Education and the Industrial Solvent

FactoryMuch like liberalism, industrialism has acted as a kind of universal solvent that has assisted in what some would call the dissolution of whatever the most recent world might have been (though we now exist in the wake of its passing, some might say).  And so industrialism can seem opposed to the arts, to social and mental health, to home economics, to a kind of self-sufficiency.  Considering education in light of industrialism is also an easy (but not untrue) step to take.  I think it was media guru Seth Godin who first introduced me to the idea that things like scantron tests are the epitome of education’s embrace of the industrial approach to learning.

So even though he’s almost always talking about agriculture and a particular way of life ,I often read Wendell Berry’s thoughts on industrialism and its effects on society as a way of thinking about education (particularly of a kind of Christian education).  This was especially true of one part of “The Thought of Limits in a Prodigal Age.”  There are a few times in the following excerpt where you could replace “agrarianism” with “education” and it still make some good sense.

Industrialism and agrarianism are almost exactly opposite and opposed.  Industrialism regards mechanical or technical functions as ideal.  It rates its accomplishments by quantitative measures.  Though it values the prestige of public charity, it is motivated necessarily by the antisocial traits that assure success in competition.  Agrarianism, by contrast, arises from the primal wish for a home land or a home place– the wish, in the terms of our tradition, for the freedom and independence that come with dependence on a parcel of land, however small, that one owns and is owned by or has at least the use of. Agrarianism gratin its highest practical value to the good husbandry of the land.  It is motivated, to an extent effective and significant, by neighborliness, family loyalty, and devotion to the coherence and longevity of communities.

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How you think about education matters.  How you think about knowledge shapes the entire learning enterprise.  There has always been a kind of “jumping through hoops” to learning . . . hoops that often start early and properly in the memorizing of facts and figures but that, in the long run, see learning as not much more than a manipulative to get at something else.

Real learning, I am convinced, comes with qualitative measures that have striking social component and that don’t settle for simple win/lose competition.

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At some point I hope to get to Patrick Deneen’s thoughts on education as found in Why Liberalism Failed.  Until then, it’s good to mindful of writers like Berry who help us see the costs of many things easily lost in our current culture of transition.  And the arena of education is a vital part of that picture.

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