Too Much of the Too-Much Mistake
I’m struggling for the right metaphor here, and finally settling on burial. A decent burial, with all due honors. Moving on with the cycle of life, and of lives.
We of the northern plains have ways of thinking we have canonized over a long generation of regional life. The prophet of these times was a scholar named Elwyn Robinson. I am here today to preach over this great man.
Elwyn Robinson, a native of Ohio educated at Oberlin College and Case Western Reserve University, came to Grand Forks in 1935. He taught history at the University of North Dakota until his retirement in 1974 and died in 1988. He began a cultivated interest in the history of North Dakota with the retirement in 1944 of Orin G. Libby, the founding father of North Dakota history, and soon would eclipse the old master in the interpretation of his adopted state.
Robinson told us what to think about this place. In 1958 he laid out his famous “Six Themes” of North Dakota history (which, for handy reference of computer users, you can find on my website at NDSU). He would incorporate the same ideas into his magisterial History of North Dakota, published in 1966.
Sure, professors publish lots of books and articles, and so what, but you have to remember Robinson also taught these ideas to a whole generation of our best and brightest going through the university. Our political leaders, our business elite, our newspaper editors took careful notes and drilled themselves on Robinson’s principles. We are imprinted.
I want to emphasize that Robinson’s ideas were insightful, they were right, they were prophetic. He told us what we needed to know in 1960. He served us well indeed.
He told us we lived in a land of disadvantage. We were remote from centers of economic power, a colonial hinterland whose people often turned to radical solutions in the struggle against distant and exploitive powers.
We lived in a hard country that reminded us every day–or at least, with every blizzard or drought–of the limitations of life in a semiarid land. In our settlement generation we had committed the Too-Much Mistake, building too many railroads, grain elevators, towns, schools, churches, Optimist clubs–too many of everything. Now it was time to make the painful and long-overdue adjustments to life in a semiarid hinterland. The message was tighten your belts and learn to live with less.
This was a hard teaching. Most of us cleared out for Minneapolis or Seattle or Lodi. The rest of us, chastened, began our penance. In an odd way, you see, there was comfort in Robinson’s teaching. It said we were not to blame. We were paying for mistakes of the past. The standard regional joke became, “Will the last one to leave please turn out the lights?” Oh, we were good, frugal folk.
A generation hence, we still are. The teachings of Elwyn Robinson got us through the long night of regional life. Because we have so canonized them, however, we may not be well prepared for life in our own times. The unintended result of Robinson’s teaching–our fault, not his–is that it left us with a generation of leaders who defined statesmanship as the orderly dismantlement of our civilization. What some of us call the bury-and-burn impulse.
In a world of digital communications and containerized transport, there no longer is such a thing as a hinterland. We still live in a semiarid country, but even when agriculture fails, we run budget surpluses. We no longer are directly tied to the land as agriculturalists. As a resource state, we enjoy overwhelming advantages in the new world economy.
So let us praise Elwyn Robinson. And then let us do him the honor of emulating him–of looking about us, seeing things as they are, and telling a new story that will serve the next generation as well as he served the one previous. Let’s talk about that. Stay tuned.