November 30, 2010 / Theology
This essay is neither for nor against Glenn Beck. The philosopher Michel Foucault warns us …
At some point in our lives, all of us have been students and have felt the vague malevolence of that monster we know as educational policy. Some teachers begin their careers thinking they will become the reformers of these educational forces only to realize that they not only have failed to vanquish the monster, but that they haven’t even discovered its lair. The more sophisticated critics of higher education may generate analyses of the monsters’ habits and whereabouts, but many of these critiques are predicated on shaky notions of reality. Education commentators worry that we’re falling behind economically because we haven’t shored up math and science, because our children don’t study enough compared to Chinese children, and so on, yet this line of reasoning veils the real problem with our educational system. In fact, such thinking reinforces the real problem: academia is overly concerned with what is “relevant.” Relevance has an attraction and immediacy to it that woos administrators, parents, and students. But the hard shell of relevance makes the monster so slippery that it can’t be cornered. Although the notion of a relevant education may sell seats, it comes at the price of disease and dislocation as the monster still rules the arena.
Wendell Berry has been critiquing society’s unhealthy practices for forty years, but some of his most harrowing critiques are directed at this monster of higher education. Indeed, after Berry decided to “quit” from the University of Kentucky to farm his land full-time, he insisted on that verb, emphatically asserting that he did not “retire” or “move on”—his point was that he could no longer identify himself with a large state university that, as he argues in Life is a Miracle, fosters an “academic Darwinism [that] inflicts severe penalties both upon those who survive and those who perish. Both must submit to an economic system which values their lives strictly according to their productivity.”1 Berry offers an even harsher assessment when he states in “Higher Education and Home Defense” that the purpose of higher education has now devolved into training for “entrance into a class of professional vandals.”2 Ouch!
For those of us who love Berry’s ideas but make our living in higher education, his essays are a bit uncomfortable. But all is not lost, even under the stern gaze of Berry’s sharp farmer’s eyes; his work provides hope for what could happen to higher education if colleges and universities became true to their original purposes (that’s a huge “if” for Berry, but an “if” is better than a never). So in his essay “The Loss of the University”—that title really sets the mood—Berry fights through the clouds to glimpse a far-away goal: “If the proper work of the university is only to equip people to fulfill private ambitions, then how do we justify public support? If it is only to prepare citizens to fulfill public responsibilities, then how do we justify the teaching of arts and sciences? The common denominator has to be larger than either career preparation or preparation for citizenship. Underlying the idea of a university—the bringing together, the combining into one, of all the disciplines—is the idea that good work and good citizenship are the inevitable by-products of the making of a good—that is, a fully developed—human being. This, as I understand it, is the definition of the name university.”3
In some ways this is an old idea (Cardinal Newman was already beginning to lament the undermining of such purposes 150 years ago in his The Idea of the University), but Berry’s sharp questions indicate just how novel and even fantastical it seems in our current milieu. Indeed, the broader message of “The Loss of the University” is that until the fiercely guarded boundaries of academic specialization are broken down, until each department, division, and discipline ceases to create its own narrow silos of knowledge over against the others, there will be no possibility of wholeness for the student. And anyone who has endured the rancor of a faculty meeting understands how distant such a goal now seems.
Berry hasn’t left us without direction, and we have his granddaughter to thank for that. Indeed, it was a surprise to hear that a man who is much more likely to speak at a cattleman’s convention or a protest against strip-mining than in an academic context agreed to do a commencement address as he has did recently at Bellarmine University and Duke Divinity School. We admit a brief flush of envy—the one time we dared to write Berry and ask him to come to Cornerstone University, he wrote back telling us he was trying to stay home more. The Bellarmine University address was given in Louisville, which is pretty close to home for him, both geographically and in the case of the class of 2007,4 familially, with his granddaughter among the graduates. And perhaps some heartstring was tugged, because Berry’s tone, if not glowing with optimism, was at least open to the thought that students at small colleges might still have a chance: “A school the size of this one still can function as a community of teachers and students, with responsible community life as its unifying aim.”
