Where the Heart is: Properties of Blood, II.1

Thomas Fleming


July 4, 2017

In his contribution to I’ll Take My Stand, Andrew Lytle told Southerners to detach themselves from mass-produced culture and return to their own traditions:  “Throw out the radio and take down the fiddle from the wall.”  In Protestant countries, the reading of Scriptures and family prayers, until fairly recently, were a normal part of family life.  Robert Burns, in his poem “Cotters’ Saturday Night,” paints a picture of a poor  family in Calvinist Scotland gathered round to read Bible:

They, round the ingle, form a circle wide;

The sire turns o'er, wi patriarchal grace,

The big ha'-Bible, ance his father's pride.

His bonnet rev'rently is laid aside,

His lyart haffets wearing thin and bare;

Those strains that once did sweet in Zion glide,

He wales a portion with judicious care;

And 'Let us worship God!' he says with solemn air.

They chant their artless notes in simple guise,

They tune their hearts, by far the noblest aim;

Perhaps Dundee's wild-warbling measures rise,

Or plaintive Martyrs, worthy of the name;

Or noble Elgin beets the heavenward flame,

The sweetest far of Scotia's holy lays:

Compar'd with these, Italian trills are tame;

The tickl'd ears no heart-felt raptures raise;

Nae unison hae they, with our Creator's praise.

This little service was also the evening’s entertainment, which is a reminder that home was once the primary place in which families amused themselves: Stories were told, visitors received, and games organized with little reliance on what the outside world could provide.

The use of home as the place of recreation and instruction was not a Scottish peculiarity.  In “Snowbound,” a poem once memorized by schoolchildren,  Whittier paints a scene of Americans surviving a blizzard in New England.  Since the poem is set in New England, the atmosphere is less religious than didactic:

We sped the time with stories old,

Wrought puzzles out, and riddles told,

Or stammered from our school-book lore

"The Chief of Gambia's golden shore.”

Today, a snowbound family would more likely to turn to television, DVD’s, videogames, and the internet, all of which supposedly liberate people but in fact reduce them to dependency.  Try spending a weekend in the wilderness, if you don’t believe me, with 20-somethings who have been cut off from all electronic communication.

In the earliest stages of civilization, the homeplace was also the schoolhouse in which sons and daughters learned the arts and techniques that they would practice as adults.  Even today, many families are tutoring their children at home to make up for the deficiencies of public schooling, and some have gone so far as to set up home schools in which they educate their children through high school and even beyond.  However parents decide to educate their children, they should would do well to understand that the responsibility for what their children learn lies in the hands of parents and not of people paid to take the burden off their shoulders.

Adolescence is a difficult period of transition from the carefree world of childhood to the heavy burden of adult responsibilities.  In the simplest societies, young males must learn to hunt and fight and how to establish themselves within the tribe whose rules they must learn.  As societies become more complex, the transition becomes ever more difficult.  In the 20th century, the troubles of youth and young manhood were a staple of American fiction, from Booth Tarkington to Hemingway and Fitzgerald to J.D. Salinger.  But the anxieties of Holden Caulfield were nothing compared to the bewilderment of young people, who obsess over brand names and prefer to conduct their courtships by computer.

American children are no longer brought up within sheltering households; from an early age they are shipped out to schools and camps, sports teams and music classes.  In economic terms, families are outsourcing many of their vital functions. Children are now separated from their families for a large part of the day, and they are taught to depend on experts in various agencies and organizations for everything they do.  In fact, many kids today have never known what liberty is, have never spent an afternoon in the woods, unless it was organized by the Boy Scouts or Outward Bound; have never read a book unless it was assigned in school; have never indulged a whim that was not scripted and directed by some group of professional do-gooding malefactors with social science MA’s.

The conventional explanation for this phenomenon can be summed up in the word “ambition.”  Students and their parents understand that success in a career depends upon success in college, and prestigious colleges require not just good grades but that evidence of leadership that is displayed in multiple activities: sports, music and drama, part-time jobs, and volunteer work.  Parents complain frequently that they spend too much time driving their children from soccer practice to guitar lessons, but the busy schedules they are imposing on their children are also a reflection of their own over-scheduled lives that leave little time to spend with their sons and daughters.  I am often tempted to ask these ambitious kids and their parents: What are you ambitious for?  In other words, what is the object you are so busily pursuing at the expense of all the qualities that people have believed are conducive to happiness?

