By Tom Shakely, April 2014
In The World is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-First Century, Thomas Friedman’s central insight is that globalization and Information Age technology work in tandem to diminish the distinctiveness and importance of location — of physical place. Nearly a decade after his book’s 2005 release, this “world is flat” thinking has seeped into almost every pore of the face of our culture. We’re all too familiar with the negative effects of our flatter, globalized world in the form of outsourcing and offshoring, but we’ve also seen the positive ways that innovations such as Amazon’s impressive supply chain, Penn State’s World Campus, and social platforms have enabled people to shop, learn, and communicate.
Yet, a remarkable new book edited by Wilfred M. McClay and Ted V. McAllister functions as a sort of rebuttal to Friedman’s vision of a world where location is irrelevant. In Why Place Matters: Geography, Identity, and Civic Life in Modern America, McClay and McAllister write:
“Whether we like it or not, we are corporeal beings, grounded in the particular, in the finite conditions of our embodiment, our creatureliness. … In losing ‘place’ entirely, and succumbing to the idea that a website can be a place and that digital relationships can substitute for friends and family, we risk forgetting this reality of our embodiment, risk losing the basis for healthy and resilient individual identity, and risk forfeiting the needed preconditions for the cultivation of public virtues. For one cannot be a citizen without being a citizen of some place in particular; one cannot be a citizen of a website, or a motel.”
Those who live in the shadow of Mount Nittany tend to know that physical place still matters, and that McClay and McAllister are right to defend special places as provocatively as they do — as spaces where “public virtues” are cultivated and American character is molded and shaped for the future. The specialness of places such as the Nittany Valley work like a magnet, drawing new people to them and creating new communities in time.
Literary critic Henry Seidel Canby (and father of folklorist Edward T. Canby) observed as long ago as 1936 that “it is amazing that neither history, nor sociology, nor fiction, has given more than passing attention to the American college town, for surely it has had a character and personality unlike other towns.” There are many reasons that the Nittany Valley is America’s “Happy Valley,” just as there are an almost infinite number of reasons “I ♥ NY” resonates with so many, and elicits so many personal stories and perspectives on the basis for this affection.
As a folklorist, Canby’s son, Edward, understood that learning the stories of specific places and peoples could unlock the secret of their character. By learning about people and sharing their stories with newcomers, the specialness of a place could be conserved and perpetuated through time, and new generations could experience a bit of the past in a meaningful way.
In other words, the past could be learned about and experienced not as something dead but as a living part of the cultural environment. Mount Nittany, as one example, isn’t simply another Pennsylvania hill to those who love it, and have hiked it, and have spent a lifetime looking upon her gentle slope. Mount Nittany becomes, rather, a place where romance is kindled, or nights are spent with college friends, or, for those who know the lore of Princess Nittany, perhaps a place where the spirit of the American Indians and mountain lions still lingers. Indeed, Erwin Runkle’s The Pennsylvania State College: 1853-1932 records that founding president Evan Pugh would take students hiking on Mount Nittany and spend nights there. No, for those who learn the stories, the Mountain and the Valley could never be merely two more unremarkable or interchangeable points on the map.
And just as the Mount Nittany Conservancy exists to protect Mount Nittany as a physical symbol of our area, The Nittany Valley Society was recently founded to serve as a “cultural conservancy” to conserve the stories, memory, and spirit of the Nittany Valley so that new generations of students, townspeople, professors, alumni, and friends can better understand why so many people call this place “Happy Valley.”
If we didn’t preserve the stories and spirit of Mount Nittany, there wouldn’t be a way for us to understand why we conserved the mountain in the first place. After all, without learning the stories and experiencing the mountain ourselves, we would have to admit to any visiting friend that it’s not a particularly special mountain. But because we appreciate Mount Nittany not only as part of our physical landscape but also as part of our cultural heritage, it helps define our Nittany Valley as truly remarkable.
As a cultural conservancy, the Nittany Valley Society was created with the conviction that place matters perhaps now more than ever, and that the Nittany Valley has what the Romans called a genius loci, “a pervading spirit of a place.” The society was founded, too, to share the story of the Nittany Valley as something more than merely a collection of historical facts — as something more than a series of museum-piece curiosities or lifeless artifacts.
Indeed, The Nittany Valley Society aims to share the story of the community by better connecting her people to their shared history. In the columns to come on townandgown.com, The Nittany Valley Society will share the stories of our community. Each column will seek to show why the Nittany Valley is the genuinely remarkable place that it is. And with each new encounter with the Nittany Valley’s specialness, we might just be better equipped to pass along our story to the next generation and avoid the “flattening” that has hollowed out so many other communities.
As America gets “flatter” in the years to come, special places like ours will be challenged to better articulate “why place matters.” A community such as the Nittany Valley, perpetually in conversation about its heritage, will certainly be prepared for that future.