Book Review of Wendell Berry and Higher Education by Jack R. Baker and Jeffrey Bilbro

Review by Lloyd Conway

What can teachers and practitioners of public administration learn from a book coming from an English department on the works of an agrarian novelist?

Public administrators may not seem like the ideal audience for a work examining what the writer Wendell Berry has to say about higher education, but his call for the academy to abandon the “unknown tongue” of academic jargon and to re-engage place—community, locality, the concrete realities immediately outside the ivory tower—ought to find willing hearers among those who labor in the care of the public squares of our communities.

His acknowledged debts to Buddhism aside, Berry’s worldview is (like that of the authors, and of this reviewer) decidedly Christian. One need not share it, however, to appreciate a commitment to an order that is holistic and ecological in the fullest sense, one not beholden to the dictates of market-driven capital.

Berry’s concern for place in the face of a cultural gravitational field pulling ambition, talent, and achievement into the orbits of wealth and power around our political and economic capitals echoes other “third way” public intellectuals, like Lewis Mumford, Ivan Illich, Jane Jacobs, James Howard Kunstler, E. F. Schumacher, and even Hilaire Belloc and G. K. Chesterton. The writers in this tradition criticized a centralizing capital-driven system answerable to nothing but the relentless, limited logic of the market. That tradition can inform us, as teachers and practitioners of public administration, and it can help us maintain a dialogue with our colleagues about what our schools’ missions should be and how we can better integrate our disciplines to imbue our students and our research with a purpose that has meaning for the places we inhabit. Baker and Bilbro (85–86) offer examples of colleges that practice disciplines that tie classroom education to work and service. At Berea College and the College of the Ozarks, students literally work their way through school, earning their tuition through campus employment. They become part of the life and health of their places.

The term “academic placemaking” best describes how Baker and Bilbro portray Wendell Berry’s vision of a reformed academy, and it is aligned with the service ethos of public administration. Aside from programs whose focus is national or international, our programs train generations of students whose careers will focus on service to place, often just one place, for their working lives. This book speaks to that service ethos. It also ought to be of use in shaping conversations with practitioners of other academic disciplines about what mission focus our common homes ought to embrace. As Baker and Bilbro put it, by learning “how to serve our places rather than our careers—and by articulating the kinds of imagination, language, and practices that might lead to an education in service of place—we also hope to educate our students to be virtuous members of their communities rather than technically proficient migratory servants of the industrial economy.”(198)

Berry’s writing centers, according to Baker and Bilbro, on the four responsibilities—fidelity, gratitude, memory, love—that all of us owe to our places. These express themselves in rootedness, service, responsibility, and plain speaking, as opposed to euphemistic jargon that obscures what it ought to depict. This writer can empathize with the last point, as it brings to mind an example from work: a “Quarterly Layoff Activity Report” re-christened the “New Labor Market Entrants Report” to sanitize the reality of lost employment for the report’s audience.

In his farewell address, President Eisenhower warned against the corrupting influence of federal funding on higher education’s academic freedom. Berry writes in a similar vein when cautioning against the seduction of research for research’s sake, whatever the funding source, without regard for the consequences stemming from the use of what may be discovered along the way. Berry echoes Eisenhower’s concern that “a government contract becomes virtually a substitute for intellectual curiosity,” and “public policy could itself become the captive of a scientific-technological élite.” The result is the same: research without limits, without regard for consequences, and without concern for the side-effects of the process itself. In this, Berry’s writings sound a theme similar to that of former Vice-President Al Gore in his 1992 book Earth in the Balance, seeing the defect of our current intellectual state as a deficiency in what T. S. Eliot called the “ecology of cultures,” stemming from the centuries-old Western mind-body split in consciousness and action.

Taking the analysis further, one could say that Berry echoes Oswald Spengler’s observations about Western (“Faustian”) civilization when he refers to the spirit of our age as “curious” to have knowledge for its own sake, as opposed to the classical sense of knowledge as wisdom, an attitude described as “studious”. A “curious” attitude cares not for consequences, neither stemming from its discoveries nor from how they come about, directly or indirectly; side-effects like environmental degradation are peripheral concerns, at best. Faustian civilization has been intellectually “curious” since Bacon. Knowledge for its own sake and the power it brings, rather than for faith or service, is a sickness of purpose in Berry’s eyes. (Baker & Bilbro, 177, quoting from “The Unsettling of America”):

“Who so hath his mind on taking hath it no more on what he hath taken.”

Montaigne

This book may well prompt its readers to ask themselves and their communities: “Do we participate in or do we exploit our places”? The question, and the answers it conjures, ought to be the stuff of meaningful dialogue on the place service has in our work and how our work serves the places we inhabit.


Lloyd A. Conway, originally from Detroit, Michigan, is a retired veteran of the Army & National Guard, was a civil servant for twenty years, and has been an adjunct teacher at Spring Arbor University for the past twenty years. Mr. Conway previously served on the city council of Charlotte, Michigan, and chaired the Planning Commission. He holds degrees from Excelsior College, Wayne State University, Western Michigan University, and Eastern Michigan University. He is married to a fellow teacher and has five adult children. They reside in Lansing, Michigan.

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