(Re)-reading Wendell Berry on community and vocation (part 1)

Wendell Berry (Photo by Guy Mendes)
Wendell Berry (Photo by Guy Mendes)

One definition of  “community” that I have become fond of lately comes from a quote by Wendell Berry.  You don’t have to look very hard for a good quote by Wendell Berry about almost anything.  I could get lost on Berry’s BrainyQuote page and never find my way out.  The connection between vocation and community is strong throughout Berry’s work, but David Guthrie’s recent post, which highlights the many shortcomings of our academic communities, has convinced me that  Berry has something important to say about this connection.  My plan is to look at two of Berry’s essays, the first (in this post) published in 1969 and the second (next time) published in 2015, that contain definitions of community and vocation that may very well be… definitive. 

 

Here is Wendell Berry on community:

A community is not merely a condition of physical proximity, no matter how admirable the layout of the shopping center and the streets, no matter if we demolish the horizontal slums and replace them with vertical ones.  A community is the mental and spiritual condition of knowing that the place is shared, and that the people who share the place define and limit the possibilities of each other’s lives. It is the knowledge that people have of each other, their concern for each other, their trust in each other, the freedom with which they come and go among themselves.

My goal in recent posts has been to hone the idea that the work of a professional is (or at least should be) bound to a particular community.  This is different from the commonly held notion we all have regarding a community of professionals — those  who make up a particular professional society or association.  It’s not that Berry’s definition of community might not apply to such a group or inform how they execute their business.  But, clearly, Berry is pointing to a deeper integration of individuals that includes more than shared interests around a specific activity or a particular line of work.  Berry’s definition draws from a deeper well (the deepest?) that conflates shared responsibilities, hopes and aspirations with care and concern.  Most importantly, it implies a steady trust that when one community member passes judgment or calls for action, he or she is placing the health and well-being of the entire community above their own self-interest.

Quoting — and then actually reading — Berry on community
The Long-Legged House was published in 1969.

I don’t even remember where I first read Berry’s quote about community, but I have used it in several presentations and discussions over the past few years — minus the first sentence, of course.  Thinking I had better actually track down the source if I was going to write about it, Google delivered me to the essay with a simple copy/paste.  A real alarm went off, though, when I began backtracking through the essay containing the quote, “The Loss of the Future” (from The Long-Legged House), in an effort to figure out how Berry arrived at such a compelling vision of community.  It was disorienting.  The closest thing I can compare it to is reading Isaiah backwards a few verses at a time starting from 11:6.

Berry’s version of community is a nice ideal, and it would certainly be good if professionals of all stripes would think on it deeply.  But you don’t have to dig very far into Wendell Berry’s writing to know that any attempt to merge his ideals — on community, on vocation, on almost everything —  with any form of professional education or practice as we currently know it is fraught with peril.  Take, for example, another excerpt from the very same essay:

We would use a steam shovel to pick up a dime.  We have experts who can prove there is no other way to do it.  A question that must trouble the rest of the world a good deal more than it troubles us is: Can we learn to use our power to avoid the doom of it?  Has anybody — ever?

The entire essay is a scathing critique of modernity, its assumptions rooted in power, and the role of the specialist in creating this fragmented world — a world where Berry’s ideal of community can only feel like a dimming light.  It would probably take me 50 pages to stumble through half of the arguments that Berry makes quite clearly in less than 20.  But the critical point is Berry’s assertion that our loss of idealism and persistent inability to articulate a compelling moral vision is central to this fragmentation.  As a result of this loss, “[t]hose who by natural endowment and by training might have become spokesmen and representatives of the ideal in our life have instead become specialists — experts in aspects.”  The resulting hyper-specialization only serves to further erode the ties that bind us as “the vital labors of our duty to each other cease to be personal.”

Berry’s critique is a difficult pill to swallow.  And had he left it there, without including his vision of ideal community, there might be a real cause for despair…  At this point, though, I am probably more concerned about our tendency to elevate the ideals of someone like Wendell Berry without also absorbing the critique.  When the work of one group, especially a group of experts, destroys the livelihood of another, it should at least give us pause.  Ideally, this pause would also include time for reflection on our vocations.  But whether you agree with Berry or not about how dire our current situation is — we’ll get to the modern critique next time — experts of all stripes (and those who train them?) need to think through these implications.

Notes:

  1. Source of photo of Wendell Berry: Wikipedia
  2. See also Michael Cafferky’s chapter in Vocation Across the Academy that addresses the connection between vocation and community directly.
  3. Berry’s “The Loss of the Future” can be found in his first collection of essays The Long-Legged House, reprinted by Counterpoint, 2003, pp. 45-63.  First editions, published by Harcourt, Brace & World in 1969, are currently listed on Abe Books for between $85 and $385.

Jeff Brown teaches engineering at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach, Florida. His essay, “Unplugging the GPS: Rethinking Undergraduate Professional Degree Programs” is part of the collection Vocation Across the Academy: A New Vocabulary for Higher Education (Oxford University Press, 2017).

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