Today, I hear people exhort college students to avoid the private economy and to go into public service in order to better help others. Yet, Almanzo's mother exhorts him to avoid the private economy and to remain on the farm because, in the private economy, he would be forced to help others and would lose his independence.
If you google this passage, you will generally find people applauding Almanzo's mother and bemoaning the direction we have traveled since then. To the contrary, I think Almanzo's mother's position highlights the moral progress we have made. But, then, I also must confess that we are much less free, in a sense, than Almanzo was, and we are better for it, even as the extension of cooperation and dependency to an unfathomable breadth creates stress for our senses of self and of safety. There is, unfortunately, no settled ground on which our human nature can rest.
I especially like Almanzo's response to the dilemma, which also seems to shine a light on the human condition. To paraphrase: "So, Almanzo, do you want progress or independence?" "Really, Dad? I can choose what I want?" "Yes, Almanzo. What do you want?" "I want a horse!"
From "Farmer Boy":
Father told her that Mr. Paddock wanted to take Almanzo as an apprentice.
Mother's brown eyes snapped, and her cheeks turned as red as her red wool dress. She laid down her knife and fork.
"I never heard of such a thing!" she said. "Well, the sooner Mr. Paddock gets that out of his head, the better! I hope you gave him a piece of your mind! Why on earth, I'd like to know should Almanzo live in town at the beck and call of every Tom, Dick and Harry?"
"Paddock makes good money," said Father. "I guess if truth were told, he banks more money every year than I do. He looks on it as a good opening for the boy."
"Well!" Mother snapped. She was all ruffled, like an angry hen. "A pretty pass the world's coming to, if any man thinks it's a step up in the world to leave a good farm and go to town!" How does Mr. Paddock make his money, if it isn't catering to us?" I guess if he didn't make wagons to suit farmers, he wouldn't last long!"
"That's true enough," said Father. "But--"
"There's no 'but' about it!" Mother said. "Oh, it's bad enough to see Royal come down to being nothing but a storekeeper! Maybe he'll make money, but he'll never be the man you are. Truckling to the people for his living, all his days -- He'll never be able to call his soul his own."
For a minute Almanzo wondered if Mother was going to cry.
"There, there," Father said, sadly. "Don't take it too much to heart. Maybe it's all for the best, somehow."
"I won't have Almanzo going the same way!"
Mother cried. "I won't have it, you hear me?"
"I feel the same way you do," said Father. "But the boy'll have to decide. We can keep him here on the farm by law till he's twenty-one, but it won't do any good if he's wanting to go. No. If Almanzo feels the way Royal does, we better apprentice him to Paddock while he's young enough."...
..."He's too young to know his own mind," Mother objected.
Almanzo took another big mouthful of pie. He could not speak till he was spoken to, but he thought to himself that he was old enough to know he'd rather be like Father then like anybody else. He did not want to be like Mr. Paddock, even. Mr. Paddock had to please a mean man like Mr. Thompson, or lose the sale of a wagon. Father was free and independent; if he went out of his way to please anybody, it was because he wanted to.
Suddenly he realized that Father had spoken to him. He swallowed, and almost choked on pie. "Yes, Father," he said.
Father was looking solemn. "Son", he said, "you heard what Paddock said about you being apprentice to him?"
"What do you say about it?"
Almanzo didn't exactly know what to say. He hadn't supposed he could say anything. He would have to do whatever Father said.
"Well, son you think about it," said Father. "I want you should make up your own mind. With Paddock, you'd have an easy life, in some ways. You wouldn't be out in all kinds of weather. Cold winter nights, you could lie snug, in bed and not worry about young stock freezing. Rain or shine, wind or snow, you'd be under shelter. You'd be shut up, inside walls. Likely you'd always have plenty to eat and wear and money in the bank."
"James!" Mother said.
"That's the truth, and we must be fair about it," Father answered. "But there's the other side, too, Almanzo. You'd have to depend on other folks, son, in town. Everything you got, you'd get from other folks.
"A farmer depends on himself, and the land and the weather. If you're a farmer, you raise what you eat, you raise what you wear, and you keep warm with wood out of your own timber. You work hard, but you work as you please, and no man can tell you to go or come. You'll be free and independent, son, on a farm."
Almanzo squirmed. Father was looking at him too hard, and so was Mother. Almanzo did not want to live inside walls and please people he didn't like, and never have horses and cows and fields. He wanted to be just like Father. But he didn't want to say so.
"You take your time, son. Think it over," Father said. "You make up your mind what you want."
"Father!" Almanzo exclaimed.
"Can I? Can I really tell you what I want?"
"Yes, son," Father encouraged him.
"I want a colt," Almanzo said....
..."If it's a colt you want, I'll give you Starlight."
"Father!" Almanzo gasped. "For my very own?"
"Yes, son. You can break him, and drive him, and when he's a four-year-old you can sell him or keep him, just as you want to. We'll take him out on a rope, first thing tomorrow morning, and you can begin to gentle him."