Saturday, May 23, 2009

The Rural Enlightenment Today

It was about ten years ago when I first talked publicly about what I have called the "rural Enlightenment." I was presenting a paper on the subject at the McNeil Center for Early American Studies at Penn when a graduate student remarked how there were a large number of early American history job openings that year located in rural or remote colleges and universities. With the potential of so many intellectuals moving to locations in "fly over country," this Ivy League Ph.D candidate seemed to find the concept of "rural Enlightenment" a helpful way to think about his future employment.

I was also on the market that year and, fortunately, had several job offers to choose from. Some of the offers were quite good--at least by the standards of the academic guild. In the end, I chose Messiah College. I have yet to regret the choice and I still cannot imagine leading an academic life anywhere else.

I think Thomas Hart Benton, a.k.a. William Pannapacker, understands what I mean by the "rural Enlightenment." I think he also may understand why I teach at Messiah. I have been reading Benton's Chronicle of Higher Education columns for several years now and, though we have never met, I find him a kindred spirit. The other day a fellow blogger called my attention to Benton's recent piece, "Growing Where You Are." As I read this essay, I really thought that Benton was describing my life and my approach to the academic vocation.

For example, Benton writes:

Of course, academics are not alone in that experience; the push-pull of social and economic change is a longstanding condition of modern life. Like almost everyone, we are torn between our desire for opportunity and the arguably natural human impulse to be connected deeply to places and people.

This, of course, is the thesis of The Way of Improvement Leads Home.

Benton again:

Many of us in academe live without the basic anchors of existence that have reassured the vast majority of human beings for millennia. How could we not find ourselves, at least for a time, living in a state of emotional and spiritual brokenness, in the aftermath of repeated dislocations?

Benton offers a powerful, but very countercultural, way of thinking about an academic life. Since I have been at Messiah College I have had a few chances to leave for "bigger" or "better" opportunities. But I have always tried to weigh such opportunities against the things that would be lost by leaving the place that is slowly becoming my new "home," and the only "home" that my children know. I have come to conclude, as a friend of mine once told me, that the burden of proof should be on "leaving" rather than "staying." My two daughters do not and will not wear New Jersey working class roots as badges of honor. They are the children of a middle-class college professor. Their home is south-central Pennsylvania.

Thanks again, Thomas Hart Benton!