Dubuque, IA. When I was growing up on the family farm near Delphi, Indiana, my relatives included one college professor. He was a great uncle, married to my grandma’s sister Betty. Betty taught music at Westmar College, in Iowa, and her husband Art taught history there. I never met Uncle Art. All I ever learned about him is that he could tell you a fact, and then he could tell you which book contained the fact, and then he could tell you which page in the book you’d find it on. People always told that story whenever his name came up.
Art was different: that was the point. Most Smiths were either farmers or school teachers. College professors were teachers too, but that seemed somehow incidental. My aunts who taught elementary or high school were defined by what they did. Art was defined by what he knew; and he knew things no one else did. It was impressive, but also sort of funny. What was the use of all his knowledge?
I was never going to be a farmer like my dad and grandpa. It took too many knacks I didn’t have. Smiths who didn’t become farmers or teachers sometimes went into business. My uncle Joe got rich, and since we were poor, sometimes getting rich sounded nice. But I was never going to be a businessman. (And if I’d become one, I wouldn’t have been rich.) And I didn’t want to teach school. So I guess I was always going to be a professor.
That’s what they sometimes called me: “the little professor.” I knew stuff they didn’t, like the capital of Bangladesh, and I could be a smart aleck about it. Also, I didn’t know stuff they did, like how to fix the tractor. I read a lot of books, and I spent a lot of time in the woods, thinking about the books. Maybe they saw me as a miniature Uncle Art. Different, like him. But Art, with all his expertise, never was my role model. I look back now and see that what I always wanted was really just the same thing my farmer dad wanted, the same thing my farmer grandpa had. I wanted the special thing that a farm gives to a farmer.
What to call this thing? Maybe: a home place. A range of movement. A room of one’s own. Unstolen time. Work that’s play, play that’s work. Whatever the nine-to-five is not; whatever the weekend warrior never finds. The freedom that only comes from responsibility, the responsibility that always comes with freedom. “Independence” might be the best word for it — except it’s also a deep feeling for your own dependence. It’s the kind of liberty that comes with roots. The kind that comes from roots.
But any word, even the right one, will only be shorthand, just a shortcut around the experience that actually gives you what “it” is. The experience you can get growing up on a farm. So no, I didn’t want to be a farmer. But farming gave me my feeling for the kind of life I wanted. And that was the life I imagined a professor also led.
This would have been a surprising idea to my dad. It probably would have been just as surprising to Uncle Art. How is farming anything like “professing” — whatever that means? On the farm the work is physical, visceral, practical, concrete. At college the work is all in your head. Right? Yet somehow I got the notion that these two forms of life had more in common with each other than either of them did with business (but isn’t a farm a business?), or teaching (but isn’t that what professors get paid for?), or really with most jobs.
Of course I wasn’t the first to connect the life of the mind to life on the land. My childish idea was a venerable one that still inspires (as recently as David Greene’s Of Farming and Classics: A Memoir). And anyway, it was always their idea too, not just mine. The family farm was full of books. Grandpa and Grandma were always reading something: scripture, National Geographic, biographies of composers. Mom and Dad spent money they didn’t have to put Mortimer Adler’s Great Books on our shelves. My two sisters and I spent a long afternoon at the Delphi library at least once a week. And — crucially, I think — the three of us were all homeschooled. Unlike most of the institutions we call schools, there was no anti-intellectualism at the home place, even if no one there was an intellectual.
It paid off, they’d say. I got all the credentials. I even ended up in Uncle Art’s vicinity, working at a small college in Iowa, in a department of philosophy, politics, and history. I’ve been thinking lately about this connection between where I came from and where I am now, between that work and my work. I have a son now, and another on the way, and no doubt my boys are prompting my thoughts. Thinking about their future makes me think about my past.
But this thinking brings me up short. Because the commonalities between farming and professing include more than the independence both can afford. The two vocations also seem to share a fate. And this is what really ought to surprise us, if we still believe farming is nothing like professing: how the same things that happened to the family farms, and to farmers like my father, are now happening to the colleges, and to faculty like me.
Dad had the bad luck to be a farmer in the eighties. “Get big or get out,” they’d said, which made it sound like a choice. He struggled along for a decade or so, milking cows in my grandpa’s barns and raising hogs on the farm across the way, where we lived in an olive-green aluminum-sided mobile home. It lasted until I was twelve or so. Then we moved a few miles down the road, to the house his own grandpa had built, where his cousin still farmed the property. He went off to a factory, 45 minutes away, building trailers. Third shift, for years.
It worked out, in terms of money. Eventually he got a job at a nicer factory for a higher wage, and traded third for first shift. Mom and Dad moved to town, where they got a nicer house. Mom went to school, got her BA and then her MBA, and after lots of crappy office positions found a place that offered not just good pay but prospects. A few years ago, Dad was able to retire, a bit early. They bought another house, smaller but with a big garage that Dad could turn into a shop. Now that he’s done with jobs, he can finally get back to work.
