A few days before he died in 1948, my maternal grandfather told my mother that he had “no regrets.” She thought he should have some. He had lost everything in the Great Depression, including his house, and my mother and her sister went overnight from prosperity in their little western Pennsylvania town to destitution. My iron-willed grandmother pulled through. My grandfather, once the owner of coal mines, disappeared into jobs as a day laborer.
If he died with “no regrets,” the same was not true of my mother. As she lay dying of cancer in 1996, she bitterly complained about her father’s disastrous decision to mortgage the mines. He was locked in a dispute with his brother, who took half the profits and did none of the work. But spitefully shuttering the mines proved foolish. FDR’s 1933 Emergency Banking Act prompted the local bank to call its loans. He couldn’t pay and my 13-year old mother came home from school to see the sheriff presiding over movers piling their household goods on the sidewalk. As my mother lay dying so many years later, she was still rehearsing her father’s dying words. “He said he had no regrets. I just walked out.”
I grew up without any such financial trauma but with the echoes of that ancient disaster still audible. Today is my birthday, and twenty years after my mother’s passing. It is always an occasion when I pick up the family’s heirloom: the question of whether I will face my end with biting regrets. My end, fortunately, is not in sight, but the question has its warrant over the quick as well as those facing their last mortal moments. A few weeks ago I visited my parents’ graves in a cemetery overlooking the small western Pennsylvania town where my mother grew up and my grandfather went bankrupt. I drove by the house from which they were dispossessed. It was a stately home in its time. It is a run-down apartment house today, on a sad street in one of those faded post-industrial river towns that can’t remember why they were built.
Like anyone else, I have plenty of things to regret: the chronicle of wasted time, old woes, missed opportunities. But I have no great grievance to bear. The bravado of the defeated man in my grandfather’s dying words, the clenched resentment of ruined expectations in my mother’s, are at the edge of my story, not its plot.
What I most regret is living through a world on the wane: the erosion of a civilization that has been wearing down for a long time, and the corruption of an institution I care deeply about: liberal education. I suppose it is a luxury that I can afford to regret these things. If I were living in Aleppo, I’d have more immediate concerns. If I had been turned upside down by the Great Recession the way my grandfather was in 1933, I’d be busy surviving. But I am blessed with life in a society that still has, for the most part, civil order and the rule of law; and I have been blessed as well with good health and a degree of personal security. And that allows me to spend my time on a horizon beyond myself: the horizon of a society that is often heedless of both its past and its future.
Perhaps it is a signal irony that among the matters I regret most is the rise of the sustainability movement. The irony lies in that movement’s fixed belief in an impending catastrophe, stemming more or less from the Industrial Revolution. So here is a whole movement that outwardly shares my concerns that we have made some civilizational wrong-turns and that the future is none too bright. But the diagnosis from these Green premises is, in my view, profoundly mistaken. As I write this, my birthday present to myself just arrived: a copy of Michael Hart’s Hubris: The Troubling Science, Economics, and Politics of Climate Change. It is mostly about the capture of public policy by thinly supported scientific claims. A compendium of regret. I see from the index that Professor Hart failed to take notice of NAS’s Sustainability: Higher Education’s New Fundamentalism. There is another regret in the making.
My grandfather was the first in the family to attend college. He patented several not-very-helpful devices (variations on an icepick and a door mat); helped organize an amateur baseball club; and left behind a small library of books that somehow survived the family breakup. I regret I never knew him. But regrets like that make me all the more appreciative of the people around me today. NAS’s membership shades towards the grandfatherly ages: the ages of people who remember higher education before it traded Western civilization for a mess of political correctness. NAS’s staff, on the other hand, are mostly young and keenly aware of living in a time and place in which their love of learning is not widely shared.
Maybe we carve life by means of small regrets the way a sculptor carves a shape with well-aimed taps of hammer and chisel. The game is to choose your regrets wisely and treat them as tools rather than let them take control. For some years I have made a point of not permitting Academic Questions to accept articles that are merely expressions of grief over the decline of the university or civilization at large. We get our share of these and sometimes they are eloquent, but they serve little purpose. We are trying to save what we can of our civilization, not write its epitaph. I think of my grandfather’s books, which so easily could have been lost in the chaos of the times. They sit on my shelves today and I’ve read most of them. They testify that even in dark times—perhaps especially in dark times—the love of learning persists.
Image: Kittanning, PA by Jon Dawson // CC BY-ND 2.0