a caveat and/or a confession

I may be breaking a promise here, but . . .

I grew up in a working-class neighborhood of Birmingham, Alabama. My mother worked in a bank; my father worked in the trucking business when he wasn’t in prison; my grandmother took care of me most of the time. No one in my extended family, on both sides, had ever attended college. My parents seemed to think that my inclination to continue beyond my high school graduation was slightly peculiar, and while they didn’t actually object they made it clear that they weren’t going to do anything to help me out — if indeed they could have done anything, which I doubt. We didn’t have much spare cash.

They did let me live in their house, though, which I needed to do, since all the money I made working in a local bookstore went to pay tuition at the University of Alabama-Birmingham, the nearest and cheapest place for me to go to school. I worked twenty-four hours a week during term, while taking a full load of classes, and full-time during all the vacations. Even at this less-than-elite school I wasn’t a very good student, partly because of my schedule, partly because I didn’t really know why I was in college in the first place.

Eventually I met a young woman whom I fell in love with; thanks to her influence I became a Christian, of the evangelical variety. And one of the most dramatic changes my conversion brought about in my life was this: I began to think of my mind as a gift, and a gift that required cultivation — what Christians call “stewardship.” For the first time in my life I began to take intellectual life seriously, I began to work at getting smarter and gaining knowledge. And as a result I found a direction for my life; I found a calling.

All this to make one point: when people who write from a position of privilege and cultural authority make fun of an accent from the hinterlands, or mock the mediocrity of someone’s education, or describe Christianity as a kind of death of the mind — well, I tend to have another perspective on all of those matters. It is that perspective that shapes many of my reactions to what I read in newspapers and magazines. I have sympathy for public figures who are treated that way, even if they are, for example, politicians whom I’m not going to vote for.

One could call my sympathy a function of prejudice in the conventional, pejorative sense of that word; one could also call it prejudice in the Burkean sense, that is, actual knowledge derived from the experience of belonging to some “little platoons.” I could say that it all depends on how you look at it, but of course I don’t believe that, so I won’t say it.