Category Archives: Envi Lit/Philosophy

Time in Babylon – Contemporary American Fiction and Ethical Living

SOPHE Presidential Address


Time in Babylon[1]—Contemporary American fiction and ethical living: Three works by Barbara Kingsolver, Jim Harrison, and John Murray.


Douglas R. Davis

Georgia State University


            Last week, in a conversation with my father, he asked me how my preparations for this address were coming.  Fine, I said.  He then gave me some fatherly advise, “just remember an after dinner talk should be short and funny!”  After the conversation, feeling a sense of dread because my talk was getting rather long and was not filled with much humor, I called my friend Anita and asked, “How can I make a philosophical talk on the critical issues of our time short and funny?”  “I don’t know,” she replied, “but you really do not want your audience crying in their dessert!”   Not feeling any better, I turned to my dog Shivas and he said, “Scratch my belly.”  So please finish your desserts and if I get too serious, or if I talk too long, I will not mind if you scratch your bellies.     

            My topic tonight is serious yet I will try to make my points brief.  I believe we are living in serious and, it often seems to me, dark times.  I find many recent events and trends deeply troubling and I feel there is much to be concerned about.  Without becoming overtly political on the eve of a critical election, I want to talk this evening about what I find to be a loss of purpose and meaning in education.  Certainly, the purpose and meaning of education is a common topic in educational philosophy; yet, I hope to provoke thought on some old issues in new and intriguing ways.

I want to explore the purpose and meaning of education through three contemporary American authors and three examples of their literature that have nothing directly to do with education.  It is my belief that these three authors, through the medium of fiction, speak eloquently on the essential issue of what Warren Zevon called “my dirty life and times”[2].  This exploration is an appeal and argument for a consistent educational ethic.  Simply, I believe educators must be guided by a responsibility for the future of humanity and the natural environment that sustains us.  I argue that the purpose of education needs to be re-focused on ethical relationships; relationships between humans, and relationships between humans and the natural environment.  In support of my argument, I will discuss works of fiction by John Murray (2004), Jim Harrison (2004) and Barbara Kingsolver (2001).  All three authors explore human relationships with a focus on the land with remarkable insight and compassion.  More importantly, however, the works provide meaning to my call for a consistent educational ethic. 

Milan Kundera (1993) describes the novelist as “an explorer of existence.”  Kundera’s collection of essays in the book, The Art of the Novel, describe the European novel as a reaction to the “forgetting of being.”  Kundera laments that as the domination of science swept Europe in the 18th and 19th century, Europeans lost site of the world as a whole and of the individual self.  The ontological was not completely lost and Kundera locates ontological meaning in the novel and states, “Indeed, for me, the founder of the Modern Era is not only Descartes but also Cervantes.”  Kundera continues, “If it is true that philosophy and science have forgotten about man’s being, it emerges all the more plainly that with Cervantes a great European art took shape that is nothing other than the investigation of this forgotten being.”

In the spirit of Kundera, I wonder if something of our being is not lost in the current hegemony of popular culture and vitality of the technical-rational information age.  For this talk, I label that which is lost, relationship; specifically relationship with others and relationship with the land.  Regardless, if relationship is lost in the essentialist metanarratives of techno-rationale information systems, it emerges, as with the modern European novelist revered by Kundera, in contemporary American fiction.

John Murray

The first author I will discuss is John Murray (2003).  Murray’s only publication is a collection of short stories published in 2003 entitled, A Few Short Notes on Tropical Butterflies.  Murray is a M.D. who, for the past nine years, has worked full time with child health programs in Eritrea, Ethiopia, Ghana and Uganda.  The lead characters in Murray’s stories are typically individuals with high levels of technical training struggling with the irrational lives and conditions of ordinary people in regions of the world fraught with war, poverty, disease and famine.  Murray explains his characters:

Many of the characters in these stories – doctors or scientists – have very sophisticated ways of rationalizing what they see – in medical or scientific terms – but are unable to deal emotionally with the situations they face. Because they do not know how to express emotions directly, they do it in other ways – by thinking technically, or in intellectual terms, or by not thinking about it at all. I think this is true of all of us to varying degrees – we all learn ways, good and bad, to deal with our emotions.

