Berry on The Necessity of Agriculture

In Japan,”They even think agriculture may be a good thing for a nation of eaters to have.”

Wendell Berry on the necessity of agriculture.

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Your theory of writing

People of a more practical bent will sometimes suggest they don’t have a theory. Others argue that theory is a distraction or isn’t important.

Those positions (each a caricature in itself) hold a view of theory that arises from a reaction to the overly academic approach we take to writing. The great temptation for any teacher or school is to isolate what happens in the school or classroom from the rest of life and then to exalt it over things outside the school or classroom.

When schools do that, people outside the schools can overreact the other way and deny the importance of what happens in the school. And to the extent that the school overvalued itself, the anti-school people will be right.

The only value of education is what it actually accomplishes in the soul and for the life of the student.

All of which is preamble to indicate the unnecessary tension between theory and practice that I pointed to in my previous post.

My thesis here is simple: since, as we have perhaps already established, we all have a writing theory, that theory forms our expectations and practices as writers and teachers. 

The cosequence of my thesis is that the theory we hold, therefore, effects the quality of our instruction and the degree of our mastery of the art.

For example, if a student thinks that writing is a great mystery, a gift descending from the gods, he will practice accordingly. He may pray a lot if he wants to write well, but he won’t try to exercise a discipline he doesn’t believe exists.

Put in that caricature, that position might seem absurd, but that caricature expresses rather nicely the unconscious presupposition I held as a high school student. It’s easy to see why, because to this day the achievements of the great poets leave me breathless and, to be perfectly honest, often envious.

How was Shakespeare able to write the way he did? How could Chaucer so continually throw out lines with such grace and subtlety? How could John Donne hide so many, many layers of meaning in the 14 lines of a sonnet.

It’s no wonder that Homer begins his epics with the words “Sing goddess…” and Milton, “Sing heavenly muse.”

And both were, I’m certain, quite genuine in their appeal. Their theory of poetry led them to call for divine help.

So does mine.

Shakespeare seems not to have held such a theory. He was, one might say, a more secular poet, certainly than Homer or Milton, if not Virgil (Arms and the man I sing).

Behind those prayers lay a theology and a cosmology and an anthropology that inform every line of the poets’ work.

The absence of such lines in contemporary poetry indicate a different theology, cosmology, and anthropology.

When a person writes, he comes to the task with beliefs about how important writing is, the source of the power to do it, and how one practices it. Writing workshops and classes are not the place to teach such things. They already embody them in their modes and structures.

For example, the typical school class assumes that writing is taught by a text book through exercises and that pretty well anybody can teach it with the right text book. Administrative structures and assessment expectations pretty well demand this theory, if it isn’t in place ahead of time.

What I mean is that, given how we run our schools and hold them accountable, we need to believe that writing, like everything else in school, simply needs to be administered to the student in the right dosage. Then a standardized test can take our temperature – it can tell us whether we succeeded.

A workshop, on the other hand, will recognize the need for judgment and direct feedback.

At CiRCE, for example, we believe that writing can be learned only through an apprenticeship. Writing is a craft, and a craft can only be learned through coaching by a master. That is why we put so much emphasis on the need for the teacher to understand the ideas taught in our Lost Tools of Writing program.

Writing, like every art, requires judgment. That is why people often say, “There are no rules.”

They are almost right. The one rule is propriety. This directs the teacher’s and students’ attention away from rules to purpose and nature, because propriety is determined by the nature and the purpose of the act, the actor, and the other participants in the act.

And propriety requires judgment.

And judgment takes awareness of principles, understanding of the nature of the act, process, and artifact, knowledge of the thing represented in the writing, wisdom, and clarity of purpose.

Writing needs to be taught practically – it’s a craft.

And you can never develop the judgment writing requires if you don’t thoroughly understand the rules of normal writing.

Practical writing, therefore, is always taught within a theoretical framework, a paradigm if you like. The failure to teach children spelling, grammar, and usage in the contemporary school arises from a theory of human nature, of education, and of writing that undercuts all three, as reflected in the growing inability and unwillingness of the people to communicate with any care or depth over the past few generations.

