Blair: Homeward Bound

by Peter Blair | 3/6/12 11:00pm

The rags-to-riches story holds a central place in American culture. Such stories are often dominated by the following archetype: Poor parents or grandparents scrap together a living, trying to hold everything together just enough for their children or grandchildren to get a shot at a "better life" a college degree and a materially prosperous, comfortably bourgeois existence. Of course, we must admire and revere the hard work and sacrifices our parents and grandparents made to give many of us the chance to attend an elite college like Dartmouth. But nothing comes without tradeoffs in this world, and it is worth asking whether the dominant American model of social mobility is a good one or, at least, a good one for everyone.

A definite trend in the 20th and 21st centuries with numerous exceptions is the link between geographical and social mobility. Our parents worked to give us a better life, but in moving up the ladder of success, many also moved "horizontally," away from their working-class or agricultural hometowns. They go away for college and never come back home, preferring to move instead to New York or Boston or some other metropolis of trade and economic opportunity.

This seems like an innocuous fact to us, but its implications are tremendous and often negative. One result is a brain drain from rural and working-class areas. When all the best and brightest of our poorer areas move away from home, the community from which they came loses out on all the talent, value and intellectual energy these elite students could have applied to the problems of their hometown had they returned.

This leads to a second, related fact: The best and the brightest, instead of returning home, all gather together in relatively enclosed enclaves of privilege. The effects of this are twofold. Charles Murray's recent book "Coming Apart" outlines how the increasing economic and cultural gap between the working class and the educated elite has devastated those working-class communities in a way that could be ameliorated if the two groups interacted more, or even lived together.

Secondly, the incestuous internal culture of the educated elite has often succeeded in encouraging immaturity in the elites, especially among men. As educated elites don't return home but instead go to various cities to work and live together, they try to take college life with them, perpetuating a life of carefree partying a dorm in the heart of the city. The author Kay Hymowitz put it thusly: "Not so long ago, the average mid-20-something had achieved most of adulthood's milestones high school degree, financial independence, marriage and children. These days, he lingers happily in a new hybrid state of semi-hormonal adolescence and responsible self-reliance ... With them, adulthood looks as though it's receding."

There are other effects of these cultural trends. The poet-philosopher Wendell Berry notes that the voyage away from home has always been a central archetype of human literature and life. The man or woman coming of age needs to leave home to have adventures and experiences, escape the authority of his or her parents and acquire an education of sorts. Yet, until relatively recently, the voyage almost always ended in a return home and a reintegration into responsible life. By cutting off this "return" phase, our culture makes impossible the rapprochement between the parent and the now grown-up child.

This undoubtedly has an impact on our generation's maturity level, but the effects of this trend don't stop there. Because children so rarely return home these days, the issue of elderly and dying parents becomes deeply acute. What do you do when you live half a country away from your aging parents? In the past, you would take them into your house to live with you when their strength or mental awareness faded, repaying the debt for their raising you in their home before your strength and mental awareness developed. Today, because of the distances between us and our families, that is much harder to do. Instead, we see the proliferation of nursing homes, which, whatever their benefits, are no substitute for a home.

Instead of talking only about moving on from our parents' and grandparents' lives to a "better life," we should consider stretching our cultural scripts so that they talk also about moving back and making, to improve a phrase, our hometown troubles our troubles.