Professors and Politics a la Wendell Berry

Left Wing ProfessorsAre left-wing professors corrupting our youth? Right-wing conservatives often make such a charge. But I would argue that whatever influence “leftist” professors are having on students pales in comparison to the pressures exerted on them to prepare themselves to become full-functioning members of America’s corporate capitalist consumer culture.

This judgment is based on decades of being a so-called “left-wing professor” and on my recent readings and reflections, especially of Wendell Berry’s thoughts on education. Shortly before he gave a February 1968 speech, “A Statement against the War in Vietnam,” at the University of Kentucky, he was warned of becoming a leftist professor, i. e., of becoming a tool of “the Communist conspiracy.” But he stated “I am unable to teach on the assumption that it is part of my function to prepare young men to fit into the war machine. . . . As a teacher, I reject absolutely the notion that a man may best serve his country by serving in the army. As a teacher, I try to suggest to my students the possibility of a life that is full and conscious and responsible, and I am no longer able to believe that such a life can either lead to war or serve the ends of war.” But more about his thinking later; first a few of my own observations.

  • College students have been raised within a consumer culture, with all its advertisements and enticements, and would find it very difficult to resist it, even if inclined to do so.
  • Most students think of higher education primarily as career preparation.
  • Most careers are within our corporate capitalist consumer society.
  • Even idealistic students who might be susceptible to the charms of left-wing professors—presuming we have some—must, upon graduation, leave the “ivory tower” and enter the “real world.”
  • Careers that often reflect some lingering idealism, like teaching, nursing, and social work, are generally less well paid than positions that fully embrace and flourish under corporate capitalism. And those in the helping professions must increasingly deal with administrators and bureaucrats willing to cater to the wishes of privatizers who place profit before public service.

The realization of just how hard it would be for young people to pursue any humanistic ideals after graduation first hit me in the late 1960s when I began my teaching career at a small Catholic college in West Virginia. (Three years later I moved on to a state university in Michigan, where I taught for four decades.) It was in 1967-68 that I first watched some of my students struggling with how to make the transition from their idealism to working in corporate America. I remember one of them asking me if I thought he would be “selling out” by having his long hair cut for a job interview.

Despite all of the idealism of the counterculture students, they were no match for corporate America. By the late 1970s, historian Christopher Lasch observed that many former students had become part of a new “culture of narcissism,” which meshed with an expanding culture of mass consumption in which advertising goaded “the masses into an unappeasable appetite not only for goods but for new experiences and personal fulfillment.” In his Bobos In Paradise: The New Upper Class and How They Got There (2000), columnist David Brooks wrote: “We’re by now all familiar with modern-day executives who have moved from S.D.S. to C.E.O., from LSD to I.P.O. Indeed, sometimes you get the impression the Free Speech Movement produced more corporate executives than Harvard Business School.” And Brooks made clear that the “bobos,” or “bourgeois bohemians,” many involved in information and media businesses, were big spenders on consumer products. “These are the people who are thriving in the information age.”

Wendell Berry on Higher Education

Now, back to Wendell Berry’s thoughts on education. Although mainly known as a writer of fiction, essays, and poetry, Berry was also a professor in English departments at various colleges and universities, beginning in the late 1950s and extending, with intermittent breaks, into the early 1990s. Altogether, he taught for about two decades, mainly at his alma mater, the University of Kentucky, but also at a few other institutions such as New York University (1962-1964) in the Bronx.

His ideas on education are spelled out primarily in numerous essays and commencement addresses, and are reflected in such novels as Remembering (1988), Jayber Crow (2000), and Hannah Coulter (2004)—see Richard Gamble’s essay here for more on his educational views as expressed in his fiction. Of his many essays two, both dating from the early 1980s, are specifically concerned with higher education, “Higher Education and Home Defense” (HEHD) and “The Loss of the University” (LU), and they are both reprinted in his collection Home Economics (1987). Of his commencement addresses, the ones he gave at Bellarmine University in 2007 and Northern Kentucky University in 2009 are most relevant for our purposes.

