Tag Archives: Wendell Berry

It All Turns on Affection

I continue to wonder, why do we attempt to impose technocratic solutions on contexts such as education that require the nexus of human relationships? To be more specific, why do use a market driven model of corporate education reform imposed from the top that uses data abstracted from context? It’s kind of like arguing for a first down in the game of basketball. 

One of my heroes is the philosopher/poet/novelist/farmer Wendell Berry, who thinks about this issue in relation to land use, but his thinking goes beyond simple categorization. In his important lecture for the National Endowment for the Humanities, Berry writes of the importance of affection. “I will say, from my own belief and experience, that imagination thrives on contact, on tangible connection. For humans to have a responsible relationship to the world, they must imagine their places in it…By imagination we recognize with sympathy the fellow members, human and nonhuman, with whom we share our place. By that local experience we see the need to grant a sort of preemptive sympathy to all the fellow members, the neighbors, with whom we share the world. As imagination enables sympathy, sympathy enables affection. And it is in affection that we find the possibility of a neighborly, kind and conserving economy.” 

There is so much in that one paragraph, but, importantly, note that affection is a value that is necessary in an economy that is humane and connected to place. It is an emotion that both recognizes the value and importance of relationship, and of particular, concrete relationships in particular, concrete places. 

This is what is missing from any technocratic solution imposed from above. This is the root reason the education reform movement is bound to fail. (And, as the evidence shows, has been failing for years.) The ed reform movement is looking for a first down in the game of basketball.  It has abstracted numbers and data from contexts to such a degree that those contexts have become irrelevant to them. While reality (and Wendell Berry) shows that when relationships matter, all is context. The quality of relationships that actual teachers have with actual children actually matters, as immeasurable as that may be. The context of the lives of these children, their class, their race, their backgrounds, their families, these things matter. And when the lives of these actual, living concrete people are abstracted into data for the sake of comparison, affection for them and their concrete living are necessarily erased. 


In writing of the James B. Duke, whose relationship as an industrialist to tobacco and power can be rightly compared to corporatist Bill Gates’ relationship to education, Berry says, “The failure of imagination that divided the Duke monopoly and such farmers as my grandfather seems by now to be taken for granted. James B. Duke controlled remotely the economies of thousands of farm families. A hundred years later, ‘remote control’  is an unquestioned fact, the realization of a technological ideal, and we have remote entertainment and remote war {and remote educational policy}. Statistical knowledge is remote, and it isolates us in our remoteness. It is the stuff itself of imagined life. We may, as we say, ‘know’ statistical sums, but we cannot imagine them. “ (Emphasis added) 

So true- such knowing of statistical sums is remote, and, just as importantly, “it isolates us in our remoteness.”  It wipes away the context of our place, of our schools, of the relationships we have in these schools, and reduces “knowing” to the sums this data accrues, without being able to imagine the people and lives affected. The fact is that we humans are not much to be trusted with what I am calling statistical knowledge, and the larger the statistical quantities the less we are to be trusted. We don’t learn much from big numbers, and we aren’t much affected by them. The reality that is responsibly manageable by human intelligence is much nearer in scale to a small rural community or urban neighborhood that to the ‘globe.’ When people succeed in profiting on a large scale, they succeed for themselves. When they fail, they fail for many others, sometimes for us all…Propriety of scale in all human undertakings is paramount, and we ignore it. We are now betting our lives on quantities that far exceed all our powers of comprehension. We believe that we have built a perhaps limitless comprehension into computers and other machines, but our minds remain as limited as ever. Our trust that machines can manipulate to humane effect quantities that are unintelligible and unimaginable to humans is incorrigibly strange.” (Emphasis added) 

The hard fact of the matter is that this corporatist reform movement and the market fundamentalism that drives it will run their course. And then we will be left with all that we’ve ever had from the beginning; each other and what’s left of the land that we depend on. The more we practice affection in the meantime, the better prepared we will be. Against the technocratic assault of the abstraction of “this limitlessness,” as Berry puts it, “…we have only our ancient effort to define ourselves as human and humane.”

Photo from article at National Endowment for the Humanities linked above.

The Proper Use of Education

Wendell Berry, from his still all too relevant essay on the after effects of 9/11, Thoughts In the Presence of Fear.

The complexity of our present trouble suggests as never before that we need to change our present concept of education. Education is not properly an industry, and its proper use is not to serve industries, either by job-training or by industry-subsidized research. It’s proper use is to enable citizens to live lives that are economically, politically, socially, and culturally responsible. This cannot be done by gathering or “accessing” what we now call “information” – which is to say facts without context and therefore without priority. A proper education enables young people to put their lives in order, which means knowing what things are more important than other things; it means putting first things first. (Emphasis mine)

First published in Orion Magazine