I believe in love at first sight. And well I should, considering that I met my husband on a blind date twenty-one years ago last week and we have been inseparable ever since! But today I have a new love–an incident of “love at first read”–in Wendell Berry. I have heard people talk about Mr. Berry for years, but I had not gotten around to reading any of his work until a few days ago, when I walked out of the library with an armload of books to preview for Willow Tree’s developing high school reading list. One of the books was Berry’s What Matters? Economics for a Renewed Commonwealth. I checked it out thinking that it was, well, a book on economics, in the hope that I had found a living book on that subject. A living economics book, indeed it is. But what I did not expect was for the ideas to sweep me off my feet the way they did.
For those who are unfamiliar with Berry’s work, he is a farmer, a poet, an essayist, a novelist, and a culture critic. His writings are reminiscent of Tolstoy, Thoreau, and Eric Sloane in their small scale, local, pastoral emphasis. Like them, he is critical of our culture’s obsession with industrialism and consumerism. And like the Jubilee Manifesto that I mentioned in an earlier blog, his ideas are rooted in the Christian tradition, and they challenge modern Christians to rethink their positions on economic, social, cultural, and environmental issues. Consider this small excerpt, from the first essay in the book, entitled, “Money Versus Goods:”
“A properly ordered economy, putting nature first and consumption last, would start with the subsistence or household economy and proceed from that to the economy of markets. It would be the means by which people provide to themselves and to others the things necessary to support life: goods coming from nature and human work. It would distinguish between needs and mere wants, and it would grant a firm precedence to needs” (Berry, 2010, p. 4). He continues on the following page: “It [our current economy] has inverted the economic order that puts nature first. This economy is based upon consumption, which ultimately serves, not the ordinary consumers, but a tiny class of excessively wealthy people for whose further enrichment the economy is understood (by them) to exist. For the purpose of their further enrichment, these plutocrats and the great corporations that serve them have controlled the economy by the purchase of political power. The purchased governments do not act in the interest of the governed; they act instead as agents for the corporations. That the economy is, or was, consumption-based is revealed by the remedies now being proposed for its failure: stimulate, spend, create jobs” (Berry, 2010, p. 5).
All of that sounds like it could have come as a statement from the Occupy Wall Street movement, but Berry’s proposed solutions are not in the least Marxist. Instead, all he wants is for life to be lived on a human scale and with frugality and good common sense. He laments that we as a culture have bought into the lie that opportunities, growth, and resources are limitless. Our drive to produce and consume on such a large scale has left the earth depleted and polluted, families separated as children become “upwardly mobile,” and citizens without the basic knowledge that will ensure their survival if and when the current “anti-economy” collapses. What is needed is a “homecoming:” A return to persons, to place, to community, to relationships, and to acknowledgement of the natural limits that are part of human creatureliness. This is brilliant in its simplicity.
So what does this have to do with education? To answer that, I will quote from another essay, entitled, “Simple Solutions, Package Deals, and a 50-Year Farm Bill.” After writing about the negative effects that the long-distance food industry has had on citizens, farming, the environment, and communities, Berry says, “About now I begin to hear the distant rumble of two accusations that experience has taught me to anticipate: namely, that I am trying to ‘turn back the clock,’ and that I am a Luddite” (Berry, 2010, p. 58). As a Charlotte Mason educator, I can identify with that. After all, she did practice and write a century ago. That in itself is enough to make her outdated and irrelevant in the minds of some people. But the effects of corporate schooling have been just as devastating as those of corporate farming. Schools have bought into the idea that they exist to serve the economy, and that has led to practices that are anything but relational. It has caused the demise of the neighborhood school in favor of huge conglomerate institutions. Behavior systems have been put in place that ensure conformity and compliance. A fetish has been made of technology, which has caused schools to spend an obscene amount of money for equipment and software that will be outdated within a few years, even as teachers have been laid off or furloughed. And an ever-increasing emphasis on standardization and testing has lined the pockets of publishers while sending children to the nurse’s office with anxiety-induced symptoms. I do not believe that to protest these practices is backwards or anti-progress; it is just good common sense.
A friend in my doctoral cohort wrote her dissertation on motivation. She interviewed teachers to find out what they thought motivated their students, and then she interviewed the students to see what actually motivated them. The teachers gave a variety of answers, including grades, technological gizmos, and entertaining, dog-and-pony-show lessons. But what the students said motivated them most was when they had a teacher who cared about them and built relationships with them–who knew and had a passion for the subject matter and came alongside them to share it.
A child, a caring adult, a good book, an interesting idea, and a nurturing relationship. Education on a human scale. It’s brilliant in its simplicity. No one is going to make a lot of money with this model, but we will all be enriched, nonetheless.
Berry, W. (2010). What matters? Economics for a renewed commonwealth. Berkeley, CA: Counterpoint.
© Dr. Jennifer Spencer 2013
Jennifer is the director and lead teacher at Willow Tree Community School in Boiling Springs, NC.