‘Here's to the People Who Are Not Known’

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

In writing about the inevitable but sad passing of my last surviving uncle, Robert L. Fallows of the Philadelphia area, I mentioned the phenomenon of people who—like him, and like my own parents—are respected and influential in their own communities and essentially unknown beyond it. (Want to do a modern test of this hypothesis? Try an online search to learn about my uncle.) These local-scale civic virtues are what entire civilizations depend upon, but their nurturance is at obvious and increasing odds with many other forces in our current civilization.

Readers write about different aspects of this cultural tension. First, from a reader of my sons’ generation, who served as an officer during America’s recent wars. He writes about the military experience that was obviously so characteristic of my parents’ World War II generation and is so unevenly shared now:

I always have a thought nagging at me about families where generations are in and out of the military, which seems to me to be an ideal, as opposed to the current state where some families have long traditions of service; I think that state becomes toxic.

But it isn't much written on… and I'm not adequate material in which that thought can gel.  Nonetheless we are less, as a nation, than the nation in which families like that were common.


Next, from a reader of my generation, about the pluses and minuses of a narrowly place-based conception of “community”:

Following the thoughts in your post about our parents’ (your uncle’s) generation as meriting enhanced recognition.

My (step) mother, born in the mid-1920s, has lived by herself for 15 years in a church-run elder community [in central Pennsylvania], where she & my father (a few years older) moved four years prior to his death in 2001. A very large proportion of the residents, my folks included, are/were clergy families (also white, protestant, and not radically evangelical).

I visit my mother frequently - her community is a terrific operation, quite exemplary - and I observe that she and her residential colleagues virtually all seem to be people for whom a) the phrase "purposeful living" would seem puzzlingly redundant, and b) the word "community" has always applied to everyone geographically within shouting distance.

For her "homies," to coin a phrase, these meanings have been reinforced, for better or worse, by the inclusive but relatively static and demographically homogeneous social and economic environment that defined "home" for most white European Americans (i.e. most of the "majority" population) at that time in the US, which continued into your and my childhood.

The home community was a base of strength - people of like mind and shared, or at least similar, experience in a community close-knit and collectively strong enough to extend its hand with good intention to selected outsiders. Recipients of this beneficence were referred to typically as "less fortunate" and implicitly regarded as inherently "good people," virtuous and/or unlucky enough to have deserved a better hand than life had dealt them. To these few the community could extend, and even over extend, its acceptance and generosity….

In any case, as for my parents' generation - with what mixed feelings do I now regard those paragons of that (great) American epoch - their indefatigable strength so daunting to our subsequent generations, their insularity so quaint.

As a preacher's kid, I'm typically awed by the superior strengths of my parents and their generation, rather than dismissive of the relative simplicity of the imperatives within which those strengths arose and were reinforced. But it could be the other way around I suppose, and someone other than myself could just regard the virtues of our parents' generation as natural adaptations to the era, subsequently eclipsed by global evolution in mobility, economics, information, and perceptions.

In this light, maybe Trump et al are the debt collectors - unduly harsh souls, heartless and randomly disruptive but an essential evolutionary digression, unsustainable but creating a space in/during which the imperfections & imbalances of human evolution, which all of us would prefer to ignore, deny or otherwise let pass like unpayable auto loan payments - can knit themselves into some new, more clear eyed social/economic/political fabric.

These are oversimplified late night thoughts that do not temper my commitment to work against this insurgent American "nativism," but I find myself perhaps too eager to latch onto some constructive meaning in how passively the US is responding to Trump's accession, in how uncannily he disarms the liberal argument with untruth and bullying, in how this brute has been empowered putatively to teach us just what we "have to lose." Unlike my parents and their generation, I'm not at all sure any of us really knows, and maybe this is what it will take to figure that out.


Finally for now, from another American of my own Boomer generation, who has recently returned to the country after many years in Europe.

He writes my description of people like my parents and my aunts and uncles:  “talented, loving, curious, hopeful people who poured their heart and effort into the betterment of their small community and the well-being of their family”:

I’ve been busy establishing myself in [a culturally hip West Coast city], and re-establishing myself as a standardized test prep coach and higher education application essay editor, my business in Europe over the past decade.

Preparing to write an ad for my services on Craig’s List, I checked out my competition’s marketing efforts. Many touted their “Harvard/ Stanford” credentials. Now, I’m not particularly ashamed of my U. Penn / NYU Stern degrees. But I thought about this degree-pedigree-as-marketing-ploy to test prep clients: Does the degree of your test prep coach have any bearing on how much you might improve, how well you might do, on your standardized tests?

So I went to Penn and NYU. I don’t think any of my own teachers went to such now-prestigious institutions. My father went to CCNY nights, my mother maybe graduated high school. Yet somehow, my mentors raised me “higher.”

And all these Harvard/Stanford/MIT/Princeton swells:  Where did their teachers and parents go to school? Where did Richard Feynman’s public school teachers, where did his parents, go to college? Feynman’s parents didn’t go to college. His mother was a homemaker, his father a sales manager from Minsk, in Belarus, where at least 2 of my own 4 grandparents came from circa 1900 (My other 2 grandparents came from the lesser known town of Slutsk, Belarus.).

Somehow Feynman’s not-college-educated parents, and his Rockaway HS teachers did not graduate from MIT, yet that’s where Feynman went.

In short: People who did not have the credentials of their students and children produced those students and children. I do not forget how I benefitted from the smart and capable women teachers in my public schools who, not able to ascend the corporate or political ladders in the 1950s and 1960s, as a few of my women peers, and many more of my contemporaries’ daughters and granddaughters have, poured their brains and passions generously into me and my schoolmates. Now, as a teacher and tutor myself, I am able to glimpse their vicarious satisfactions.

Here’s to the people who are not known - except by those who truly know how they’ve gotten where they are.

Well said, all. Thanks, all. Happy New Year to all.

One more installment to come, later this afternoon.