Thursday, September 26, 2013

Fulfilling Purpose: Connecting Education and Agrarianism


"agrarianism is not only a way of thinking; it is more importantly a way of acting, a practice"

If someone asks me to describe my politics, I say “agrarian.” But I say it with a small, amused smile because I’ve lived almost my entire life inside the city limits of Seattle, Washington. Still, that’s the best answer I can give. If we define agrarianism, with Wendell Berry’s help, as a way of thought based on land, it can make sense for a person living in the city to think of himself as an agrarian. Even though it often seems as if most of the soil in Seattle is covered by cement, and more is being covered all of the time, people everywhere still live off of the soil. The notion that the health of the soil is of no concern to people living in the city is a serious error. However, agrarianism is not only a way of thinking; it is more importantly a way of acting, a practice. So how can people living in large cities be practicing agrarians?

In “The Pleasures of Eating,” Wendell Berry famously answered the question, “what can city people do?” with the advice to eat responsibly. I think we all know that a tremendous amount of work has been done along these lines in recent decades. We can try to eat responsibly and we can grow something to eat, even while living in an apartment. Those efforts are easy to dismiss, but they are important. Growing a tomato plant in a pot won’t change the direction of agricultural practice in the United States, but it can change a person’s way of thinking, which could make a great difference. Yet so much more needs to be done. And it is hard to imagine most people living in cities finding the means to buy enough property to grow a significant amount of food or to create the sort of life that would allow them independence from our destructive economy. In fact, things continue moving in the other direction. A new trend in Seattle and other cities is micro-apartments. Most of us will have to fashion a different life under the present circumstances. The way we think and act has to change in urban areas as well as rural areas. The common thread has to be a primary concern for the health of the land. That is entirely possible.

One way to contribute to the work of agrarianism, the way open to me, is teaching. One of the reasons I find Wendell Berry’s work so instructive are the parallels I see between his account of what has happened to farming in the 20th century and what has happened to public education. In recent decades, education has become increasingly profit-driven, both in practice and intention. The profit seeking has displaced nearly all other considerations, such as the long-term health of communities and of our democracy. We’ve also seen institutions such as public school districts and colleges of education hi-jacked and used for purposes other than those for which they were originally designed, much as the land-grant colleges were. The process of mechanization in education is relatively new, but it is proceeding with a vengeance. Today we frequently see proposals to do away with teachers altogether and replace them with online programs. At the least, we have seen the steady diminution of the teacher’s role to that of a facilitator of study, rather than an informed leader. Intentionally or not, this process allows for the centralized control of knowledge and breaks the lines of cultural transmission. The parallels between what has happened to farmers and teachers are so strong because they are manifestations of the same process, of course.

Given these troubling developments, what is to be done? I see two common responses put into practice by those who are concerned with sustainable food production and a healthy ecology. The responses are to teach students about ecological damage and to teach them to grow plants. A great deal of work has been done on both fronts, and those doing this work deserve our gratitude. I saw many example of the first approach last year, and one notable example of the second. I worked for several days in an 8th grade science classroom where students were learning about the threats to supplies of clean water. I learned as much as the students from being there. I also spoke to the teacher, who made no bones about her direct advocacy of sustainable practices. I’ve seen many other teachers raise the issue of how our activities impact the health of the earth. I also went to a school for students classified as “Behaviorally Disturbed” which had a significant garden space where students actually worked to grow food and flowers. Gardens like this have been a common sight in public schools for several years now. I’ve seen high schools with thriving botany programs. What bothers me is that schools can have these programs in place and yet still leave their main practice of education for consumption unchallenged. A serious attempt to challenge the current system of education in America will have to go beyond teaching sustainability, having school gardens, and assigning the works of Wendell Berry or other agrarian writers.

Mr. Berry’s colleague Wes Jackson has said that schools educate children for export. They major in upward mobility. Another way to look at this phenomenon is that they major in consumerism, in that the stated purpose of education, promoted by our leading newspapers and politicians of both major parties, is job training. The first step to renewing education will be to make a clear distinction between job training and education and to remember the original purpose of the latter. For guidance, I turn here to the work of the late classical scholar, Bernard Knox. In his essay, “The Wall of Thebes,” he reminds us of the difference between narrow training for a particular job and a genuine education in the humanities. The essay’s greatest value is reminding those who have forgotten, or more likely never knew, that the study of the humanities was invented by the ancient Greeks to fulfill the purpose of the new form of government they invented: democracy.

An education to meet the needs of the ecological crisis won’t be radically new; it would be a form of something very old, a liberal arts education. This education can’t be limited to the city or the country, any more than agrarianism can be limited to farmers. Changes have to take place in the cities as well as rural areas, a point many have made. Although we must be careful to ensure that agrarianism remains rooted in farming and gardening of some form, it must have a vital presence in the city as well as the country. Teachers, like farmers, face the daunting work of renewing sound practices after lines of cultural transmission have broken down. One way in which the work of Wendell Berry helps the work of educators is to point out that our task is not to return education to some ideal pre-industrial form. Our task instead is to return education to its legitimate purpose and to fulfill that purpose as we never have before. The way we think and act has to change in urban areas as well as rural areas. The common thread has to be a primary concern for the health of the land. Strengthening that thread is entirely possible.


~Robert Fasso, Educator, Seattle WA