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Thursday, May 27, 2021

What Hath Bernie (Ideologically) Wrought?

[The online magazine Current asked me to write something about Bernie Sanders, so I did. This is a slightly longer, slightly different, and more personal version of that essay. Consider it my benediction on the first genuine passion for a presidential candidate I have ever experienced as a voting, adult citizen--that is, a benediction on my own weirdly populist/localist/communitarian take on the Bern.]

With President Biden strongly pushing for trillions of dollars in covid relief, infrastructure building, education funding, health care support, and more, the support his progressive agenda has enjoyed both among his fellow Democrats and in national polls has been seen by many as at least partly the result of Senator Bernie Sanders’s transformative runs for the presidency. The argument is that Biden, because of his reputation as pragmatic centrist and a reliable member of the Democratic party establishment, can move forward with essentially the same rather radical (and mostly quite popular!) agenda which Sanders developed in a way that Sanders himself, with his proud “democratic socialist” self-identification and his independent (though inconsistent) refusal to ever formally join the Democratic party, never could have. As The Philadelphia Inquirer’s Will Bunch put it, repurposing the old saw about how President Nixon’s anti-communism made it politically possible for him to open up diplomatic relations with communist China, “Only Biden Can Go to Norway.” 

For those who view ideologies as tools, with moral principles and social theories packaged together solely for the purpose of advancing political policies, this is fine. In fact, they might even say it’s the best possible result: radical ideas becoming sufficiently normalized that someone without any attachment to the socialistic ideology through which they were articulated (which certainly describes Biden) can advance them under a different label entirely! Arguably, that's the story of all radicalism movements in American history. But for those whose commitment to their ideological preferences is great enough for them to persevere through opposition and actually shape those ideas in the first place--and obviously, for anyone who has read the stuff I write more than just once over the years, this is where I would intellectually situate myself--this kind of result may generate ambivalence.

Sanders himself is not at all ambivalent about Biden’s efforts thus far: he fully supports them and hopes to build upon them further. Among the aforementioned true believers though, or at least a few of them, this complicates Sanders’s relationship to the ideological package which he has trumpeted more successfully than any other American politician since Eugene V. Debs a century ago. If Sanders’s “democratic socialism” is the sort of thing which he can endorse as being effectively, if not entirely, advanced by an American president with no interest in socialist analysis and no intention of thoroughly democratizing wealth in America, then just what was the ideological distinction of his socialist claims in the first place?

The responses to this question range from those on the left who insist Sanders was never a true socialist anyway (and thus is a distraction), to those on the right who are delighted to paint Biden’s progressive liberalism with the same socialist accusation they’ve employed against Democrats for close to a century (and thus should be denounced). In the midst of these responses, though, there is the fact that over the years of Sanders’s presidential campaigns there have been significant increases in the number of Americans who sympathize with socialist goals, and an increase in the number of arenas—both local and national, both strictly economic and broadly cultural—within which this sympathy has been expressed. The growth of the Democratic Socialists of America—a “multi-tendency organization” with significant differences between its hundreds of chapters, an organization which has prominently benefited from Sanders’s campaigns, despite his never having joined it—is perhaps the most emblematic example, but it isn’t the only one. (As a long-time member of the DSA, my opinions here are obviously less than neutral!)

Those who insist upon a definition of socialism which preserves the historical materialism of Karl Marx—that is, that socialism must involve a collectivization of the economy, one achieved through the actions of the working class (making use of captured state power, at least under most construals of Marxism)—the lack of ideological rigor in these various calls for “equity” or “fairness” or “justice” may be annoying, to say the least. As part of a long, thoughtful essay, full of genuine (if often back-handed) praise of the Democratic Socialists of America, author Frederik deBoer expressed doubt that “the average DSA member could give you a coherent definition of what ‘democratic socialism’ even is,” but also reflected that while the those who identity with socialist causes today haven’t accomplished much on their own terms, “neither has Black Lives Matter, or MeToo, or any group (or individual) which has participated in this confused and substance-free ‘social revolution’ we are supposedly living in.” This is, to be sure, a rather cynical take on political developments of the past half-decade—yet it also touches on something vital, which makes deBoer's insight relevant. Specifically, it points us toward the question of how seriously we should take the likely connection between Sanders’s radical insistence (given the realities of American politics) upon the validity of “democratic socialism,” whatever its ideological inconsistencies, and the broad emergence of groups and causes which, in their own sometimes anarchic ways, similarly embraced a democratizing aim. (Yes, it's easy to point, as counter-evidence, to conflicts between Sanders and Black Lives Matter protesters on the campaign trail, or the serious limits in African-American support for his candidacy, or the declarations of right-wing pundits that Sanders's radicalism had nothing to do with--or at least has "lost control of"--the anti-establishment energy of 2020. But all that is marginal, I think, when compared to the indisputable connection which BLM and other radical leaders and thinkers and activist organizations posited between what Sanders represented and was trying to do, and what they want to see happen.)