Murray’s stories are about loss and suffering with a suggestion of redemption held out.  The settings are the epidemics, the famines, and the genocides often read about in newspapers but rarely lived by Americans.  In contrast to horrifying descriptions of the worst conditions of human suffering, the beauty of the landscapes in which the stories are set are described in vivid detail.

The manner in which Murray presents his stories suggests personal experience.  In an interview, Murray speaks of an experience similar to his story, “Watson and the Shark”:

I did refugee work when I was with the CDC and was in Burundi for the civil war there. Many people were killed in the most terrible ways, because of their ethnicity, and this was very difficult to deal with. We had been working for some time to improve local health systems and in a few days all of this work was completely destroyed. Several colleagues disappeared, and we were threatened often by people with knives and guns. This really made me question what I was doing there and whether it was possible to change anything in the face of deep-seated ethnic and tribal conflicts. More than that, I felt as if all of my training and technical knowledge was really quite useless.

Each story, in its own way, contrasts the dominant techno-rationalism in American culture with the lived experiences of the most dispossessed people in the world.  Through the focus on lived experience, Murray explores relationships in a unique, relevant and inspiring manner. 

            In the story “White Flour”, Murray describes, through the point-of-view of a young man named Joseph, relationships within a mixed-culture family.  In an unusual twist, both the mother and the father have rejected their own culture.  The mother is Indian and embraces and seeks success as a scholar in American universities.  The father’s story is not fully known until the end of the story but the plot of the story revolves around the fact that the father “has left.”   Not only has the father physically left, he has also psychologically and culturally left.  He has literally dropped out and the mother simply describes him as “insane.” 

            The story that emerges, however, is a version of the classic theme of the wise man deemed insane.  As the story unfolds, a subtle shift takes place in which the father is increasingly revealed as rational and sane while the culture of humans is increasingly shown to be irrational and insane.  At the end of the story, Joseph, at the request of the mother, goes to Bombay to convince his father to return to American and the family.  The details of the father’s life and work are finally revealed:

His father is enthusiastic.  He wants to show Joseph what he has been doing.  He takes him into the Jogeshwari slums, walking ahead with long, loping strides… Open drains run the length of the streets.  Young children carrying yellow plastic bottles of fresh milk on their shoulders stare at them.  People are quiet and stand back when his father walks past.  He is offered a chair at every house he passes.  All the thanks I need or deserve, his father tells him, is the offer of a chair… His father takes him to health clinics and introduces him to trained volunteers in white coats who shake Joseph’s hand and flash rows of teeth when they learn that he is the son.  He shows him drug cabinets neatly stocked with capsules and tablets and rehydration sachets; opens fridges and points to the stacks of vaccines; demonstrates the Salter scales and steam sterilizers.  A little bit of knowledge, he says, can make a world of difference. (127)

And, a bit later, Murray provides details of the father’s living conditions:

His father lives in two whitewashed rooms with very little furniture.  On a low table, there is a stack of medical journals and a stack of newspapers and a chess set.  “The Universal Declaration of Human Rights” is mounted on the wall in a thin frame.  He has no clocks in the house, does not carry a watch, gets up with the Muslim call to prayer, washes in tepid brown water that smells of sulfur. (128)

Although the father proclaims that a little bit of knowledge does make a world of difference, Murray presents a different view when Joseph and his father hear a disturbing newscast:

            “Hindus are attacking Muslims,” his father says in the dark.

            “It doesn’t make sense to me,” Joseph says.

            “Nothing makes sense,” his father says. “I’m sorry to say.”

            “There must be a reason.”

            “Now you know why I am here,” his father says.

By juxtaposing personal knowledge and social insanity, Murray presents a clear and inspiring message: things do not have to be the way they are. The state of affairs in the world does not make sense. 

            I suppose at this point I am beginning to sound rather serious.  In that case, let’s pause for a moment for a belly scratch.



