I finished reading Wendell Berry’s Life Is a Miracle, written 20 years ago but still relevant today. I don’t know where to begin talking about it. There are so many things it touched on, including cultural and creation care, the dangers of corporate control of the arts and sciences, of people whose primary interest are wealth and power having control of higher education. I suppose that latter point is the one that resonates with me the most as an English instructor at a community college during this time.
This time. How strange it is. There are so many questions, and I can’t say that reading Berry’s book has offered me any specific answers, but perhaps it gives me something more important.
A new outlook.
At first Berry seems to be criticizing modern science, but it doesn’t take long before the reader realizes that his objections are more towards the commercialization of science and how it is being isolated from other academic disciplines–how undergraduate programs in our colleges and universities are moving away from the traditional idea of one student embracing multiple disciplines, working across curriculums for the good of all, to more and more isolation and specialization. Ironically, this movement is causing us to be less and less concerned with specific problems, and more importantly, the people who are right around us.
Early on, when Berry introduces his thesis, he caught my attention, discussing what he means by professionalism, which is not what most people think when they hear the word:
“All of the disciplines are increasingly identifiable as professionalisms, which are increasingly conformable to the aims and standards of industrialism…The professionals don’t care [his italics] where they are….They subscribe to the preeminence of the mind and (logically from that) of the career. The questions of propriety, calling as they must for local answers, call necessarily for small answers. But small local answers are now as far beneath the notice of porfessionalism as of commercialism. Professionalism aspires to big [his italics] answers that will make headlines, money, and promotions. It longs, moreover, for answers that are uniform and universal–the same styles, explanations, routines, tools, methods, models, beliefs, amusements, etc., for everybody everywhere. And like the corporations, whose appetite for ‘growth’ seems now ungovernable, the institutions of government, education, and religion are now all too likely to measure their success in terms of size and number. All the institutions seem to have learned to imitate the organizational structures and to adopt the values and aims of industrial corporations. It is astonishing to realize how quickly and shamelessly doctors and lawyers and even college professors have taken to drumming up trade, and how readily hospitals, once run according to the laws of healing, mercy, and charity, have submitted to the laws of professionalism, industrial methodology, careerism, and profit” (pp 14-15).
Yes! Yes! Yes!
Do you know how relieved I am that someone who is so widely respected, a prophet of our time, has written these words that my soul has been shouting for years?
Yes! Yes! Yes!
A publically funded college is a place where learning is fostered for all of the people in the community, not to be centered on corporate or government interests. Not that these interests are unimportant. Of course, they are, but they are best served by a faculty dedicated to teaching students to think and communicate clearly and critically, a staff that supports students and their instructors toward that end, an administration that is devoted to the welfare of ALL students, faculty, and staff. No matter what career the student is interested in pursuing, even if she dreams of being a writer, an artist, a musician or, God forbid, an actor. No matter what subject the professor teaches, even if he teaches the history of jazz. No matter what the staff members do, whether they be registrars or receptionists.
It is not the job of any administrator, board member or government entity involved with a college or university to decide what learning is valuable and which is not.
The quote above raises another issue that has long been heavy on my heart– the insane idea of trying to standardize college-level instruction. Why do so many in higher education think it is a benefit to a young adult to encounter the same material, assignments, activities, grading rubrics, online platforms? Why this emphasis on sameness? How can students learn to navigate an ever-changing world if they don’t start learning to adapt to change while they are in college?
Wendell Berry gave me the answer–because sameness comes from the corporate mindset of “producing” as many “successful” graduates as cheaply and quickly as possible. And what is the sign of success?–a job.
But, I digress. Sorry, it’s the way I’m built. Just ask my students.
Berry discusses three institutions he feels are most affected by this professionalism–science, the arts, and religion. He begins with science and much of what he says has great relevance to two crises in our world today–do I need to even name them?
When discussing the limitations of science due to the deficiencies of our mental capacities (we don’t like to think we are limited but that we are is beyond doubt), Berry says the following:
“The fallibility of a human system of thought is always the result of incompleteness. In order to include some things, we invariably exclude others. We can’t include everything because we don’t know everything…. The incompleteness of a system is rarely if ever perceptible to those who made it or to those who benefit from it. To those who are excluded from it, the incompleteness of a system is, or eventually becomes, plain enough. One weakness of the present system,… is that it excludes all inscrutable and ineffable things, including the life history of the human soul” (pp. 34-35).
When a writer like Wendell Berry, not only a writer and a poet, but also a farmer and conservationist, some would even call an environmental activist, writes about science, he embues his words with the inscrutability and ineffabilty that he sees lacking in modern science. How he strings the words together, how he brings more than simple meaning but part of his soul to the page is evidence of what is at the crux of what I think is his intended meaning.
Science, the arts, religion, they need each other, depend on each other.
We need the complexity, the exactness of science, we need the mystery and symbolism of the arts, we need the sanctity and hope of religion to help bring us together and to help us include those who have for too long been excluded.
I don’t have time to talk about all of the many great ideas in Berry’s book, so I will conclude this scattered review with one piece of advice: Read it!
And with one last quote from the book:
“If we were as fearful of our knowledge and our power as in our ignorance we ought to be–and as our cultural and religious traditions instruct us to be–then we would be trying to reconnect the disiplines both within the universities and in the conduct of the professions” (p. 145).
Berry, Wendell. Life Is a Miracle, Counterpoint, 2000.