The Heart and Soul of the Texas Panhandle

Family and the University

If a university is to be successful—effective in serving those who choose to study there—it must appreciate the place that hosts it. In the coming weeks I will reflect on the relationship between West Texas A&M University as a place to study and the Texas Panhandle as a place to call home.

A regional view of a university ties campus to community, and no two universities can be the same. Geography will not allow it. Harvard is Cambridge, Penn State University is Pennsylvania, and WT is the Panhandle and vice versa. Place and institution are simultaneously defined by geography and institutional self-perception, respectively.

I use the phrase ”The Heart and Soul of the Texas Panhandle” to describe WT, its purpose, nature and value. Geography—the people, organizations, enterprises, behaviors, family and social groupings in a unique place are fundamental to both the institution and those served. An institution that effectively serves a distinctive region will be appealing to people from other places. Commitment creates authenticity, and authenticity is an increasingly rare commodity desired by all.

Embedded in a unique mix and measure, diverse characteristics form the concept of the Texas Panhandle. Private virtue and civic virtue, civil discourse, courage, family, honor, humility, integrity, initiative, justice, perseverance, respect, responsibility, resourcefulness and self-reliance are a few such traits.

Family characteristics originate and are reinforced by the prehistoric, Judeo-Christian and contemporary notion of family, according to Science. A combination of adults and/or children that exist for comfort, self-preservation and economic sustenance is a family. Family is considered to be the nucleus of public and private life in the Panhandle and a well-functioning constitutional republic. History is littered with failed substitutes.  WT should appreciate the impact of family over the past handful of millennia. Panhandle Prehistoric Plains Villagers became “settled” communities, and family was the foundational social unit.

Family structure has an impact on college success. A number of findings from “The Equality of Educational Opportunity,” released in 1966, have drawn seemingly legitimate criticism—not for the relationships it suggests between child well-being, family structure and academic success, but for methodological flaws.

The results of this study, and countless others, suggest that students from two-parent families do better academically, according to The Hoover Institution. Many exceptions prove the rule, but it is painfully irrefutable in spite of methodological flaws at the dawn of Great Society movement.

Tying place to mission is important. Cynthia Teniente-Matson, president of Texas A&M University at San Antonio, said,I believe our university is creating a national model for student and academic success that builds on the unique assets of our geography and the cultural capital of our vibrant student body.”

The Texas Panhandle has an enduring, albeit imperfect, commitment to family life. It comes from farms and ranches where many participate in the family enterprise. It comes from understanding personal responsibility, first in the context of a family, and then a community, and further a region, state and nation. According to Pew, the concerns and impact of parenting effects every aspect of family and civic life. Breakdowns at any level lead to breakdowns at every level. Universities are not substitutes for family, but instead reinforce family characteristics of care, challenge and confirmation.

In contrast to Panhandle culture, Marxist theory on family is based on the idea that the family is a capitalist construct and detrimental to Marx’s proposed social order. The Communist Manifesto states, “On what foundation is the present family, the bourgeois family, based? On capital, on private gain.” The diminishment of the value of family is treated with the same intentionality as abolishing private ownership of the factors of production in Marxist thinking.

Forces that undermine the power of family life also unintentionally undermine the benefit of a college education. WT should value students from all backgrounds. All college students need inspiration. A university can reinforce fundamental family values: self-reliance, commitment to purpose, belonging to something larger than self and perseverance. People from non-traditional families often succeed wonderfully in spite of adversity. A February 21, 2020 column in the Atlantic argues forcefully that ”The Nuclear Family Is Still Indispensable.”

WT will do all in its power to recognize the value of family life represented in the Panhandle and simultaneously support students who have not had that experience. Universities should amplify the importance of family, according to Dr. George D. Kuh. Study after study indicate that for most students, family is a desirable force in a productive living/learning environment.

A stronger free society follows like the shadow of a rock on a dry, thirsty land.

Walter V. Wendler is President of West Texas A&M University. His reflections are available at https://walterwendler.com/