U.S. Could Use Barn-Raising Spirit

By Keohane, Nannerl O. | St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO), December 31, 1995 | Go to article overview

U.S. Could Use Barn-Raising Spirit


Keohane, Nannerl O., St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)


As the American frontier advanced from the East Coast to the Appalachians and then to the Mississippi and beyond, small, brave bands of independent-minded folks created communities on territory that combined threat and promise in equal and uncertain measure.

Americans struck out for the frontier because of restless independence, but when they got there, they found that they could rarely go it entirely alone. So they invented new forms of collaboration for survival and companionship.

In the Plains states, for example, families who lived miles apart came together for a day of hard work and celebration to raise a new barn for their neighbors. A family did most things for itself; but no family could raise a barn in a day. This was a clear instance where everyone had an interest in helping build a neighbor's barn, knowing that one could count on similar help if disaster struck one's own.

That distinctive morality was created from the necessities of experience. We can hardly pride ourselves, as a people, on our record of unstained goodness. There was violence and deadly selfishness on the frontier, as there is wherever humans congregate. Still, that shrewd and distinctive combination of fierce independence and willingness to cooperate flowered as successfully in early America as it ever has in the world.

Today, in the face of the bewildering complexity of our society, many Americans have lost faith and interest in such associations. Many people have lost their ethical bearings altogether or follow moral road maps that divide them from other human beings in suspicion and distrust.

Our complex civilization puts up multiple roadblocks to simple human feeling, as well as durable ties of reciprocity. Newspapers and television carry reports of crimes committed while others serve only as bystanders, afraid to get invoked. The media tell with almost equal frequency of someone who did stop to help a stranger, only to be attacked or robbed or killed.

The norms of reciprocity are dangerously loosened; we have come a long way from the days of the barn-raising. Historians and sociologists note this as a clear sign of decline and decay.

Our only hope for regeneration as a robust society lies in a reaffirmation of our collaborative habits for the common good. In this regeneration, our colleges and universities have an especially important role to play.

One of the purposes of education is to teach men and women to look beyond our horizons of narrow selfishness, to see our interest in attending to the needs of others, in the reciprocity of the golden rule and the common good. …

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