An Education Lesson From Wendell Berry

A review by Jim Powell of two recent books by Wendell Berry can be found here.

A quoted fragment of one of his poems will give you a sense for Berry’s worldview:

Ceaseless preparation for war
is not peace. Health is not procured
by sale of medication, or purity
by the addition of poison. Science
at the bidding of corporations
is knowledge reduced to merchandise;
it is a whoredom of the mind,
and so is the art that calls this “progress.”
So is the cowardice that calls this “inevitable.”

Berry left a successful academic career to farm and write. He and his wife have farmed in Kentucky since 1964.

Berry set out to learn how to conform his practice to nature’s ways, to “fit the farming to the land,” cultivating an alternative to industrial agriculture, a diversified farming harmonious with natural process and created under its tutelage—necessarily small-scale, since responsive collaboration requires the attentive hands-on stewardship that makes traditional farming sustainable in ways impossible to industrial methods; sustainable because natural limits are respected with care. Stewardship is local. Scale is also a cultural issue.

The last paragraph got me thinking about how we do education, especially university. Aren’t our large universities analogous to factory farms? Particularly in first year, when students are struggling to make a difficult transition from high school, and need a lot of attention; but we talk at them for a few hours per week in groups of 500. There is little time and few resources for “attentive hands-on stewardship” here. Sure it gets better for those who survive first year, but how much better would education be if practiced in small groups, where everyone knows you? How much better would it be if students had their own, individual dreams and goals, and their education was tailored to fit their intentions, not the other way around?

Is this hopelessly impossible? Yes, if the structure of the education system remains as it is. But this is the point: We must change the system.

It’s not the fault of individual professors that our system produces such poor results; they have enormous pressures on them to produce research, they have good intentions, and they care deeply about teaching. But this is the point: Even with such dedicated workers, the results are poor. There is nothing wrong with teachers, nothing wrong with students; the system ties all of their hands except in a few exceptional cases.

If you’re fortunate to be enrolled in a school that creates a warm environment, that lovingly tends to students as a gardener tends his growing plants, then you know how fantastic it is. The rest of us ought to be paying more attention to PSCS (see Steve Miranda’s wonderful blog) and places like it so that we can learn how to do school well.

(This post first appeared at my other (now deleted) blog, and was transferred to this blog on 21 January 2021.)