I was born early in the Great Depression and spent my first nine years living in desperate rural poverty. At the low point my family made do in a shanty with no electricity or running water. Mother was eight months pregnant and Dad had lost the farm job that had provided a subsistence livelihood for the five of us.
This first chapter of my life helps me sympathize with the condition that David Brooks describes in a column entitled “The Anxieties of Impotence” (New York Times, January 22, 2016). In its details our world is dramatically different from the one in which I grew up. In both, however, a rapidly growing number of people lived in deepening economic distress, and the result is an ever greater sense of impotence.
When I was a boy, the rise of Hitler and turmoil all across Europe threatened the well being of Americans despite the security that two oceans were thought to provide. It might have been true, as President Roosevelt told us, that all we had to fear was fear itself, but most people were afraid. In our time, terrorist movements, especially in the Middle East, and escalating pressures against the middle class, are causes of anxiety and the feelings of powerlessness.
Brooks points out that in such times some people join groups and take steps to better themselves. Other people, and today they seem to be the most vocal, “feel dehumanized, forsaken, doomed and guilty.” They distrust not only themselves but also their institutions—family systems, economic processes, schools, political institutions, and religious institutions—often lashing out to destroy them.
Brooks follows his diagnosis with a prescription: “To address these problems we need big, responsible institutions (power centers) that can mobilize people, cobble together governing majorities and enact plans of action.” While his column deals with political institutions my reflections focus on two other institutions of American life: churches and public schools.
Two months before Pearl Harbor our family moved to the semi-rural outskirts of Portland, Oregon. Over the weekend, I transferred from a one room school with twenty-one students to a K-8 Portland school with more than 500 students. At the same time, we were embraced by a traditional church and for the first time in my life I began my participation in a full range of church activities.
These two institutions opened new worlds to me. They provided an enlarged family and friends that I had never experienced previously. They shaped my heart and stocked my mind with ideas, hopes, and a new sense of what I and my world could become.
I know, of course, that the world keeps changing and therefore its institutions also must change. Schools and churches suffer from systemic challenges as do the political institutions that Brooks describes. Just as many people, including politicians, seek to destroy political parties and governments, so others undercut public education and recommend the abandonment or dismantling of churches. They cast about for impromptu forms of schooling and group activities designed to express and encourage “spirituality.”
With Brooks, I am convinced that solutions are not likely to come from those who rail against institutions, urging that they be discarded, burned down, and abandoned.
“If we’re to have any hope of addressing big systemic problems we’ll have to repair big institutions,” which for Brooks means rebuilding political parties. For me, this means supporting public education despite its many challenges, and participating in the on-going life of churches—established, well-staffed, with well-rounded programs, and commodious buildings.
In the seventy-five years since urban schools and a traditional church gave me a new life, much has changed, but churches and schools are still vital to the life of a society in which people can live with freedom from fear and in hope of a better life.
So today I’m publishing this personal testimony. More important, I’ve just cast my vote in favor a a tax levy for public schools in the city were I live and getting ready to go to worship and the annual meeting of my church—an old line Protestant church in the heart of Portland’s cultural, political, and economic life.
For churches and schools, as well as for political parties, it’s better to build up than to burn down!
Photo from Wikimedia Commons