The scientific socialism of Marx presented the alienating effects of concentrated socio-economic power as something that could only be smashed through revolutionary action. Later thinkers saw that this revolutionary logic did not reflect the actual socio-economic developments of the industrial world, and argued that socialism could be build electorally in the midst of the marketplace—which is what gave us “democratic socialism” (and later “social democracy,” such as is well represented by countries like Norway, and by the Sanders—and arguably the current Biden!—platform).

The late sociologist Erik Olin Wright, however, suggested that socialists should see the obstacles to the democratization of wealth as something that can be “eroded” as well as smashed or tamed. How? By building and advocating for alternatives “interstitially.” Wright acknowledged that focusing on the many different ways in which social goods can be produced and distributed besides the capitalist marketplace—including “within the intimate relations of families; through community-based networks and organizations; by cooperatives owned and governed democratically by their members; though nonprofit market-oriented organizations; through peer-to-peer networks engaged in collaborative production processes,” etc.—would not be sufficient to accomplish the aims of socialism; instead “we need a way of linking the bottom-up, society-centered strategic vision of anarchism with the top-down, state-centered strategic logic of social democracy.” Nonetheless, the relationship between the two are vital; writing in an article in Jacobin published before his death, he argued that it is through such open-ended and organic associational efforts that we can “get on with the business of building a new world—not from the ashes of the old, but within the interstices of the old.”

The democratic socialist banner which Sanders has long inspired people with is obviously far more on the social democratic side than the anarchic one. And yet, it would also be simply perverse to claim that Sanders’s constant emphasis on income inequality and worker disempowerment had no relevance whatsoever to the explosion of interest of late in diverse radical movements for recognition and justice, or—especially during the pandemic—cooperative efforts to provide mutual aid. Whether obvious or not, that relevance, it seems to me, always eventually emerges. Michael Harrington, the founder of Democratic Socialists of America, towards the end of a decades-long engagement with socialist debates, concluded in his final book that socialism had to move towards a “decentralized conception of its goal”—going so far as to ask if a “socialist republicanism” was possible (Socialism: Past and Future, p. 277). (And if an organizer like Harrington doesn't persuade you, maybe the late in life discovery of decentralization by the Marxist philosopher G.A. Cohen can.) Perhaps looking back historically over the Sanders’s ideological impact on the 2010s will similarly oblige us to recognize that his greatest accomplishment wasn’t in serving as the fulcrum by which the mainstream of the Democratic party was made comfortable with certain (re-named!) democratic socialist ideas, but as having helped bring into the mainstream a fruitful, disparate mess of radicalisms, all of which are busy promoting their own alternative democratizing visions.

In his essay “Bernie Sanders’s Five-Year War,” a detailed but also touching retrospective on what Sanders meant for many of those of us on the left, Matt Karp observed: “If Bernie Sanders was not fated to be the Abraham Lincoln of the twenty-first-century left, winning a political revolution under his own banner, he may well be something like our John Quincy Adams—the ‘Old Man Eloquent’ whose passionate broadsides against the Slave Power in the 1830s and 1840s inspired the radicals who toppled it a generation later.” This is, I think, is correct. I firmly supported Sanders, but probably more because I could see in his campaigns an ideological richness, a genuine multiplicity of possibilities--both  egalitarian and localist as well as even conservative or Christian--that extended far beyond the neoliberal homo economicus which remains too often our default today, than because I wanted him to win. That is, I wanted his ideas to win, and that means for his ideological construct to expand and multiply and flourish. To see ideological constructs such as that which Sanders long employed (and still does!) as static and linear is to perhaps misunderstand the organic character of ideological constructs in general. Yes, Bernie Sanders failed to win the presidency--but still, he didn’t fail to fertilize, with his words and actions, long moribund ideas in America. The diverse, disparate ideological growths in his wake will likely be with us for a while yet. Or so I hope, anyway.

