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  • Susanna Williams

I Did Like It Pretty Good The Way It Was

Updated: Dec 20, 2019


Still from "The Way We Were"

Source: Roger Ebert

“But,” he repeated, “I did like it pretty good the way it was.”

- Denley Lucas, former coal miner

Fleming-Neon, KY

“In Coal Country, The Mines Shut Down, the Women Went to Work, and the World Quietly Changed”

The New York Times September 14, 2019

[the college] "walked away from the merger because it means that perhaps it was not the best for the integrity of our program and faculty."

- Marlboro College professor Rosario de Swanson Marlboro, VT

“No Deal”

Inside Higher Ed September 16, 2019

Small liberal arts colleges are the eastern coal mines of the left. Dr. de Swanson may use different words than Mr. Lucas, but the sentiment- and the conditions- are the same: “I did like it pretty good the way it was.” Never mind that the world has moved on. Never mind that there is no longer a demand for your product or your approach. Never mind that your consumers want something fundamentally different. Never mind that other producers are able to offer similar products far less expensively. No, what matters is preserving the way of life that you have known, whether that’s as the household provider who does manual labor at the great risk of personal health or as the academic who believes in the power of intellectual inquiry and critical thinking as cultivated through small class sizes in rural locations removed from the distractions of city life.

“It was as if the very identity of a Letcher County man had been declared insolvent.”

“In Coal Country, The Mines Shut Down, the Women Went to Work, and the World Quietly Changed”

The New York Times September 14, 2019

The changes that are taking place right now in every aspect of our society come with existential threats to long-held identities and understandings about the way the world works. People- and institutions- feel that their sense of who they are and what they stand for is under direct attack by a world that just doesn’t understand how important and correct they are. Demographics are shifting. Environmental consciousness is shifting (although coal advocates are forever promising better, cleaner technology). And that means that things can't stay they way they were.

What happens to a sector of a capitalist society that is rendered obsolete by circumstance? Because the truth is that not even adapting new technology will save the identities of either coal miners or small liberal arts college professors. A large part of who they are is defined by how they do their work and the qualities that are core to that definition- physical presence, community- are being radically reshaped.

Our current cultural identity crises aren’t partisan. We are all being impacted by these shifts. This is an incredible opportunity for people and institutions to define core values and then figure out how to live lives and build organizations that help make real the world we wish to live in. That requires both courage and optimism, consecutive acts of belief that things can and will be different and that you will be safe and secure even when the world around you doesn’t look the same. This goes beyond skills. Americans, in particular, have never been great at self-reflection, however. We are a nation founded on the Horatio Alger myth of self-determination (for white Anglo-Saxon Protestants).

What we are running headlong against are the inexorable tensions of progress. Higher education in the United States began 96 years before industrial coal mining in the eastern United States. Both pre-date our nation’s founding. Both have survived multiple economic and technological revolutions. Both have lately experienced the harsh erosion of what was believed to be immutable stability and the rapid decline of wages as a result. And both have seen previously unimagined competition arise within their own sector. Confronting a forced choice is never easy. Small liberal arts colleges can no more shift their locations or their business or academic models than eastern coal mines can- their work and identities are reflexive. How you encounter that forced choice, however, is completely within your control.

“As he sees it, the Amish could evolve in two ways: either by taking on more of the modern culture in Lancaster County or safeguarding the traditions of their faith outside of their historic homeland.”

“As Amish Leave Farming for Other Work, Some Leave Their Homestead”

NPR, September 17, 2019

“Take care of your husband, that’s all you want to do,” she said. “But when that doesn’t work out, you’ve got to go to work.”

- Ciara Bowling

“In Coal Country, The Mines Shut Down, the Women Went to Work, and the World Quietly Changed”

The New York Times September 14, 2019

The longing for the way things were is deeply human. So is the ability to imagine- and create- new ways of being. It will be good again. It won’t look the same. You won’t be the same. But it will be good again.


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