Wendell Berry and Higher Education
Cultivating Virtues of Place
Publication Year: 2017
Prominent author and cultural critic Wendell Berry is well known for his contributions to agrarianism and environmentalism, but his commentary on education has received comparatively little attention. Berry has been eloquently unmasking America's cultural obsession with restless mobility for decades, arguing that it causes damage to both the land and the character of our communities. Education, he maintains, plays a central role in this obsession, inculcating in students' minds the American dream of moving up and moving on.
Drawing on Berry's essays, fiction, and poetry, Jack R. Baker and Jeffrey Bilbro illuminate the influential thinker's vision for higher education in this pathbreaking study. Each chapter begins with an examination of one of Berry's fictional narratives and then goes on to consider how the passage inspires new ways of thinking about the university's mission. Throughout, Baker and Bilbro argue that instead of training students to live in their careers, universities should educate students to inhabit and serve their places. The authors also offer practical suggestions for how students, teachers, and administrators might begin implementing these ideas.
Baker and Bilbro conclude that institutions guided by Berry's vision might cultivate citizens who can begin the work of healing their communities -- graduates who have been educated for responsible membership in a family, a community, or a polity.
Published by: The University Press of Kentucky
Series: Culture of the Land
Title Page, Copyright Page
In 1978 Wendell Berry delivered a commencement address to the graduates of Centre College. Although it was given almost forty years ago, its vision of placed education remains as important as ever. In this speech Berry outlines the ecological and moral order to which humans are responsible, and he points to the ancient virtues that can sustain us in our proper place within this order. Berry quotes from Milton’s Comus to critique gluttony and challenge the graduates to practice the virtue of temperance. The epilogue of
Our current university system caters to Americans’ most consumerist, selfish tendencies: universities promise to deliver lucrative employment and “upward mobility,” and for these sought-after commodities they can demand ever-higher tuition. As Wendell Berry has been arguing for decades, however, an education founded upon such a reductive economic exchange cannot expect to form healthy, virtuous community members. As the ecological and human costs of our hollowed-out rural communities...
1 Imagining the Tree of Wisdom
The poem that concludes the introduction invites us to come to our places and learn how “to renew, to make / whole, what ill use had broken.” Our ability to imagine wholeness even in the midst of brokenness is central to the task of renewal. Unfortunately, contemporary universities generally fail to form students’ imaginations in any holistic manner, choosing instead to focus on narrow, specialized training. Berry’s novella Remembering powerfully depicts the importance of the imagination in healing the dismemberment and displacement caused by our contemporary mode of life and education....
2 Standing by Our Words
In order to judge our knowledge against the dual standards of the tree of wisdom and the health of our place, we need to learn to speak a more responsible language. This is part of Berry’s prayer in his invocation to Remembering, that he would “keep in mind / The truth and end to which my words now move / In hope.” So in this chapter we consider two related questions. First, what does this responsible language look like? And second, how might universities begin to cultivate such a language?...
3 Doing Good Work
Work keeps our imaginations and words accountable to the real needs of our places; it is the way we walk as we talk. Work thus provides an important corrective to our dualistic culture in which we tend to privilege mind and soul over body. Universities too often institutionalize this dualism, promising their graduates “freedom” from manual labor. Yet this dualism causes great damage to ourselves and to our places, denying our embodied existence in a physical world. An education in the service of health must...
Introduction to Part 2
In the first half of this book we laid out a three-part approach to educating students for homecoming: share stories of habitation and dwelling to form healthy imaginations; study the trivium and read literature for what it can teach us about speaking a common, responsible language; and do work that enacts our love so that university members participate in local, healing economies. For imagination, language, and work to flourish in students’ lives, though, students also need to practice virtues or habits that...
Memory may be the habit that is most fundamental to the process of education. At its core, education involves handing down cultural memory and wisdom. As Berry describes it, “The inescapable purpose of education must be to preserve and pass on the essential human means—the thoughts and words and works and ways and standards and hopes without which we are not human. To preserve these things and to pass them on is to prepare students for life.”1 While this sounds straightforward, the magnitude of...
The poet’s vision of a community sustaining abundant life in its place through the sacrament of memory also functions as an expression of gratitude for the beauty and richness of this life. It is in this way that memory should lead to gratitude, to recognizing our dependence on the past, on our place, on our community. In fact, as much as thought depends on memory, it also depends on thanksgiving. Drawing on the meaning of the Greek word logos, Martin Heidegger links memory and thought as a prelude to his famous identification of thinking and thanking.1 As one scholar...
In many ways, educating students to dwell faithfully in their geographic place is at the heart of Berry’s vision for universities. As institutions, universities have long been wayward, turning their gaze away from the needs and opportunities of their local places to seek recognition and funding from cultural and economic centers. Such institutional waywardness leads to graduates who have been trained to seek better opportunities in better places rather than to settle down and faithfully inhabit a place. Our hope...
We end this book with a chapter on love. We are aware of the danger in invoking so eviscerated a term. Given that we have labored to be precise throughout this argument, we fear we might lose some readers by arguing for love as the foundational communal virtue in higher education. The word dwells in our language as an abstraction of the worst sort; it is probably not too much to say that love has lost nearly any real meaning or usefulness—for it is equally acceptable to proclaim that we love our spouses,...
The Mad Farmer’s injunction to plant sequoias may not make much sense to a culture that measures success based on quarterly profit statements. But these expectations for immediate, easily measurable results contribute to a diseased, displaced culture in which we treat symptoms with quick fixes and then sell out and move on rather than doing the hard work of cultivating long-term, rooted health. Jayber likewise struggles with the apparent insufficiency of his love for Mattie and the Port William membership...
There aren’t many English Departments in which two-fifths of the professors
study Wendell Berry. So when Jeff took a job as an Americanist
at Spring Arbor University and joined Jack, a medievalist by training, we
immediately began to talk about collaborating on a project. Our many
long, wide-ranging conversations culminated in this book.
As newly minted PhDs, both rather jaded by the egoism and careerism our profession too often rewards, we hoped our work as teachers and scholars would have a greater purpose than promotions, research leave, and more prestigious job offers. Thus the healthier vision for the university...
One of our joys while working on this project was to experience the great affection of friends, colleagues, and family who encouraged us to write what we believe. And as Proverbs 27:17 proclaims: “Iron sharpeneth iron; so a man sharpeneth the countenance of his friend.” This work is the result of such a sharpening of our thoughts and a strengthening of our friendships....
Page Count: 268
Publication Year: 2017
Series Title: Culture of the Land
Series Editor Byline: Norman Wirzba See more Books in this Series
MUSE Marc Record: Download for Wendell Berry and Higher Education