I count it as one of the soul-saving blessings of my life that I wasn’t born to an academic or professional family.
There’s nothing wrong in coming from such a family, of course, and several of my best friends do. But I don’t, and that has probably been good. It might have been spiritually dangerous for me. I’m constantly surrounded nowadays by academics and accomplished professionals — I work at a university, and my residential street is and has always been thickly populated with physicians, dentists, professors, and the like — and I might have come to grant too much weight to degrees and professional status than is quite healthy.
But my father was born to immigrant Scandinavian farmers in North Dakota who lost their farm at the end of the Great Depression. My mother grew up in St. George, Utah, in a poor family headed by an itinerant sheep-shearer who spent his last decade incapacitated by a stroke.
My mother had no college at all. My father went to forestry school in Minot, North Dakota, and then managed to finish a two-year degree at Pierce College in Los Angeles and to work for Franklin Roosevelt’s Civilian Conservation Corps before entering the military.
After World War II, my father and his brother founded a construction company east of Los Angeles, so I grew up around mechanics (first, Warren Salmon, whom I knew as “Uncle Warren,” though we weren’t related, and then Red Faler), office workers, operating engineers, and members of the Laborer’s Union, most of them Mexican-Americans.
On my mother’s side, my uncles included a construction worker, a farmer, and a truck driver; my maternal aunts were homemakers, one married to a factory worker and the other to a salesman. On my father’s side, my three uncles were all involved in construction (though one of them spent his last decades living in and managing a trailer park), while my two aunts were married to insurance agents.
This background has, I think, helped me to keep my academic interests in real-world perspective, and to realize that there are many, many more important things in life.
I specifically recall one man, a convert to the Church, who sometimes worked for our family construction company. (Virtually none of the others there, including my father for most of his life and his brother and business partner, were Latter-day Saints.) He was anything but an intellectual, and I doubt that he would have known where to find 3 Nephi in the New Testament, if you get my drift. But, over the years, I noticed that, whenever there was a service project — a widow’s house to be repaired, a yard to be cleaned up, some work to be done on the church grounds — he was always there. And not only was he always there, but he was always there before I arrived, and he always stayed after I left. It began, slowly, to enter into even my self-absorbed adolescent brain that this man, though not very clever and certainly not well educated, was worth a dozen, at least, of me and my cronies. Of such is the Kingdom of Heaven.
I still remember, too, the very moment when the central thesis of my doctoral dissertation came to me. It was so sudden, and, in a sense, so out of the blue, that it carried almost the force of revelation. (Perhaps I shouldn’t say “almost.”) I had spent the day in the graduate research library, but I was simply accumulating background materials on the early eleventh-century Arab Neoplatonic philosopher who would be the focus of the dissertation, and struggling through some of his excruciatingly dense Arabic writing. I didn’t really know what direction I would go with any of this.
Then, on the way home, while I was filling up my car at a gas station in West Los Angeles and thinking about nothing in particular, it came upon me. It was an absolutely brilliant thought that had never occurred to me before. (For what it’s worth, my dissertation ultimately won a major prize from the Middle East Studies Association of North America, and I won another major award for it from UCLA.) I was exultant. Exhilarated. I saw my way forward as if it had been marked out for me. A lot of work remained to be done, but I knew exactly which way it was going to go.
I also plainly recall, though, the very next thought: Looking around the gas station, I realized that nobody else there, even if I managed to capture their attention and tell them excitedly about the stunning insight that had just come to me, the unifying principle that made sense of all the data I’d been accumulating, would be even slight interested. It would be of no relevance to them. This was humbling. And very, very good for me.