Paul Greenberg

And to many another institution. Like newspapers. I've long been fascinated by the kind of editorial writers who early on clamber aboard the transmission belt from smaller to ever larger newspapers, regularly jumping from one locale and one editorial philosophy to another with the greatest of ease till they wind up at the pinnacle of their trade -- either at the New York Times or in public relations. I have to admire -- I've never envied -- their sheer adaptability, which seems to go with their upward mobility.

It takes years, maybe a lifetime, to acquire a working knowledge of just a small town, let alone a small state, but some of my brightest colleagues can jump from convivial communities in the South to impersonal megalopoli up North or out West unburdened (and unsupported) by what is called a sense of place.

An innocent Northerner once asked me, apparently seriously, what Southerners mean by a sense of place. And I thought of Louis Armstrong's response when someone asked him what jazz is: If you have to ask, you'll never know.

A sense of place is inextricably bound up with a set of values. Forget where you came from, and who are you?

Jack Pidgeon, who died about a couple of years ago, had every one of his boys at Kiski memorize the last page of F. Scott Fitzgerald's "The Great Gatsby." ("So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.")

It's not only people that need a sense of their past and the values that go with it. Constancy of purpose is also what distinguishes a successful family, newspaper, political party, republic ... life.

Without a set of inner beliefs, we wind up abandoning principles as regularly as we adopt them. The way educantists do catchphrases.

Now the line is: Forget the classics, concentrate on an education for the 21st century! Which apparently means knowing how to operate electronic devices and figure out a spreadsheet. That's not education, it's vocational training. What once were means seem to have become ends in education. And our more with-it "educators" shift with every passing wind, clutching at the latest gimmick the way drowning men do at straws.

If there is a single factor that separates the enduring from the passing in institutions great or small, local or national, it is constancy of purpose. The way in which that purpose is pursued may be flexible, but forget one's purpose and decide to stand for everything as it comes into vogue, then a school, a university, a newspaper, an individual, a nation ... will come to stand for nothing.

Paul Greenberg

Pulitzer Prize-winning Paul Greenberg, one of the most respected and honored commentators in America, is the editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.