Yet the strong current, the unceasing riptide of the unholy quadrumvirate that Berry identifies as “STEM: science, technology, engineering, and mathematics,” will pull each student to become “an unconscious expert with Jesus Christ Munitions Incorporated, or Cleanstream Water Polluters, or the Henry Thoreau Noise Factory, or the John Muir Forest Reduction Corporation, or the Promised Land Mountain Removal Service.” According to Berry’s assessment, this path of death and ruin is masked as a glowing opportunity, or perhaps as our only means of retaining primacy in the global marketplace. The universities are buying it, parents are buying it, students are buying it, economists are buying it—but ultimately, Berry tells us that we need not shop for a tasteless education sold in six packs. There is a path out, a path of resistance and recovery that will lead us to fresh waters.
Thus, Berry calls the Bellarmine graduates to resist—to resist “technological determinism,” to resist “conventional greed and thoughtless individualism,” to resist “the global corporate empire and its economic totalitarianism.” In so doing, Berry suggests that graduates will enter into an alternate stream in our culture, a stream of people “who are already resisting—those who believe, in spite of the obstacles and the odds, that a reasonable measure of self-determination, for persons and communities, is both desirable and necessary.” To ask the hard questions and make the hard decisions involved in such resistance will be the work of a lifetime—Berry notes for the graduates that it will “involve you endlessly in out-of-school learning”—but it will be a lifetime of richness beyond the bounds of earning capacity and financial acuity. Ultimately, Berry calls for a set of choices, a constant reasserting of the basic choice that the right sort of college curriculum will have initiated; in his winsome terms, he affirms that “You will have to avoid thinking of yourselves as employable minds equipped with a few digits useful for pushing buttons. You will have to recover for yourselves the old understanding that you are whole beings inextricably and mysteriously compounded of minds and bodies.”
Whole beings—not fragmented, not dislocated, not splintering into a thousand pieces and directions based on social and economic necessity, not dying slowly under a facade of activity and prosperity. How might we be agents of this wholeness? How might we be teachers of the Berryian modes of resistance?5 We have determined at least three layers of mentoring wherein we can instill patterns of wholeness to help students learn what it means to be placed and at home.
At the first level, we seek to show dislocated and distressed students the nature of their condition (of our whole cultural condition!) in the context of an invitational learning community. OK, OK, easier said than done. Students coming from broken homes, troubled and troubling churches, hypersexualized high schools, and the mass chaos of a popular-culture-as-guide-to-life philosophy do not need to be convinced something has gone awry. Guiding students into worldview crises, shaking up their idolatries, revealing ourselves as co-strugglers yet hopeful models—these are grueling labors. But the learning community at a Christian liberal arts college could be one of the healthiest settings for such struggles, because these questions can be ruminated upon with faculty who most likely experience similar struggles and who seek not to demolish or demean students’ ill-formed notions so much as to redirect, to relocate them near life-giving waters.
We have found Berry’s essays, poems, and especially his fiction to be a key component in this tenuous work. For instance, in the finale to our Introduction to Philosophy course, we have used Berry’s volume of essays The Way of Ignorance to suggest that in modernity’s failed wake, in the midst of the postmodern grappling for hope, Berry’s vision of local communities as places of healing offers an alternative that is both disorienting and hopeful for the miasma they have (hopefully) encountered during the semester. We’ve also forged strong connections with students in teaching a course called Home Economics that is based around Berry’s book of the same name; the class is also inspired by his short stories from That Distant Land, which offer a sort of anecdotal vision for local community that is embodied in the people and place of Port William, Kentucky (Berry’s fictive doppelganger for his own hometown of Port Royal). The students in this class not only voiced the dislocation in which they found themselves, but they also hashed out possible remedies, or at least, in the terms of Berry’s Bellarmine University address, modes of resistance.