So to become a great writer or to help your students become one, you’ll want to do what you can to clarify your theory. The good news is that that clarification begins with common sense observations.

More good news: there are plenty of sources available to develop your theory of writing in dialogue with others. But be careful. If you read what other people say, you might not be looking at what writers do and how children learn. The value of what others say comes in the rather obvious fact that they’ll see things you can’t see and if they’ve written something it almost certainly has been thought about for a while. But if the theory is bad, the thought will only make it worse.

Some sources:

  • Aristotle: Poetics (short read, worth reading a lot over the years. This still drives most movie writing)
  • Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Read his comments to the players in Acts 2 and 3 (if my memory is on)
  • Wendell Berry: Standing By Words (simply incredible)
  • Anything about theory by Ezra Pound. Watch out for his politics.
  • Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Biologia Literaria (probably the hardest of these to read – don’t start with this)
  • Louis Markos, Teaching Company series on the History of literary criticism. Very nice introduction to theories over time, (though I think he misunderstood Plato’s point in the Republic).

I’ll leave it there for now. Those will do for one or two lifetimes anyway.

Wendell Berry Reading a Sabbath Poem

Here he is live and in person (on Youtube):

Hat tip to Wendell Berry of Kentucky

Poetry, Marriage, Definitions, and Meaning

A marriage cannot include everybody, because the reach of responsibility is short.

Wendell Berry: Standing By Words
Poetry and Marriage: The Use of Old Forms (1982)

That is to say, it is the nature of marriage to define limits. The word define literally means to set limits (that’s why the Latin word for neighbor is “finitimus”).

Certain limits, in short, are prescribed–imposed before the beginning.

Here Mr. Berry approaches the heart of our cultural crisis: imposition. One must not impose one’s values on another. But what if nature itself imposes values on us? What if we only have values at all because nature has determined that we must?

Then it is no longer a question of one person imposing his values on another, but of a person with authority given that one by nature itself (e.g. a father or mother) defending, on behalf of the “subject”, the claims of nature itself. In fact, if nature itself does not establish values, then it is not possible to live in a world where people don’t impose values on others. It’s the nature of the case.

That human nature, at least as we possess it, inclines toward abusing this natural state and claiming more authority than nature allows hardly means that we should abandon the only thing that could possibly restrain the tyrant or the self-indulgent.

The pious are inclined to react to that statement by appealing to God as sufficient without nature, but I must point out that God is the maker of nature and to separate the two is harmful in the extreme and leads to the dissolution of the religious mind – forcing a dichotomy between the spiritual life and the supposed secular life. It’s a pious sounding theory, but it doesn’t correspond to reality.

In fact, it’s what leads to the religious varieties of tyranny that the modern mind is so afraid of. When God starts asking everybody to offer up Isaac, it’s hard to see how He could love the world.

Even religion has a nature. The religious have to function within the limits established by the nature of religion. Otherwise, there is no religion. Because nothing but God exists if it is not limited to what it is.

The contemporary nonsense about living without limits is an appeal to death and negation. And the absence of the category of nature makes the modern mind incredibly gullible to such meaningless words.

To see how dangerous this is, ask yourself how you would like to live under a government that does not regard itself as limited.

Industrial economics, Industrial education, and the Abolition of Man

From Wendell Berry: In Distrust of Movements, a 2000 essay.

Study of the history of land use (and any local history will do) informs us that we have had for a long time an economy that thrives by undermining its own foundations.

Every time I read Mr. Berry’s works about the economy, land use, the environment, etc. I realize that he sees things as an integrated whole. That is why he can make observations like the foregoing, and it is why I, as an educator, commit an act of folly when I fail to apply what he is saying to education.

Economy: From the Greek: Oikos, household, and Nomos, law or custom.

Economy is the study of household customs or, by extension, the study of what is good for the household. Show me that in our modern statistics. We have an economy that undermines its own foundations. How so?

First, we don’t even think about the household when we measure the modern economy. We think about money, a significant PART of the household. But a non-income producing housewife, for example, has no measurable value in the modern economy.