Wednesday, May 26, 2021

Teaching (or Cultivating) Sustainability (or Inhabitance), Ten Years On

[Cross-posted to Front Porch Republic]

For ten years now, I've been teaching one version or another of a class on personal simplicity and economic and environmental sustainability here at Friends University, a formerly Quaker, non-denominational Christian, small liberal arts college in Wichita, KS. Though I teach at a religious university, I don't teach religion myself--and for that reason, I at first doubted that Jennifer Ayres's Inhabitance: Ecological Religious Education would much that would be pedagogically relevant to me, despite my strong sympathy with her subject matter. In this, I was partly wrong. While Ayres's book includes many intriguing (and a few borderline outrageous) educational suggestions, its greatest value to me as a teacher is the way it inspires me to take stock of what I've tried to do with with my sustainability class, and to perhaps rethink what my primary goals in that course should be.

My original aim in the design of this class--about which I've probably shared my thoughts about too many times already--was always primarily getting students out of the classroom and into the growing, producing, fecund Kansas ecosystems all around us, showing them that there are patterns of life that can keep people fed and housed and happy without committing oneself to the rat race. It shouldn't have been a shock to me, after I'd lived in Kansas for a few years, to realize how many of my students really had no connection with farming or food systems--but it was, nonetheless. Sometimes broad popular stereotypes about "living in the heartland" would be confirmed as I talked with the students taking the class, and some of them would end up taking the lead in teaching me about cattle ranching or winter wheat or regenerative agriculture. But more often than not, my own agricultural background, limited as it is, nonetheless greatly eclipsed theirs. And so I figured that, whatever else I might be able to communicate to my students about Wendell Berry or John Woolman, I should at the very least get them out of the city and take them to some farms--as well as urban farmers markets and community gardens and other kinds of local sustainable business operations, perhaps going so far as to work on one of our own.

In doing all of that, I'd like to think I've been fairly successful, at least insofar as the "getting them out of Wichita" part is concerned. Even in the midst of the worst of the pandemic last summer and fall, different butchers and ranchers and food producers were willing to sacrifice some of their busy days to let students--majors in Conservation Science, Health Science, History & Politics, and more--come and tour their land, their independent meatpacking processing operations, their homemade tomato and lettuce greenhouses, their cheese-making and milk processing facilities, and so much more. These kinds of experiences don't, I'll be the first to admit, necessarily provide the students with the sort of detailed know-how necessary for them to develop more sustainable practices in their own lives. But as Ayres herself insists, knowledge about one's ecological surroundings are only the tip of the iceberg; as she writes, "Cultivating [the] capacity for inhabitance"--which she defines as "seeking to know and love and particular place in some detail and honoring its [ecological] rhythms, limits, and possibilities"--"requires personal and social transformation at a level far deeper than that of figuring out ‘greener solutions'" (pp. 3, 17). Thus the aim of those who aspire to "educate for inhabitance"--which I realized, in reading this book, clearly describes me--has to involve figuring out ways to engage the affections of others, their bodies and appetites and emotions and creative imaginations. If that seems intuitively true, it may be simply because philosophers from Aristotle to Polanyi have consistently argued that nothing can so engage people as real tactile experience, and real practical work. So far as that goes...as I said, I think I've done fairly well on the first, though not so much on the second.

To be clear: any success I've had with the first has to be attributed, first and foremost, to having an exemplar to draw upon, and becoming friends with Leroy Hershberger--a mechanic, handy-man, cook, juggler, bicyclist, and born story-teller, all with a degree from Yale--a decade ago has made all the difference in my life and the life of so many of my students. Some of them from years before have told me that dinners at the Hershbergers were one of the highlights of their entire college education. They remember well Leroy's glorious beard (that he shaved it off during the pandemic came as profound shock of several of them!), the kind words of his mother Mary, the inquisitive questions of his father William (who passed away at the age of 80 during the pandemic; Leroy's tribute to his father was touching, kind, and wise), and most of all the joy the whole Hershberg family take in being able to introduce young people a life more focused on the land, on real material productivity, and in that way a whole ecosystem--both ecological and economic, to say nothing of also spiritual--that exists and enlivens the worldview of many outside the hustle and bustle of our urban college campus.

