Archive for the ‘Omaha World-Herald’ Category

191. Humanities Key to Rural Development

Nebraska’s rural communities were never more vital than in their early years when they were culturally much more diverse.  Though many factors contributed to this vitality, much of it stemmed from the interactions of immigrants from different backgrounds.  Germans, Irish, Czechs, Scandinavians, rich and poor, men and women.  All came to build a new life based on their personal definitions of success.

Even as late as the mid-1970s, when I first began working in a local retail store, there were people who still spoke broken English.  I imagine they had been born, raised and were living on the farms their ancestors had homesteaded.  At home they probably still spoke Norwegian.  And my wife, the great granddaughter of German immigrants, went to Kirche every Sunday instead of Church.

One can only imagine how Babel-like the language of the frontier must have been.  It’s amazing that neighbor could talk to neighbor.  And while self-reliance was the hallmark of the pioneer, at a time when the nearest store – or nearest doctor – was often several days away, people depended on neighbors far more than they do today.

Somehow it all worked.  Somehow the things the pioneers had in common outweighed their differences, enabling them to develop this land.  Yet the differences were very real; my family still has a little bag filled with coins from many countries, coins my great-great grandfather collected in his dealings with European immigrants.

It seems counterintuitive that people so diverse could create thriving rural communities.  One is forced to wonder if, as is the case with cities today, this diversity actually contributed to stronger, more vital communities.  Could the range of perspectives and experiences people from many different cultures possessed have contributed to overcoming the obstacles pioneers faced?  How could it not have?

The richer a culture, the stronger it is.  Cultural breadth and diversity, by exposing people to new ideas, stimulate creativity.  And creativity is humankind’s most valuable resource when dealing with growth and change.

For a long time many rural communities have struggled with growth and change.  Too-often this has led to no growth or change at all.  And though change can be frightening, life is change.  Communities that don’t change, whether located on the Plains or in the “Rust Belt,” die.

Since cultural richness and diversity equip people to better manage change, rural renewal is, at its heart, a matter of cultural revitalization.  Traditional agriculture, the “culture of the soil,” wove the many diverse aspect of life together.  Work, family, community were closely interrelated.  People moved smoothly from the field to the church to community activities.  No one facet of life dominated to the exclusion of all others; families, farms and rural communities all benefited from the talents and dedication of the men and women of the Plains.

But agriculture has changed.  The social and consumer diversity arising from four farm families per square mile has been lost.  More and more land is in the hands of fewer and fewer (often older) farmers, and no matter how well-intentioned, those who remain cannot sustain either the degree of commerce or the strong community organizations that the older system could.

There’s no turning back the clock, though.  What’s needed is a new approach to rural culture, one that again balances the diverse elements of life while embracing modern advances.

The World-Herald recently published excerpts from a speech by the chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities, Jim Leach.  Mr. Leach explained that the humanities are the mirror of culture, and as such reflect the richness and diversity of human experience.  As Leach observed in a part of his speech that wasn’t included in the World-Herald, the humanities are “central to advancing human understanding and creativity” leading to “the democratization of ideas, providing broad and equal access to advances in knowledge and to the nation’s rich cultural heritage.”

Today we face the same challenge our ancestors did in the nineteenth century – to build a vital and sustainable rural culture.  To thrive, this new culture must be as multi-faceted as it was in the late 1800s.  Some communities, of course, still benefit from the contributions of immigrants, but many rural communities lack a diverse cultural milieu to help fuel their growth.  This is where the humanities can play a vital role.

It will take nothing less than a second wave of pioneering innovation to renew rural areas.  And because at its heart this is a cultural transformation, the “democratization of ideas” provided by the humanities is vital to “repioneering” the rural landscape.

182. Christmas Season Provides Time for Rebirth and Renewal

Atheists, having nothing better to do this time of year than rankle true believers, have busied themselves erecting billboards saying of Christ’s birth, “You KNOW it’s a Myth — This Season, Celebrate REASON.”

We’re taught in school that myths are something ancient people believed, celestial soap operas recounting the all-too-human failings of sundry divinities.  It’s no wonder that in today’s world myth has come to be equated with irrationality.

Nothing is more mythical than the Christmas season (whether you’re Christian or not).  We’re taught from our first year of life to play a role in it.  We catch on early, and we’re soon participants in a feeding frenzy of wish fulfillment, all encouraged by myth.

Christmas is supposed to be for children (another myth).  Twice I’ve clambered up on our frost-slickened roof to make it more magical for my kids, once to lean a wrapped present against the chimney and another time to imitate Santa’s footsteps.  It was precarious but the excitement that ensued made it worthwhile.

Somewhere along the line children begin to figure it out (I did in first grade).  As we grow to understand how the world really works, stories of Santa, flying reindeer and industrious elves just don’t ring true.

And yet we still have a role to play.  When I asked my father if there really was a Santa he stared off into the distance, finally saying, “No, but don’t you dare tell your little brother.”  At that moment I went from being a believer to being an enabler, and have remained so ever since.

For while it may be a strange collective immersion into irrationality for believers and non-believers alike, at least we get to turn a blind eye to the dog-eat-dog reality of life for a little while.  We justify it all under the pretense that buying unneeded gifts can somehow make up for a year of inattention to those we care about, and again, both the giver and the receiver buy into that myth.

It’s sad perhaps that that’s what it takes to create “the most wonderful time of the year” – buy-in to a myth.  But it is a stark reminder of just how important myth is to the human psyche.  Myth – when properly understood – is as important to humans as reason (big problems arise, of course, when either is mistaken for the other).

People have been renewing themselves in one way or another during this darkest time of the year since deep in prehistoric times.  This is the death of the Year, and one can only imagine the fear ancient people harbored that the days would never get longer, that Light would never return.  So great was this fear that it has shaped who we are today.

Our myths – whether commercial or religious – help us synchronize our lives with the death and rebirth of the length of the day, the end of an old and the beginning of a new year.  We harmonize ourselves with Nature in part by acknowledging what we mean to one another, a ritual that breathes new life into our social relationships.  And by doing this through the giving of store-bought gifts, we renew our economy as well.

It’s no wonder we train our children to participate in Christmas from their first year of life, and reasonable men and women – regardless of their personal beliefs – are wise to leave at least a little room for myth in not only their own lives but in the larger world as well…