“Something there is that doesn’t love a wall”

By Paul Houston | Categories: Uncategorized

Most of us remember the famous Robert Frost poem “Mending Wall” from our high school days. Frost ruminates on the issue of a wall and how it separates and sometimes joins people, but also how it creates a distance between them. Frost’s simple but complex poem reminds us of the problems and challenges walls create.

Walls have been in the news since our last presidential election with Mr. Trump using the issue of a wall as a centerpiece of his electoral promises. There has been and will be much debate about the cost of a wall (and who will pay for it), its practicality, and where this idea fits between neighbors.

I live near the border with Mexico and can tell those of you who may not have been around our southern border that in most urban areas there is already a sizeable wall along the border. Where the wall does not exist tends to be in the isolated and deserted areas of the border. I hear almost weekly about how someone has breached the southern wall by climbing over it or tunneling under it. There is also the reality that most of the people who live in this country illegally came here by boat or plane, not by crossing the southern border illegally. So the whole issue of a wall bears much more examination and discussion.

My purpose here is not to get into the political discussion of the border wall, but for us to consider the issue of walls in general as they relate to the human condition. My travels have exposed me to many walls and have made me wonder about them.

When I was in India, I saw very poor people who had no homes building lean-tos with their scraps of wood and metal using a very fine wall that a rich family had built to surround their house as the anchor for the lean-to. I wondered what those dozens of families living in squalor, but who were pressed up against opulence, must think of their wealthy neighbors and what the wealthy family must think about their immediate neighbors using their protective wall as the core of their shanties. In India there seems to be no concept of the “neighborhood going downhill” since each neighborhood has downhill and uphill qualities joined at each wall.

This is less true in neighborhoods I saw in Brazil, where the favelas (slums) were built next to very wealthy neighborhoods but the wealthy people were separated from the slums by walls, gates, and guards. It was clear that they wanted nothing to do with their less fortunate neighbors and that they lived in fear of them.

But perhaps the most interesting issue of walls came to me in my multiple visits to Israel. I always ruminate on my visits to the Holy Land around this time of year, and this year particularly we find Israel in the news with Mr. Trump wanting to move the American Embassy to Jerusalem. I will avoid commenting on the politics of this current idea. I would rather go back several millennia.

All across Israel are what people call tels. These are mounds of debris that come from their old cities. In the early times, people would build a city and surround it with a wall. As they fought in wars or grew in size, communities would outgrow their walled cities and they would be destroyed or torn down, and a newer, bigger city was built on the ruins. This cycle would repeat itself for thousands of years.

Here’s the problem with walls. They are used to keep others out, but they also keep us in. In our effort to protect ourselves from what lies outside the walls, we are limiting our own growth, potential, and possibility­–and sowing the seeds of our own demise.

The creation of walls and barriers between people doesn’t really protect us because walls can be circumvented and breached. If you build a twenty-foot wall, someone will built a twenty-one foot ladder, or dig beneath the wall, or send a hollow horse filled with enemy soldiers inside as a gift. Walls create a false sense of security. But further, they prohibit those living behind them to see the world in a broader sense and to pursue their own dreams.

The part of the world where I live has a big sky and broad vistas. You can see for miles—unless you build a wall around your house. Then you can only see the wall. The lesson for our children is quite simple. We trust what is inside our circle (or our walls) and tend to distrust what is outside the circle. The only real way to deal with this is not to build a bigger wall­–but to expand the circle.

Education, in general, (and particularly public education) should focus on expanding our children’s circle. It should see its job as tearing down walls and barriers and teaching our children to live in the larger world.

I was once criticized in a libertarian publication for defending public schools because the writer stated that public schools create conflict. Yes, they do—in the same way that police create crime and firefighters create fires. In school you are dealing constantly with the friction of people who are different and who disagree with each other. That is the whole point of school. We don’t create that friction–we strive to relieve it.

You are there to teach students how to open their hearts and minds to those who disagree with them. In today’s world that seems to be the most important lesson we can give our children. Becoming good neighbors is not about keeping our walls mended, but in seeing over and past the walls to how we might embrace our neighbors.