Thoughts on Teaching Wendell Berry

[Cross-posted to In Medias Res]

Wichita, KS

Tuesday was the last meeting of an upper-level course I’d designed this semester on theories of political economy, titled Capitalism, Socialism, and Localism. The class went well for the most part, I think. I began with a general introduction to the historical roots of the modern marketplace, concentrating on Western Europe and the decline of the feudal order, the rise of centralized nation-states, and the conflicts and struggles which came along with those drawn-out, wrenching transformations (the peasant revolts England and Germany, the enclosure acts and rebellions, etc.). Then it was, to a degree, by the numbers: Rousseau, Smith, Bentham, Marx, Mill, Spencer, and then a rush of 20th-century theorists, economists, and activists: Keynes, Schumpeter, Hayek, Walzer, Cohen. Hayek (whom I’d never taught extensively before) went over very well with the students; Keynes too (though, of course, this video helped). But the fellow that I most wanted the students to really get, and which, I think, only a few of them did, and then only partly, was Wendell Berry.

I’m not terribly disappointed; I came to realize, as we plowed through the final weeks of the class, that most of the students were burned out from the large amounts of difficult reading that I’d given them–and moreover, that introducing the ideas of Berry–who is first and foremost a localist and agrarian; beyond that, depending on how you read him, he’s a bit of a distributist, pacifist, traditionalist, socialist, communitarian, anarchist, and New Deal Democrat as well–needed to be set up better, perhaps by reading some of his fiction before examining his ideas. Because, kind of like starting off the whole parade of theorists with Rousseau, his view of the world presumes, or puts into question, or both, a huge range of values and beliefs, some of which your typical modern American university student fervently accepts, and some of which are some deeply embedded in our socio-economic and political order as to require some real excavation and imagination to even be able to present as issues of discussion.

For example, the very notion of “local knowledge.” Living in Wichita, Kansas–which is a wonderful mid-sized city (Melissa and I love it here), not at all busy, global cross-roads for business and innovation–I have a fair number of students with agricultural backgrounds, as well as a fair number of students who have roots in this part of the country going back a couple of generations or more. (Frequently, and not unexpectedly, these groups often overlap.) Sometimes I am able to get some of these students to nod their heads in recognition when I attempt to sketch out the kind of knowledge which being in a particular place, or inheriting a particular vocation, makes possible. Berry, of course, is not the first or the most philosophically eloquent of the defenders of traditions of local knowledge; I ended up making use of arguments drawn directly from the works of Alasdair MacIntyre and Michael Polanyi to elaborate the idea of what it would mean–structurally, politically–to be able to make moral judgments about and exercise real responsibility over economic life…an idea which neither of those others, nor anyone else I am familiar with, has expressed with such fervor as Berry does in passages like this:

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