A Time to Build: From Family and Community to Congress and the Campus, How Recommitting to Our Institutions Can Revive the American Dream
by Yuval Levin.
Basic Books, 2020.
Hardcover, 256 pages, $28.

By Anthony M. Barr

“When they were filled, he said unto his disciples, Gather up the fragments that remain, that nothing be lost.” (The Gospel according to John, 6:12)

In her short and incisive essay “The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction,” science fiction writer Ursula K. Le Guin argues that the first human invention was not a spear: it was a container for wild oats. She explains that “if you haven’t got something to put it in, food will escape you—even something as uncombative and unresourceful as an oat.” Of course you can use your hands, the original container, to put as many oats in your stomach as you want, “but what about tomorrow morning when you wake up and it’s cold and raining and wouldn’t it be good to have just a few handfuls of oats to chew on …” And thus it is that human society begins simply with “a leaf a gourd a shell a net a bag a sling a sack a bottle a pot a box a container. A holder. A recipient.”

We speak of these early societies as being constituted by hunter-gatherers, but with the emphasis on the hunter, with the emphasis on the man. For Le Guin, this is because the most important thing hunting gives us is not meat but rather story: man does not live by bread alone. I stabbed, I shot, I wrestled, I killed. And as Le Guin points out, for all the essentialness of gathering, “it is hard to tell a really gripping tale of how I wrested a wild-oat seed from its husk, and then another, and then another.”

I was thinking about Le Guin’s essay as I read Yuval Levin’s latest book A Time To Build, in which he invites us to embrace and shore up the institutions on which human society depends, such as schools, hospitals, and the like. As with Ross Douthat’s diagnosis in The Decadent Society, Levin sees a lot of brokenness in our world that does not stem from dramatic and obvious causes like war or plague. In his words, “this era has not been a time of cataclysm or disaster but of exhaustion and frustration.” This brokenness is not the sacking of Rome by the Visigoths—a hunter with his spear—but rather “a collapse of some of the preconditions for flourishing that we cannot quite explain to ourselves.” The threads are twisted and the nets are torn. And Levin argues that to recover the conditions for our flourishing requires us to think seriously about the mediating institutions that enable that flourishing.

On Institutions

Levin describes institutions as “the durable forms of our common life,” by which he means “the frameworks and structures of what we do together.” In thinking about form, Levin explicitly draws on Aristotle’s notion of formal cause: “the form of a thing is at once distinguishable and inseparable from its materials or its substance.” And of course, the final cause (purpose, as in the purpose of a watch is to tell time) is also inseparable from form and material. Thus, when Levin writes that “each institution [the family, the parish, the library] is a form of association,” he means that it is a combination of people, purpose, and structural organization. The power of institutions lies in the fact that they are formative, “they structure our perceptions and our interactions.” Levin observes that institutions are “crucial intermediaries between our inner lives and our social lives.” Drawing implicitly from Plato, he adds that “they are how the city and the soul come to shape each other” and are therefore essential to the formation of a truly free (because virtuous) citizenry.

When leaders work within an existing institution, for example as the director of a library, they ask themselves, “how ought I act, given my role?” In asking that question, the role itself and the mediating structure that gives rise to that role help to answer the question, at once constraining and empowering the leaders who occupy it. Levin writes: “there is a dire need … for men and women at every level in each of our society’s institutions to channel their energies into that instituion’s objectives and purposes—defining their ambitions by its distinct modes of integrity, seeing its aspirations as theirs, adopting its ethos for their own, and understanding its boundaries and not just its powers as formative.”

Levin, echoing sentiments found in Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue, writes that in our present exhaustion, “we lack the grammar and vocabulary to talk about what is breaking down, and so cannot even begin to do something about it.” And so he sets out on a quest, that kind of quest in which the hero or heroine do not know the knowledge they desire until it comes upon them and they receive it: a vessel, a carrier, the basis of society. Levin writes that “to describe this book as an inquiry is to say that it is moved by a set of questions more than by a set of answers. It is not a manifesto or a policy platform.” This is not a diatribe—the pen as sword, brandished. This is instead unfurled scroll and leather parchment, ready and waiting for revelation to be inscribed upon it: let it be done unto me according to your word.

The Work of Repair

As I read Levin’s book, I was reminded of another favorite essay of mine, titled “Maintenance and Care,” by anthropologist Shannon Mattern. This essay is also about societal caretaking, both the individuals who participate in that work and the institutional structures that support those individuals. Her essay has a gripping opening: “This is not an article about how the world is breaking down. We all see it, of course: the sudden collapse of dams and bridges; the slow deterioration of power grids and sewer systems; the hacked data, broken treaties, rigged elections. Infrastructures fail everywhere, all the time.” We all know the expression of a handbasket on its way to hell. Mattern argues that “what we really need to study is how the world gets put back together.” She clarifies that she is “not talking about the election of new officials or the release of new technologies.” Instead, Mattern, like Le Guin, like Levin, wants us to consider “the everyday work of maintenance, caretaking, and repair.”

Mattern writes that attention to maintenance and repair is “an exciting area of inquiry precisely because the lines between scholarship and practice are blurred. To study maintenance is itself an act of maintenance.” And so Mattern, like Levin, like Le Guin, endeavors to “fill in the gaps in this literature, to draw connections among different disciplines … connecting threads, mending holes, amplifying quiet voices.” Mattern’s essay considers four areas of disrepair. Rust: the breakdown of urban infrastructures, “from transportation to social networks.” Dust: “architectural maintenance alongside housework and other forms of caretaking in the domestic and interior realms.” Cracks: “the repair of objects, from television sets to subway signs to cell phones.” Corruption: the work of “curators who clean and maintain data—a resource that fuels the operation of our digital objects, our networked architectures, and our intelligent cities.” In a similar fashion, Levin considers various institutional nodes most in need of repair: Congress, the helping professions (law, medicine, journalism), college campuses, social media, and the family.

