No one is quite sure when it started, the Great Awakening, that is. Most say it was in the first decade of the 21st Century when things hit bottom and really started to unravel. Some historians cite events like NBC News hiring Rosie O’Donnell to a multimillion dollar contract. Others claim more serious events like General Google Motors coming out with those humanoid slave clones that revolutionized housework. Others say the Pathogen Plague of 2023, the one that wiped out 20 per cent of the globe’s population in five months. That, of course, caused the Global Collapse, which crippled trade and prosperity. That is when we started digging our own wells and having our own vegetable gardens. But, on the other hand, the plague did stop WIAR [the War of Islam Against the Rest] cold in its tracks. They say the terrorists’ mad fever to "kill the White Satan" simply burned itself out. I was in junior high then and wasn’t really paying much attention. What I remember most is losing cable TV.
But these events still don’t explain the Great Awakening to me. For instance, instead of breaking down into warring communities and going back to a tooth-and-claw existence as so many pundits predicted, people took a very different path. Perhaps it was exhaustion, but we seemed to stay calm. Part of it was that we had pretty much lost complete faith in our political leaders’ and their "return to the land of milk and honey" promises and big solutions. This time people just didn’t go for their pledges of womb-to-tomb welfare, our own personal slaves, free Nirvana pills [courtesy of the pact between Big Pharma and AARP] and a return to my beloved 300 channel cable TV. Somehow, people just didn’t go for it.
In the years since, researchers have struggled to come up with theories about the origins of the Great Awakening, theories from the Social Fragmentation Paradigm to the Sheer Exhaustion Thesis. It wasn’t until recently that scholarly opinion began to crystallize around the Homer Theory, the theory that the true cause of the Great Awakening was a relative small number of early 21st century families that homeschooled their children and started a below-the-radar social revolution.
I was very young then, but I can remember hearing about kids who were homeschooled. Back then, they were considered vaguely odd and viewed with some suspicion. "Cultish" was a word that was used a lot. Characteristically, the media dubbed them as "Homers," taking off on a popular early century cartoon character, Homer Simpson.
Every once in a while there would be a TV special or feature article on the Homers, about their odd lifestyle and end with concern about how many children they were having. Then there would be what seemed to be the annual story about the Homer kid that won that year’s National Spelling Bee. However, after a while the editors seemed to lose interest in the Homers and went after other curiosities. Then a funny thing happened. Homers started showing up all over the place and getting a lot of respect. A guy at work, who I admired a great deal, turned out to have been homeschooled and he and his wife were homeschooling their six children. It turned out, too, that my son’s favorite teacher was a Homer. Then a few years ago, we discovered a network of homeschoolers in our own neighbourhood! But what was so shocking is that these Homers, in fact, weren’t very shocking at all. They were quite normal. But normal in their own way.
This is when that Homer Theory became popular. It got started after the publication of one of those huge social science surveys, dripping with statistics and authoritative findings. The study was just a description of North American social behavior and various trends, but what stuck out were the Homers. First, there was the surprise of how many of them there were! Second, how well educated, compared to the rest of us, the Homers were and how well they have done in higher education and the professions. It was really a stunning report and people talked about it for months.
Besides getting better academic educations, Homers are happy achievers. They have better marriages, fewer divorces and personal scandals; they like their jobs more and advance more rapidly, volunteer more in their communities, have better health and, tellingly, have less need for lawyers! While the rest of us were angry and depressed about the aftermath of all the turmoil and conflict caused by the plague and the war and the terrible decline in our post-20th century standard of living, the Homers seemed unaffected by it all.
One of the most striking finding was how religious they are. For some time it had been considered bad form to talk about religion. This is particularly true of the media since we’ve been told it is a violation of church and state… or state and conscience… or something… for the media to speak of such matters. But there it was: the Homers are intense churchgoers. And, not just "goers". They bring church back into their homes with family prayer and grace before meals and religious icons on the walls. We found it all quite extraordinary.
Some of the other findings were even more shocking. Almost all of the Homers have TV sets, but they don’t watch much TV. Certainly not like the average seven hour-a-day viewing by most Americans. Later research reveals that this abnormally low TV viewing is part of a larger Homer factor, a deep distrust of so much of the media content. Homer parents take it all very seriously. They want to be sure about what their children are watching. When this finding was made public, there was a huge outcry about thought-control, children’s rights and stunting the cultural literacy of Homer kids. I asked my Homer friend at work why they limited their kids’ education so. What he said was really shocking. "Our primary job is to protect the hearts and minds of our children." They watch movies, use the internet and read all sorts of books, but until the kids are older, the parents are busy monitoring what they watch and read.
But then there was the big scandal. Editors from the New York Times and the L.A. Times sent a clandestine team of reporters to infiltrate heavily Homer-impacted communities. The reporters remained embedded for six months. Later, they went to colleges poising as Homers in order to get close to Homer college kids. Their series, "Homers Revealed: A Cult After All!" was a blockbuster.
The reporters, their editors and papers were the consensus winners of that year’s Pulitzer Prize. At the televised award dinner, the New York Times lead reporter forgot his meds and instead had three martinis. When he got up to make his acceptance speech, he started out and then stopped. He started again, but suddenly broke down, and before a bewildered audience and the world watching on television, he blurted out that the whole thing was a bag job. The public outcry was loud and immediate. In disgrace, the L.A. Times stopped its presses and closed it doors. The New York Times tried to tough it out, but within eighteen months it was a give-away newspaper. Oh well, they didn't have much to offer anyway after Google merged with Amazon.
There does, however, seem to be another important and lasting impact of all this recent attention to Homers. It seems to be changing the way we all talk about things. The terms "good" and especially "evil" are back. So have "soul" and "truth" and "beauty". "Character," which had sunk to be one of the trendy, psychobabble words when I was in school, is now back, too. Now, though, character is about virtues and vices, good and bad habits. I even heard someone on a quiz show the other night who knew the four cardinal virtues: prudence, justice, fortitude and the other one I always forgot. I’m told this is all part of "natural law" thinking, which apparently is making a big comeback. The last time I heard about natural law was my father telling me about the trial or hearing for the first Black Supreme Court Justice back in the 20th Century. Apparently he was accused, or something, of practicing "natural law." Anyway, he’s said to have turned out to be a pretty good judge.
I’m not sure just how much credit the Homers should get for the Great Awakening and our return to social sanity. A guy I know says it’s just the natural resilience of the human spirit. But things sure are looking better these days. Crime is down. Business is coming back. Churches are being built or reconverted back from restaurants. Homers may not be the entire solution, but they sure seemed to be a good part of it. Oh, and I heard last week that my only grandchild has become a Homer and he and the wife go to church now. Who would have known?
Kevin Ryan founded the Center for the Advancement of Ethics and Character at Boston University, where he is professor emeritus. He has written and edited 20 books. He has appeared recently on CBS's "This Morning", ABC's "Good Morning America", "The O’Reilly Factor", CNN and the Public Broadcasting System speaking on character education. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.