As early as his 1969 essay collection, The Long-Legged House, Berry expressed his doubts about formal education, writing:  “Although I have become, among other things, a teacher, I am skeptical of education. It seems to me a most doubtful process, and I think the good of it is taken too much for granted. It is a matter that is over-theorized and over-valued and always approached with too much confidence. It is . . . no substitute for experience or life or virtue or devotion. As it is handed out by the schools, it is only theoretically useful.”

In the early 1980s, Berry expressed a more radical displeasure in his HEHD essay. In it we glimpse many of the criticisms of higher education that he will continue to proclaim for the next three decades: 1) its main purpose is “career preparation,” preparing exploitive “careerists,” aiming to make more money; 2) this education “is dissociated from . . . [any] sense of obligation”; and 3) higher “educational institutions educate people to leave home,” in order to further their careers.

His essay also indicates what education should do: “Education in the true sense, of course, is an enablement to serve—both the living human community in its natural household or neighborhood and the precious cultural possessions that the living community inherits or should inherit.”

Shortly after this HEHD essay, he elaborated on some of these points in his LU essay. He lamented that “arguments for ‘career preparation’ continue to be made and to grow in ambition,” and that “the thing made by education now is not a fully developed human being; it is a specialist, a careerist, a graduate.” He devoted several pages to decrying the increasing specialization that characterized universities. His words sound similar to those of the Spaniard José Ortega y Gasset, who wrote about “The Barbarism of ‘Specialisation’” in his The Revolt of the Masses (1930), stating that the specialist “is not learned, for he is formally ignorant of all that does not enter into his speciality.”

Berry’s LU essay specifies much more than his earlier one what he believes should be the aim of higher education.

The thing being made in a university is humanity. . . . human beings in the fullest sense of those words—not just trained workers or knowledgeable citizens but responsible heirs and members of human culture. . . . The common denominator has to be larger than either career preparation or preparation for citizenship. Underlying the idea of a university—the bringing together, the combining into one, of all the disciplines—is the idea that good work and good citizenship are the inevitable by-products of the making of a good— that is, a fully developed—human being. This, as I understand it, is the definition of the name university.

He added, “To know life is to know good and evil; to prepare young people for life is to prepare them to know the difference between good and evil.” Part of this preparation, as well as a central aim of universities, he believed, was helping students to make good judgments. But

in some instances . . . specialized “fields” have grown so complicated within themselves that the curriculum leaves no time for the broad and basic studies that would inform judgment. In other instances, one feels that there is a potentially embarrassing conflict between judgment broadly informed and the specialized career for which the student is being prepared; teachers of advertising techniques, for example, could ill afford for their students to realize that they are learning the arts of lying and seduction.

In this same essay he indicated other ways that he believed universities were ignoring their true mission and reflecting their inclusion as part of a consumer culture serving the interests of corporate America.

Enforced by a commercial compulsion to satisfy the customer. . . . it is inevitable that requirements will be lightened, standards lowered, grades inflated, and instruction narrowed to the supposed requirements of some supposed career opportunity. . . . The history of modern education may be the history of the loss of . . . [its true] image, and of its replacement by the pattern of the industrial machine, which subsists upon division—and by industrial economics (“publish or perish”), which is meaningless apart from division. . . . To require or expect or even allow young people to choose courses of study and careers that they do not yet know anything about is not, as is claimed, a grant of freedom. It is a severe limitation upon freedom.

Given his dissatisfaction with higher education, the following statement in his essay should not surprise us: “My own life has happened to acquaint me with several people who did not attend high school but who have been more knowledgeable in their ‘field’ [especially farming] and who have had better things to say about matters of general importance than most of the doctors of philosophy I have known.”

Although other Berry essays are not devoted completely to higher education, many of them touch on the subject. Quotes from just a few of them will illustrate some further points. Two 1988 essays, both reprinted in his The Art of the Commonplace: The Agrarian Essays of Wendell Berry, are Economy and Pleasure” and “Racism and the Economy.”

