Not Lost, Just 'Finding Our Way'

Peter Wood

Meek’s Cutoff is a new independent movie directed by Kelly Reichardt, in which we watch three families of eastern emigrants in 1845 attempting to reach the lush Willamette Valley via an untried route through Oregon’s eastern desert. The unhappy travelers have trusted themselves to Stephen Meek, a veteran fur trapper who falsely assures them he knows the way. The movie crawls at the pace of the ox-drawn covered wagons, but it is lavishly beautiful and suffused with tension. We join the travelers at the point where they have already begun to doubt Meek’s assurances that he knows what he is doing.

But this isn’t a film review. Stephen Meek is a real figure, and the movie is a compressed retelling of an actual event. The historical Stephen Meek (1807-1886) led a much larger group (200 wagons, about a thousand people) on this journey. Fifty or more of them died along the way, due to lack of water, exhaustion, and Mountain Fever. Meek’s name became a byword for incompetence, though he escaped the lynching that some of the pioneers thought he was due. Later in life he penned a 14-page autobiography in which he claimed the journey was a successful exploit.

The story has contemporary resonance. The New York Times critic Nicolas Rapold sees an allegory of the Bush presidency layered among the meanings of how the pioneers respond to Stephen Meek’s blustery self-confidence:

The script came together in 2007, deep into a presidency that saw similar hand wringing among its critics, but its choices of doubting a leader and making group decisions have a perennial relevance.

And Kelly Reichardt endorses that interpretation in comments to the Village Voice:

“Ten pages [of Meek’s autobiography] is this long-winded joke, and then he’s just like, ‘I led the first wagon train through Oregon territory. Completely successful.’ Probably just like George W. Bush’s new book: ‘Everything went great. Not to worry.’”

The movie also garners some acclaim from critics for being (yet another) deconstruction of the myth of how the West was won by brave, resourceful men who rose to the myriad challenges. In this case, we have clueless, uncertain men in an ambiguous situation, in which the most purposeful leadership comes from a character named Emily Tetherow (portrayed by Michelle Williams). That gives Karina Longworth, the Village Voice reviewer, the occasion to mention that 1845 was also the year that “Margaret Fuller published her foundational feminist text Woman in the Nineteenth Century.” Tetherow is the only one with the grit to stand up to Meek in the closest thing the movie has to a climax. Maybe that makes her the Cindy Sheehan of the Oregon Trail.

Reichardt and screenwriter Jonathan Raymond drew on diaries from the original emigrants, such as Samuel Parker, whose terse entries capture the exhaustion and frustration of these pilgrims. Parker’s comment for August 30, 1845:  “Rock all day, pore grass, more swaring than you ever heard.”

I am all in favor of finding metaphors for the present in the nation’s rich history of struggles by pioneers to gain a measure of personal independence and to extend civilization, with all its attendant ambiguities. If Stephen Meek can be thought of as an image of George Bush in his “mission accomplished” mode, surely he can be taken as well as a precursor to other sorts of leaders who have overpromised and ended up out in the middle of nowhere.

And since this is a higher education blog, I’d like to propose Stephen Meek as the very model of the 21st century college or university president. Should I name names? No, that would constrict the portrait to a few when it really applies to many. Stephen Meek was born and schooled in Virginia, but around age 20 headed west to become a Rocky Mountain fur trapper. He, in effect, chose a life of high risk and adventure: a man of initiative headed for the frontier. This is surely the conceit of today’s college president: someone who steps forward to promote progressive values in the hostile territory of a basically conservative society. Today’s college president is someone who has a Meek-like sense of his or her own exceptional ability to read the land, to mediate between the Indians and the entrepreneurs, and to sell the story.

Reichardt’s Meek tells the emigrants: “Well, if its riches you’re after, there are riches aplenty. That’s the truth.  You mark my words.” That is, of course, the very creed of the modern college president explaining to parents why the exorbitant tuition and fees are justified. The graduate will earn them back many-fold. “If is riches you’re after, enroll here.”

Meek was a charlatan, but that isn’t all he was. By 1845, he had survived on the frontier for 18 years. He was, rightly understood, tenured. He knew his way around; was inured to difficulty; and had a canny sense of what to tell people to get what he wanted. He invited trust. He was loquacious, entertaining, quick with a tall tale; organized, improvisational; and able to send a chill through his opponents. He had the habit of command, even when he was in over his head. If he had had to deal with a board of trustees, he would have wowed them and no doubt quieted any skeptics right up until the moment they were out of water—or, as the case may be, receipts from student loans.

President Meek knows that his expedition is in trouble. Reichardt again gives him exactly the right words: “We’re not lost. We’re just finding our way.” Right. The cost of college continues to inflate faster than health care, while the practical value of the undergraduate degree is deflating at a similar pace. Competition is springing up from online universities and more and more students are opting to take their first two years in community colleges. A large percentage of students who graduate have gained little or nothing in the way of intellectual skills over the length of their college careers. Their biggest takeaway is debt—a burden also shouldered by those who fail to graduate. The university is accurately seen by many as both thoroughly politicized and thoroughly hostile to American society. “We’re not lost. We’re just finding our way.”

With few exceptions, a college president’s stay on the job is relatively brief: a little over six years. Bluffing for that long is presumably hard work. And when you are in the business of putting a bold face on impending disaster, you have to put up with a lot of unpleasantness. The endless fundraising, the testy alumni, the inexhaustible demand for trendy pieties on diversity, sustainability, or whatever; the need to deliver a passable celebrity for the commencement address. Often it is, “Rock all day, pore grass, more swaring than you ever heard.”

The original Meek beguiled travelers with a confident story about a safe and easy shortcut. There is never any shortage of would-be guides who have similar promises, no matter that they have never set foot on the path they prophesy, but only a few have the knack of convincing the gullible to pay them for their misdirection. The Meeks who have inherited the top positions in American higher education have set the gold standard for that.

This article originally appeared on April 25, 2011 on the Chronicle of Higher Education's Innovations blog.

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