A Proper Education

Wendell Berry, writing not long after September 11, 2001:

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.

8 thoughts on “A Proper Education

  1. Berry usually resonates with me. This excerpt mostly does.

    I don’t know what he’s thinking of when he says:

    “This cannot be done by gathering or ‘accessing’ what we now call ‘information’ – which is to say facts without context and therefore without priority.”

    It’s not as if trade-schools or industry-subsidized training and so on provide information without context. They’d be completely useless if they did. Can you imagine learning about the things that make a computer or a car or an air conditioner work in isolation from how they work and how they fit together?

    I understand that he’s saying that the true reason for education isn’t to be an industry nor to train people for industry. He’s categorically right that we shouldn’t treat education like an industry, but there are lots of instances in which being economically and socially responsible requires us to grant that there are people (maybe many) who will only ever pursue education to the end of being able to sustain themselves. There’s nothing wrong with that. Berry knows his Aristotle, and Berry knows that we can’t all go to liberal arts schools and contemplate the universal good. He’s arguing for a humanities priority in every sphere. As great as that would be for the world, it’s impossible because it doesn’t feed people in the short term, and it’s not something everyone can navigate and never has been. Far less so in a republic of 300 million people mostly divorced from the land and from most of the means of production.

    1. I’m not THAT familiar with Berry, but I think he would agree. I don’t think he wants everyone to pursue the humanities (he did some farming himself). Possibly he’s speaking of the context of ethical living—our responsibilities to each other & to God. Perhaps. I’d have to read his whole essay.

    1. Well, a classic liberal education is about teaching people how to think critically. Teaching values is about teaching people *what* to think. Obviously there is a tension there, made more plain by the fact that classic liberal education is itself a value judgement. It is one I usually happen to agree with. As for vocational training vs education as types or as forms, I still think there’s money water here. It’s tempting for some classically educated people to say that someone who is Ben thoroughly vocationally trained in a trade is still not educated unless they grapple with the things the humanities ciriculum prioritizes. On that logic though, we would also have to say that an engineer from MIT who is putting a rover on Mars but has no solid bearing in the liberal arts is similarly not educated. If we say it for the plumber, we must also say it for that engineer. Both are vocationally trained.

      1. absolutely. My son in law designs and builds robots (he’s very good at it) funded in part by DARPA. I hope he has been “educated”, not simply trained, and that he considers the ethical implications of what he is doing

  2. As a humanist, one begins with the belief that it must be Geisteswissenschaften over Naturwissenschaften. Not Geisteswissenschaften and no Naturwissenschaften. Is a matter of priority. Our society has it the other way round. But one embraks upon this grand adventure not because it’s “our responsibility” to society to make ourtselves worthy in its eyes, which to me already leads one in the direction of Naturwissenschaften, apprehending reality as observer, founded in a positivist bias towards ratio-empricism, the supposition that only that which can be observed counts as true knowledge. But this was disproved along with Logical Positivism itself in the 1920s. The Verification Principle fails its own test! No, education is like a safari, one enters it for the pure thrill of discovery. Become who you are!

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