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Wendell Berry and Higher Education:
Cultivating Virtues of Place

by jack r. baker and jeffrey bilbro
university press of kentucky, 268 pages, $5
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College campuses are now filled with students wondering whether the years they are spending away from home and the debt they are incurring in the process will ever be worth it, especially now that an expensive degree is far from a guarantee of future employment. Even their professors are not immune to doubts about the value of higher education. Jack Baker and Jeffrey Bilbro of Spring Arbor University are writing primarily to their fellow academics, though students can benefit from reading their book before (or during) their own college careers.  Channeling Wendell Berry—best known for his writings on agriculture and rural life—Baker and Bilbro essentially ask, “Just what are we doing here?” If the authors succeed, students and professors will emerge believing that the goal is not to obtain a “good job” far away but to become a rooted, whole person.

Higher education is currently designed to “prepare students and faculty alike for a ‘better place’ than home.” As Berry’s friend Wes Jackson has put it, “upward mobility” is now the only major offered. Baker and Bilbro join Jackson and Berry in calling for an education focused instead on “homecoming,” a course of study designed to help people fit into their particular places rather than join in the ruining of creation in accordance with an abstract notion of progress.

It is hard to argue with the diagnosis. A survey of college marketing slogans will uncover far more sentiments along the lines of “Training the innovative leaders of tomorrow” than “Forming grateful stewards who treasure the past.” For example, the school where I teach fancies itself a “global” university, despite its modest enrollment and provincial location. Its slogan is “Why not change the world?”

Berry might well regard that question as non-rhetorical and point out that most people simply cannot change the world. He has written:

Young people are being told, “You can be anything you want to be.” Every student is given to understand that he or she is being prepared for “leadership.” All of this is a lie. … And these lies are not innocent. They lead to disappointment. They lead good young people to think that if they have an ordinary job, if they work with their hands, if they are farmers or housewives or mechanics or carpenters, they are no good.

And even those—the Robert Oppenheimers of the world—who can change the world often should not. Berry points to the words of Milton’s Satan, who declared, “The mind is its own place.” For Berry, this displaced mind is emblematic of our innovative age, in which we will do what is possible without a thought to what is prudent. The assumption that the mind may “choose its own place in the order of things,” writes Berry, “usurps divine authority, and thus, in classic style, becomes the author of results that one can neither foresee nor control.”

Baker and Bilbro are good students of the Berry canon. They begin each chapter with an excerpt from Berry’s fiction, close with a poem, and sprinkle selections from Berry’s essays in between. In short, they mine this vein of Berry’s thought for all it’s worth, and produce a good general introduction to Berry for the uninitiated.

For those who prefer to go directly to the source, Berry’s most focused treatment of education appears in his essay “The Loss of the University.” There, Berry bemoans that in its quest to churn out marketable specialists in narrower and narrower subfields, the modern university “more and more resembles a loose collection of lopped branches waving randomly in the air,” rather than a unified “Tree of Life” with a trunk of core knowledge. Berry calls academics to refrain from hiding behind jargon and “speak plainly in the common tongue.” And he rails against the notion that the Bible or Shakespeare or anything else worth reading can be studied dispassionately, ruling out the possibility that one might learn actual truth from such works. Any faculty retreat would be enhanced by a collective reading of this seminal essay.

Baker and Bilbro amplify Berry’s call for more real discourse between the disciplines and for more truth claims in the classroom. In exploring his themes of tradition, hierarchy, geography, and community, they also offer a host of their own action items—things as varied as bringing back large campus gardens (such as their institution once had), favoring hands-on instruction and handwritten notes, focusing research on the local and practical, avoiding professorial bluster by saying “I don’t know” as appropriate, cultivating a rooted and stable faculty, and highlighting ordinary people in alumni magazines.

They also reply to some of Berry’s critics, such as those who see the language of “hierarchy” and “knowing your place” as a cover for repression based on sex and race. While acknowledging that a cycle of oppression is a real risk historically, the authors argue that the threat today comes not from “too-rigid hierarchies” but from “a chaotic lack of any order whatsoever.” With assists from Peter Leithart and Wilfred McClay, Baker and Bilbro propose that a proper “gratitude” includes the “freedom to correct and improve the gifts of our inheritance.”

Baker and Bilbro see a focus on “place” as common ground for the religious and secular academies, and a platform for reform. Personally, I doubt that the ground is solid enough to hold for long, disconnected from its bedrock. Berry’s vision presupposes a created order that is dependent on a Creator whom Berry encounters primarily through the Christian scriptures. Yet Berry’s renown in liberal camps could serve as an opening to a fuller dialogue within academia. And within the classroom, Bilbro and Baker remind those at the lectern that we need not encourage every student to shoot for the stars. Shooting for the county may well result in a better life, and a better world.

John Murdock is a globetrotting localist currently teaching law in Korea.

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