It’s a mild winter evening in the Blue Ridge mountains. The faint sounds of banjo and fiddle from Cockram’s General Store and the first cries of a distant night bird waft over my back porch in the little town of Floyd, Va. (pop. 396). Roaming the misty ridges that vanish over toward Panther Knob and Rock Castle Gorge, they say, are the ghosts of murdered moonshiners and mountain girls who died for love. The Washington Post recently did a story on this place—“the legendary town where time has stopped,” they called us, where “it’s always 1930 or 1905.” For many of us who moved here from elsewhere, that’s just the way we like it.
There’s another sound this evening: my older daughter, practicing Spanish in her room. Somehow she conceived the desire to learn this language and has been attacking it vigorously and unsystematically, spending her allowance on dictionaries and phrase books, searching out adults who can teach her pronunciation. Though foreign languages are no longer a rarity in elementary schools they’re not offered here in Floyd, and not knowing the language myself I can help little.
Oddly enough it’s been Deirdre’s struggle to acquire Spanish that has reminded me that even in Floyd you can’t escape the twentieth century. The local school authorities have resisted the idea of hiring elementary school language teachers, but pursuant to a new state law they have added several elementary school “counselors.” There is a squishy sixties feel to what the kids bring back from their encounters with the counselors, who spend much of their time promoting concepts like “self-esteem.” Outside observers may not have suspected that the self-esteem situation had reached crisis proportions among American students, who in a recent study of math skills placed dead last compared to youngsters from other nations but who nevertheless rated themselves first.
It’s perhaps unfair to the counselors, but it’s hard to avoid invidious comparisons between their actual worth to average children and that of a teacher in a field of unquestioned academic substance—Spanish, say. Proponents claim elementary school counselors are needed for the many children who are victims of horrific domestic situations. Maybe so. But it’s precisely the militant anti-traditionalism of organizations like the National Education Association—their incomprehension of religion’s role in the lives of ordinary people, their contempt for the Judeo-Christian legacy of the West—that has helped create the moral wreckage that litters the post-sixties American landscape.
This is an irony that would be lost on the counselor—call her Ms. Nouvelle—who told my ten-year-old daughter Emily that homosexuality was “just a choice” that some people made. When I called to inquire about this statement, Ms. Nouvelle allowed as how she didn’t like to use “judgmental” terms like “right” or “wrong.” Would she, I asked, be willing to say that using illegal drugs was wrong? No, not even drugs, she replied—she’d simply point out the consequences of using drugs and let the kids make their own decisions. Was it something like this that prompted H. L. Mencken to speak of education as full of “brutal violations of common sense and common decency”? I probably sounded horrified, because Ms. Nouvelle finally admitted that perhaps in this case she would stretch a point and tell the children that drug use was indeed “wrong.” But coming after five minutes of argument, this concession added up to something less than a ringing endorsement of sanity.
The depressing thing about all this is that Ms. Nouvelle is not a fool, though she has been trained to talk like one. In a small town like this there’s abundant opportunity to see her raise her own child, with whom she is not at all reluctant to use “judgmental” words such as “right” and “wrong.” I like to think this is because, deep down, she realizes that the “situational ethics” pushed by the teacher-training schools is nonsense. But place her in a classroom and she suddenly develops a strange reluctance to say what all sane people know to be true: that illegal drugs are wrong. Not just unhealthy or even dangerous, but wrong. Period.
In her unwillingness to utter the obvious we see the displacement of the rich moral universe of the Scotch-Irish mountaineers—the locale of countless freely made choices pregnant with literally eternal consequences—by a gray calculus of cost and benefit. Cocaine (or adultery or homosexuality or stealing) may be a risky bet. But then again, maybe you can beat the odds. In any case, whatever you do is just another “option.”
The real irony is that people who believe life works this way earnestly consider that they’ve finally put the moral life of children on a serious footing. In fact, their hidden nihilism leads inevitably to a radically frivolous view of existence in which no human action may have transcendent significance.
Not far from this back porch the last rays of sunlight fall on a mountain graveyard containing the mortal remains of a young wife who died in childbirth, of infants carried off by influenza, of a man kicked to death by his mule. Here were lives lived in the light of eternity, punctuated by tragedy, illuminated by the joy of unbiddable grace. Whatever else they were, these were humans convinced that, in some mysterious way, their existence was of incalculable significance to their Creator, and that one day they would see it all clearly. The new wisdom that the education schools export to these mountains—which won’t even say that drug use is wrong—denies utterly that significance.
The last light falls down the sky behind Buffalo Knob; Deirdre has put away her Spanish and walked with her sister to Cockram’s General Store to do some flat-footing to the bluegrass music. The girls love “the legendary town where time has stopped” and can imagine life nowhere else. Perhaps Deirdre will learn Spanish, perhaps not; she will most certainly hear many more pep talks on self-esteem and whatever other new enthusiasms grip the counselors.
Time, of course, really hasn’t stopped here. But the big-city reporter’s account of our town reminds me of Gilbert Chesterton’s delightful Keystone Kops vision of orthodoxy (which for him signified sanity itself). Chesterton saw orthodoxy as a chariot perilously careening through the ages, leaving dull heresies scattered on all sides. It seems to me that the chariot drivers in late-twentieth-century America mostly live quiet and anonymous lives in towns like this one. It may be a close call, but sanity will survive even the heresies of education professors, because my neighbors who hold the reins know the destination—always and ever—is Eternity.
Seth Williamson is a public radio producer who lives in the Blue Ridge mountains of Virginia.