Jim Harrison

Jim Harrison (2004) also explores a world that makes no sense in much of his work including his most recent novel, True North.  In preparation of this section, I read multiple reviews of True North and multiple commentaries on Jim Harrison.  Harrison certainly evokes strong feelings and opinions.  Some find him tedious and boorish; others see him as the next Hemingway or Faulkner.  Regardless, I was struck by how few reviewers of True North found the same meaning I did in the novel—I think they missed Harrison’s key message.  

Just as in “White Flour,” True North is a story centered on a young man, David Burkett, and his relationship with his father.  On the surface, True North is a novel about a dysfunctional family and a young man attempting to find purpose and meaning in his life.  The larger story, however, is a family legacy of environmental destruction; specifically, the clear-cutting of millions of acres of white pine in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan in the late 19th century.      

In “White Flour”, Joseph tells his father “It doesn’t make sense to me.” In response, his father says, “Nothing makes sense.”  “There must be a reason,” Joseph responds.  “White Flour” explores the theme of no-sense in response to violence.  True North explores the same theme in response to environmental devastation.  Both works embed the search for meaning, the search for a reason, within human relationships.  In True North, the story is about a dysfunctional family and a troubled young man; yet, on a deeper level, the relationships are representative.  The relationships within the Burkett family and the other relationships of David’s life are symbolic representations of relationships between humans and the land.  David searches for the reason why his forefathers raped the land just as he seeks comprehension of his father’s sexual abuse of young women. 

But there is no reason, only unreason, only insanity.  Jim Harrison’s prose explores the human soul; explores human existence and the whole.  William Corbett, describes True North “as a pure and simple story of American rapacity at the moral center of our manifest destiny.”  True North, according to Corbett, dramatizes a conflict at the heart of America’s character:

We are caught between the self, fearful of giving up our individuality, and some larger purpose that we think of as ours by some historical demand. We have large appetites, great fears, and temperaments prone to wildness. David Burkett’s forebears despoiled the wilderness that surrounded them, and David Burkett is bewildered. In an early poem, Harrison says, “Form is the woods.” As I read True North, I could not get those words out of my mind.

Much of True North is set in the woods of the UP of Michigan and the descriptions are magnificent.  Form is in the woods and, Harrison seems to suggest, so too is reason.    

In his short story, “The Beast God Forgot to Invent,” Harrison considers reality and perception.  In an interview with The, Harrison explains his motive:

After a lifetime of world travel I’ve been fascinated that those in the third world don’t have the same perception of reality that we do. To approach the perceptual complication in our own culture, I gave my character a closed head injury, a fascinating but often mortal condition. The character Joe who roams the wilds is also a metaphor for our incomprehension of the artist.

I want to return to the topic of education and ask: where is the incomprehension? 

            Tyler Johnson acknowledges the difficulty and incomprehension of True North yet believes “it’s a small and honest price for a work that takes a magnifying glass to the mental and spiritual costs of this country’s ascent at the expense of the poor and the land.”

The value of Harrison’s work is that it unifies social justice and treatment of the environment, humans and their relationships with each other and with the land.  Corbett makes this point well, “Out of violence and the determined annihilation of nature and the human spirit only violence can come.”  Annihilation of nature and of the human spirit are the same. 

            At this point, I wonder, does education feed the perceptual complication in our own culture?  Or, in regards to a more important point, is it time for another belly rub; or perhaps, a rub from your neighbor?   

Barbara Kingsolver

            It is my opinion that no other author unites issues of social justice and the environment as eloquently as Barbara Kingsolver.  Through the views of her characters, Kingsolver explores the meaning of being, human potential at its best and worst, the relative and ambiguous nature of reality, the complexity of life, and humor. Kingsolver offers possibilities for change, for a new way of being.  In her novel, Prodigal Summer, Kingsolver sets three stories in the forests and mountains of southern Appalachia.  The publisher describes the book as, “a hymn to wildness that celebrates the prodigal spirit of human nature, and of nature itself. It weaves together three stories of human love within a larger tapestry of lives amid the mountains and farms of southern Appalachia.”

