lawyer–now there is a vocation!
Jordan, if you are reading this, thanks for inviting me to your wedding today and giving me a glimpse of the wonderful community that you call home. It was a privilege.