I've sometimes been challenged--or, indeed, given the vicissitudes of trying to do my part to not just educate students but also keep my tuition-driven college campus alive and functioning, sometimes I have challenged myself--as to the real "outcomes" of this class and these excursions. Am I trying to turn my students into farmers, into rural proprietors and local producers? If so, why, and am I at all successful at it anyway? Every educator in today's late capitalist world confronts those questions of metrics and assessments at one point or another, and it's hard for me to conceive of anyone serious about the teaching profession who doesn't recognize the harmful framing they introduce into the very idea of paideia--that is, of the formation of the human person which a proper education should involve.

That may not mean that such questions can--much less should--be simply dismissed as irrelevant; our students live in this late capitalist world too, and are looking to find ways to discover livelihoods, relationships, and most of all places of productive inhabitance within it. If we as teachers provide no bridge from the formation we hope to introduce to their affections to the challenges facing them upon the conclusion of their education, then we haven't served them well at all. Ayres reminds me of all this, with wise comments on matters of both paideia (which she presents as an acknowledgement of the communities within which we are formed, and the responsibility of constructive critique which community membership must entail--p. 62) and place (which she defines as any location which, through human inhabitation, "is imbued with meaning, with histories, and [most crucially] with contestations"--p. 88). Creating, through my classes, opportunities for my students to come face-to-face, and hand-to-hand, with people like the Hershbergers and dozens of others who have exemplified simpler and more sustainable forms of life hopefully also gives them 1) a model of the love of place, and 2) the incentive to recognize, come to know, and thereby carefully--but unsparingly--critique their own places. 

Do I imagine that such incentives and models will automatically transform my students into ecologically, environmentally, agriculturally informed inhabitants of wherever they live? Obviously not, especially since my own inhabitation still falls short in so many ways. But life is long, and beginning students along a path scattered with seeds for reflection, fits in, again, with the kind of trust in the slow pace of creation which Ayers speaks of eloquently:

[S]low knowledge is the kind of knowledge necessary for an ecologically conscious person or community. It is cultivated together and shared, is deeply related to the context in which it is nurtured, and acknowledges--indeed, embraces--human limitations....[M]ost importantly, it demands human patience and attentiveness. It will not be rushed. In the not rushing, in the attentiveness, wisdom is cultivated and inoculates human consciousness against the seductions of technological progress and the quick fix....

In formal education settings, the push toward more content coverage and measurable success makes the proposal of slowing down, reading less, and reflecting more somewhat of a pedagogical and institutional risk. In religious communities, "slow learning" meets other institutional pressures: in a season of anxiety about declining religious affiliations and lackluster participation in education programs, religious and educational leaders might be seduced by slick curriculum packets that promise effortless preparation and meaning engagement with learners. The principle of slow knowledge, however would suggest that efficiency and meaning are sometimes at cross-purposes. Meaning takes time (pp. 72-73).

The relevance of ecological language to the slow formation of ideas, in the lives of students or parishioners or anyone else, contrary to what Ayres calls--learning heavily on Berry, Rachel Carson, Aldo Leopold, Wes Jackon, David Orr, and many others--the "uncritical embrace of the efficiencies and networking capacities of technology" (p. 4) should be obvious. Equally obvious is how committing to the enacting of that slow formation--such as by growing a garden--can only strengthen that relevance. But that, of course, is where things get exponentially harder. It is one thing, in the midst of whirlwind of experiences that make up a college education, to get students to pause for an hour, or a day, or maybe even longer, and enable them to put their hands on the soil and the food and the people who can provide them with real models of belonging and critique. It is an entirely different thing to commit students to fill up that pause with the daily, weekly, monthly work of growing things in a garden, and to be able to see and, eventually, taste the results of their own re-orientation.

For close to a decade, many of us here at Friends have attempted, with varying degrees of success, to commit our students--and ourselves!--to projects requiring some genuine husbandry in a garden space on our campus. Sometimes there have been real successes, and sometimes the space has lain almost entirely forgotten for an academic year (or more). The space in general has much improved since the early conversations about it, and the first rush of enthusiasm to transform what was a vacant lot beside a student housing complex. But an entirely sustainable component of Wichita's local food system--much less even just Friend University's!--the garden is absolutely not. It remains, month in and month out, dependent upon the vision and determination of a few of us, and the occasional student or two or five who find ways to make the time spent working in the garden satisfy either their own personal commitments or their academic responsibilities or both. But even in those happy situations, we'll likely only have a season or two from the students in question: they are, after all, young people, seeking to gain the learning (and the certification of having received such) that will enable them to find their own place, and make their own commitments, on their own schedule, not necessarily Mother Nature's. So we make the most of the seasons we have, and continue to try our best to get the carrots and arugula and potatoes to grow, in the same way I try my best to make my classes spark agrarian and ecological ideas that might never have occurred to the students before. Sometimes, it all works. And when it doesn't, we trust in God's grace and the fecundity of both the Kansas soil and the college student's mind, and try again.