Second, the well-being of the household is the foundation even for our financial economy. We have spent about 80 years living in a welfare state. Because of the way it has chosen to measure things, this welfare state has destroyed families and communities and encouraged behavior that further undermines families and communities. Our “economy” is guided and regulated and formed by people who make their profits by undermining the family and the household it sustains.

This has everything to do with education. First, we live under an industrial model education that has as its counterpart the welfare state to perpetuate it. John Dewey’s “Gary Plan,” that subjected students to the assembly line mode of instruction is virtually universal in American education apart from the home school. Suggest an alternative and you’ll be regarded as a dunderheaded nincumpoop idealist. Well, you would be, but those are big words.

Since education is necessary for everybody but is so incredibly badly managed in America, we need a welfare state to prop it up. $300 billion/year; for what?

In 1890 the typical 8th grade graduate knew math well enough to run his own business without a calculator and to figure out mortgage amortization in his head. 2008 could not have happened in 1890.

To paraphrase Laertes in Hamlet: “The school! The school’s to blame.” By which I mean, of course, those educators who have blinded us to what it means to be a human and have driven us to an anxiety that only they can resolve: by taking more power.

If you were to spend one hour writing notes about what makes us human and what makes life worth living, and then you examined what happens to a child in school, you would find considerable evidence that the developers of modern education hate human beings – hate the human soul, just as you would find evidence that the captains of industry hate the earth and the soil. As a mistress, sure; as a covenanted bride? Forget it.

To adapt Mr. Berry: “Study of the history of teaching (and any local school will do) informs us that we have had for a long time an education that thrives by undermining its own foundations.”

Thus our schools and our economy and our politicians have cooperated to produce a society that is untenable, unsustainable, and eating its own heart out as we watch.

Good Solution #3

Continuing this theme and wishing I had more time to go into it, here is the third of Berry’s “Good Solutions”:

“A good solution improves the balances, symmetries, or harmonies within a pattern–it is a qualitative solution–rather than enlarging or complicating some part of a pattern at the expense or in neglect of the rest.”

This might be the core idea of all the good solutions. Because we are anti-structure and anti-form in our artistic habits and because in our business habits we apply the patterns to limited domains (only including what we can measure), we are unable to think about “balances, symmetries, or harmonies within a pattern.” We dismiss these as vestiges of an outdated, pre-Darwinian world, if we think about them in context, or we simply regard them as impactical and too hard to think about.

Here’s an intellectual exercise: list three or four problems with American education. Now read three articles on each (or just choose one). Analyze the solutions proposed in each, looking for the following: non-quantitative solutions, recognition of the wider patterns within which the specific problem being discussed is contained (how far out do those patterns go?), use of words like harmony, balance, and symmetry.

You’ll probably read about “balance” because it is the easiest to see and the most external of the principles of order. You can balance something within itself without any regard at all for the wider patterns within which the thing subsists. Balance doesn’t ensure the health of an organism, though it is necessary.

I hope I can write more on this principle. I also hope others will comment, especially school leaders. I truly believe that Berry has put his finger on the fatal flaw in the implicit organizational theory of our society.

Here are the first two solutions:

Solution 1

Solution 2

Good solutions II

A good solution accepts also the limitations of discipline. Agricultural problems should receive solutions that are agricultural, not technological or economic.

This second of 14 entries listing Berry’s good solutions that allow for “solving for pattern” probably provokes controversy. We want to solve every problem using technology or economics. But if the problem is pedagogical (i.e. having to do with teaching), then to solve it technologically isn’t possible. The problem in America’s schools is not that we don’t have the means to get information into children’s hands. It is that we don’t know the purpose of education. And we don’t know the purpose of education because we don’t know what a human being is. Until we figure that out, no amount of technology can solve our education problems.

I would recommend a close reading of the Protagoras and The Gorgias and a little more critical approach to the way Nietzsche intimidates the half-educated that govern our philosophy departments and from them our school administration. Our half-baked nihilism is neither necessary nor a good idea. And it isn’t very compelling to people who can read The Bully Anti-philosopher with a spine.