Achieving Character and Acquiring Skills: A Regress Report

by Jason Peters on March 16, 2011 · 15 comments <span>Print this article</span> Print this article

in Culture, High & Low,Economics & Empire,Politics & Power


Rock Island, IL

These are some canyons
we might use again

–William Stafford, “Indian Caves in the Dry Country”

A good crystal ball is hard to come by these days, so it isn’t entirely clear to me what exactly Reality has in store for us. But as I think about what sort of scenario that, say, a betting man would envision at the end of the current interval we call Now, my mind tends in general toward the past. Odds are: having a good look at what lies ahead will require of us a familiarity with what we left behind.

I say “current interval” rather than “current epoch” because the period of time I’m referring to—the time during which we’ve gone after the last of the carbon-rich pools available to us (coal and oil)—will prove to have been too short and too anomalous to be anything more than an interval. That the interval should have been short and yet characterized by speed and acceleration is but one aspect of its oddity. I’d lay good money on our never seeing such an “interval” again.

I had the opportunity recently to ask a group of students, all of them unfamiliar to me, whether they thought we are going to think our way out of our current ecological crisis and energy shortage. It should come as no surprise that many, if not most, of them did in fact entrust themselves to human ingenuity. In the eyes of the young, who are going to have to shoulder an enormous burden, Man remains reliably intelligent, resourceful, and progressive.

(I forbear saying anything about those who deny any such crisis or shortage.)

Not unexpectedly, our conversation turned for a very specific reason toward the past. The “very specific reason” is this: whenever the question of limits arises, someone will say something like, “I don’t want to go back to the eighteenth century” or “I don’t want to be a farmer” or “You can’t go back in time.”

These are three very stupid remarks. All you really have to say in answer to the first two is that Reality doesn’t care what you want. None of this is about what anyone wants. You might outlive a given day of reckoning, but “I don’t want” is a phrase that doesn’t really belong in the discussion.

The third remark, however, is of a different order altogether. “You can’t go back in time” is true in the manner that “you can’t jump over a caboose” is true, and so in a certain respect it doesn’t need saying. That the obvious sometimes does need saying doesn’t mean that this is one of those times. I think we all pretty much agree that we’re stuck in the present and that we’re headed toward the future. Our occupying the past is unlikely.

(Gatsby, who believed in the time-bending pixie dust of money, said incredulously, “Can’t repeat the past? Why of course you can!” But the money he relied on to manipulate time was, in the main, useless to him after he was found floating dead in his swimming pool encircled by his own blood. It’s a good object lesson for those who would ask money to do what it can’t do.)

In dealing with this third remark I told these alien students the story of Wendell Berry’s debate with former Secretary of Agriculture Earl Butz. This debate took place back in, I think, the late ’70s and, at one point in the debate, someone unhappy with one of Berry’s remarks shouted from the back of the room, “You can’t go back in time.” Berry replied, “I’m not talking about going back in time. I’m talking about going back in character.”

This is a useful distinction, especially if you think about it in terms of something else Berry has said about character. It comes from what, in my judgment, is one of the most important sentences he ever wrote: “We must achieve the character, and acquire the skills, to live much poorer than we do.”

Acquiring skills—the skills of making do, the domestic arts—is one thing. It is probably something almost anyone can do, especially given Necessity, which is a stern and unmerciful preceptor.

But achieving character is another matter altogether. And if I leave aside the fact that achieving character probably has a lot to say about whether a person is willing to acquire some skills, I do so only to hasten the point: such skills and character belong primarily to the past. They are available to us in the present, to be sure, but not so readily, not so widely, not in such abundance.

The past: that thing we don’t want to go back to; that thing many of us live in contempt of.

The cheap crystal ball clears a little, briefly, and upon closer inspection it does seem as if we’re headed—either voluntarily and with manageable pain, or necessarily and with considerable pain–back into an energy-scarce world that will require much of us in terms of acquired skills and achieved character. I didn’t ask these students how many of them thought we’d manage by those means. But then I wasn’t in the mood for despair.

It will be a good day when the majority of young people agree that we are unreliably intelligent, unresourceful, but regressive creatures.

