Wendell Berry And ‘The Loss Of The University’
by Terry Heick
There are a variety of questions that guide my work at TeachThought, each with their own available inferences and underlying assumptions, among them:
What should a person know?
What should a person do with what they know?
What are people for?
’Where’ are people (think metaphor)?
What is the relationship between a person and a ‘place’?
What kinds of changes (in social values, prevailing local technology, climate change, etc.) impact knowledge demands and in what way? And how might education begin to respond?
Should we teach content or teach thought? Of course, these aren’t mutually exclusive, but we’re involved here (insofar as we are involved in a ‘field’ of ‘public education) in a process that forces us to choose—or at least prioritize at key points that affect everything else.
What citizenships might guide a person’s knowledge and behavior?
How can we use critical thinking and literacy to support people to create and sustain systems (law, economics, writing/media, language, etc.) that give the best chance for people to not simply survive, but grow?
What is the relationship between a person, what they know, and their work? How can we support people to bring their best thinking and craftsmanship and affections to bear on the things that matter most to them? How can we care for the things we depend on so that they, in turn, can help care for us?
How is technology changing the world—and people? And people’s perception of the ‘world’?
What are is the relationship between knowledge, wisdom, thought, and living?
And how should education be formed in response?
Obviously, this can get a bit abstract fast.
Wendell Berry & Education
Kentucky author and farmer Wendell Berry has influenced my thinking and work here immeasurably, and when possible I try to squint a little and imagine his thinking in a variety of contexts—most immediately public education, which is where I came up with the idea of an ‘Inside-Out’ school model.
See also Ideas For Learning Through Humility
I recently read about a 2017 book that seeks to take this approach further, using Berry’s work to try to respond to the question, “What is college for?”
In the book ‘Wendell Berry & Higher Education: Cultivating Virtues Of Place,’ (affiliate link) the concept of ‘upward mobility’ is discussed, referencing Berry colleague and friend Wes Jackson’s questioning of a term deeply embedded in the American psyche: moving on up.
George Jefferson famously fleshed out this concept on American television—the concept of going to school, getting a job, and thus ‘making it’ by ‘leaving behind’ an old place to go to a better one. This is done, of course, not through a person’s work but rather a job, which results in money, which allows one to do things like afford the ‘new, better place.’
But what about place–the context for a person?
In The Power Of Place: How Where Students Live Affects What They Need To Know, I talked about the intersection between knowledge and education, learning and ‘careers’:
A person’s work, as opposed to a job, is about their ability to know what can and should be done, and to bring their experience and affection to bear on that work to do it, and do it well.
But what it means to do something well depends on context. Who is being taught? Where have they been? Where are they going? What do they need to know as a result? How can I help them come to know this content or these skills? To further clarify the necessary specificity, the pronouns have to be singular, not plural. Not “What do they need to know?”, but rather “What does this child, in this place, need to know?”
This is the foundation of personalized learning.
Berry’s most acute criticism on higher education is his essay ‘The Loss Of The University’ whose title alone implies enough. I was guiding this post towards a “What’s the point of college?” angle but realize now that the real message here isn’t that—not even the book above—but Berry’s essay (which I hadn’t read until today in spite of being an avid reader of everything Berry’s has ever published).
I wasn’t able to find it anywhere to read for free but you can purchase a PDF version for $3 if you’re so inclined, which is what I did.
If you read it (or have in the past), let me know your thoughts in the comments.