The eighties happened later in academia. We’re still in the middle of our own farm crisis. I had the bad luck to be looking for work when the work was getting chopped up and doled out in drips to the serfs we call adjuncts, while some campuses gobbled land and built palaces, and others closed. I also had the extraordinarily good luck to find a tenure-track position, in spite of all of that. It’s a modest place, and the teaching load is heavy, and the pay is not kingly. But I have it: I have that independence, that irreplaceable thing. I have my little farm.
For now. The forces that turn work into jobs (preferably jobs that can be eliminated) seem to be inexorable. I’ve often heard these forces gathering outside my office door, muttering about efficiency, accountability, and the supposedly sad reality (they do not seem very sad about it). Sometimes they actually come inside, kick off their shoes, and watch me watching the screen that shows me the computer program that assigns me the tasks that increasingly comprise the job. This helps the forces assess my ability to make good use of the latest technology, which is their way of measuring my utility.
“Forces” — that’s a bad word for this thing I need to name. Gravity is a force: what goes up, must come down. Forces are impersonal. Whenever forces make us do something, no person is making us do it. Forces move behind our backs. This thing — it’s more like a movement of the soul. And the best picture of the soul is the body, as Wittgenstein put it. The spirit of get-big-or-get-out isn’t a ghost in the machine. It’s physical, visceral, practical, concrete. It’s a collection of specific and identifiable thoughts, feelings, actions — stuff we do or don’t do, day in and day out, patterns of living lost to our notice. The forces gathering at my office door are people, like me.
Earl “Rusty” Butz, Nixon’s Secretary of Agriculture, was a person, not a force. “Get big or get out” was a thought in his head, a feeling in his heart, repeated actions in his past that added up to the man who told my dad where to go and where he could stick it. I suspect they were basically the same thoughts, the same feelings, the same repeated actions that make up the people who have unmade the world I imagined I’d enter when I graduated from “little professor” to just “professor.”
Malcolm Glaskill, who taught at Keele University in the UK, recently wrote about this world, and its loss to the thought of progress.
It used to be more interesting. In 1993, Keele still bore a resemblance to the world Malcolm Bradbury captured in The History Man (1975): lecturers taught whatever enthused them—one medievalist offered a course on the Holocaust— and the cooler professors held parties to which students were invited. There were eccentrics straight out of Waugh’s Decline and Fall: loveable cranks who had written one or zero books, drank at lunchtime and liked a flutter. They smoked in their offices and let ferrety dogs roam the corridors.
In 1993 I was twelve, and dreaming of exactly this, while dad was heading off to the assembly line. I’m sure books and movies played their part, filling my head with romantic images of ivory towers that were already outdated. But even when I went to college there was still some of that resemblance between the real world and the old world. My politics professor was so well-known for letting students occupy his office for hours on end, loudly arguing the finer points of the books we were reading in class, that when they put up a new building that would house his department, they added an office just for him, outside the main doors, to keep the noise away from the other people on his floor.
I have no doubt that this man saved more than a few wayward lives, simply by giving them space to care deeply about something other than their own emotions. Simply by taking them seriously as human beings, while giving them permission not to take themselves too seriously. Now, writes Glaskill:
Academics lament the local autonomy that has now been arrogated to the centre, where faculty executive committees and senior management teams call the shots. Lecturers no longer exercise the discretion that once supported students’ pastoral welfare, and are instead trained to spot mental health problems and to advise students to consult GPs and book university counselling sessions (waiting lists tend to be long: anxiety is the new normal, sometimes reported as dispassionately as one might do a cold).
In fact it seems—though the expectation on my campus is thankfully still unclear—that we faculty may soon be prohibited from using our discretion, and actually required to report these new-normal problems to “trained professionals,” who are better equipped to handle dangerous eruptions of the human condition. An acquaintance of mine, an older professor at a prestigious East Coast college, was recently told it might be inappropriate to ask students friendly questions about their lives. Apparently there’s a procedure for that.
In “Two Minds,” Wendell Berry distinguishes the “Rational” from the “Sympathetic” mind. His image of the Sympathetic mind is the shepherd from the book of Matthew, the one who leaves the 99 sheep to search for the one who was lost: “He goes without hesitating to hunt for the lost sheep because he has committed himself to the care of the whole hundred . . . He does what he does on behalf of the whole flock because he wants to preserve himself as a whole shepherd.” “The Rationalist,” by contrast,
has a hundred sheep because he has a plan for that many. The one who has gone astray has escaped not only from the flock but also from the plan. That this particular sheep should stray off in this particular place at this particular time, though it is perfectly in keeping with the nature of sheep and the nature of the world, is not at all in keeping with the rational plan.
