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Education: Loving the Old Places

In his novel Hannah Coulter, Wendell Berry notes that, for moderns, education means leaving. Moving up has become synonymous with moving on – and moving away.

At this year’s CiRCE Conference, Ken Myers in his talk “On Cultural Authority” echoed Berry’s thoughts when he lamented that people today think, Where can I go to use my gifts? Instead of, How can I use my gifts where I am?

He’s right. It’s odd that Christians are quick to recognize that God has given us gifts and that He expects us to use them to further His kingdom and to bring Himself glory. And yet, at the same time, we forget that the same sovereign God who gives gifts to specific people also places specific people in particular geographical locations.

Our place of birth, just like everything else about us, is no result of random chance, no cosmic accident. Might the same God who blesses us with talents and abilities expect us to use them in the communities in which He places us?

I’m not suggesting that it is sinful to change locations. Some people are in fact called by God out of the places of their birth. Biblical examples abound. But, I think this is the exception rather than the rule it has now become.

Young people are expected to leave. It is a mark of success. To remain in your hometown is to have failed. The modern ideal is to cast off the past, family traditions and relationships, ties that connect us to places and to people, and to forge our own unique paths.

We disconnect ourselves from everything and everyone who gives our lives meaning and then suffer the modern (or postmodern) affliction of isolation and alienation.

The church has responded to this peculiar modern affliction by emphasizing the need for Christian community. But all too often that means Christians looking at the map, trying to find a Christian community to move to instead of trying to build one right where they are.

As a classical educator, I strive to instill in my students a love of the old ways. Now I’m also trying to nurture a love for the old places. Instead of trying to inspire them to change the world, I now try to encourage them to tend their own gardens, to change their neighborhoods and communities.

Rather than talk about when they are going to graduate and go off to college (as if the leaving is the thing to look forward to); I talk about the return. When they will buy houses and start their families right in this community. When they will be the next crop of church and civic leaders. When they will continue the work of building God’s kingdom that their parents have begun. When their own children will both reap the benefits of the community we have built and expand it far beyond what we could imagine.

And they get really excited. And they want to stay. They want to change the world by changing their own communities.

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