{ 13 comments… read them below or add one }

avatar Bob Banning March 16, 2011 at 7:36 am

To adopt your view about character would give us a different perspective on the funding of education, wouldn’t it, Jason? We would pay a good salary to good teachers of history, language, and philosophy, and we might not think it as important to have the latest in the electronic tools that are rather unreflectively called “technology”–as if nothing nonelectronic counted as technology.

avatar Scale of Life March 16, 2011 at 8:16 am

As I watch the images that show the current events in Japan, I think it would be much better to begin voluntarily acquiring the skills and developing the character necessary to “live poorer” rather than have it forced upon us by disaster – either natural or man made.

I think we would find that if we “lived poorer” materially and monetarily, we would find that our lives would actually be richer.

As we collectively look to move out of the current economic situation, much of the conversation focuses on economic growth. I think we would do well to focus on economic health.

A Wendell Berry quote from The Unsettling of America:
“The standard of the exploiter is efficiency; the standard of the nurturer is care. The exploiter’s goal is money, profit; the nurturer’s goal is health – his land’s health, his own, his family’s, his community’s, his country’s…The exploiter wishes to earn as much as possible by as little work as possible; the nurturer expects, certainly, to have a decent living from his work, but his characteristic wish is to work as well as possible. The competence of the exploiter is in organization; that of the nurturer is in order – a human order, that is, that accommodates itself both to order and to mystery. The exploiter typically serves an institution or organization; the nurturer serves land, household, community, place. The exploiter thinks in terms of numbers, quantities, “hard facts”; the nurturer in terms of character, condition, quality, kind.”

avatar Lincoln Hunter March 16, 2011 at 9:11 am

Mr Peters: you only get better and better. Thanks again for a great essay.

avatar Tim Holton March 16, 2011 at 12:05 pm

How revealing that for your students ingenuity runs in the opposite direction from the basic, essential arts–as does, apparently the joy one can find in those arts. Arthur Miller said something like, the mission of the middle class is to avoid manual labor. But Willie Loman, says Charley at Willie’s funeral, “…was a happy man with a batch of cement … so wonderful with his hands … he had the wrong dreams, all wrong.”

avatar Sam M March 16, 2011 at 12:54 pm

I think the skills you are talking about are easy enough to figure. (The picture says an awful lot, and extrapolating isn’t too difficult.) But I’d be interested in a more full discussion of what you think “will be required of us” in terms of achieved character. In which character traits are we deficient? And how hard is it to re-acquire them? Seems to me that people are still heroic when called upon to be so. (I just read an article about the 50 Japanese nuclear technicians who are risking it all for the common good.)

So I am thinking you are after something else. Something more akin to “everyday” character, or what maybe used to be everyday character.

It’s interesting to me from the perspective of “work.” It is my understanding that the industrial revolution was, importantly, a revolution in work ethic, and achieving that revolution was not easy. Oddly, by today’s standards, the guys on the farm were terrible “workers” when they first arrived on the factory floor. Just getting them to show on time was difficult. They were used to different rhythms and different forms of payment.

But all that training and sorting didn’t take long, and the concept of “good worker” changed in a blink of an eye.

I know there are other aspects involved with character, but I would be interested in hearing what aspects of character need changed, and why you suspect it would be so difficult to achieve. Necessity is a pretty stern instructor.

avatar G. Koefoed March 17, 2011 at 8:43 am

Excellent quote from Berry. As an intellectual historian of the 19th century, I frequently feel out of place as concepts like character, virtue, and natural order are foreign to many of my peers and consumption, technology, and “freedom” (i.e. rampant individualism) have taken their place.

Even if peak energy does not happen – or at least not as drastically as you envision – globalization seems to be teaching the history lesson so few people seem to understand, whether liberal or conservative. America in the 1920s, and especially in the post WWII era was a special time and place which was able to provide an elevated standard of living and ever increasing “growth” because it imposed its economic will on the rest of the world. As Western nations continue to sell themselves to wealthy bondholders both domestically and in China – a necessity to continue the illusion of affluence – the problem will accelerate until people learn to heed your and Berry’s wise suggestions.