            Kingsolver is a trained biologist and many characters in Prodigal Summer are well-versed in biological knowledge; yet, for me to go into the circumstances of key characters or the plots of the three stories in this brief talk would not add to my argument.  The story is not only the people but also, and perhaps more importantly, it is the story of a regional ecological system described and explained in exquisite detail.  Thus, the den of newly reintroduced coyotes, the history of the white chestnut, and the life-cycles of the flora and fauna are as meaningful as the human stories.  In response to questions from readers in I-Village (2002), Kingsolver describes her work:

My agenda is to lure you into thinking about whole systems, not just individual parts. The story asks for a broader grasp of connections and interdependencies than is usual in our culture.

Throughout Prodigal Summer, the force of the connections and interdependencies, both human and ecological, is love and procreation. 

            Just as in the works of Murray and Harrison, relationships are key.  What sets Kingsolver apart is that the stories in Prodigal Summer are of people changing.  They are stories of people growing and learning how to live in harmony with each other and with their environment.  Kingsolver’s work is filled with a sense of wonder.

            It is here where I find tremendous meaning for a new ethic of education:  An ethic of relationships, an ethic with recognition of the incomprehensible, recognition of the whole, and recognition of new possibilities for education.

            The purpose of education today seems lost in the din of accountability, systems approaches, curriculum standardization, and canned pedagogical programs—in short, we are bound up by positivist techno-rational assumptions of the nature of schooling.  Under all of this, the purpose of education today is centered on a corporate, market driven emphases on the development of human capital—the development (production) of not only efficient producers but also vigorous consumers.  The central tenet of the current system’s metanarrative is measurement.  Efficiency demands measurement and measurement for efficiency is the road map of a market economy.  Thus, it is no accident that current measurements, standardized tests, are, in essence, most relevant to production.  Standardized tests seek to measures students’ potential ability to produce; in other words, they seek to measure human capital.  Certainly, the market economy has led to a standard of living for many Americans unprecedented in human history; nonetheless, the market economy is premised on a questionable assumption given increasing indication the world’s ecosystems are under stress, the need for ever increasing production.

            Resources are limited and the ecological earth, as a natural system, is exhibiting clear signs of damage.  I imagine a train, on a single set of tracks, heading for a cliff.  To expand this metaphor, I fear that our society as a whole and many individuals in education, are diligently working to make the train go faster.  Unfortunately, we are not, as a whole, working to turn the train onto a different track.  It actually seems that many are not aware of the cliff or do not even believe it exists.

            The evidence of environmental stress is nonetheless compelling.  Just in the past week I have read the following in my local newspaper:

1.      There is new and strong scientific evidence that the ice sheets of Antarctica are melting at an unprecedented rate.  And, the rate of melting is increasing.

2.      Levels of acidity in the world’s oceans are increasing at a rate 100 times faster than previous measures taken only a few years ago.

3.      The CDC in Atlanta released a report warning of evidence of new forms of Avian Flu in Asia and the extreme danger resulting from new rapidly emerging viruses worldwide.

4.      Pollen from experimental fields of genetically altered grass in Oregon has escaped and cross-pollinated with native grasses in a thirteen square mile area.  Scientists fear that it may be too late to control the genetically altered gene.  As a result, new herbicide resistant grasses may threaten agriculture globally.

In addition to signs of environmental stress, we are fighting a war that seems to be creating more mortal enemies than it is eliminating.  In addition, there is the prospect that the “war on terrorism,” or the war on “Islamic extremism” (or perhaps it is just a continuation of the thousand year conflict between Christianity and Islam) will continue for the rest of our lives!

            To me our world, our American culture, and our education system, makes no sense; there is no reason; it is incomprehensible; it is bewildering.  In response, I have examined works of fiction for meaning and make an appeal for a consistent educational ethic.  An ethic based on relationship; relationship between humans and relationship between humanity and the natural world.  And, in the spirit of Kundera, I have located something of being human, of what it means to be alive in 21st century America.  I find a temperance of our techno-rational culture in the ontology and the meaning of relationship found within fiction.   

            In closing, I would like to say something about my title.  I love music and I particularly enjoy music often labeled (mislabeled) bluegrass, folk, grassroots, and/or jam bands.  I like songwriters who compose songs as poetry.  Lyrical poetry inspires much of what I write.  Given this, I want to close by playing for you the song that inspired this talk, Living in Babylon, by Emmylou Harris. For me, it is a dire and harsh description of our culture yet it ends with a sense of hope.  It is my sincere wish to close tonight with a sense of hope. 

