Here, There and Gambier
The bike trail stretched out for miles as Matt and I cycled north to join some old friends. As we pedaled toward the Strand, my California hometown’s version of the Kokosing Gap Trail, soon we were talking about the spurt of new houses across our part of town, commenting on the different businesses that have popped up. We wondered what the future holds.
As we rode I looked around nostalgically. Home seemed permanent when we were young, but things have begun to change. Several of our favorite teachers have departed from our high school; last year the most frequented coffee shop in our neighborhood suddenly closed. As we talked, we agreed that some growth is good, but what makes our town home is its local character. Some call me behind-the-times, but as I learned on the Hill, nostalgia and preservation are healthy elements of localism.
Change comes differently to Kenyon. Our community really does shape our future. Since I arrived, we have added new athletic facilities, construction has transformed much of the village, and as I type I can watch the rise of the ambitious new library. Yet things on the Hill are actually pretty permanent. I chose Kenyon for that reason. I turned my back on the hustle and bustle, left the steel and stop lights, and slowed down from an urban pace. I learned to walk in step with village life.
Long-ago fires notwithstanding, the buildings that rise heavily from the ground and reach into the sky have stood for almost 200 years. Our thoughts aspire loftily because they rise from our Hill. For one, there’s a special kind of reading one does under a tree. Pari passu, as I think about Old Kenyon, where I live, and Ascension, where I study, in my mind I can walk the well-worn footpaths; my gaze follows the trajectory of those aspirational Gothic lines into the firmament.
Beauty invigorates us. Philander Chase picked this hill, almost two centuries ago, for a reason. We still come here as much for the forest of trees as for the forest of books. We quickly become stewards of the College and ambassadors of the ideals we learn here. Buttons on backpacks read “Land Matters;” laptop stickers announce “Home is Where the ’Bier Is.” Although we’re only here for four years, we care for our community. We take on local responsibility (indeed, many of us register to vote here, and each class plants a tree on campus — photo above). We learn how to build a better future.
This attitude is precisely the civic mindset characteristic of America in classical political science. In looking through political philosophy for practical guidance to questions of today, we frequently refer back to Alexis de Tocqueville’s “Democracy in America.” The prescient work dwells on associations and community life as essential to our democracy, and provides a model for improving our lot. We should stop living abstractly and fighting faraway battles, and instead, think locally and work with people to improve our communities.
Recently, a hometown friend asked me how I have benefited from studying political science at Kenyon. She wanted some political wisdom — these days, don’t we all? — from someone who has spent his last three years in dogged pursuit of the same. I told her what I think to be true: the national news will blare in airports regardless of whether anyone’s watching, but the path forward for our country starts with local citizenship.
Kenyon students seem to absorb civic skills from the village air. Caring for one’s neighbors, for the school system, for little shops and small businesses — such community adds a rich dimension to our lives, one increasingly forgotten in modern society.
Moreover, though normally conceived geographically, locality can also be conceived as a sharing of ideals, as we feel a certain community with those working toward the same goal. More than just good scholars, Kenyon students can be great citizens. I experienced this last week when I happened across an older Kenyon alumnus, now working with local government. Not only does he work with his city, but he still cares for our village. He graduated several decades ago, but still asked after professors, kept tabs on the current construction, wondered about the pace of life in Gambier. We launched into the first verse of “Kokosing Farewell,” and he wished me luck helping the new arrivals with their First-Year Sing.
He and I attended Kenyon at very different times, but we both stem in part from shared roots on the Hill. I remember these roots especially when I’m away from the village. When in my hometown and even when I work in Washington, I make a point to buy locally, to keep up on municipal issues, to get to know my neighbors. As I enter into my senior year, although I don’t know where I’ll go or what I’ll do afterward, I do know that wherever I go, I’ll be happier because I take Gambier with me.