A few days ago Gracy Olmstead with The American Conservative published an intriguing article entitled “We Need Fewer World Leaders, And More Good Neighbors.” The article utilizes Jack Baker and Jeffrey Bilbro’s book Wendell Berry and Higher Education: Cultivating Virtues of Place to evaluate how higher education is affecting the population and thus society. Olmstead’s primary argument is that today’s higher educational institutions are so concentrated on cultivating world leaders and global citizens that younger generations have lost the sense of loyalty, contentment, community, and gratitude that prior generations associate with their roots. This then poses a problem on a broader scale when generations no longer associate such values with their nation. Olmstead begins her argument first by laying out the facts:
In America’s rural towns and communities, “brain drain” is sucking away talented youth, leaving an economic and social hole in its wake. According to a 2008 Pew poll, college graduates are far less likely to live in their birth state, and most young people still living in their hometown want to move in the next five years. Seventy-seven percent of college graduates change communities at least once.
Olmstead goes on to examine Berry’s views on the matter:
Higher education fosters what Wendell Berry has termed “boomers”: individuals who “are always on the lookout for better career opportunities in better places.” He contrasts this group to “stickers”: those who root themselves in a place, and dedicate themselves to its wellbeing. Wallace Stegner first used these terms to describe the pioneers who settled in the West in the 19th and early 20th centuries; but our universities have long fostered boomers instead of stickers.
[American youths buy] into “the destructive ideology of the university as part of an industrial economy—an economy in which schools bring in customers and send out displaced individuals with immense debts, having taught those individuals that the good life can be found anywhere but at home,” write Baker and Bilbro.
While trying to rise above circumstance and make a better life and future for oneself is inherent to the American Dream, what good is it if one cannot give back to their community in efforts to help others do the same? Forgetting one’s roots can often diminish the value of present or future success. Therefore, those virtues of loyalty, gratitude, community, and contentment are important:
[R]esurrecting such virtues, Baker and Bilbro suggest, is critical for the health and happiness not just of America’s small towns and communities, but also of its young people—for although independence may appeal for a while, living as a “global citizen” and “world leader” can be rather lonely and alienating. Cultivating opportunities for homecoming is not just a romantic or reactionary notion. It is a recipe for holistic healing and reintegration, in a nation that sorely needs it.
Olmstead concludes asserting that a balance is needed in addition to reintroducing values in order to mend this divided nation:
Baker and Bilbro contrast the heady, aspirational virtues of modern academia with what they call “the sticker arts”: the arts of “right livelihood” that focus on stewardship, sustainability, specificity, and love. In so doing, they aren’t just trying to convince students to stay home—they are also encouraging them to make a home wherever they may land. After all, as both Baker and Bilbro acknowledge themselves, Spring Arbor is not their original hometown. Although their vision is to cultivate students who can remain rooted in place, they are also aware that many may move away. But the virtues they present here—stewardship, sustainability, love, loyalty—should not only be applied to our birthplaces. They are deeply needed everywhere. Anywhere boomers have ravaged a community, seeking only to consume and procure, stickers are needed to foster healing and wholeness.
As our country increasingly becomes a fractured republic, a nation divided and splintered, it is such virtues that are most likely to bring wholeness and healing back. “Berry remains convinced that genuine change begins locally rather than in the halls of centralized power,” note Baker and Bilbro. And it is only the sort of vision this volume provides that can bring such change back to the communities that so desperately need it.
Read the full article here.