To emphasize that Rationalism is not a phantom menace, without form in the real world, Berry tells the story of man who had a job on a factory hog farm. Noticing that some of the animals were sick, and knowing from his own experience as a farm boy how they could be treated, he came in on his own time to tend the pigs, and cured them. But this was against policy—“the profit margin was considered too low to allow for treatment of individual animals.” So his boss fired him for breaking the rules.
This thing that the farm showed me as a boy, the thing I saw and sought in academia—Glaskill calls it “autonomy,” and I’ve called it “independence.” But in many quarters those words have been pressed for too long into the service of Rationalist fantasies of sovereignty. So Berry’s word adds something crucial here: it’s a life of sympathy that I saw being lived by people on the family farm, and in the halls of universities.
Of course “sympathy” too has been put to Rational use. Every plan, every “transfer of functions” from those who profess a vocation to those who manage a system, is always advertised as an advance toward the common good. It is thought and felt to be a “practical” (another gang-pressed word) solution to problems plaguing people who therefore deserve our concern. Yet our concern is supposed to be shown not by accepting responsibilities to make judgments and take action, but by following the rules and leaving it to the experts.
Berry’s sympathy is not the same as whatever the “trained professional” is selling. It’s what my crazy politics professor offered his students. It’s what I hope I offer my students, when I say something off-script and unrelated to the stated learning outcomes, or when they drop by my office unannounced and I spend so long talking to them about their lives and their ideas that I don’t have time to make the latest oh-so-necessary update to my course webpage, where the “content” gets “delivered.”
And it’s what I saw on the faces of my mom and dad, visiting one weekend to see their new grandson. We’d driven out to a little farm billed as a petting zoo. A normal enough activity for little kids. But I know that in the back of our minds we all had a deeper need: to give Jack a little taste of something lost, something of where he came from. To let him touch and hear and smell it, to see it moving in the grass, to watch it leap off the stiff pages of his board books and into the world of flesh and blood.
We seemed to be the only people around. There was no one to take our money; just a box on the fence. There were no farmhands, no other visitors. We walked around, trying to impart some enthusiasm to Jack, feeling less and less of it ourselves. There was little sign of human concern: just pens and stalls. We went into a barn and found a few pigs, a few sheep, a few chickens. And that is when I saw it: the sympathy of independent minds. My parents looked and saw that the troughs were empty of water, left dry on a sweltering day. They got angry. They didn’t wait for instruction or permission; they didn’t look for the authorities; they didn’t file a complaint. They just found a hose, dragged it around to each stall, and watered all the animals.
The zoo was a disappointment: it was nothing like the family farm. But I think Jack still got a glimpse of what I hoped he’d see there. He got to see this thing, this specific thought in my parents’ heads, this peculiar feeling in their hearts, and this simple action that they took with their own untrained but experienced hands.
There is no real sympathy without real independence. That is what I want to say. But what will those words mean to people who’ve never had either? People who increasingly live in what Alan Jacobs describes as “a culture for which surveillance has become the normative form of care”? Farming, professing—these are only two of the manifold forms of life in which people might hope to “preserve themselves as whole shepherds” by taking it upon themselves to care for a “whole flock,” which means caring not for its number but for each of its members, and serving them not as a functionary but as a practitioner. With a different experience, or a better imagination, I might have written about shopcraft (Matthew Crawford), motorcycle maintenance (Robert Pirsig), or any of the romantic revivalists of the endangered arts & crafts (Eugene McCarrahar). I might have written about running one of the small businesses being driven out of business by lockdowns, which in the name of sympathy have transferred even more functions to the expert minders of the expert systems at Amazon and Google and other “machines of loving grace.” The point is that any and all of these precious vocations can and will disappear into the ceaseless act of reduction, substitution, expropriation, and standardization; into the slight-of-hand, the bait-and-switch, and the blank stares of every Earl Butz whose thoughts and feelings no longer grasp any difference between farm and factory, college and content delivery.
I guess I am feeling a bit angry, a bit like my parents at the petting zoo. But I’m thinking about my boys, and their future. I’m thinking more and more about where I might be able to find this “thing,” this sympathy of independent and maybe even interesting people doing good work on their little farms, so they can grasp and hold on to the difference between living a whole life and “doing your part” by staying apart. And so that they can see what’s common to the varied forms of independence, the various roots of sympathy. Because they’re going to grow up in a world that has been so drained of human concern that any stirring of autonomy will be registered as a threat to the systems we conflate with compassion. The common good is now understood by most people as the business of experts and the stuff of procedures, to which they have nothing to contribute but acquiescence. I just want my children to have some different images in their heads, some different feeling in their hearts, some different experiences in their hands.