It was about six months ago that I was introduced to Wendell Berry’s writing through a reference in a Michael Pollan book. In this book, Pollan points to Berry’s concept of eating as an agricultural act. There was something about this concept that sparked in me a desire to learn more. Not only have I not emerged from the Wendell Berry rabbit hole into which I descended, if I manage to emerge at all, I will not do so unchanged.
There is something foundational about Berry’s writing that set its hook in me. Somehow, through the lens of his farming experience, and being anchored in pragmatic thoughtfulness, he seems to have unearthed a common ill found in the metaphor of industrial farming that can be applied generously throughout our culture. He is a Kentucky farmer and writer, born of my father’s generation, and the last person I would have expected to find a connection with. In particular, as an educator, it seems strange that I might find inspiration in these writings about abandoned rural communities, horse powered farming, and the passionate defense of a way of life long lost to the cruelties of industrialization. However, as I have had more time to let his words find a home in me, I am now starting to see parallels between his world and my own.
Eyes To Acres
“To make as much sense as I can of our predicament, I turn to Wes Jackson, founder of the Land Institute, in Salina, Kansas, and his perception that for any parcel of land in human use there is an “eyes-to-acres ratio” that is right and is necessary to save it from destruction. By “eyes” Wes means a competent watchfulness, aware of the nature and the history of the place, constantly present, always alert for signs of harm and signs of health. The necessary ratio of eyes to acres is not constant from one place to another, nor is it scientifically predictable or computable for any place, because from place to place there are too many natural and human variables.” Farmers without Farmland — The Atlantic
The correlate in our world of eyes-to-acres is classroom size, or in my profession, caseload. How can an educator truly tend to the needs of each individual in their care if they aren’t afforded the necessary conditions to forge a meaningful relationship with those whose care they are supposed to be tending to? In California public schools, the typical counselor caseload is around 800 students and the average high school classroom is around 35 students (although I do not reside in California any more, it’s a useful example to draw from). If we, as educators, were to follow an eyes-to-acres methodology, what might that mean for each of us? Would it be too much to suggest that my eyes-to-acres might be different than someone else's? And could we be ok with that?
Lurking further in the background of everything we do in our culture is the premise that we must be “efficient” and “cost-effective”, allowing the invisible hand of the market to make the inevitable and necessary corrections to any flaws in the pathway, like water seeking the most efficient path to sea. And because education is simply “content” that must be delivered/acquired, the thinking goes, according to market principles, how should this take place? What are the technological innovations that can scale up that content delivery efficiently, driving down costs, while driving up scores? This is in direct conflict with an eyes-to-acres sensibility.
We all know education is a human endeavor that can’t/shouldn’t be industrialized. There is no formula for success other than suffering through the burden of being an individual with unique talents and shortcomings that must be recognized and reckoned with; interacting with other human beings burdened by their own unique talents and shortcomings. I want to acknowledge, and profess my belief in, the necessity of a necessarily messy endeavor. And in this endeavor, we should be willing to sacrifice efficiency and cost-effectiveness in the service of the humanity of the individual in front of us, enabling a “competent watchfulness…alert for signs of harm and signs of health.”
Monoculture of Annual Crops
“Unlike the typical US farm bill, the 50-Year Farm Bill attempts to address the real and ongoing problems of agriculture: erosion, toxicity, loss of genetic and species diversity, and the destruction of rural communities, or the destruction, where it still survives, of the culture of husbandry. It begins with the fact that at present, 80% of the land is planted annually in annual crops such as corn and beans, and 20% in perennials. It proposes a 50-year program for the gradual inversion of that ratio to 80% perennial cover and 20% annuals.” Interview from the Guardian
Like the annual crops produced in monoculture that must be pumped with all sorts of chemicals to yield a product from year-to-year, so too are the students in the current system. The “annual” approach in education manifests by teaching to standards as defined by grade level and assigning responsibility of producing those standards to a teacher without any regard to the way natural human relationships work; also with little regard for the wisdom of the teacher tasked with production. A good “yield” is defined by the individual (re)producing grade level content across a common core (monoculture), as measured by some mono-dimensional assessment tool (quality of yield), and then passing them along to another teacher who repeats the process the next year (annual crop production).
