a curated selection of Russell Kirk’s perennial essays
A Note from the Editor
Russell Kirk’s nationally syndicated column, “To the Point,” was carried in more than one hundred newspapers. Many readers of the column wrote to Kirk asking his advice on all manner of subjects and he often wrote back personally. In this column from 1971, Kirk addressed a question that he had received from several readers. Today, in the shadow of a pandemic, people are recognizing the fragility of life and the importance of society’s key institutions, especially the family. Kirk’s response to a question nearly fifty years ago remains timely even as “old securities dissolve all about us.”
With Our Children Lies Our Hope
To the Point, November 24, 1971
Sometimes this or that reader inquires of me, “What can I do to save the world from suicide?” I have an answer ready: spend your time in rearing children well—your own children or someone else’s.
Recently, in Pittsburg, I gave the keynote address at the convention of the Pennsylvania Association of Elementary School Principals. This convention’s theme was “Remnants or Renaissance?” Mr. Larry Mong, PAESP’s president, was so kind as to pay me the compliment I cherish most among what occasional nice things have been said about me.
Most folk invited to address elementary school principals, Mr. Mong remarked, talk about statistics or abstractions. “But Dr. Kirk talked to us about children.” Faithful to their office, what elementary school principals really wish to hear about is children.
As I told the principals that morning, one can discern many signs of decadence in our civilization. It is weary work, trying to redeem the time, especially if one must address himself to adults, set in their fads and foibles, their egoism and their prejudices, their passions and their vices.
But with little children there is large hope. I concluded my address by referring to Mr. Robert Graves romances of the future called “Seven Days in New Crete.” In that story, the 20th-century culture that we know dissolves altogether, bored to death. Yet civilization springs afresh in a little colony of innocent children, brought up deliberately in an archaic faith. Believing in a transcendent power, and reared with moral imagination, those children and their descendants save mankind from extinction.
Sometimes, contending against a sea of troubles, those of us who believe in enduring principles of order and justice and freedom seem to ourselves a forlorn remnant, few as the Remnant in Israel to whom the prophets spoke. Yet though the prophets were not honored in their time (indeed, according to one Jewish tradition, all the prophets were put to death by the people), they were heard by posterity. And now, when Nineveh and Babylon lie ruined under heaps of shifting sand, the prophets of Israel and Judah still speak to us of the permanent things, amidst the howl of our modern winds of doctrine.
Speak the truth, and children may listen, if no others do. Edmund Burke, when he broke with his party and thought that revolutionary violence and political corruption would pull down the old civilization of Europe, cried out, “I attest the rising generation!” He meant that young people, in time, would testify to the truth of what he had declared. And he was heard, for in the next generation the great men of letters—Coleridge, Scott, Wordsworth, Southey, and many others—were his disciples.
So when you are much disheartened, friends, attest the rising generation. Think less of your career or your pleasures, and more of your children and your neighbors’ children. Let there be no generation gap. Talk with them, and read to them, and play with them, and teach them: you will be repaid, here and hereafter, in love. If you have done nothing in life but open the eyes of one child to truth and hope, that is enough to find you a place in the House of Many Mansions.
In his fable “The Veldt,” my friend Mr. Ray Bradbury describes a man and wife who pamper their children—but leave them to their own devices. In the end, they are devoured by lions conjured out of their children’s loneliness and hatred. Let it be otherwise with us.
A remnant truly may work a renaissance—a rebirth. A few hundred devoted school principals, a few thousand dedicated teachers, a few hundred thousand imaginative parents, might redeem the time. What can you and I do, as old securities dissolve all about us? Why, we can brighten the corner where we are. To even the dullest of us, some little boy or girl will listen wide-eyed.
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