OK, here goes to try and finish the review of Wendell Berry’s What are People For?

We left it (for those diehards who keep reading this stuff), halfway through the excellent essay “The Work of Local Culture”. But it is worth persevering because of the underlying values-driven issues that affect all of us. The essay points up one area, that is particularly painful in the US, which is the loss of trust and understanding in local communities that means that professionals and local authorities have to pay vast sums as insurance premiums to cover the costs of any (likely) litigation.

It is just one example of how we build “arrangement” and “institution” in order to expect the worst. We do this in education all the time. We do not assess for success but for the expectation of failure. OFSTED does not inspect for success but because there is a sneaking suspicion that some teachers are just not “up to the job” and that the best way of overcoming failure is to describe the distance we have still to go, rather than the distance we have already travelled.

We see this in the post-Olympic debriefs now. All the talk is of funding imbalances, accountability, transparency – again, with the money as the main thing, as though there has to be an exact equation between money in and medals out. And all because we are so insecure as a nation that we are clinging onto this Olympic achievement as though, somehow, it graces all of us. A lot of people got paid quite a lot of money to go faster, higher, longer, round and round for a longer time on various modes of transport than anyone else. That’s it, actually. What it says about us as a nation, our relationship to God and his kingdom, our care for the poor, our love and cherishing of the elderly, our desire to be known for goodness and kindness to other nations, to build strong, attractive local communities and to live in peace, is slightly less clear. This is not to fail to celebrate the wonder of the Olympics (and what a wonder it was, in so many many ways) but to try and understand from scripture and experience how God views us as a nation.

But to return to the work of local culture. Berry again:

Our society, on the whole, has forgotten or repudiated the theme of return. Young people still grow up in rural families and go off to the cities, but not to return. It is now felt that this is what they should do. Now the norm is to leave and not return. And this applies as much to urban families as to rural ones….the children of industrial underlings are not likely to succeed their parents at work, and there is no reason for them to wish to do so…..

According to the new norm, the child’s destiny is not to succeed their parents, but to outmode them; succession has given way to supersession. And this norm is not institutionalised in the great communal stories, but in the education system. The schools are no longer oriented to a cultural inheritance that it is their duty to pass on unimpaired, but to the career, that is the future, of the child. The orientation is thus necessarily theoretical, speculative and mercenary. The child is not educated to return home and be of use to the place and community; he or she is educated to leave home and earn money in a provisional future that has nothing to do with place or community.

The argument goes on to say that in a place where education is dedicated to innovation, as much as industries are, then parents are naturally seen as a retarding influence, or at best, people who themselves have to be educated as to how to support their children’s school learning. When you see it this way,you can see how topsy-turvy we have become. Because our homes are now largely places of consumption rather than work and productivity, then parents may be glad to get children out from under their feet for a while, because there is no household task for them to learn at or from.

If there is no household or community economy, then family members and neighbours are no longer useful to one another….and people fall into dependence on exterior economies and organisations. The hegemony of professionals and professionalism erects itself on local failure, and from then on the locality exists merely as a market for consumer goods and as a source of “raw material”, human and natural.

Because the government and economy cannot be served with affection, he argues, we can only serve with professional zeal – or with boredom.  We arrive, for instance, at the idea that if we want to improve teaching, we pay teachers more – the only motivation left. However, this will not work, because:

…education cannot be improved…by bigger salaries alone. There must also be love of learning and of the cultural tradition and of excellence. And this love cannot exist, because it makes no sense, apart from the love of a place and of a community. Without this love, education is only the importation into a local community of centrally prescribed “career preparation” designed to facilitate the export of young careerists.

There are serious consequences to our turning education thus on its head. The main one is that if children, as is natural, rebel against their parents, and leave and do not return, they remain trapped in adolescence. The re-acquainting of the relationship, the growth into friendship, the understanding of our parents as “fellow sufferers”, being forgiven and forgiving – all of this may be lost and the central plank of any family community lost. If we have no need or use for one another, then there is no context for our relationship. Another consequence then becomes our passion for innovation, for the new – this is down to having our own need for a specific identity separate from that of our parents or our community, and the definition of ourselves by what we have – the opposite of Jesus’ teaching that our life does not consist in the abundance of our possessions.

