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It is a well-known fact for teenage students that all assigned work (particularly assigned reading) is designed to waste their time for no good reason.  As a teacher (who has almost attained the wizened old age of 26) I get to see the reverse of that medal.  Much to the surprise of my teenage self, most of the work assigned by teachers in both high school and college really is meant to help the student.  While I stand by my 10th grade decision not to read Harry Potter as assigned in English class, I do recognize many missed opportunities for intellectual and personal improvement that resulted from that natural mistrust of authority in my youth.  In the spirit of that realization, I decided to revisit a bit of assigned reading.  The Art of the Commonplace by Wendell Berry was assigned by the Baylor University Honors Program as a summer reading project for incoming freshman back in 2004.  We were supposed to read the book and write an essay over the course of that summer and then participate in a discussion group during our first week on campus.  Eighteen-year-old Me skimmed enough of the book to write a thoroughly unremarkable essay and made no references to the actual text during the discussion group.  Score one for teenage apathy.  Last week I revisited this relic of my rebellious youth.  As it turns out, those honors professors weren’t just wasting my time.

The Art of the Commonplace is a collection of essays by noted novelist, poet, philosopher, and farmer Wendell Berry.  This collection includes previously published essays that span Berry’s five decade career and is intended to give a comprehensive (if superficial) overview of his agrarian philosophy.  As such, the book is divided into five general sections.  The first is entitled “A Geobiography” and provides context for Berry’s writings. Berry operates a farm outside of Port Royal, Kentucky near where he grew up.  This same area was home to his parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents.  This long connection has given Berry an intimate knowledge and abiding affection for the land he occupies.  It is also important to note that Berry has not always lived on this farm.  He was once a successful writer and professor in New York City, Mecca of intellectuals.  He gave up that prestigious position to return to his native Kentucky.  That decision and his connection to the land have inspired and informed his subsequent philosophical efforts.  This first section illustrates that influence.  I appreciated the inclusion of this section, as it lends an authenticity to Berry’s other essays that would not be so apparent without its presence.

The second section of The Art of the Commonplace is “Understanding our Cultural Crisis”.  It includes essays that identify and discuss a variety of modern cultural issues, including environmental concerns, racism, gender discrimination, and overdependence on technology. Berry outlines a connection between these problems of culture and problems in agriculture.  The abandonment of the agrarian ethos fundamentally altered the way society looks at work.  In a society rooted in agrarian rather than industrial ways, physical labor and careful work are viewed as dignified.  Industrialism discredits physical labor.  Those who can avoid physical labor must be better than those who do such menial work.  The result is a discrimination against those employed in these jobs.  The root of racism, according to Berry is not that slaves were black, but that blacks were slaves.  Agrarian culture recognizes the importance of the health of our land and our communities.  Quality and sustainability are valued over quantity and immediate profit.  The industrial mindset replaces this careful approach with an exclusive focus on profit.  The result is a society more concerned with cash than character.  As a small-town boy turned city dweller engaged in a nonphysical job, I tend to be a touch skeptical that all of our cultural ills can be traced to the abandonment of the agrarian lifestyle. Berry’s arguments are very interesting, however, and certainly merit consideration.  I particularly agree with his notion that the shift in focus from quality to profit has certainly had a negative impact on the character of most people.  So many students in both high school and college are focused only on economic eventualities.  As a result they miss out on the true goal of education: enlightenment. 

The man himself.

The third section, “The Agrarian Basis for an Authentic Culture”, expands on the breakdown of culture as a result of abandoning agrarian practices.  Agrarianism recognizes that human beings do not exist in autonomous isolation.  Every person is inextricably linked to other people, other creatures, and the Earth at large.  Industrialism transforms complex, interrelated people into individual consumers. Berry argues that we must recognize and accept the responsibility of our interconnectedness if we are to repair the cultural damage of industrialism.  Only by forming close-knit communities that develop and maintain the awareness of these connections can we make real progress towards cultural and ecological health. Berry’s vision of communities in which “people belong to one another and to their place” is appealing.  My concern is with freedom from conformity. Berry argues that “A community, as a part of a public, has no right to silence publicly protected speech, but it certainly has a right not to listen and to refuse its patronage to speech that it finds offensive.”  That makes sense.  People are free to say what they want and I am free not to listen. Berry later states that

A general and indiscriminate egalitarianism is free-market culture, which, like free-market economics, tends towards a general and destructive uniformity.  And tolerance, in association with such egalitarianism, is a way of ignoring the reality of significant differences.  If I merely tolerate my neighbors on the assumptions that all of us are equal, that means I can take no interest in the question of which ones of us are right and which ones are wrong; it means that I am denying the community the use of my intelligence and my judgment; it means that I am not prepared to defer to those whose abilities are superior to mine, or to help those whose condition is worse; it means that I can be as self-centered as I please.