That kind of attitude is always going to be dispiriting to some. They might look at Ayres's book and note that she hardly ever addresses the complex structural forces which likely make it difficult for an education in inhabitance to translate into the creation care she considers imperative. The same criticism could made of the three-credit hour college class I teach once a year at a not-especially-notable Christian college in the middle of Kansas, of course: how is that really addressing the obstacles to inhabitance. But as utopian as "religious education" and "local food tours" it may seem, that doesn't mean we still can't approach them with a hope for real formation work in mind. Or at least I do--and I thank Ayres for reminding me of that ideal. She is a teacher speaking to other teachers, like me. She is urging, through her book, those of us who have grasped the imperative of seeking to cultivate a greater concern for ecological and economic and spiritual sustainability to “envision...a way of inhabitance that may not yet be entirely possible,” holding on to the faith that the communities we might be building through our teaching “can imagine and do and become that which one person cannot on their own” (p. 129). Perhaps "envisioning for inhabitation" isn't a bad goal for my class, as I take it into its next decade.

Thursday, May 20, 2021

Eight Inter-Connected Observations about Complexity, Liberty, and the City of Wichita

[Cross-posted to Wichita Story]

1) Cities are complex systems—that is, they are places where different groups of people organize, worship, trade, celebrate, work, and simply live in close proximity to each other, all in different ways and with different goals in mind. In other words, cities are pluralistic, with different sectors and levels all interacting in complex ways. Obviously not all cities are equally pluralistic and complex—the size of the city matters, its economic and racial and religious and regional history matters, and the way it is governed matters. Still, the one common feature of every modern city--meaning every built community that isn’t a rural village and exists in the wake of the democratic and industrial revolutions of the 18th and 19th centuries--no matter what its relative size or history or location or politics, is simply this: its day-to-day operation is a complex, and by no means necessarily automatic, matter.

2) That doesn’t mean a large portion of what happens in any given city on any given street on any given day isn’t significantly automatic, because in a healthy city an awful lot of it will be. This was the crucial insight of Jane Jacobs, probably the most famous observer of cities in the 20th century: that in the midst of the “seeming disorder” of the city, you actually have “an intricate ballet in which the individual dancers and ensembles all have distinctive parts which miraculously reinforce each other and compose an orderly whole.”  But Jacobs also insisted that the natural emergence of this “orderly whole” depended on putting in place (or removing out of place) the basic tools (or the basic obstacles) which cities require (or inevitably, unfortunately, produce). Call it a matter of putting in place, or enabling city residents themselves to put in place, good “infrastructure,” broadly defined, and get rid of the bad.

3) However, a lot of Americans, including a lot of Kansans, and perhaps especially a lot of Wichitans, have an ideological resistance to complex operations. They tend to believe that dealing with complexity, with the problems of good and bad infrastructure (the construction and renovation of roads, the maintenance and evaluation of schools, the expansion and restriction of police departments, etc.), is always going to result in someone, somewhere, capturing some resource that will enable them to limit someone else’s choices. This isn’t entirely incorrect: while the economic and social opportunities of city life have long been empowering and thus freedom-expanding to many, it’s also true that people under complex systems are often subject to--in the words of Louis Wirth, an early 20th-century urban sociologist--“manipulation by symbols and stereotypes managed by individuals working from afar or operating invisibly behind the scenes.” In other words, when things get complex, it’s easy not to know who is really making decisions, or to think that you’re in control of your choices when actually you’re not. So any society that takes individual dignity seriously has to recognize this, and work to make certain that the liberties provided by cities don’t crowd out those of the other type.

4) In our city, however, this structural dynamic is often flipped on its head, with those urban forces that push for the expansion of economic and social opportunities—including those involving environmental sustainability, civic health, democratic accountability, and more—having to prove themselves again and again against a less-complex, more libertarian default. Since Wichita is, in fact, a genuine metropolitan (if mid-sized) area, and simply isn’t—despite the convictions of many of its residents—a small town where (as my city councilmember, Bryan Frye, optimistically but, I think, incorrectly put it) everyone is only “one degree of separation” separated from everyone else, the reality of pluralism, and the need to deal with its complexities (whether through parties or procedures or some combination thereof) cannot be denied. Still, such denial is common, and thanks to the influence of major city players like the Wichita Regional Chamber of Commerce, the Kansas Policy Institute, and most of all Koch Industries, it is likely to continue to form a conceptual stream that those who engage city issues will have to struggle with.

