My daughter left for college last week. So did most of her friends. A group of kids raised in a central Pennsylvania town who have spent their lives together in church, on the athletic field, in the classroom, and at weekend backyard bonfires are suddenly, in a blink of an eye, ripped from that environment and sent off to various locations around the country to pursue higher education and find themselves as “individuals.”
It all seems so unnatural.
I understand why we send our kids to college. We want them to chart their own path, become independent, and learn things about the world that we cannot teach them. We don’t want them to be too provincial or parochial. I get it. I am paid to initiate students into this modern way of thinking. I also understand that much of what I am writing here is born of the sense of loss I feel right now.
This whole process–a relatively new one in the annals of human history I might add– can come with gut-wrenching pain for parents and homesickness for the child. It might even prompt us to wonder whether such an initiation into modern life is really worth it.
The historian Gordon Wood, writing about the eighteenth-century, perhaps put it best: “local feelings were common to peasants and backwards peoples, but educated gentlemen were supposed to be at home anywhere in the world.” To be too wedded to our local attachments is a “symptom of narrow-mindedness, and indeed of disease.”
As I said in my last post, I wrote a lot about all of this in The Way of Improvement Leads Home: Philip Vickers Fithian and the Rural Enlightenment in Early America. I know that my telling of Philip Vickers Fithian’s story was shaped by my own experience as a first-generation college student. Now I am starting to see the story I told from the eyes of a parent.
As an eighteenth-century first-generation college student from rural southern New Jersey, Philip Vickers Fithian struggled with homesickness every day. Even after he graduated from the College of New Jersey at Princeton in 1772 his longing for home, family, the social connections of his youth, and the very soil of the place where he was raised remained strong. “Strong & sweet are the bands which tye us to our place of nativity,” he wrote from his bedroom on Robert Carter III’s Virginia plantation where he found post-graduate work as the family tutor. “If it is but a beggarly Cottage,” he added, “we seem not satisfied with the most elegant entertainment if we are totally separated from it.”
During his stay in Virginia, Philip suffered acute bouts of homesickness. He felt “uneasy,” “bewildered,” and “haunted” about his decision to leave Cohansey. He made a habit of gazing out the window of his room and then turning to his diary to write about home. “I went to the window before I was drest….I could not help casting my Eyes with eagerness over the blue Potowmack and look homewards.” Today kids who have such pangs of homesickness usually find their way to the college counseling center where they are told that time will heal all the wounds of homesickness brought on by the first days and weeks of their college experience.
But for Philip, living in an eighteenth-century world still on the cusp of modern life, time spent away from home did not seem to help. For example, the longer he stayed in Virginia, the more intense his homesickness became. One cold Sunday morning in January 1774 Philip skipped church services and wrote, “I feel very desirous of seeing Home; of hearing good Mr. Hunter Preach; of seeing my dear Brothers & Sister; Indeed the very soil itself would be precious to me!–I am shut up in my chamber; I read a while, then walk to the North window, & look over the Potowmack through Maryland towards Home.” Some would say that Fithian was sick. He had a case of homesickness that probably needed a few more counseling sessions. Maybe.
Philip knew he was now an educated gentleman–a Princeton graduate. Such longings for home were irrational and not fitting with the cosmopolitan outlook he had learned in class with Princeton president John Witherspoon. “This may seem strange,” he wrote in June 1774, “but it is true–I have but very few acquaintances [in Virginia], & they easily dispense with my Absence–I have an elegant inviting apartment for Study–I have plenty of valuable & entertaining Books–and I have business of my own that requires my attention–At home my Relations call me proud and morose if I do not visit them–My own private business often calls me off & unsettles my mind…All these put together, when they operate at once, are strong incitement to divert me from Study. Yet I love Cohansie! And in spite of my resolution, when I am convinced that my situation is more advantageous here, yet I wish to be there–How exceedingly capricious is fancy! When I am Home I then seem willing to remove, for other places seem to be full as desirable–It is then Society which makes places seem agreeable or the Contrary–It can be nothing else.”
By August 1774 Philip had come to the point where he was “low Spirited” and could not “eat nor drink” because he was thinking “constantly of Home.” He even felt, using the theological language of his Presbyterian upbringing, that “Sometimes I repent my having come into this Colony.”
If Joseph Fithian, Philip’s father, felt the pain of losing his eldest son to the modern world we do not have his thoughts in writing. We know that we was skeptical about Philip going off to school. He needed his son on the family farm and had to be convinced that Philip’s break with a tradition was a good thing.
But this was not the case with Philip’s mother Hannah Fithian. As Philip tried to fit into the intimidating and foreign academic culture of the College of New Jersey he found comfort in Hannah’s letters. She did her best to sympathize with her son. “I suppose you are uneasy about your Gown,” she wrote (Philip did not yet have this essential part of a Princeton student’s daily wardrobe), but “this is perhaps a small Cross & you must my dear Son take your Cross Daily & follow Christ if you will be his disciple.” Hannah had great affection for her oldest son. “I hope that the Lord hath Work for you to do in the World,” she prayed, “O that he would furnish you with every necessary Grace & Qualification for his Service.”
Hannah also maintained a constant concern for Philip’s soul–exhorting him to remain pious amid the worldly distractions of college life. “Youth is a dangerous Time,” she wrote, and “it is not possible for you to know it until Experience teaches you…flee youthful Lusts.” She also feared that Philip’s exposure to book learning might puff him up and jeopardize his spiritual relationship with his Savior. She urged him to recall the moment of his conversion and God’s providential care for his life. “It is easy to profess Religion,” she wrote to Philip at Princeton, “but it is hard to be a Christian. Without holiness no Man Shall see the Lord…Remember what the Lord hath done for you & let it humble you.” This is how one eighteenth-century parent dealt with homesickness and the pain that comes with their son’s initiation into modern life.
I should probably end this post by saying that my daughter is a bit homesick and anxious, but she is doing fine. She is probably doing a lot better than I am.
It all seems so unnatural.