Posted by James McPherson on June 7, 2008
As of today my parents have been married for 51 years. So what does that have to do with media and politics, the theme of this blog? In my case, quite a bit. Much of what I teach, in the classroom and out, is a direct result of what they taught me, sometimes intentionally, sometimes not.
Neither of my parents came from a background that would have suggested that Dad would end up as a school administrator or that their three children would end up as a couple of college professors and a social worker for a school district. We three “kids” have three master’s degrees and two doctoral degrees among the three of us, and our spouses have three more master’s degrees. I don’t know if any of my cousins have college degrees.
That’s not to suggest that extra years in school and/or academic jobs are necessary for (or will guarantee) success or happiness–my brother-in-law the sheet-metal worker is probably the smartest and healthiest of us all. But college did open up numerous options that we otherwise would not have known about. Ask my wife, who worked for years in the electronics industry before starting school as an electrical engineering major and then ended up with a master’s degree in counseling.
Both of my parents moved around quite a bit as kids. Among other ventures, my mother’s father was a miner and railway worker. My father’s father was a logger and heavy equipment operator. My grandmothers tolerated a great deal, giving birth to 11 kids between them and raising those kids in incredibly difficult circumstances. Mom was the better student of my parents, but Dad spent a lot of time in the library; he still reads more than anyone else I know, and has been adding to his retirement library for years.
My folks graduated from different northern Idaho high schools, and both were fortunate enough to encounter teachers and other concerned adults who recognized the spark of intelligence in them, and who helped them find their way to Lewis-Clark Normal School (now Lewis-Clark State College). There they fell in love, married, and conceived me, and Mom became a somewhat traditional homemaker, making the household work while Dad finished his degrees. She raised three kids, sometimes while working outside the home, and managed to make sure that we always had enough for musical instruments, sports equipment and books.
So, for the media and politics part:
- I grew up as a principal’s kid in a small, isolated logging town. Some of my parents’ best friends were teachers, some were loggers. Some were political liberals (at least one was a teacher who had accepted job there to avoid the Vietnam draft) and some were conservatives. And despite the fact that there was no doubt I’d someday go to college, I never had the idea that doing so would make me “better” than anyone else. It would simply expose me to a wider range of people and ideas.
- Sometimes we had no television–but we got the Lewiston Morning Tribune (whose current publisher was a high school friend of my father’s) every day, and always had access to books. On our way home from family vacations we kids would argue over who got to read which sections of the waiting newspapers first. The editorial section was my favorite early on, especially the columns and editorials of Bill Hall. Today, despite the fact that I’m a news junkie who teaches media studies, I occasionally take substantial breaks from electronic media, and encourage my students to do the same.
- We always seemed to have extra people in our tiny house–at times it seemed as though Mom fed every bachelor teacher in town at least once or twice a week. After dinner, everyone would sit around the kitchen table (we had no idea what a “dining room” was) and talk about ideas and events of the day. From a young age, we kids often joined in those conversations. Some of my parents’ friends remain friends of mine to this day. And we still argue politics.
- Despite not having much in comparison to many people, we always felt like we had a lot. I remember my father telling me that he could afford to pay for my college (which, in retrospect, I think was probably a lie), but that he wouldn’t do so because I would appreciate it more if I worked to pay for it myself. I take pride in the fact that I worked very hard as a teenager on farms and later in sawmills, doing the same kinds of jobs Dad did when he was a kid.
- Students choose to attend college–typically in junior high–primarily because of the encouragement and active involvement of their parents. That’s what makes my parents’ higher education, which led to my education, so remarkable. Neither of them got that encouragement from home. On the other hand, my folks were actively involved in all of my education: helping with homework, coaching teams, attending virtually every game and concert, etc. I didn’t have to be nearly as motivated to succeed as they were.
- In addition, family income may be the best predictor of who will attend college, but most college students need some outside help. My education and access to academics also made it much easier for me to find and apply for scholarships–an advantage that some of my current students fail to recognize in their George Bush-like belief that they’ve somehow made it to where they are on their own.
- Finally, my parents always made it clear that we had a responsibility to give something back to the world that had so blessed us. That’s why I became a reporter, and why the best of reporters do what they do. Incidentally, that’s why good reporters (and college professors, for that matter) also tend to be more often liberal than conservative. It’s not because there’s a conspiracy in either field to keep out conservatives. It’s because liberals tend to be the people who want to change the world and who are willing to try to do so with little promise of financial reward.
So perhaps I can blame my folks for the fact that I’ll never be financially wealthy. (With the current state of the economy, perhaps soon no one will.) But I must also credit them for making me realize that I am incredibly rich in other ways, and that, with luck, what they taught me might help enrich others for years to come.
Happy Anniversary, folks. And thank you.