When I bring up the subject of “place” to fellow scholars and administrators, I often encounter blank stares and gentle skepticism. Why, I’m asked, would people want to talk about…place? Why would anyone want to write, or read, or hear about such an abstract, ineffable, ethereal concept?
But when I talk to students about place, the response is instantly and energetically favorable. They get it at once. They understand what is at stake, because they feel it in their bones. Living in a mobile, rootless, digitized world, one awash in freedom and choice but unable to satisfy a deeper longing for the defining and nourishing bonds of an authentic rooted community, has taught them that a sense of place matters—especially when you don’t have it, never have had it, and don’t have a clear idea of where to look for it.
Much of this change has occurred in the blinking of an eye, historically speaking. Little more than a century ago, the lives of most Americans were confined within a narrow local radius, in what historian Robert Wiebe called “island communities.” The ability of these island communities, and the individuals who comprised them, to communicate with the outside world was limited by the vast distances that separated them and the immense time it took to traverse those distances. Far from being a puzzle or an enigma, one’s place in the world was a given for most men and women. With rare exceptions, the person that one became and the life that one lived were inextricably linked to the geographical location where one was born and raised. Such factors were understood as the structural mold of one’s worldly existence, nearly as hard and fast as biological makeup.
But a cascading array of technological and social innovations has, with astonishing speed, rendered those barriers obsolete. We inhabit an ever-shrinking and ever-more-interconnected world—a world in which it is theoretically possible for every living person to go anywhere that he or she wants to go and to be made literally, or at least virtually, present to any other person, in ways that would have been barely conceivable thirty years ago and that promise to become ever more vivid and transformative in the future.
There is much to celebrate in these developments. They give crucial support to one of the most fundamental, and universally appealing, of all American ideas: the idea of human freedom. We Americans embrace freedom because we believe fervently in the breadth of human possibility and share a deep conviction that no one’s horizons in life should be dictated by the conditions of his or her birth.
But it is obvious that something is now seriously out of balance in the way we live. The technological wizardry and individual empowerment have unsettled all facets of life and given rise to profound feelings of disquiet and insecurity in many Americans, especially the young, who have never known anything different.
Accompanying this disquiet is a gnawing sense that something important in our fundamental human nature is being lost in this headlong rush, and that this “something” remains just as vital to our full flourishing as human beings as it was in the times when we had far fewer choices. Many of us sense that the national-scale or global-scale interconnectedness of things may be coming at too high a price. Instead of a world of variety and spontaneity, we occupy something standardized, artificial, rootless, past-less, and bland—a world of interchangeable airport terminals and franchise hotels and restaurants. Moreover, the pattern of ceaseless movement forms a powerful obstacle to a life of active self-government and responsible civic engagement, the kind of life that thinkers since the time of Aristotle have regarded as the highest expression of full human flourishing.
The recovery of “place” in our personal and public lives would therefore appear to be of central importance. That’s especially true if we think of the word place as referring not only to a geographical spot but also to a defined niche in the social order: one’s “place” in the world. When we say that we have “found our place,” we mean that we have achieved a stable and mature personal identity within a coherent social order, so that we can answer the questions “Who are you? Where did you come from? Where is your home? Where do you fit in the order of things?” Hence, it is not surprising that a disruption or weakening in our experience of geographical place will be reflected in similar disruptions in our sense of personal identity. This isn’t just an aesthetic question; it’s an existential one.
But we shouldn’t make a fetish out of place either. Young people who are just beginning their adult life need to have room to find their own way. That’s an important part of being an American, the freedom to follow your own dreams. Liberal education is education for liberty, and a crucial part of that liberty entails being free to look at the world around you with fresh eyes and see (and seize) possibilities beyond the narrow confines of the world you were born into.
Beware “Citizens of the World”
So what are spirited, conservative-minded American college students to do with all this talk about the importance of place? In making plans for after graduation, should you eschew a job opportunity in a new city, or a faraway law school or medical school or graduate school, or a season of travel and experimentation, in favor of moving back to your hometown and embracing an identity rooted in the world into which you were born? Will you betray the ideal of a place-centered life if you pursue personal ambitions that take you away from your roots?
My answer would be no. Thinking of moving as a betrayal of the concept of “place” is, in fact, a good example of a danger to which many thoughtful young people are sometimes prone: the danger of being taken in by abstractions and granting them a kind of binding ideological power. But there is no inconsistency here. The thing that needs to be affirmed is attachment not to the abstraction of “place” but to the integrity and value of particular places, to each of the places in which one finds oneself in the course of one’s life—in both senses of the word finding, first as an accident and then as a discovery.
We should not be afraid to move when life’s circumstances indicate the need for it. Indeed, the example of the biblical Abraham suggests a rich and long-standing tradition in the West wherein faithful people are willing to uproot themselves and move elsewhere in obedience to a sense of calling. It is also a great American tradition.
But that tradition will take on a different aspect in a society in which all is fluid and nothing is stable, in which the concrete sense of place has been lost, in which the movement from X to Y involves exchanging one form of empty placelessness for another, a trade of one abstraction for another, with the principles of utility and ease of exit being the only ones that matter. When I bought my first house, the advice I got from every quarter was “buy with resale in mind.” This struck me then, and now, as very sound and yet very dangerous advice—dangerous not to the wallet but to the soul.
People in their twenties should be trying out life’s possibilities and trying to find the work and life for which they were made. That is the right time for it. But the point of a journey is to arrive at some place. We are not “citizens of the world,” a vacuous term whose grandiosity conceals its lack of any real content. Instead, if we are to be citizens at all, we must be citizens of this place, of our particular town and neighborhood and state and nation.
What I advocate is a freshly conceived balance, in our own lives and in the larger life of our society, between rootedness and possibility, and the recognition that we cannot long sustain the one without the complementary energy of the other. This is a balance each of us has to find in his or her own way, but the general outlines are not hard to discern.
It means that as you move ahead with your life, you should try wholeheartedly to embrace the spirit of the places where you find yourself. Do this for even the humblest places, and for even the most transient periods of your life. Be fully present to them, in body and spirit. Make yourself a part of them. Turn off your phones and computers, turn off your anxieties and vanities, set them aside, walk outside, open your eyes, and look around.
Although many American college students now choose to study abroad, few get much out of the experience. They never leave the American bubble, preferring to run around in gaggles and groups, rarely venturing out in a deep, quiet, and attentive way into the foreign culture. They might as well have spent a semester at Disney World. You face a similar risk after college even if your ventures do not take you to a foreign country. If you fail to ground yourself in the community around you, you will miss out on that place’s unique particularities.
So take it all in, every aspect of your places. Learn everything you can about their architecture, street names, history, local politics, ethnic and cultural peculiarities, flora, fauna, and so on. Don’t treat the places you pass through as if they were disposable containers or machines for living in, and as if you were merely a tourist passing through. Treat them respectfully, as you would handle someone else’s heirloom, and they will reward you in turn. Learn to be resident in them, fully and consciously. In doing so you will be forming a habit, one that, if it spreads and is shared, can not only transform and uplift your own life but also ennoble the world.
Why Place Matters: Geography, Identity and Civic Life in Modern America may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore. This essay first appeared in the Intercollegiate Review (Fall 2014) and is republished here by permission.