It’s been a while since I have read anything new by Wendell Berry, but as he is the most influential non-educationist on the way I think and act, I have eagerly been devouring his latest set of essays, entitled Our Only World.
The essays were all written (or given as talks) between 2010 and 2014, and are classic Berry – a fierce defence of a right relationship with the land, of its mystery and complexity, and an honouring of those who treat it well and a tirade, forensically argued, against those who would destroy it in the name of an industrial standard. So far I have read only two of the essays completely – the first is called Paragraphs from a Notebook (2010) and argues forcefully for the fact that if we study detail of a subject, of a body, of a process or of an extractable resource, we do not in any clear way that matters, see the whole. That the whole is more than the sum of its parts we readily acknowledge in a range of disciplines, but we still fail to measure the impact on a woodland or mountain range or mineral extraction, as though that is not a cost we should be taking account of. The increase of asthma in the upper Swansea Valley and the top of the Vale of Neath due to opencast coal mining is a small example. This is a Google Maps picture of the village where I first taught, to give you some idea of the issue.
In my line of work, our focusing on details of education means we fail to see the whole child. In focusing on outcomes or results in English and maths, we fail our children as children. We say, don’t we, that our English results and our Maths test outcomes stand for (as proxy) the whole child, and that if we do well by children we can know this by their English and Maths scores. This is patent nonsense, as anyone with a concern for the arts, the physical body and the lives and loves of families knows very well. This is the language of the consumer of education. We put certain things in, we pay for certain things through our taxes, and therefore we demand, demand, that the education system (an industrial one, in that it is not local, but assumes that needs and desires are the same everywhere) churns out children with particular outcomes. Blessed are the parents whose first joy is their children’s joy! Blessed are the children whose parents see the whole of their lives as valuable, and not just the money-earning bit thereof! Blessed are those children whose parents are able to fashion a solid criticism of the consumerist culture and teach their offspring to stand against it.
Blessed, above all, are those children for whose parents education is holistic and rooted in their past and their culture, in their family experience and their love of place. As Berry concludes in this first essay:
Scared for health, afraid of death, bored, dissatisfied, vengeful, greedy, ignorant and gullible – these are the qualities of the ideal consumer. Can we imagine a way of education that would turn passive consumers into active and informed critics, capable of using their own minds in their own defense? It will not be the purely technical education-for-employment n ow advocated by the most influential “educators” and “leaders”.
The second essay is entitled the Commerce of Violence and is an indictment of a way of life that depends on violence to get what it wants, whether violence against enemies, violence against native Americans, or violence against the land. “In the Appalachian coalfields,” writes Berry “we mine coal by destroying a mountain, its forest, waterways and its human community without counting that destruction as a cost. Our military technicians, our representatives, sit in armchairs and kill our enemies, and our enemies’ children, by remote control (p16)”. Writing in response to the Boston Marathon bombing of April 2013, Berry talks about the way we “congratulate ourselves perpetually on our Civil War” to free slaves, but says we forget that the same army that won that war established the “right” of a war of extermination against native Americans.
Nobody who knows our history, from the “Indian wars” to our contemporary foreign wars of “homeland defense”, should find anything unusual in the massacre of civilians and their children.
Bringing this back to the work for which education exists, Berry argues:
To help our suffering of one man-made horror after another, we would have to revise radically our understanding of economic life, of community life, of work and of pleasure. We employ thousands of scientists and spend billions of dollars to reduce matter to its smallest particles and to search for farther stars. How many scientists and…dollars are devoted to harmony between economy and ecology, or to amity and lenity in the face of hatred and killing. To learn to meet our needs without continuous violence against one another and our only world would require an immense intellectual and practical effort, requiring the help of every human being perhaps to the end of human time. This would be work (education) worthy of the name “human”. It would be fascinating and lovely.
The third essay is actually about forestry and logging, in which Berry points to the thinking of the industrial way we extract wood from forests (slashing and complete extermination of woods) with a view to the health of the whole forest that can be maintained carefully by a more sustainable logging approach (known as worst-first single tree selection). But through it, I found parabolic references to the way we treat children and to the purpose of a local economy that benefits all its local inhabitants and which begins to offer a source of reliance to other members of that community. Take this passage, for example:
But a forest economy, however well-adapted. however concordant with its ecosystem, cannot stand or continue alone. For a local economy to become truly sustainable, it must function as a belonging, a support and an artifact, or a local culture. The great need we are talking about is to hold the local forest ecosystem together, but that leads to a second need, just as great, which is to hold the local forest economy and therefore the local human community together. The two needs can only be answered by a thriving, confident, stable local culture in which the young would learn from their elders. Change and innovation would naturally occur, but would not be imposed from the outside or for the benefit primarily of outsiders….the community would understand that it exists in part to cherish the forest and to preserve its knowledge of the forest (p35).
And having described a highly successful local sustainable foresting venture, Berry describes the nature of the knowledge needed by those able to sustain such an enterprise. It has much to teach us about the value of education to our children:
“Forestry is mainly observational, rather than theoretical” By “observation”, Troy means walking and looking, paying attention, season after season, for many years. Eventually, a profound familiarity will grow between an observant forester and the places of the forest. Such knowledge is what we mean, maybe, by “sympathy” or “sixth sense” or “intuition”. It is the knowledge that tells one, in a given situation, where to look or what to expect or how much is enough. It tells (the forester) what to take and what to leave.
Though this certainly is knowledge, and though it certainly comes by a kind of education, it cannot be conveyed in courses or curricula or majors. This education is “observational” and it takes many years. To know competently a tract of forest, Troy says, “is going to take decades. That’s all there is to it”….this is why it is important for good foresters both to stay put and to have local successors.
These metaphors are worthwhile. In the same essay, Berry contrasts the nature of agricultural harvesting (annual cutting of crops that will grow again within a year) with forestry, where the trees will outlive most humans. If the metaphor of farming is pertinent to the education of children (and I believe it to be so with all my being), then the metaphor of forestry is even more so, as the longevity of the growth of trees to maturity is more akin to the growth of children and their maturation into functioning and thinking adults. Communities are needed to nurture children to maturity. As I have found from my own life and from those around me whom I have observed, adults who grow within the knowledge and care of a single sustained village or town community have a peaceful maturity that we fly-by-nights, flitting around the world in search of “experiences,” can never hope for.
What we hope for in our children will never leave us. What we desire for them is a permanent thing. I can tell you the names of the children in the first class I taught in Penrhos, the little village due west of the opencast mine in the picture above and within me is the desire that they succeed and make something of their lives that is greater than that which I put in. They are trees, hopefully planted and rooted in the community they still live in, to the great benefit of that community and its future.
Saying the same for those who live in Grange Farm is much harder, but we start somewhere.
For those of us who love the work and thinking of Wendell Berry, there is a lovely and heart warming televised interview with him with Bill Moyers on the Moyers & Company website. The transcript can be downloaded from the same page and is worth reflecting on simply for the pace and fullness of life it evinces.