By: Campbell Scribner
I recently reread an essay by a friend of mine, a teacher and pastor, with whom I have kept in touch since college. Actually, not a teacher or a pastor: he quit both jobs a long time ago. They felt fake, he said, rote and repetitive and hollow. So he became a freelance writer.
He wrote the essay, and I first read it, in a climate of fear and uncertainty. The United States was engaged in irresponsible, possibly illegal military actions, and we had mutual friends getting involved (a little over their heads) with the peace movement. Corporate scandals led to a series of financial shocks, one of which cost my father his job. The liberal circles in which we moved were becoming increasingly uncomfortable with the conditions under which their food and clothing were produced, leading to heated arguments about what counted as “organic” or “fair trade.” My friend stopped eating sugar for a while.
He touched on all this in his essay, but the real focus was the precarious fate of young people as they entered the workforce. Finding employment required shameless self-promotion, he complained, if not outright dishonesty. And for what? So that one could earn a living exploiting others and performing pointless tasks, laboring (as he so floridly put it) under a “harness of routine and obsequiousness.”
It was no wonder that so many college graduates had grown cynical, shielding themselves with irony and rolling their eyes at any sort of idealism. The world was built on lying, cheating, and shopping, all of which the rising generation cruelly mocked but engaged in anyway, because they didn’t feel like they could change anything. The most noble of them might pursue academic careers (as I later did) but they would have to subsist on debt and charity, and even then would feel guilty for enjoying a level of success denied to others who were equally qualified. There was no way out. It seemed that we were all doomed to the moral corruption of adulthood.
Despite all of its hand-wringing, however, the essay ended with a hopeful image: young men and women not yet beholden to the capitalist system, free from the chains of consumption that constrained Western society. The term “Arab Spring” did not yet exist—and my friend abhorred both religious orthodoxy and political violence—but he spoke approvingly of the fervor and faith with which young Muslims had reshaped the Arab world. A similar group of American youths, willing to sacrifice financial gain for more moral, meaningful work, might radically transform our own country, he wrote, renewing protections for women, children, workers, and the elderly while establishing a robust sense of the common good.
That message inspired me. It didn’t matter that Ralph Waldo Emerson and I were of different backgrounds, or that his essay, “Man the Reformer,” first appeared in 1841. We were wrestling with the same questions about the individual’s place in the modern world, and I considered him a friend.
I do not mention all of this so that you will go and read Emerson’s essay (though you should), but instead to offer some advice for study at OWU. One of the benefits of a liberal arts education is the ability to recognize that others have confronted the same quandaries and challenges that you do, albeit in times and places that may seem remote. Whether you pursue history, literature, or some other discipline, remember that learning is most effective when it captures the immediacy and applicability—the moral stakes—of other people’s experiences. Making that connection can lead to the best kind of companionship.
Campbell Scribner is an education professor whose teaching-related interests include the history and philosophy of education and the history of childhood.