            Good night and thank you for coming to SOPHE.



Corbett, W. (2004). Living large: Jim Harrison’s wide open spaces. Retrieved online on August 26, 2004 at

Harrison, J. (2004). True North. New York: Grove Press

Kingsolver, B (2001). The prodigal summer. New York: Harper Collins.

Kingsolver, B (2002). Interview with I-Village. Retrieved August 26, 2004 at  

Kundera, M. (1993). The art of the novel. New York: Harper and Row

Murry, J. (2004). A few short notes on tropical butterflies. New York: Harer Collins.


[1] Song title written by Emmylou Harris and Jill Cunniff, on the CD, Stumble into Grace (2003), Nonesuch Records, 79805.



[2] From the song “My Dirty Live and Times” by Warren Zevon on the CD, The Wind, Warren. Zevon Music, (BMI). 


Filed under Educational Outreach, Envi Lit/Philosophy

Wendell Berry Talk …

This is an essay I presented to the Society of Philosophy and History of Education in 2008 in San Antonio, Texas. Yokna(Patawpha) Bottoms Farm is a realization of the values I articulated in this talk.

SOPHE 2008

Wendell Berry Talk

Douglas R. Davis

This paper continues long-running themes I have explored over the years at SOPHE. Several years ago in a talk to this group I outlined a transformational ethical imperative. I idealistically argued that this ethic be centered as the core purpose of education. Using literature as a guide, I explored the concept of relationship as a ground for ethical living. Specifically, I examined novels by Jim Harrison and Barbara Kingsolver, and short stories by John Murray with common literary motifs that implied and explored the meaning of the idea that human relationships with one another mirror human relationships with the natural environment. Thus, this ethical framework simply suggests that how an individual human, or a group of humans living in a social community and normative cultural system, behaves towards others and towards nature is the same. In concrete terms, I am not unique in positing that environmental degradation and social injustice are inseparably linked. As a result, I have been diligently working on a standard assessment for fourth grade children that will determine their knowledge of living in a proper harmonious and balanced relationship with nature and others. Of course, my test will do a fine job of measuring each child’s knowledge but may not be so good at measuring how the child actually lives or how he or she believes one should live. Knowledge bubbled-in is better than nothing, I guess.

Ok, I am not really developing a relationship test for ten year olds but I couldn’t resist the temptation of an example to emphasize the relevance of this topic for education. The point is that with an ethical teleology in education, the issue is not so much specific knowledge but rather what knowledge is valued and how that knowledge is lived. My use of the term teleology is intentional, despite its prophetic and religious roots, because I want to talk about the end game in education. That is, at the mythical point when all is said and done, what is it that we want to say that we have actually accomplished with all of our educational efforts? Is the story going to be that systematic education in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries blindly prepared generations of thoughtless and extravagant producers and consumers that wasted the earth’s resources and destroyed the ability of its ecology to sustain life?  The current educational narrative is written on an ethical telos in which it is believed that the increased efficient production of greater quantities of consumer goods and services represents and promotes a common good.

I recognize that education is a part of a much larger cultural and economic matrix and this leads me to a belief that the core issue is actually the characteristics of our global political and economic system. In other words, I believe the problem is global capitalism. Further, like it or not, institutional education exists to serve, maintain, and further develop and expand global capitalism. Saying this, I want to avoid at this point having my ideas reframed in the dualistic political rhetoric so common in ideological discussions. I do not view capitalism or state-controlled socialism as an either one or the other proposition. Indeed, my purpose now is to present for discussion the possibility of a postmodern agrarian society based on the vision of Wendell Berry.