The caretaking ethos in Le Guin, Levin, and Mattern has resonances with the excellent book Shop Class as Soulcraft by Matthew Crawford. Crawford takes for his model his own work as a motorcycle repairman, and he argues that cultivating the kind of attentiveness to fixing material objects is a concrete method of soul formation. He writes that “craftsmanship means dwelling on a task for a long time and going deeply into it, because you want to get it right.” Crawford’s book involves us in all four of Mattern’s caretaking categories, in both the literal and metaphorical senses: preventing rust and dust, fixing cracks, and dealing with corrupting engines.

There are two features of Crawford’s book that I especially love. First is Crawford’s defense of the knowledge we gain from repairing, which is often not textbook-like knowledge. He writes: “we know more than we can say, and certainly more than we can specify in a formulaic way.” Second is Crawford’s consideration of the value of making and repairing within the context of community. He writes: “When the maker’s (or fixer’s) activity is immediately situated within a community of use, it can be enlivened by this kind of direct perception. Then the social character of his work isn’t separate from its internal or ‘engineering’ standards; the work is improved through relationships with others.” Perhaps one of the most important kinds of relationships applicable here, and one that Levin is also chiefly concerned with, is education. And that reminds me of a wonderful line from Mattern’s essay: “The open-air shop is a space of public pedagogy, an ‘operating theater’ where the repairman demonstrates technical skills.”

Not the Masculine Ideal

The one problem I have with Crawford’s book is that it is too masculine, by which I don’t mean literal manhood but rather our cultural conceptions of what manhood might or must mean. It’s a book that often skirts dangerously close to the American obsession with mastery for the sake of self-reliance. The hero who doesn’t need you or anyone: just me and my Harley, cunning Odysseus on an open road to anywhere. (“People who ride motorcycles have gotten something right, and I want to put myself in the service of it, this thing that we do, this kingly sport that is like war made beautiful.”) This is an inadequate vision, one that does not heed the Aristotelian insight that we are social animals who can only find our flourishing in communion with others. As Levin writes: “Many of our struggles seem rooted in relational problems. Loneliness and isolation, mistrust and suspicion, alienation and polarization … Because they are failures of sociality, they too often fall into the blind spots of our individualist culture.”

If not corrected for, this masculine ideal of self-reliance also misses the chief insight of MacIntyre’s later work Dependent Rational Animals, namely that our mutual dependence on others is a feature and not a bug of our human nature. As Levin notes, “institutions in general take shape around our needs … and forge our weaknesses and vulnerabilities into strengths and capabilities.” The error of the American masculine ideal has direct political ramifications too, because the focus on ourselves as individuals means we are not attentive to the needs of others around us or of our obligations toward them. As Levin notes: “we have lost the words with which to speak about what we owe each other.” And perhaps most concerning to me, when I read a line of Crawford’s like this—“getting an adequate grasp on the world, intellectually, depends on our doing stuff in it”—I wonder what place there is for my friends with cognitive disabilities, and I wonder if this opens the door to valuing persons for what they do rather than for who they are.

While Crawford’s book stumbles in this area, I think he does want to push back against the masculine ideal, at least inasmuch as he is unsatisfied with an Ayn Rand–style understanding of human autonomy, which he rightly sees as being fundamentally impious. He writes that

“the idea of autonomy denies that we are born into a world that existed prior to us. It posits an essential aloneness; an autonomous being is free in the sense that a being severed from all others is free. To regard oneself this way is to betray the natural debts we owe to the world, and commit the moral error of ingratitude. For in fact we are basically dependent beings: one upon another, and each on a world that is of our making.”

Conclusion: The Story Continues

Near the end of Le Guin’s essay, she writes, “I said it was hard to make a gripping tale of how we wrested the wild oats from their husks, I didn’t say it was impossible.” I think this is very much the ethos of Levin’s book. In the final section, “A Path To Renewal,” he writes that “the question of how, in our diverse society, people with different conceptions of citizenship might live together can not really be answered in theory but only in practice.” We must learn to live together as co-caretakers of our world.

Levin sums it all up powerfully:

“Many Americans are not lucky enough to have the benefit of a flourishing family, or the opportunity for rewarding work, or an uplifting education, or a thriving community, or a humbling faith, let alone all of these at once. But some combination of these soul-forming institutions is within the reach of most, and the work of reinforcing them, sustaining the space for them, and putting them within the reach of as many citizens as possible is among our highest and most pressing civic callings.”

In this survey of sources, my guiding image has been Penelope, ever faithful at her loom—while faithless Odysseus consorts with younger nymphs. Penelope, weaving together stories, preserving hearth and home, performing the essential work of maintenance and repair. Like Penelope, I attempted here to interweave a variety of voices and to thread together a variety of ideas. In closing, I’d like us to imagine a world in which we take Penelope as our heroic ideal. I’d like us to imagine a world where we embrace imperatives like gathering, gardening, garnishing. As Le Guin so lovingly reminds us: “there is time enough to gather plenty of wild oats and sow them too, and sing to little Oom, and listen to Ool’s joke, and watch newts, and still the story isn’t over. Still there are seeds to be gathered, and room in the bag of stars.”  

Anthony M. Barr has been a student in the Templeton Honors College. He writes for Ethika Politika and Circe Institute and has done research on political theory, education policy, and civic and moral virtue for various nonprofits, businesses, and independent publishing companies