“Our school and our town existed in response to a moral imperative.” – B. Catton

waiting-train-catton-1987For our Thursday history post today we take you back to Bruce Catton’s Waiting for the Morning Train (Wayne State University Press, 1987), the multifaceted story of his life growing up in northern Michigan, specifically, Benzonia.

Chapter 9 is titled “Under the Lilacs,” and in this section Catton begins by talking about the changes that came to the town and its area when the lumber camps had devoured the forests and left a desert behind. Writing with a bit of cynicism, Catton describes how his town’s idealism rose above the dark times this “progress” had brought.

You will notice once again the biblical references in this spiritual commentary on his times and the challenges the villagers faced. But you will also detect in the last paragraph quoted below thoughts about our modern society that are strikingly insightful and even prophetic.

The light that had been lit on our hilltop could not be allowed to go out just because the surrounding darkness was gone. It would still be needed to light a path for the feet of men not yet taught to lift their eyes to the sky. We never bothered to formulate this faith. We just had it.

We had been brought up to believe in progress, and we did not think of progress in material terms. Material progress was of course being made, and it was welcome; in 1913, for instance, some utility company built a power dame in the Betsie River and our town got electricity, even including a few street lights, whose dim glow (if you happened to be abroad on some lawful errand after other folks had gone to bed) simply intensified the immensity of the night. Some day, we believed, there would be a public water supply, and it was even possible to suppose that eventually the main street might be paved, although that was obviously  a long way off. But these things were not especially important. Our school and our town existed in response to a moral imperative. It was up to us to produce better men, and nothing else mattered very much. We were extremely unsophisticated, and in a way we were aware of it, but it was natural enough because in the time that had brought us into being there was so much less to be sophisticated about.

Now the trouble with the outside world that controlled our fate was not that it had cut down all of its trees but that it was developing an entirely new attitude. It had created a desert and called it progress, and it was beginning to suspect that man’s salvation might be in his ability to adjust himself to the results of his own advanced technology. To produce better men was all very well, if you had time for it, but the road to blessedness would probably be found in the conquest of his own inner nature. What he could do rather than what he could be was the important thing. That this approach might finally lead to the production of a barbarian who happens to be a skilled technician meant little; improve his technology enough and perhaps he is no longer a barbarian. [pp.172-73]

Now, having read this, ask yourself this question: As man has pinned his hopes (salvation) on his own abilities and technological advances in our time (on “what he can do rather than what he can be”), has he produced a “better man” or a “barbarian”?