In the first of these essays, he criticizes the teaching of both sciences and humanities: “The sciences . . . mindlessly serve economics, and the humanities defer abjectly to the sciences. All assume, apparently, that we are in the grip of the determination of economic laws that are the laws of the universe. The newspapers quote the economists as the ultimate authorities.” (See here for similar criticisms of higher education by the economist E. F. Schumacher, who in the 1970s wrote that “ecology, indeed, ought to be a compulsory subject for all economists.”) Berry also cites a speech by President Reagan where he praises “science,” by which “he means scientists in the pay of corporations.” The essay continues by faulting universities for accepting an “ideal of competition” that has little “to say about honesty . . . community, compassion and mutual help,” and “most flagrantly and disastrously . . . affection.”

In his second of the 1988 essays, “Racism and the Economy,” he expresses his sadness at what he witnessed at a California university graduation ceremony. Some of the business graduates wore “For Sale” signs around their necks. Although the graduates were joking, Berry insists that “in fact, these graduates were for sale, they knew that they were, and they intended to be. They had just spent four years at a university to increase their ‘marketability.’”

Six years later in his Preface to Sex, Economy, Freedom & Community: Eight Essays (reprinted here), he poked fun at “the new commercial education. . . . All you have to do in order to have or to provide such an education is to pay your money (in advance) and master a few simple truths.” He then listed 16 such erroneous “truths.” Here are some of them.

II. Educated people are better than other people because education improves people and makes them good.

III. The purpose of education is to make people able to earn more and more money.

IV. The place where education is to be used is called “your career.”

V. Anything that cannot be weighed, measured, or counted does not exist.

VI. The so-called humanities probably do not exist. But if they do, they are useless. But whether they exist or not or are useful or not, they can sometimes be made to support a career.

VIII The sign of exceptionally smart people is that they speak a language that is intelligible only to other people in their “field” or only to themselves. This is very impressive and is known as “professionalism.”

IX. The smartest and most educated people are the scientists, for they have already found solutions to all our problems and will soon find solutions to all the problems resulting from their solutions to all the problems we used to have.

X. The mark of a good teacher is that he or she spends most of his or her time doing research and writes many books and articles.

XII. A great university has many computers, a lot of government and corporation research contracts, a winning team, and more administrators than teachers.

In 2001, shortly after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, he wrote a 27-point  essay, “Thoughts in the Presence of Fear,” later reprinted in his Citizenship Papers. Here are his last two points.

XXVI. 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. Its 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.

XXVII. The first thing we must begin to teach our children (and learn ourselves) is that we cannot spend and consume endlessly. We have got to learn to save and conserve. . . .

In his 2007 commencement speech at Bellarmine University, a Catholic institution in Louisville, he decried that the mission of higher education was now mainly determined “by the great and the would-be-great ‘research universities.’” These institutions

no longer make even the pretense of preparing their students for responsible membership in a family, a community, or a polity. . . . Now, according to those institutions of the “cutting edge,” the purpose of education is unabashedly utilitarian. Their interest is almost exclusively centered in the technical courses called, with typical ostentation of corporate jargon, STEM: science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. The American civilization so ardently promoted by these institutions is to be a civilization entirety determined by technology, and not encumbered by any thought of what is good or worthy or neighborly or humane.

The course of study called STEM is in reality only a sort of job training for upward (and lateral) mobility. It is also a subsidy granted to the corporations, which in a system of free enterprise might reasonably be expected to do their own job training. And in the great universities even this higher job training is obstructed by the hustle and anxiety of “research,” often involving yet another corporate raid on the public domain. . . .

Actual education seems now to be far more probable in the smaller schools. . . . [which]  still can function as a community of teachers and students, with responsible community life as its unifying aim. But you must not forget that the purposes and standards of the world into which you are graduating have not been set by institutions such as this one, but rather by the proponents of STEM, who would like you to have a well-paying job as an unconscious expert with Jesus Christ Munitions Incorporated, or Cleanstream Water Polluters, or the Henry Thoreau Noise Factory, or the John Muir Forest Reduction Corporation, or the Promised Land Mountain Removal Service.