5) That struggle has taken and will take many forms; I don’t mean to suggest that this is the secret history of every and any city controversy. (To believe that—that is, to believe, for example, that Charles Koch alone is solely responsible for Wichita’s profoundly underfunded street repair and public transit systems, despite evidence which might support that conclusion—would in itself constitute another form of denial of Wichita’s ideological complexity.) Depending on the issue and context, the disposition of so many in Wichita against urban complexity and in favor of a simplistic historical or market liberty may be more obvious or less so. On the more obvious side, you have the anti-government responses whenever city leaders suggest encouraging transportation alternatives or citizen groups advocate against the overuse of non-recyclable plastic bags. Or you have the fact that, when confronted with declining tax revenues or questionable management, the privatization of city resources—golf courses, the ice rink, or Century II itself—always seems to be preferred, as opposed to re-organizing or cutting back on the sort of services typically more valued by those with a property-centric libertarian perspective.

6) A less obvious manifestation of this perspective might be the way in which concerns about democratic accountability (that is, the ideal that anything the government does will reflect something that at least some portion of citizens actually want to have done), whether expressed in the context of political parties or city regulations or national polls, seems like a needless complication, an additional demand that gets in the way of simple, individual liberty. This is probably a stretch on my part, but when I look at a recent attack upon a fairly anodyne column of mine, it’s what first comes to mind.

7) To focus on that attack just for a moment (click through and read it if you’d like; I’ll wait), consider: why would implying, as I did, that challenging the use of the term “democracy” when thinking about the legitimacy of governmental actions was a distraction itself constitute “a disgraceful attempt to get people to accept [my] version of reality”? The version of reality which the author insists I am foisting upon my unsuspecting students and the reading public is that version wherein a constitutional republic like ours, one with elections, representative legislatures, and the bedrock principle that it is “We, the people” (the demos) who ultimately govern, is a “democracy” in the same way that a Starbucks Caffè Misto is a “coffee” and a walking, talking American citizen is a “human being.” In other words, unless the author is operating under a serious terminological misunderstanding, one which leads him to confuse fundamental categories with their particular types (I wonder if he believes that, because the United Kingdom has a monarchy, no one is ever actually elected to Parliament?), I suspect that he wants to push back against the case I made for acknowledging concerns over “democratic legitimacy” simply because, frankly, it is frustrating to have to admit that the people, pesky creatures that they are, might have mutually contradictory views about what they want those whom they have elected to do. Invoking the majesty of the U.S. Constitution has its place, surely, but doing so in a way which suggests that the pluralistic interests of the many different sectors and levels of America’s democracy can be cleanly resolved through a few lawsuits is, I think, once again, engaging a simplistic kind of denial.

8) My point in all these observations comes down to this: here in Wichita there is a strong tendency by many to deny the almost inevitable liberal fundamentals which, sooner or later, quickly or slowly, emerge in cities. This denial isn’t universal, but it is common; it scales all the way down to neighborhood arguments and all the way up to presidential elections. Don’t read too much into that “almost inevitable” bit; Wichita is far more divided than it is blue, and likely to remain that way for a good while yet. Still it’s simply impossible, I think, to be both honest about our city and simultaneously insist that its pluralistic reality can and should be reduced to a simple set of libertarian lessons, wherein urban needs and disagreements resolve themselves naturally in the marketplace. For better or worse, we’re bigger and more complex than that. Doubling down on that reduction only makes the already difficult task of managing Wichita’s infrastructure even harder, and leaning too hard on the “small town” ideal only ends up excluding some of those who came here looking to enjoy freedom and opportunity as well. Let’s not do that, shall we?

