On Educating for a Provisional Future

I’ve been listening through and re-reading Wendell Berry’s fantastic essay “The Work of Local Culture,” which can be read online here or is included in the books The Unsettling of America and The World-Ending Fire (and you can listen to both read aloud by Nick Offerman of Ron Swanson fame—!!). It’s a long and far-reaching essay, not all of which I think I’ve fully unpacked, but today I want to turn an eye to Berry’s thoughts on education.

As he plumbs just how far America has wandered from a respect for local culture, Berry notes, “The schools are no longer oriented to a cultural inheritance which it is their duty to pass on unimpaired, but to the career, which is to the future, of the child.” Because my husband teaches at a nominally liberal arts college that frequently advertises its job preparation chops, because I attended an actual liberal arts (Great Books) program, and because we are leaning toward at least some elements of classical education in our homeschool, this is an idea we discuss often in the Bowers household. What’s more, a respect for cultural inheritance goes hand-in-hand with Catholicism, I think — Chesterton’s “democracy of the dead” and all that. Though our children may find themselves alone temporally in a cohort where no one else adheres to their faith, they can, with a proper education, remember all those who came before them as practitioners in the faith: Charlemagne and Gregor Mendel, Gerard Manley Hopkins and Beethoven. (It is worth noting here that Berry is at least partially — maybe predominantly — referring to passing on a “cultural inheritance” that is inextricably local. And I have no idea how to pass that on, having transplanted myself hundreds of miles from the [suburban] woods I walked as a child.)

Berry points out the value-neutral methods of education currently employed, an atmosphere in which the greatest good is not human flourishing or the care of a place or community, but rather to “earn money in a provisional future that has nothing to do with place or community.” It’s the whole marrying-for-money-and-career-prep argument all over again.

The educational system as it exists now is designed so that parents may

“find themselves immediately separated from their children, and made useless to them, by the intervention of new educational techniques, technologies, methods and languages. School systems innovate as compulsively and eagerly as factories. It is no wonder that, under these circumstances, ‘educators’ tend to look upon the parents as a bad influence, and wish to take the children away from home as early as possible.”

This alienation is often introduced with good intentions — to break the cycle of poverty, to equip a child with better opportunities. But the separation is also an expression of our cultural obsession with what is new and hip, in this case the newest pedagogical tricks or newest technology. Every child a laptop! we decree, as if concrete improvements have been documented. Instead, what is needed is this:

“There must also be love of learning and of the cultural tradition and of excellence. And this love cannot exist, because it makes no sense, apart from the love of a place and community. Without this love, education is only the importation into a local community of centrally prescribed ‘career preparation’ designed to facilitate the export of young careerists.”

Let me offer the disclaimer that these values of course are not unique to homeschool or embodied in every homeschooling family. But the values do require a knowledge of this particular child, of what will be demanded by him by a local community — which often has less to do with skill mastery and more to do with how he understands his place in the world, how she cares for the lives with which she’s entrusted.

The past year should show us what is really important in education and family life. By now we should realize we cannot prepare our children completely for an unpredictable world, because who among us predicted this? What we have learned to value, instead, is the strength of family affections that, depending on their presence or absence, have made the last few months tolerable or miserable. We cannot educate our kids into safety, but we can love them and equip them to love others through the storm.

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