“Learning made a boy leave the farm to live in the city—to consider himself better than his father.”
John Steinbeck wrote these words 65 years ago, in his classic work East of Eden. Even then, he sensed the deep schism growing between rural America and the elite, urban enclaves that housed many of the nation’s universities and colleges.
But if such things were true in Steinbeck’s day, they are only more common now. Our nation’s top universities have embraced a detached, globalized approach to education—one in which youths are unlikely to be sent home, and rather encouraged to join a larger sphere of success and influence.
On its website, Yale assures visitors that it is training “the next generation of world leaders.” Harvard boasts that it develops leaders “who make a difference globally.” The University of Virginia, meanwhile, promises to foster “illimitable minds,” and “endless pursuit.”
In his classic consideration of American society, Democracy in America, Alexis de Tocqueville observed that the United States contained an “innumerable multitude of those who seek to get out of their original condition …. There are no Americans who do not show that they are devoured by the desire to rise.”
But the consequences of such attitudes have been staggering. In America’s rural towns and communities, “brain drain” is sucking away talented youth, leaving an economic and social hole in its wake. According to a 2008 Pew poll, college graduates are far less likely to live in their birth state, and most young people still living in their hometown want to move in the next five years. Seventy-seven percent of college graduates change communities at least once.
Few in the world of higher education are taking a stand against this tide of exodus and globalization. But in their new book, Wendell Berry and Higher Education: Cultivating Virtues of Place, Jack Baker and Jeffrey Bilbro explain the dangers of a higher education that is placeless and, in the words of UVA, “illimitable.”
Baker and Bilbro work in the English Department at Michigan’s Spring Arbor University. Both professors have long studied the life and work of Wendell Berry, and his writing and thought serve as primary inspiration for this book.
Berry himself, via both his fiction and essays, has considered the deleterious impact of higher education on small farming communities. As his protagonist Hannah Coulter notes in a novel of the same name, “After each one of our children went away to the university, there always came a time when we would feel the distance opening to them, pulling them away.”
Higher education fosters what Wendell Berry has termed “boomers”: individuals who “are always on the lookout for better career opportunities in better places.” He contrasts this group to “stickers”: those who root themselves in a place, and dedicate themselves to its wellbeing. Wallace Stegner first used these terms to describe the pioneers who settled in the West in the 19th and early 20th centuries; but our universities have long fostered boomers instead of stickers.
Coulter’s children, like most American youths, bought into “the destructive ideology of the university as part of an industrial economy—an economy in which schools bring in customers and send out displaced individuals with immense debts, having taught those individuals that the good life can be found anywhere but at home,” write Baker and Bilbro.
Many in and outside America’s universities don’t see a problem with this sort of displacement. Upward mobility, as Alexis de Tocqueville noted, has always been a present and accepted part of the American psyche. We increasingly strive to be cosmopolitans, global citizens, people who exist outside of place and its tribalistic ties. Today, as never before, the virtues of contentment, gratitude, and loyalty have fallen into disrepute.
But resurrecting such virtues, Baker and Bilbro suggest, is critical for the health and happiness not just of America’s small towns and communities, but also of its young people—for although independence may appeal for a while, living as a “global citizen” and “world leader” can be rather lonely and alienating. Cultivating opportunities for homecoming is not just a romantic or reactionary notion. It is a recipe for holistic healing and reintegration, in a nation that sorely needs it.
To foster this sort of reintegration, Baker and Bilbro suggest, we need to tell different stories to our youth: stories that foster the aforementioned virtues of place, stories that suggest home is in fact a beautiful place worth preserving. Baker and Bilbro thus begin to lay out a vision for reforming higher education—for cultivating a university in which students are encouraged to love their place.
While education means “to lead out from,” Baker and Bilbro argue that the university’s direction in times past was more metaphysical and intellectual than it was geographical. Universities in Athens and Rome served the polis. After the rise of Christendom, universities sought to serve the church, and most of America’s first colleges were theological in both their education and ends. As American society has grown increasingly pluralistic, however, the purpose and end of the university has shifted once more—this time to focus on economic success.
“The institution that began with the purpose of leading students out of ignorance to better serve their communities and the church now primarily serves the nation-state’s industrial complex,” Baker and Bilbro write. “In the absence of any higher purpose, the multiversity defaults to serving the economy, to training students to be effective cogs in a capitalist machine.”