In order to survive, a plurality of true communities would require not egalitarianism and tolerance but knowledge, an understanding of the necessity of local differences, and respect.  Respect, I think, always implies imagination—the ability to see one another, across our inevitable differences, as living souls.

This notion of communities seems to require a certain amount of homogeneity amongst the community members.  What of those individuals who differ or disagree with prevailing community standards?  To say that a community respects all members as living souls and is capable of appreciating the value of differences ignores the tendency (supported by historical examples) to divide communities over differences rather than coexisting with them.  To argue that those were not true communities because true communities must respect differences does not answer the practical question—How can we create these perfect communities?

The fourth section is titled “Agrarian Economics” and is largely a critique of the prevailing economic order. Berry excoriates the industrial mindset of the present global economy on practical and moral grounds.  These criticisms apply to both free-market capitalism and traditional communism.  The practical criticism basically states that the current economic system exploits the environment and the consumers in the interest of maximizing profits.  Rather than seek the most sustainable methods of manufacture and production, corporations seek the cheapest.  This mindset creates an inherently unstable system.  Producing goods in the cheapest possible manner often involves stripping the land of its ability to produce the very commodities needed to produce those goods.  Eventually we will run out of those resources, which will be a catastrophe from which this economy will not recover.  Another practical flaw in our economy is the emphasis on competition.  There is a well-established notion that competition in a free market is inherently fair and inherently just. Berry argues that this simply cannot be true.  That notion assumes that all competitors are equal in opportunity and resources, distinguished only by their natural ability and effort.  Unfortunately, this is not the case.  In an economy based on competition there must be winners and there must be losers.  The winners accrue tremendous profits that allow them to defeat other less advantaged competitors.  This concentrates wealth and economic power in the hands of a very few corporations.  This again leads to instability as the unsuccessful and economically disadvantaged eventually refuse to accept this situation, generating potentially severe civil unrest.  The moral critique is very simple.  An industrial economy based on competition does not have room for concerns of morality.  Ethical considerations cannot be plotted on a profit-loss spreadsheet.  History shows that companies can and will violate moral considerations to the detriment of humanity at large in the interest of profit.  This system rewards those most willing to consider pure profit.  I must admit that I am not a fan of capitalism.  I have never considered it a just system.  In many situations, the free market does indeed reward those most willing to take risks and put forth tremendous effort.  Just as frequently, the rewards go to people who put in little effort and do no actual work.  It baffles me that a system in which tremendous profit can be generated simply by possessing large sums of money can be called fair.  Don’t get me started on the pitfalls and moral implications of an economic order that has the generation and perpetuation of debt as one of its primary foundations.  This doesn’t mean that I am a communist.  I think communism is even worse for many reasons (that I won’t extend this blog post by enumerating).  I do not know what would be better than the status quo, but there must be something.  Perhaps Berry has found that something.

The fifth and (mercifully) final section is “Agrarian Religion”.  It is primarily an appeal to religious communities, and especially Christian communities, to recognize the sanctity of every part of Creation.  Once this sanctity is acknowledged, it is impossible to blindly accept the ecological abuses perpetrated by the industrialist economy.  The only solution is to embrace the agrarian mindset that focuses on the holiness of the Earth.  Recognizing the miraculous cycle of life embodied in the natural world is absolutely essential to a sincere religion.  I thought Berry’s appeals were very persuasive and should be taken very seriously by all religions.  Focusing on spiritual concerns tends to devalue the physical world.  The result is disrespect for the environment that does not line up with a religion that values all of the works of the Creator.

Overall, I loved Berry’s book.  It is very thought-provoking and insightful.  I don’t agree with every aspect of Berry’s philosophy, but I definitely think his ideas demand consideration.  My chief complaint with this book is that it is somewhat repetitive and occasionally disjointed because it is an assemblage of essays from throughout his career.  It was an excellent introduction, however, and I look forward to reading more of his work in the future.  I fully appreciate the choice of this book by those professors eight years ago (but am glad I waited to read it until I had a bit more intellectual maturity).  Perhaps this epic blog post makes up for the crap essay I produced that summer.

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