Since being introduced to Berry last fall, I have read a wide sample of his extensive volume of essays. I am struggling a bit here trying to articulate who Wendell Berry is and what it is he does.  Certainly, he is a brilliant and logical thinker who eloquently pens impassioned yet well-reasoned arguments. He is a critic of American society who speaks with the voice of a person who loves and deeply cares for this land and the people who live here. He is an economist who rejects the common assumptions of market economic thought. He is an agricultural expert who rejects the utility and wisdom of increased production of commodity crops and all vestiges of corporate agriculture including most forms mechanization. He is a farmer who farms the land his family has farmed for generations.  He is a radical whose vision of change is the hope of loving community. He is an author whose writings, beginning in 1954, become more poignant, relevant, and essential with each passing year. He is an individual that is skeptical of whether the tractor and computer have served to improve the human condition. Yet, Berry seems to sum all of this together in one self-described term; Wendell Berry is an agrarian.

For Berry, I believe, agrarian living and agrarian community life is not a vision for the future but rather a possibility for the present. Agrarian thought centers the connection between the human body, the individual self, and the natural world; that connection, that link, is food.   Norman Wirzba writes of Berry in his introduction to an anthology of Berry’s essays entitled, The Art of the Commonplace:

“Among contemporary writers, few have seen and described as clearly the causes and effects of our dis-ease as has Wendell Berry.  In poetry, fiction, and essays he has not only characterized the destructive effects of our general homelessness but, more important, has also promoted a cogent and viable alternative in the form of agrarian thought and practice. Agrarianism, rather than being a quaint throwback to an impossible pastoral arcadia, is, in the hands and mind of Berry, a necessary and practical corrective to the waywardness of modern industrial culture. Agrarianism, in other words, promises a path toward wholeness with the earth, with each other, and with God, a path found upon an insight into our proper place within the wider universe.”

Glowing words but I nonetheless agree that Berry accomplishes these things. Imagine a human path founded on insight into our proper place within the wider universe that promises wholeness with the earth and each other.

There are multiple philosophical themes within Berry’s essays that one could explore in a brief paper.   Berry’s topics cover the full range of human culture, relationships, and choices. Further, I am just beginning an exploration of the meaning of Berry’s thinking for what I do, for what we do. I must give a warning at this point that what Berry has to say about education does not reflect favorably on us and what our profession represents. I am going to focus most of my remaining time on one essay Berry wrote on education in 1974, “Jefferson, Morrill, and the Upper Crust.” While the subject of this essay is colleges of agriculture at land grant colleges and universities, I find the essay highly relevant. I discovered that throughout much of this essay meaning was not lost when I substituted the term “colleges of education” for “colleges of agriculture.” Not only is the meaning applicable to colleges of education, it could have been written this morning! Here is good example:

“The colleges of education (agriculture) are focused somewhat more upon their whereabouts than, say, colleges of arts and sciences because of the local exigencies of placing student teachers and administrative interns (climate, soils, and crop varieties); but, like the rest they tend to orient themselves within the university rather than within the communities they were intended to serve. The impression is unavoidable that the academic specialists of education (agriculture) tend to validate their work experimentally rather than practically, that they would rather be professionally reputable than locally effective, and that they pay little attention, if any, to the social, cultural, and political consequences of their work.”

It only gets more damning:

“There is nothing more characteristic of modern educational (agricultural) research than its divorcement from the sense of consequence and from all issues of value. This is facilitated on the one hand by the academic ideal of “objectivity” and on the other by a strange doctrine of the “inevitability” of undisciplined technological growth and change. “Objectivity” has come to be simply the academic uniform of moral cowardice: one who is “objective” never takes a stand. And in the fashionable “realism” of technological determinism, one is shed of the embarrassment of moral and intellectual standards of any need to define what is excellent or desirable. Education is relieved of its concern for the truth in order to prepare students to live in a “changing world” (changing, of course, to a tune called by the governmental-military-academic-industrial complex).”

Did I mention that Berry wrote this in 1974? One only has to examine the perceived gulf between “theory” and “practice” in the field of education, and the existing level of respect between k-12 professional practitioners and members of the academy, to support the relevance of Berry’s words. I have found that k-12 professional educators rarely view higher education as relevant and transformative of their work. In my own area, I see the disconnection between what gets taught in leadership preparation programs and how schools are actually led and wonder. Meanwhile, school districts full of educators with M.Ed, Ed.S, Ed.D and Ph.D degrees spend as much as $15,000 a day to bring in a polished  and well-known speaker to present content readily available at college libraries, the internet, or recent issues of Phi Delta Kappan and other practitioner-oriented magazines. Furthermore, in the case of many of these expensive experts, Ruby Payne for example, the content is in the view of many, suspect and problematic. It is as if the knowledge of our field has no legitimacy unless it is presented by a person highly polished in the use of powerpoint, who has successfully published in a popular press, who has the appropriate level of practitioner “buzz,” and who offers simple explanations of the causes of school problems and easy answers that do not suggest or require radical transformation of community and professional practice as a solution to educational problems.