In contrast, Baker and Bilbro suggest that universities ought to work like a rooted tree,providing students with a “trunk of truth,” which is surrounded and informed by a geographical context. They suggest that a strong core curriculum—the classical liberal arts’ trivium and quadrivium—is the best such trunk.
The classical liberal arts do not dictate or specify success to students. Instead, they cultivate wisdom and understanding—and from these seeds, students can and must cultivate their own, particular vision of the good. Great, classic works of the past—such as Paradise Lost, The Odyssey, or newer works such as The Lord of the Rings—foster a “rooted imagination.” But they also prompt questions of application that students must answer for themselves.
“We have found that our students struggle with imaginative work because it doesn’t provide neat, tidy answers,” note Baker and Bilbro. “In fact, it acknowledges that some, perhaps many, of their questions will remain unanswered.” But this sort of learning fosters prudence: the ability to apply certain virtues and skills within a variety of disciplines and places. Whereas others forms of education spit out machine cogs, the rooted university fosters diverse and multifaceted human beings.
As Berry once wrote in his essay “The Loss of the University,” “Underlying the idea of the university—the bringing together, the combining into one, of all the disciplines—is the idea that good work and good citizenship are the inevitable by-products of the making of a good—that is, a fully developed—human being.”
In the second part of their book, Baker and Bilbro consider the four key dimensions “in which humans ought to be placed”: tradition, hierarchy, geography, and community. They then detail the virtues which ought to be fostered within these dimensions: fidelity, love, gratitude, and memory. They turn here to Alasdair MacIntyre, who has argued in After Virtue that virtue is “an excellence or quality intelligible only within a community’s tradition and story, oriented toward a common good.” Without this orientation and context, virtues become mere “skills,” which may not in fact further the good.
Baker and Bilbro thus argue that love and service are contextual disciplines; abstract love, “empathy” without subject or context, is not the proper end of human existence. And in a world in which the placeless, roving humanitarianism of Angelina Jolie and George Clooney receive highest accolades and praise, such a vision is both unique and deeply needed.
“When professors tell their students the wrong stories, stories of heroic success rather than quotidian faithfulness, it reinforces the boomer mentality of the broader culture,” write Baker and Bilbro. Such narratives, according to Berry, convince “good young people … that if they have an ordinary job, if they work with their hands, if they are farmers or housewives or mechanics or carpenters, they are no good.”
Baker and Bilbro contrast the heady, aspirational virtues of modern academia with what they call “the sticker arts”: the arts of “right livelihood” that focus on stewardship, sustainability, specificity, and love. In so doing, they aren’t just trying to convince students to stay home—they are also encouraging them to make a home wherever they may land. After all, as both Baker and Bilbro acknowledge themselves, Spring Arbor is not their original hometown. Although their vision is to cultivate students who can remain rooted in place, they are also aware that many may move away. But the virtues they present here—stewardship, sustainability, love, loyalty—should not only be applied to our birthplaces. They are deeply needed everywhere. Anywhere boomers have ravaged a community, seeking only to consume and procure, stickers are needed to foster healing and wholeness.
As our country increasingly becomes a fractured republic, a nation divided and splintered, it is such virtues that are most likely to bring wholeness and healing back. “Berry remains convinced that genuine change begins locally rather than in the halls of centralized power,” note Baker and Bilbro. And it is only the sort of vision this volume provides that can bring such change back to the communities that so desperately need it.
This book is not just for college students or professors. It is for all those who toil within a specific vocation. The thoughtful wisdom of Baker and Bilbro convicted and inspired me, prompting me to consider whether my work is as place-centric, thoughtful, and prudential as it ought to be. These thoughts will likely occur to any who spend much of their time behind a computer, who commute to work, or otherwise engage in labor than can often feel divided and displaced. The authors also encouraged me to keep fostering the “sticker arts” in my own life: the quotidian labor of mending and repairing, gardening and canning, cooking and cleaning. This book is more than a treatise on higher education. It is also, at least to some extent, a manual for the place-centric life.
There is no easy way to turn the tide of youthful exodus plaguing America’s communities. But the seeds of change are here. Perhaps the first step, as Baker and Bilbro suggest, is to reconsider the stories we tell, and the visions we cast. Perhaps, instead of telling students they ought to be “world leaders,” we should encourage them to be good neighbors.
Gracy Olmstead is associate managing editor at The Federalist and the Thursday editor of BRIGHT, a weekly newsletter for women. Her writings can also be found at The American Conservative, The Week, Christianity Today, Acculturated, The University Bookman, and Catholic Rural Life. You can follow her on Twitter @gracyolmstead