The county fair is an institution that tastes like a real slice of Americana. My family’s been involved with our 4-H Fair for several years now. Long days sitting under tents in the August heat, showcasing to young people that a good time can be had without the usual kinds of diversions that lead to regrets and tattered dreams. For many kids the fair will be as close as they ever get to a cow, goat, or chicken. For the less rurally inclined, there are pets like cats, dogs, and small animals. For others there are model trains, rockets, and airplanes. Increasingly robots and more current forms of art such as steampunk and film-making are appearing. In short, there’s pretty much something for everybody there. I know that my entire family has benefited from the experience. I didn’t know about 4-H as a child, so this has been a pleasant awakening for me.
As I wondered the fairgrounds, something that I suppose I’ve noticed before hit me with a new clarity. The Arts and Sciences tents are right next to one another, and these represent the classic forms of liberal arts education. Yes, the Gideons and Right-to-Lifers are here, but they’re over in the commercial tent. They’re selling something. Education—true education—is free. Those who grow up on farms can learn an awful lot about science by watching animals. The more formal schooling, however, asks for deeper engagement. Creative writing helps to explore ideas that simply don’t flow in conversation. Photography forces you to look at something from someone else’s point of view. Science teaches close observation and practical extrapolation. This is like a little university set up in a grassy field with a very affordable tuition.
The old hiker’s mantra goes “take nothing but pictures, leave nothing but footprints.” This year there was a real emphasis on footprints. The kinds of footprints that many clubs chose, however, were carbon. Many adults have grown up in a culture of consumption and disposal. Our young are now trying to demonstrate for us the errors of our ways. Sure, there are resources to last for centuries yet, but they will not last forever. Who are we to suppose it is our right to take what we please and leave the mess for our young to clean up? A day at the fair always renews my sense of hope. These are all volunteers here, giving up the latter part of their summer to try to make the world a better place. Perhaps the ethics should come up from the young, rather than descending from generations that have put their own wants ahead of those who might truly make a difference.