Briefly, Berry grounds his argument for agrarian living in the dirt; no, not “into the dirt” but rather from the dirt. For Berry, soil, as the source of human life and sustenance, is the key to viable human environmental and social-cultural relationships.  Simply, healthy, living topsoil is necessary for sustained agricultural productivity. Acknowledging that the use of chemical fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides, fungicides and defoliants combined with genetically altered plants and the use of growth hormones, chemically altered feed, and antibiotics in animals does temporarily increase the production of agricultural commodities, he argues that this is view of soil as resource to be used in the same way we use oil. This somewhat uniquely American (at least originally) and corporate-industrial view of soil and agriculture is deeply engrained in our history of manifest destiny, westward expansion, and economic growth and development. Simply, we have history of moving onto new lands, the latest frontier, using the soil until it loses productivity and then moving on. Soil is used up and destroyed for short-term profit. Even today, when we no longer have new frontiers within our borders, we continue to consume agricultural products that are rapidly depleting topsoil throughout the developing world. Logically, even more than oil, the use and eventual depletion of the world’s supply of topsoil is not a viable option for the long term survival of the human race.

Berry probes the social, economic, and political causes and effects of the historical use of soil in extensive detail. Unifying the entire argument, however, is a continual return to culture. Specifically, Berry has written many essays on understanding what he calls our “cultural crisis.” The core of this reasoning is the well-supported assumption that healthy culture depends on a deep and meaningful connection to the land. We, as humans, literally need to be culturally rooted to the land.

While Berry has a need to situate his transformative views within an argument that the current human condition is untenable, a majority of his work is focused on transformation. His transformative themes include elements of what he calls an “authentic culture.” Other themes include agrarian economics, agrarian religion, agrarian family life (including sex, fidelity, children, and extended family), and agrarian community life that includes education.

In his essay on colleges of agriculture, Jefferson, Morrill, and the Upper Crust, Berry begins with Jefferson’s ideal of farming, education, and democracy. In this ideal, Jefferson consistently promoted the necessity of education to citizenship in a democracy. Jumping ahead in history to the passage of the Morrill Act in 1862 creating land grant colleges, and later the Hatch Act of 1887 creating a system of agricultural experiment stations, Berry summarizes the creation of an educational system designed to promote agriculture. The purpose of the Morrill Act was to “promote the liberal and practical education of the industrial classes in the several pursuits and professions in life.”  The Hatch Act created experiment stations designed to conduct agricultural research and support local agriculture by “the development and improvement of the rural home and rural home life.”  Berry quotes Morrill who argued that the availability of large amounts of cheap land promoted poor farming practices that stripped and wasted the soil. Morrill, however, differed from Jefferson’s view of education as preparation for the “learned professions” and saw the agricultural colleges as an effort to exalt the industrial arts. Berry explains the difference between Jefferson and Morrill:

“His (Jefferson’s) plan of education for Virginia did not include any form of specialized or vocational training. He apparently assumed that if communities could be stabilized and preserved by the virtues of citizenship and leadership, the “practical arts” would be improved as a matter of course by local example, reading, etc. Morrill, on the other hand, looked at education from a strictly practical or utilitarian viewpoint. He believed that the primary aims of education were to correct the work of farmers and mechanics and “exalt their usefulness.” Nonetheless, the desire of both Jefferson and Morrill was to “promote the stabilization of farming populations and communities and to establish in that way a ‘permanent’ agriculture, enabled by better education to preserve both the land and the people.”