“We must achieve the character, and acquire the skills, to live much poorer than we do.”

avatar Peter G March 18, 2011 at 5:36 pm

What first drew my eye to the article and elicited my excitement was the picture. The young man driving the horses is a farmer named Tom who is in Maryland now. We worked together at a living history farm in NJ (Howell farm). The pic is from Howell (of Barney & Mac). Tom is one of those rare young people convinced aquisition of character and skill is what’s necessary for our survival, and indeed, our happiness.

More and more lately I’ve been convicted of the truth of man’s regress – his fall and decline. It is a truth attested by Myth, Religion, Philosophy and, most convincing to me, just plain sense. Our spirits, minds, and bodies are atrophied by our societies divorce from Reality. The buffer of wealth, technology, and comfort has disconnected us from the reality of life, death, work and the growth of the soil that must be procurred at all costs. We’re made to pity people in the 3rd world who are portrayed as ignorant and backward but really in a way they should be envied for many of them lead lives that are healthier spiritually, socially and mentally (which includes a whole range of consciousness about reality, nature and the world). The true value of an ‘integrel’ or ‘epoch’ ought to measured by the character of the people not how easy or comfortable their life is.

avatar Tim Holton March 19, 2011 at 12:26 pm

High regard for Wendell Berry, but not sure his cause is ultimately served well by the quote, “We must achieve the character, and acquire the skills, to live much poorer than we do.” I prefer words better reflecting his own understanding of wealth and poverty—the understanding in John Ruskin’s, “There is no wealth but life.” As to character, in his essay “The Veins of Wealth,” Ruskin wrote, “the final outcome and consummation of all wealth is in the producing as many as possible full-breathed, bright-eyed, and happy-hearted human creatures.”

avatar Bill March 21, 2011 at 6:43 am

Excellent essay and just the antidote I needed this morning to Ayn Rand.

avatar Bill March 21, 2011 at 6:47 am

Here’s something from Wendell Berry’s Discipline and Hope essay that speaks to this point too:

A person dependent on somebody else for everything from potatoes to opinions may declare that he is a free man, and his government may issue a certificate granting him his freedom, but he will not be free. He is that variety of specialist known as a consumer, which means that he is the abject dependent of producers. How can he be free if he can do nothing for himself? What is the First Amendment to him whose mouth is stuck to the tit of the “affluent society?” Men are free precisely to the extent that they are equal to their own needs. The most able are the most free.

avatar D.W. Sabin March 24, 2011 at 10:20 am

Ahhh, Earl Butz, say no more. The Saints are ever prepared to do the bidding of empires as diverse as the CIA and the general staff of Howard Hughes. They run a tight ship they do.

Somehow though, the reactions to modernity will likely be as flummoxed as modernity itself because the nervous and jerky populace thinks the present is a bother, an insult to the past or something to be run over quickly on the road to Utopia, a bit like roadkill really.

avatar Tim Holton April 2, 2011 at 1:50 pm

Realize it’s late in the conversation, but was brought back to the discussion of skills and character last night while looking at Wallace Nutting’s “Furniture of the Pilgrim Century” (1921). One thought therein went to a misgiving I was having about Prof. Peters’s essay: the seeming primacy of character before work. I would insist good character grows out of good work. But Nutting says it better: In building wooden furniture,

“We have no right to misuse wood. We did not make it. We found it, like air, water and grass. The only possible manner of acquiring any rights over it is by putting the stamp of character upon it. The theologians tell us of sins, as if we were under obligation to a spiritual world alone. But sheer wickedness in the use of materials ought to cause even a materialist to shudder. Wood is one of the best things we have. Whether Grinling Gibbons puts his tool to it or we make a milking stool of it, men will measure us by the manner of our handling it.
Only people with a sense of reverence for materials can make good citizens. A man must use wood well, or he will mistreat his neighbors.”

avatar Chris Schumerth September 2, 2011 at 9:50 am

Great article, Jason! (I heard you speak a few summers ago about Berry and O’Connor at Cornerstone Festival). So glad I came across this website! Hope you are well. These days, I am working on an M.A. in English at IUPUI and trying to figure out how to maneuver as much Berry into the curriculum as possible! Most of the professors don’t read him much, as you can imagine.

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