Every once in a while I check in with those who live a bit more on the intellectual fringes of American society. It’s not that I intend to follow the patterns of extremism, but I learn something about my own thinking as an educator when I look through the lenses of others. Extreme positions, while interesting and provocative, are generally easy to dismiss. Yet the basic conceptual frameworks extremists construct are not substantially different from mainstream thinking. They are just, well, more extreme.
In the 1970s I read a magazine article regarding survivalists – those preparing for the worst. At that time the energy crisis fueled by an oil embargo led to long lines at gas stations, many with signs reading “No Gas.” The practice of siphoning gas tanks was on the rise, and the assumption American life would “never be the same again” was quite prevalent. The parade of horribles showcased by survivalists of that era included the collapse of the emerging global economy, wars over natural resources and massive civil unrest. Something happened on the way to dystopia, however. Things got better.
Survivalists are not all of the same type. We often associate the movement with the stereotypical bunker building, resource hoarding, armed-to-the-teeth Americans who are ready to defend what is theirs from wandering bands of marauders. The genre of movies like the Mad Max series, Waterworld, and Escape from New York present an image that, while distorted, reflects fears of vulnerability to lawlessness in the wake of an apocalypse. Those farthest on the fringe of the survivalist movement seem as dangerous to society as any threat we may encounter.
The kinder, gentler version of a stereotypical survivalist is one choosing to live-off-the-grid. Those nostalgic for the old TV series, “The Life and Times of Grizzly Adams,” will remember a period in which Americans were longing for simpler times and answers. Though the reality of frontier life was far different than the television portrayal, there remains a segment of our society that wishes to simply check out. Unlike the paramilitary version of survivalists, those seeking an exit strategy overcome the sense of vulnerability through a commitment to self-sufficiency.
If we set aside those focused on weapons and those seeking separation from society, we find a more “mainstream” set of survivalists paying close attention to national and world events, weighing contingencies and preparing options. They hope they are wrong, but they see the current global economic environment as a major threat to the U.S. that will invariably lead to the collapse of our monetary and banking systems, the widespread failure of financial institutions and the inability of our government to manage the cascading societal fallout. It will be an unraveling of society as an uncontrollable chain reaction yields the collapse of one sector after another. Whether they lace the narrative with religious overtones, political ideology or conspiracy theories, the perspective is the same – the apocalyptic pathway ahead is unavoidable. Americans simply need to get ready.
When we back away from the intellectual precipice forecasting the end of civilization, there are elements of thinking among survivalists that, when reasonably bounded, offer some useful conceptual frameworks. First, we are not invincible. Developed countries have a way of thinking what has happened in less-developed nations cannot happen here. We span the globe to find human tragedy can unfold as civil society decays, moral obligations erode and self-preservation overtakes collective action. We are a long way from societal collapse, but to adopt the attitude we have nothing at risk is to be blind to the realities of human history.
Second, if we do not pull together, we will fall apart. The underlying strength of a government is not in its military and economic power but in the social fabric that creates a sense of common purpose despite difference. We still see Americans in the midst of tragedy set aside differences and pull together to help one another. Our survivalist colleagues would say in the end our instinct to serve our own interests will pit one member of society against another. For generations we have carried the trust we hold from those who established and preserved this nation. Political divisions driven by contrasting ideologies and entrenched positions, however, are eroding our capacity for civil discourse. We should be far more concerned about the long-term effects of tearing our priceless social fabric over differences of economic policy that are nothing more than theoretical constructs we turned into doctrine.
Third, the most precious asset we have is our children. Those who crusade for an ideological victory mistakenly believe they will shape the nation permanently and forever preserve their power. Apparently they have not read the history of our country. Perhaps they have forgotten they will eventually be replaced by the marginalization of age and the inevitability of death. As children become parents, students become teachers, and followers become leaders, they will invariably write the future with their own pens. We spend so much time trying to win the ideological battles of the past, that we have lost sight of a future we will not control. Our task now is to influence those who will hold power by instilling the values of our society. That makes us all educators.
The survivalists have already pronounced America dead. They are planning for a new nation when the current one collapses. Preparing for the future in their eyes is about protecting what they own and preserving their own interests. It may be an understandable and authentic human response, but it is not the response that has made this country great. To be societal educators, however, we have to share with a generosity of spirit characteristic of our country and remain steadfastly committed to the interests of others.
Let’s not become a generation of survivalists. Let’s be a generation of educators.
About the Author
I'm the lucky individual who carries the title, 21st president of Central College in Pella, Iowa. My wife Tammy and I have two beautiful daughters, Emma and Greta. Passionate about higher education and the issues facing it and the world today, I hope to invoke an engaging conversation with all who are ready to dig in, make a difference and build for the future. Share your thoughts. I'm listening and interested.