We got a glimpse that semester of what a Christian university could be if students learned to imagine the contours of a “fully-orbed community.”6 Matt also saw something like this during his time as a graduate student at the Institute for Christian Studies in Toronto when, in the middle of philosophical and theological wrestling, a daily three o’clock teatime allowed senior and junior members, administration, staff, and visitors to convene for genial conversation, for a reassertion of the human element that is present in all higher learning endeavors. That repeated sense of invitation and hospitality, in the midst of and, indeed, as a part of the fray, hits just the right note in the sort of harmony we seek for our students.
At the second level is the intentionality of the university in weaving into its own broader geographical proximity, which is crucial in transforming the university from a tool of dislocation to a workshop in relocation. Indeed, town-versus-gown tensions are fairly common—the massive state school that domineers and coerces the locals with its corporate presence, the small school that condescends to the local yokels and seeks to keep aloof—and a few years ago, The Chronicle of Higher Education had a back-page article suggesting that universities and colleges ought to seek healthier, more integrative relationships with their surrounding municipalities. The article’s reasons were those of mutualism: economic partnerships, a better disseminating of theoretical notions into practical situations. But we see a much sharper imperative for the faith-based school, because of the call to hospitality and being at home.
Our own school has dwelt on the fringe of its home city for sixty plus years, but much of its time has been spent in a fortress mentality, one of suspicion toward the vices of the city (and a commensurate public image of snootiness and perhaps fanaticism). Hence, students learned little about being located while at college—indeed, if anything, the work of dislocation was furthered. A more recent ethos of service to the underprivileged of the community has created a few more connections, but it has perhaps continued to emphasize the sort of self and other duality that bears rootless fruit.
We’ve begun to ask ourselves, and the administration of our school, what it might mean to be fully located here in Grand Rapids. How might the impulse toward sustainability, which is a hallmark of our city (we have a full-time Sustainability Director in the mayor’s office and the most green buildings per capita in the United States, including a brand new art museum), be complemented by programs, majors, facilities, and other embodiments of our university? How might the notion of students living in deliberate minicommunities in various areas of need throughout the city—a practice that has already been embraced by our goodly neighbor, Calvin College—create more of a sense of wholeness, both for our students in their experience and for the community in which they live? What sorts of interstices and confluences might be discovered if our school asked the city what we might do for the people and place in which we live, if we asked how we might best use our tremendous resources of thinkers and energetic students to serve (and not just incidentally or episodically, but in sustained, clear-eyed engagement)?
We imagine, ultimately, that both teachers and students (and, OK, I guess we can toss the administrators in there too!) will be refreshingly challenged to think about practicing what we preach. One creative possibility would be to allow students the opportunity to work off some tuition or housing costs through their commitments in the community—being at home in difficult settings to provide service, but more than service, something more like co-dwelling with those struggling and marginalized. The great cost increases that now perpetually plague higher education must be addressed by universities in ways that are morally meaningful, and this might be a way to do good to students while they are also able to practice the good themselves.
The third layer is one that is more or less forgotten in faculty and learning circles, one that is usually left to the development and fundraising folk: the alumni. As crass as the training for income production might be in many of our undergraduate and graduate settings, it’s probably the treatment of alumni that most clearly reinforces the apothegm: “Show me the money.” But what if that impulse were resisted, and the university community showed interest in the thinking and thriving of alumni minds? We have long aspired to create deep connections wherein our alumni, given a glimpse of the “fully-orbed community” while under our tutelage, then go out to locate and foster communities wherever they find themselves: knowing what questions to ask, knowing how to listen well, knowing how to stay put, and, crucially, knowing that their teachers want to hear back from them, want to communicate with them, want to play a role in all of the different home economies being formed.