In his 2009 address at Northern Kentucky U., he told graduates that education will have to change, and he quoted a Canadian ecologist who wrote that “well-educated people, not illiterates, are wrecking the planet. . . . Schools and universities are morally bankrupt [and] most research is worthless busywork.” Berry went even further, adding “that some research is worse than worthless; it contributes directly to the wrecking of the planet.”

He advocated instead concern for the “ecosphere as the base of curriculum, teaching, and learning. . . . We could call it Emergency Ecological Training.” (See the recent book How Universities Can Help Create a Wiser World: The Urgent Need for an Academic Revolution for a similar emphasis on the need for ecological concern to become central to universities’ mission.) In keeping with Berry’s emphasis on devising community solutions, he would have students address such questions as:

What has happened here? By “here” I mean wherever you live and work. . . .

What can we do to mend the damages we have done?

What are the limits: Of the nature of this place? Of our intelligence and ability?

He told the students that “such questions cannot be answered . . . by a specialist or by many specialists working in isolation,” but only by a humble “conversation across the disciplinary boundaries. This would not be a conversation with a foreseeable, or even a possible, end. It would be carried on necessarily in the face of forever changing conditions and circumstances.”

 Conclusion

Although I had read very little of Berry’s thinking until this past year, much of what he says on education coincides with my observations of the university scene over the past four decades. His criticism of the subservience of education to corporate interests, declining standards, and over-specialization rings true. I think he is correct in believing that “education in the true sense . . . is an enablement to serve” the common good, and that students cannot prepare themselves to serve it without developing judgments based on ethical principles. And I appreciate his wish that universities deal more with ecological problems and those of local communities—my ideal curriculum, however, would also address the importance of global understanding and cooperation.

Although the two essays he wrote devoted exclusively to higher education were written in the early 1980s, the problems he describes in them have only gotten worse in the 21st century. According to one column, “Harvard’s 2008 class sent 28 percent of its gainfully employed graduates to Wall Street, while Yale sent 26 percent.”

Already in 2014, I have come across four articles that reinforce Berry’s criticism. An emeritus professor, Lawrence Wittner, at SUNY, the largest U. S. university system, wrote that “university administrators join the state’s governor in turning SUNY into a loyal servant of big business.” Columnist Nicholas Kristof’s “Professors, We Need You!” quoted a former Princeton dean as stating, “All the disciplines have become more and more specialized and more and more quantitative, making them less and less accessible to the general public.” A third article reported that a University of Michigan regent expressed “concern of the commercialization of Michigan athletics” when the regents voted to name its head football coaching position after a husband and wife who made a $10 million donation. Coach Brady Hoke will hereafter officially be the “J. Ira and Nicki Harris Family Head Football Coach”—J. Ira Harris is a former director of an investment banking firm. (See here for a biting 1926 satire on the commercialization of college sports.)  And a fourth article suggested that recent changes in SAT exams that makes them easier were partially motivated by market considerations.

walter mossIn Berry’s novel Remembering, his hero laments increasing commercialization:  “Andy began to foresee a time when everything in the country would be marketable and everything marketable would be sold, when not one freestanding tree or household or man or woman would remain.” In 1908, environmentalist John Muir had expressed a similar fear that “despoiling gainseekers” were “eagerly trying to make everything dollarable.”

In the face of the kowtowing of most universities to moneyed and corporate interests, articles like Bill O’Reilly’s “Liberal indoctrination poisoning our colleges” seem paranoid indeed. If we liberal professors ever had only half the influence O’Reilly feared, we would be living in a more just, peaceful, sustainable, and less corporate world than we are.

Walter Moss

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Comments

  1. brasch says

    well done article! I am also a liberal emeritus professor, and I have seen exactly what is described. At least 1/2, maybe 2/3 of the faculty, at the state university where I taught are conservative; the students–well, the mind-set is focused on “gimme a job,” with any kind of protest (except for protesting a low grade) negligible. Social issues awareness exists in, maybe, 1/4 of the students–if that. Alas, society has determined that liberals are evil–although the conservative nut-jobs think we, as the article points out, rule the academe.

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