Folks, back in 1910, Carl Becker, wrote what became for years the definitive essay on the nature of Kansas. He begins by describing his first trip to Kansas, after taking a position as history professor at the University of Kansas.
He writes: “ ... I rode out of Kansas City and entered for the first time what I had always pictured as the land of grasshoppers, of arid drought, and barren social experimentation.”
He notes that two young women, KU students as it turned out, had been chattering ceaselessly, but as they crossed the border, they became quiet, and for fifteen minutes looked out the train window.
Finally, “with the contented sigh of a returning exile,” one of them said, “Dear Old Kansas.”
Becker spends the rest of his essay with this premise: “To understand why people say ‘Dear Old Kansas!’ is to understand that Kansas is no mere geographical expression, but a ‘state of mind,’ a religion, and a philosophy in one.”
Of course he speaks of Kansas idealism, writing that Kansans “have always thrived on the impossible, and the field of many failures offers a challenge not to be resisted.”
He writes about the Kansas sense of the future, remarking that Kansans don’t live in the present, but in “the idealized Kansas of some day . . .”
And he writes of our love of individualism, but not at the expense of others: “The welfare of society is thought to be always superior to that of the individual, and yet no one doubts that perfect liberty is the birthright of every man.”
And Becker analyzes the kind of social experimentation that saw Prohibition and other causes written into law: “Having conquered nature, they cheerfully confront the task of transforming human nature.”
Finally, Becker examines our sense of morality. Here’s his list: “to be honest and pay your debts; to be friendly and charitable, good-humored but not cynical, slow to take offense, but regarding life as profoundly serious; to respect sentiments and harmless prejudices; to revere the conventional great ideas and traditions, to live a sober life and a chaste one . . .” He goes on to translate this morality to politics: “One may be democrat or republican, . . . But no one dreams of denying democracy, the will of the people, the greatest good to the greatest number, equal justice and equal opportunity to all.”
Folks, you can decide whether the Kansas of now is anything like the Kansas Becker described over a hundred years ago. I think the state is more like what Becker thought he would find: drought, reckless and barren social experimentation, intolerance, individualism privileged over public good.
Folks, I’ve traveled away from the state some recently. In the past, upon reaching the Kansas border, I have remembered my Becker. I have sighed, and repeated, “Dear Old Kansas.” For the first time, this year, I did not.