Matt has tried to do this with his Philosophy alumni by means of wide-open communication lines and deliberate events, such as the yearly Philosophy Canoe Trip. This provides what homecomings of old might have provided: substantive human contact and conversation about the outworking of the vision gained in the college years—nothing like the elaborate depersonalized affairs that have evolved under the collective aegis of a thousand development offices.
If we could continuously ask our alumni to come back and tell current students how it is going, how the home-making is proceeding, what the pitfalls are, and what the wonderful bounty might be, perhaps the students wouldn’t feel so adrift, so betrayed upon graduation. Certainly a vigorous engagement of alumni with the student body—and conversely, getting students out to see the work that could await them when they join the resistance—would deepen the sense of why we educate in the first place.
“JOIN THE RESISTANCE!” It sounds a little melodramatic, a little Che Gueverean (if that can be an adjective), that is, until you walk into a classroom, or click into a cyberclassroom, or read an alumni fundraising letter, or sit in a Dilbertian cubicle, or work the tenth seventy-hour week in a row, or see another (and another and another) marriage break apart, another teenager plugged in behind a locked door, another eight-week-old infant tossed into a loving daycare. Suddenly, resistance is the only gesture that seems to point toward health, toward life.
We recall one of our favorite etymologies, that the word radical means not wild-eyed idealism or flipping the bird to authority, but instead rootedness (from the Latin radix, also the source of radish). We can be a part of that, we in higher education, in our own imperfect ways, as we teach what the Christian world and life vision means in all its obvious and subtle outworkings, as we give our push and then show the students where to push to try and overturn the idols of the age. And as we aspire to be a grounded and rooted school that embodies collectively the spirit of home-making we want each graduate to own. And as we try to keep the lines alive and buzzing between the campus and the multitudinous little communities of alumni, whose lives we want to hear and who we want to keep hearing from us. And so we return to Berry, our teacher of resistance, and hear him again as, at the end of the Bellarmine address, he asserts:
The logic of success insinuates that self-enlargement is your only responsibility, and that any job, any career will be satisfying if you succeed in it. But we can tell you, on the authority of much evidence, that a lot of people highly successful by that logic are painfully dissatisfied. We can tell you further that you cannot live in a career, and that satisfaction can come only from your life. To give satisfaction, your life will have to be lived in a family, a neighborhood, a community, an ecosystem, a watershed, a place, meeting your responsibilities to all those things to which you belong.
Let’s get that somewhere in our next set of learning objectives—put it on the syllabus and get to work!
2. Wendell Berry, Home Economics (San Francisco: Northpoint, 1987), 51.
3. Ibid, 77.
4. All of our quotes from this address are based on the text that is found at www.bellarmine. edu/studentaffairs/Graduation/berry_address.asp. Unless otherwise noted, the remaining quotes in this essay are from this address.
5. Many of these observations are based on the ruminations in Chapter 10 of our forthcoming book Wendell Berry and the Cultivation of Life: A Reader’s Guide (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2008).
6. Douglas Henry of Baylor University used these words when he spoke on our campus a few years ago.
Matt Bonzo was born and raised in southeastern Ohio and graduated from Liberty University (BS), Trinity Evangelical Divinity School (MA), and the Institute for Christian Studies in Toronto/Free University of Amsterdam (PhD). He has taught Philosophy at Cornerstone for ten years, and he is also the proprieter of Small Wonders Farm, a community-supported agriculture experiment that he runs with his wife Dorothe and his son Matthias on his land in Newaygo County. Unlike Wendell Berry, who still farms with draught horses, Bonzo has recently gone over to the dark side and purchased his first tractor.
Michael Stevens grew up in the Finger Lakes Region of upstate New York and graduated from Baptist Bible College of Pennsylvania (BS), St. John's College in Annapolis, Maryland (MA), and the University of Dallas (PhD). He has taught English classes at Cornerstone for eleven years and lives on the northeast side of Grand Rapids, where he is often seen walking to campus with his nose stuck in a book. Stevens is interested in T. S. Eliot, the Civil War, and baseball.