Grant Lichtman acknowledges that his life in California sets him apart from most of the people he wants to talk to lately.
“Here I am, a guy coming from California into rural Wyoming and South Dakota, and many of the conversations I had either started out or included some initial snarkiness about Californians,” he said. “There’s no question that people in that part of the country, farmers and ranchers… feel like people on the coast don’t know them… All I could say after talking to them was ‘You’re right.’”
But, he said, sitting down and talking with them has helped him discover how lessons are passed from one generation to the next in rural America.
Lichtman, a former educator and author, said he feels called to travel the country talking to those whose voices are often “overlooked” and finding the wisdom in their culture and communities. While many of the communities he visits will be rural, he plans on talking to people in urban communities as well.
His goal, he said, is to find out how some older cultures transmit lessons to young people.. Now on the second leg of a two year tour across the country, Lichtman said the idea for his tour came during a professional development event.
“I was speaking at an education conference up in South Dakota, and I listened to a session by a Lakota woman, a great educator, who has written some marvelous curriculum around what I call the ‘wisdom teachings’ of the Lakota,” he said. “All I could think of was, ‘I’ve been with thousands of educators over the last couple of decades, and almost all of them would agree, this is really, really good stuff.’”
Lichtman is calling his journey Wisdom Road. It will take him to the homes of indigenous people, as well as to communities in the Mississippi Delta, Latino communities in the Rio Grande Valley, the farm communities of the Midwest, up through the Pacific Northwest and into small towns in Appalachia and along the Atlantic coast, among other places.
The goal, he said, is not to come up with a scientific sampling from every state in the country but to talk to whom he can, taking in the ideas and knowledge of past generations.
“I’m not an anthropologist; I’m not a social scientist,” Lichtman said. “But there was something about just going out and meeting people and listening to them and… sharing their voices and their ideas about their life experiences and why they believe certain things are important. It wasn’t like I wanted to do it, I really felt like I had to do this as my last big thing before I get too old.”
One of the groups he spoke to on his first round of travels last fall was a family in South Dakota with a Hutterite background. The Hutterian Brethren, or Hutterites, are a religious group that grew out of the Anabaptist tradition, as did the Amish and Mennonites. Named after Jacob Hutter, the Hutterites left Europe for religious freedom and settled in the Dakota Territory in 1874.
Since then, the groups have remained fairly reclusive, Lichtman said. But within hours of meeting with a gentleman in the community, he was invited to eat with the man’s family, stay overnight with them and attend their school the next day.
What he learned from them, he said, is that maybe things aren’t as complex as we make them. The people he met didn’t rush to get anywhere or work to make extra money because their needs were taken care of, Lichtman said. Instead, they spent an incredible amount of time with their children, something many people in modern society wish they could do.
In fact, he said, one of the things he’s learned from rural communities is that maybe the idea of the nuclear family isn’t as important as we’ve been led to believe. In rural communities, it is the extended family and the community that supports families when things go wrong.
“The nuclear family is an incredibly fragile entity,” he said. “Folks out there in the farmlands don’t have that problem. Their extended family is everybody who’s on a farm within 10 miles of them and they all help each other… I think there’s a really important lesson there… We have isolated ourselves chasing certain goals that are not necessarily aligned with what we believe is most important in life.”
While he is still in the beginning stages of his travels, he hopes what he learns will help not just educators but others find ways to pass our values on to our own children as well as connect with one another on a different level.
“I did start to ask, ‘Why do you think America is so divided now?” he said. “To a person, the answers were the same — because people have their faces buried in their cell phones and don’t talk to each other face to face.”
Talking to one another and learning about how we all live is key, he said, to bringing people together.
“You know, I think we all in our hearts know that there’s more things that bind us than divide us.”