Berry provides this historical context of the purpose of colleges of agriculture from as a point from which to state that colleges of agriculture, and by implication education in general, have utterly and completely failed to preserve the land and the people living on and from the land. Suggesting that colleges of agriculture have become centers of specialization and careerism, Berry is brutal in his condemnation. Berry uses the term “colleges of agribusiness” because he believes that the interests of industry have “subjugated” those of agriculture and have “utterly prevented the intent of the land-grant college acts” (149).  Thus the beneficiaries of colleges of agriculture have been and remain primarily chemical input and seed companies, machinery companies, and food processing, storage, transportation, distribution, and retailing companies.

On the other hand, Berry asserts that the corporatization of agriculture and colleges of agriculture has been a bane to millions rural Americans.  The “purpose” of a farm has transitioned from “providing a living” to “making a profit” in an economy where all of the rules are designed to ensure the success of agribusiness. While profit seems a fair standard, it does not consider the “possibility that a family might farm a small acreage, take excellent care of it, make a decent, honorable, and dependent living from it, and yet fail to make a profit” (152). Yet, as Berry points out, as the number of farmers has dramatically decreased the size of colleges of agriculture has dramatically increased. Berry laments:

“That the colleges of agriculture should have become colleges of “agribusiness”—working, in effect, against the interests of the small farmer, the farm communities, and the farmland—can only be explained by the isolation of specialization.  First we have the division of the study of agriculture into specialties. And then, within the structure of the university, we have the separation of these specialties from specialties of other kinds. The founding fathers … (placed agriculture at the center of learning related to science, society, politics, and even theology)… but, the modern academic structure has alienated agriculture from such concerns. The result is an absurd “independence” which has produced genetic research “without attention to nutritional values,” which has undertaken the so-called Green Revolution without the concern for its genetic oversimplification or its social, political, and cultural dangers, and which keeps agriculture in a separate “field” from ecology.” (154)

Berry views this as a “betrayal of trust” of the educational ideal of Jefferson and Morrill. A betrayal of trust in what agricultural colleges have done:

“They have no apparent moral allegiances or bearings or limits. Their work thus inevitably serves whatever power is greatest. That power at present is the industrial economy, of which ”agribusinesses” is a part. Lacking any moral force or vision of its own, the “objective” expertise of the agriculture specialist points like a compass needle toward the greater good of the “agribusiness” corporations. The objectivity of the laboratory functions in the world as indifference; knowledge without responsibility is merchandise, and greed provides its applications. Far from developing and improving the rural home and rural life, the land-grant colleges have blindly followed the drift of virtually the whole population away from the home, blindly documenting or “serving” the consequent disorder that blindly rationalizing this disorder as “progress” or “miraculous development.” (156)

Arguing that a standard of practical education has driven out the ideal of a liberal education, Berry makes a statement that was particular poignant to the field of education:

“The standard of practical education…. Is based upon the question of what will work, and because the practical is by definition of the curriculum set aside from issues of value, the question tends to be resolved in the most shallow and immediate fashion: what makes money. Practical education is an ‘investment,’ something acquired to be exchanged for something else—a ‘good’ job, money prestige. It is oriented entirely toward the future, toward what will work in the “changing world” in which the student is supposedly being prepared to ‘compete'”

I want to conclude this brief overview of Berry’s essay on education with a final quote. This quote resonated deeply for me as relevant to our own field:

“I am suggesting that our university-based structures of success, as they have come to be formed upon quantitative measures, virtually require the degeneration of qualitative measures and the disintegration of culture. The university accumulates information at a rate that is literally inconceivable, yet its structure and its self-esteem institutionalize the likelihood that not much of this information will ever be taken home.  We do not work where we live, and if we are to hold up our heads in the presence of our teachers and classmates, we must not live where we come from.” (160)

Did I mention that he wrote this in 1974? As I think about education today, I see a rarely challenged (except at meetings like SOPHE) narrative that education must prepare children for a rapidly changing “global economy.” That is, we are preparing children for an economic and social world increasingly dominated by increasingly large and monopolistic multinational corporations. What Berry argues in all of his work, is that this system is fundamentally flawed and is destroying community life, disassociating humans from the earth, and depleting the soil we depend on for food at an increasing rate. If this argument is even partially true, what are we doing when we educate? What society wants?


Filed under Envi Lit/Philosophy, Farm and Garden