Some psychologists who have been warning parents not just against over-scheduling and over-programming the lives of their children but also against the “disengagement” that results from the idle hours spent watching television or text-messaging, and some have gone so far as to call for children to form closer connections with their families and communities and even with the past.  There was a time—and not so long ago—when parents did not need to be told the plain truths that every parent since Adam and Eve had known.

If the ideal remains a stable marriage that is the basis of an autonomous family, how is it possible to realize that ideal under the terms of what Marxists sometimes call "late capitalism," when even the consumption functions of the household--eating, housecleaning, laundry--are routinely handled by outside providers, and when all the functions of intellectual instruction, moral guidance, and even such things as entertainment can be discharged by public officials and paid professionals?  But these extra-familial services are only available; they are not mandatory.

It is still possible to educate one's children at home or in private schools, but homeschooling is difficult and time-consuming and private schools are generally more expensive than they are effective.  Families are already required to pay taxes to support the government schools that malnourish the minds and corrupt the character of their children, but, in a period of steady and precipitous decline in the quality of all schools, private as well as public, homeschooling becomes ever more attractive to more people.  The same can be said of home production, which can include everything from part-time typing and maid services to large mail-order businesses.   At the simplest level, self-sufficiency begins with the planting of a home vegetable garden.  Where families work together, where the group's economic success depends upon the contribution of all the members, a cohesion is achieved that is otherwise very difficult.

Government, government schools in particular, drain much of the family's authority, but there are other sources of conflict that tend to delegitimate the family as an institution.  There are many circumstances under which a married woman might need to or might wish to work.  Some of the reasons are better than others, but one of the effects will be an inevitable competition between a man and woman who are no longer "merely" husband and wife but two wage-earners on career paths, taxpayers (filing joint or separate returns), voters who may support different parties, and sport fans who may “root” for opposing teams.

The rivalry is most pronounced where both spouses are active members of a profession, but a working-class male is just as likely to resent the authority conferred by his wife's low-paying clerical job, especially if they treat his salary as the family income and reserve hers for special purposes.  Any distinction of this sort is liable to breed dissension.  If husband and wife cannot always act as one flesh, they can at least be merged into one bank account and a joint tax return.

Religious, political, and ethnic differences can also turn the family home into the battleground of a civil war.  In cases of mixed marriage, some conservative religious groups have insisted that the "alien" spouse either convert or promise to rear the child in the faith.  What may seem, at first sight, to be bigotry is probably a sound idea.  If husband and wife cannot agree on their worship of God, they are either indifferent to religious questions or else so divided on essentials that the children will end up being torn, back and forth, between the parents' churches.  In either case, they are unlikely to raise the children in either or any faith.

We all know of families in which each child is encouraged to discover--or rather create--his own identity.  I used to know an academic family in which each member had chosen, almost at random, a religious tradition: the son opted for zen buddhism, one daughter became a liberal rabbi, while the other became a staunch Episcopalian.  It all seemed endearing to outsiders, but quite apart from the problem of sincerity--they picked their religion the way most people choose a brand of beer--the family could not worship together.  They didn't eat together either.  At one thanksgiving feast I attended, the father took his tray to a chair in front of the television set in order to argue with the anchorman.

It is through the rituals of common meals, common worship and common work that a family discovers its identity as a family.   The pleasures and opportunities, no less than the pressures of modern existence threaten this identity.  Children have their endless rounds of music and dance and tennis lessons, clubs and parties to attend,  and school functions that sometimes seem to require whole weeks of afternoons for meetings and practice sessions.  Parents also join clubs and attend classes and may only have the chance to greet their children as a group on the way out the door to school.  In popular entertainment, these activities are conventionally portrayed as the fruits of success and popularity, the sometimes hectic rewards that await exuberant and talented individuals.  What many of us sense, however, is the familiar story of the hare with many friends.  The more activities we undertake, the less seriously we devote ourselves to any of them;  the more friends we make, the less we value them--and they us; the more we spend time outside the home, the less capable we are of being at home at any time in our lives.

There is no single formula to fit all circumstances.   Some people are more active, more demanding than others, and it would be wrong to stigmatize them as disloyal to their families.  Of course, many enthusiasms can be shared by an entire household, even if all the members are not equally enthusiastic.  Many families have passions for outdoor life--camping, hunting, fishing--on which they spend a great deal of time together.  For others it may be music or tennis.  Many might like the idea of teaching at home or running a family business, but either their circumstances or their lack of aptitude are an obstacle.  What is important is not the details but the main objective, a family that sees itself as an indissoluble mystical entity like the trinity: multiple persons but fundamentally one.