However, as the soil is depleted of its fertility through misuse and misunderstanding, one must apply more and more chemical interventions to get it to produce what one thinks it should. We are also caught in this trap, having to use more and more chemical interventions to get our students to produce what we want or think they should. In the meantime, their “soils” are being depleted, robbing them of its life affirming properties that just might, left to its own peculiar nature, produce a personally meaning life.
The antithesis of educational monoculture would be to plant a diverse crop of perennial plants, as the 50 year Farm Bill Berry co-wrote proposes. Perhaps our flipped ratio would be 20% common core, 80% self-direction. There are examples for us to draw on. For instance, the Waldorf approach (perennial agriculture), where a teacher follows a cohort of students from year to year. Maybe the high school version of this would be a single subject area teacher following a cohort through all grades (I have found in my work that students often deeply connect with their arts teachers for this reason. If you are in the high school orchestra, as an example, it’s likely you will have the same teacher for the entirety of your high school career.) Maria Montessori’s approach seems to embody both eyes-to-acres and perennial education as I am now proposing it, but I must confess that I am not very familiar with its application outside of a theoretical context.
Perhaps a more radical proposition might be the one room schoolhouse, the original eyes-to-acres proposition. Here one would find a single teacher with students of all ages and abilities (true learning diversity). Perhaps that is what Acton Academy is already doing? Or perhaps One Stone? Maybe this idea is the equivalent of a horse drawn plow: slow and laborious, but directly connects the farmer to the land whereby “health and harm” are immediately apparent while keeping the scale appropriately human. And perhaps this is where technology could make that seemingly anachronistic paradigm relevant again as content is so readily available. However, it’s not just the acquisition of content, but the application of it. As humans, we require someone to model what the good stewardship of content acquisition and application looks like, in much the same way as good farming.
“But even the most articulate public protest is not enough. We don’t live in the government or in institutions or in our public utterances and acts, and the environmental crisis has its roots in our lives. By the same token, environmental health will also be rooted in our lives. That is, I take, simply a fact, and in the light of it we can see how superficial and foolish we would be to think that we could correct what is wrong merely by tinkering with the institutional machinery. The changes that are required are fundamental changes in the way we are living…For most of the history of this country our motto, implied or spoken, has been Think Big. A better motto, and an essential one now, is Think Little. That implies the necessary change of thinking and feeling, and suggests the necessary work.” Think Little — Whole Earth Magazine 1969
While there is a lot to unpack in Berry’s Think Little essay, one of it’s central themes concerns the way we daily conduct ourselves in the world, not only it’s environmental impact, but perhaps more importantly for our purposes here, it’s interpersonal impact. So often, and especially for myself, we think about ways we could potentially make a big impact in the future rather than a small impact right now. This is where I hope to turn the excrement of my cynicism into some meaningful fertilizer for the enrichment of the immediate.
Another concept Berry uses quite often in his writing is Loving Care. Love, in any context, is a dangerous word in its unique ability to mean everything and nothing simultaneously. However, Loving Care, in this context, is akin to empathy, kindness, and compassion, but is somehow different, and for some reason, this idea has taken root deeper in me than the others. My best guess is that, for whatever reason, latent in its meaning is the idea of work; that Loving Care is an action that requires work. One can’t passively lovingly care for another thing.
And now armed with this idea, I hope to Think Little daily with Loving Care. The context in which I practice is immaterial. I don’t need to wait for anything big to change, am not dependent on legislation, a new city, new job, a theology, etc., in order to practice it. And I might argue, that Loving Care in a traditional public school setting is qualitatively better than “whatever-loving-care-isn’t” in a progressive school setting.
The last thing I wish to touch on regarding this idea, and something that needs more direct experience to reach maturity in me, is that liking someone is not a prerequisite required in the application of Loving Care. In fact, that is probably when it is most needed and most likely to have a huge, little impact.