The main cost (what Berry calles the ecological cost) is that our communities, thus deprived of their values and their distinctiveness and self-suffiency, become prey for multi-nationals, advertisers, corporate opportunists, government initiatives and other forms of centralised exploitation. This is not something that national governments can fix (calls from the centre to be more community minded is like geese being told to celebrate Christmas). It has to be done locally, by US, by those we live near.

The remaining essays in the book are all developments on this theme. The fascinating 2-page essay on “Why I am not going to buy a computer” led to much opprobium when first published, mainly because (despite Berry’s excellent arguments for NOT having one – according to his own standards for technological innovation) he mentioned that his wife did his typing and proofreading for all his work. He answered his apparently feminist critics in the next essay “Feminism, the Body and the Machine”, a sophisticated argument against the impact of technology on marriages, families, on the household economy and on education. The underlying point is that somewhere there needs to be made a stand, a “line in the sand” where it is recognised and taught that the sort of individualistic, highly personalised culture of current technology is mitigating against learning from each other, from families and from community. I agree with this very strongly, and have not really heard someone argue so cogently against the impact of innovation.

I know that “technological progress” can be defended, but I observe that the defences are invariably quantitative – catalogues of statistics…and I see that these statistics are always kept carefully apart from the statistics of soil loss, pollution, social disintegration and so forth. That is to say, there is never an effort to determine the net result of this progress….

…in general, apart from its own highly specialised standards of quantity and efficiency, “technological progress” has produced a social and ecological decline. Industrial war, except by the most fanatically narrow standards, is worse than war used to be. Industrial agriculture, except by the standards of quantity and mechanical efficiency, diminshes everything it affects. Industrial workmanship is certainly shoddier than traditional workmanship.

After 40-odd years, the evidence is everywhere that television, far from providing a great tool of education, is a tool of stupefaction and disintegration. Industrial education has abandoned the old duty of passing on the cultural and intellectual inheritance, in favour of baby-sitting and career preparation….how far down the natural order do we have to go to find creatures who raise their young as indifferently as industrial humans now do? When else in history would you find “educated” people who know more about sports than about the history of their country, or uneducated people who do not know the stories of their families and communities?

We do not need to plan or devise a world of the future; it we take good care of the world of the present, the future will have received full justice from us….we have no need to contrive and dabble at “the future of the human race”; we have the same pressing need as we have always had – to love, care for and teach our children.

This linking of the present and the future was referred to in the diocesan conference I attended in June – and Bishop Alan Wilson’s quote seems never more apposite:

The only way to prepare children for the future is to enable them to live fully, authentically, generously in the present, so that as an uncertain future unfolds, they will find joy and practise love, to shape their world as well as react to it.

A final word from Berry, in the last but one essay entitled “Word and Flesh”. In trying to understand exactly how we might reclaim the earth, community by community and neighbourhood by neighbourhood, he says:

What can accomplish this reduction? I will say again, without overweening hope but with certainty nonetheless, that only love can do it. Only love can bring intelligence out of the institutions and organisations, where it aggrandizes itself, into the presence of the work that must be done. Love…exists by its willingess to be anonymous, humble and unrewarded.

If you have enjoyed the quotes and the arguments, get the book. It is published by Counterpoint and cost me less than a tenner.

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About Huw Humphreys

I am a headteacher in the city of Milton Keynes, where I have been since April 2011, looking to make education effective for the whole child and keeping a distant relationship with the powers that be and their narrowing approach to education... but most of all I am looking to find out what it means to be both a follower of Jesus Christ and a passionate educator in the midst of an unsettled community. I am also a part time musician, part time linguist and lover of history and literature...committed both to freedom to learn and depth of learning for all our children. The views on this blog are all my own, and not in any way those of the school I lead!

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