For those who take the deeper view of family life and understand the consequences of divorce, their commitment to family is more than a question of staying married, because we are inevitably forced to deal with other people who do not share our perspective.  But even in the absence of community sanctions, it is still possible to act as if such sanctions existed and to communicate our sense of propriety to family and friends.

Thomas Fleming

Thomas Fleming

Thomas Fleming is president of the Fleming Foundation. He is the author of six books, including The Morality of Everyday Life and The Politics of Human Nature, as well as many articles and columns for newspapers, magazines,and learned journals. He holds a Ph.D. in Classics from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill and a B.A. in Greek from the College of Charleston. He served as editor of Chronicles: a Magazine of American Culture from 1984 to 2015 and president of The Rockford Institute from 1997-2014. In a previous life he taught classics at several colleges and served as a school headmaster in South Carolina

10 Responses

  1. Raymond Olson says:

    The lugubrious trajectory of my own life notwithstanding, you speak my mind on these matters. Family dinners constitute one of the finest troves of memories that I possess. They were never better than when all six of us–mother, father, sister, and three brothers–were all there, mom and kids energetically informing, explaining, arguing, joking, even singing, and my much less voluble father sitting back in his chair, smiling with pride and amusement. Pity that I’ve never been able to “preside” over similar scenes.

  2. Thomas Fleming Thomas Fleming says:

    I only hope Clyde Wilson does not catch me quoting the evil Yankee Whittier.

  3. Raymond Olson says:

    Well, I won’t tell him. Whittier was a voluminous and often dull poet, but he had his moments, “Snowbound” among them. A stanza from another of his good poems, “Maud Muller”, Clyde might agree with: “For of all sad words of tongue or pen, / The saddest are these: ‘It might have been!'” I am always moved by “Telling the Bees”, perhaps his finest achievement. And of course I think highly of “First-Day Thoughts”.

  4. Thomas Fleming Thomas Fleming says:

    My sister used to try to get me to read, as a kid, James Russell Lowell. Thank goodness, I held out against her.

  5. Allen Wilson says:

    What are they ambitious for? The right question indeed. It brings to mind a video I saw on the evil, monstrous Facebook a couple years ago, when I was actually getting on FB quite often. There was a marathon type run being held somewhere in the South, probably outside one of the supposedly enlightened big cities, but it apparently went down a fairly rural highway somewhere. The runners were of all ages but mostly middle aged, and all dressed up like runners do, ambitiously making their run to nowhere. There was a group of men sitting at the edge of a yard in lawn chairs, lazily watching the runners, and dressed up like stereotypical hillbillies, complete with an old early fifties model pickup in the yard, banjo, etc. They kept asking the passers by two questions in incredulous, almost mocking tones: “Whur yall goin in such a hurry?”, and “Whatchyall running from?” Culture clash indeed, between the ambitious, health obsessed, show-off modern and the laid-back, un-pretentious traditional, and these “hillbillies” seemed to have understood that clash perfectly well.

  6. Charles L says:

    The other day, while driving past such a group of runners, my wife exclaimed, “You can’t run from Death!”

  7. Andrew G Van Sant says:

    All things in moderation. Exercising may not allow you to live longer, but my own experience with various forms of exercise (weightlifting, running, bike riding, stretching, etc.) has allowed me to live more comfortably.

  8. Thomas Fleming Thomas Fleming says:

    All things in moderation, certainly, but not only in a moderate frequency but with a moderate zeal and appropriate degree of devotion. To spend a few hours a week on a harmless hobby is probably good for you, but if you begin to wear a birwd-watching uniform, join philately societies, or start a blog to advertise your activities as newt-fancier or pork-smoker, you are someone who, as the American saying goes, needs to get a life.

  9. Thomas Fleming Thomas Fleming says:

    Donald Livingston’s wife has a sign on her computer that you may have seen elsewhere: Don’t smoke, drink moderately, eat right, exercise, die anyway.

  10. Andrew G Van Sant says:

    Dr. Fleming, I am the model of “moderate zeal and appropriate degree of devotion,” which is why I have some knowledge and skills in a variety of areas but do not consider myself to be an “expert” at anything. During my many years of government service, both with the Navy and Civil Service, I always volunteered to do jobs that needed to be done but were not attractive to many of the “careerists.” As a result, I learned about many things and was never bored with my job. I also learned my limitations.