Wednesday, May 12, 2021

20 and 15 Years, and More

20 years ago today--May 12, 2001--I was awarded my Doctor of Philosophy in Politics from Catholic University of American in Washington, DC; I became a Ph.D. And yesterday, with the submission of my final grades, I completed 15 years of teaching here at Friends University in Wichita, KS, the school that I have come to identify with so strongly that I hope to work here for another 15 years (or 20 years) more. Which means that, if God and family and my health is willing, my life as a Ph.D. will end up as having been, for all intents and purposes, basically synonymous with teaching our mostly south-central Kansas students here at Friends about political ideologies, American history, constitutional law, and theories of government and sustainability and economy, as well as playing the professor of political science in the local media and on civic boards when it comes to elections and court decisions and whatnot. As Robert Bolt's version of Thomas More once said, "not a bad public that."

Looking back over the past 15 and 20 years, I can see I've written a lot about how I think about it all: figuring out my place within academia as a small liberal arts college professor in Kansas, figuring out what kind of politics I can or should be teaching to these kind of students in this kind of mid-sized place, figuring out what I really took from my graduate education and experience (which was in some ways very cosmopolitan, and in other ways very parochial), and how much what I became as a professor can be traced back to those years in Washington DC, as opposed to something which came along later from hours in the classroom, from interactions with colleagues, and from the ever-changing vicissitudes as well as the constant recurrences of academic life. Looking back on some of those posts, I'm a little embarrassed--but only a little. My vision for developing a "political science" that would fit what I had offer and what Friends University could support from back in 2009 seem kind of immature to me now (but hey--I was only an associate professor back then). Looking back 5 years ago, I think 10 years of teaching and professing, in the classroom and around the city, had given me a little more perspective on what in my understanding of my own vocation had changed, and how much the place in which I was practicing that vocation was responsible for those changes. By now, stuff that was just developing at that time has born some genuine fruit: my major is now "History & Politics" (hopefully the last name change for a good long while!), my teaching and research is strongly focused around matters of urban democracy and sustainability, and my approach is sufficiently divorced from our increasingly statistics-driven Social & Behavioral Science division that I've moved my program (because at a SLAC, the faculty can decide such things) over to Theology & Humanities, where I also hope it'll stay. In short: it's taken a while, but I can see that I've built something over the last 15 years--not what I originally expected to build, to be sure, but something I'm committed to nonetheless. And I definitely want to be able to plan on another 15, or perhaps 20, years of teaching to build it further.

As for my Ph.D. experience, now 20 years gone, I now find it returning to me in a way I never anticipated before. Our oldest daughter (a mostly proud KU graduate!) is following the Ph.D. route, pursing a doctorate in English at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and in their e-mails and phone calls home I'm occasionally thrown back into that maddening world of "read another book!" whenever confronted with questions structural or theoretical or historical or critical. And yet, as hopeless as I know their prospects likely are--just as I know how hopeless the prospects of every other student I've ever taught who has ever expressed any sort of admiration or envy or desire in regards the possibility of being lucky enough to become a college professor like myself--I cannot get myself to pretend that my graduate education (for all its ups and downs, for all its costs and consequences, for all the ways it both opened up and empowered my mental world as well as failed to prepare my mind for the future or actually prepared me for the wrong things) wasn't pretty great. I loved it, and yes, I love being able to see my daughter--hopefully with their eyes fully open to the costs and consequences which are shaping them!--going through the same experience, and sometimes being able to get tastes of it through them. Their Ph.D. experience isn't mine, but still, the memories--at least of the good times--are strong.

I'm not sure what else to say. 15 years, or even 20, is just a drop in the bucket in the long run, and what seemed obvious to me when I was 40 isn't exactly the same as what seemed vital to say when I turned 50, even if the continuity between them is obvious, and will always remain so, even if I was inclined to attempt to separate myself from it all, which I'm not. Friends might go bankrupt tomorrow, or Kansas could turn overnight into a tyrannical fascist state, or some other personal or family catastrophe might happen, and everything that came before--my Ph.D., my teaching career, the roots I've put down in this place and before these students and these neighbors and fellow citizens--could go up in smoke. I sure hope not, though. I want my 20-year-old and 15-year-old histories to continue into the future, to throw out ever more branches and build ever stronger continuities and connections, through our children and our friends and more. This year, a Friends University teaching award that I cannot deny I'd envied for 15 years was awarded to me; far from feeling like a summation, it feels to me like a landmark, a signpost of a continuing vocational, academic, and personal journey...one that I'm a good long ways into, for certain, but one that I will, hopefully, still have a while to work on and improve and grow larger and deeper yet. I'm a lucky man, and for all the rough passages along the roads I've biked over so far, I have to call myself blessed. For anyone who has read this far: thanks for being part of the ride.