Quotes: Eugene Peterson and Wendell Berry

This week, two powerful quotes that question the current system of education. I hope that they won’t seem too negative put together like this, and maybe this is the wrong tone for the start of the academic year. On the other hand, perhaps you’re struggling to get excited about this year, being stressed on all sides, and feeling like you don’t belong. May these words affirm that it’s not just you.

First, commenter Hannah sent us this quote from Eugene Peterson. It was written to David Taylor, of the Diary of an Arts Pastor blog. Hannah notes that this is not quite her view of the PhD (nor mine, for that matter). As usual, though, Peterson raises good questions in a style only his own.

…what do you do when you are part of a system that is diabolical? Boycott it? Subvert it? do the best you can to survive privately through the process? I’m thinking primarily of the PhD process which seems to me to be truly diabolical–knowledge acquired with no rootage in the prayerful, the local and the personal, and at such a strenuous level that virtually no one has any enjoyment/play in the process.

Will there come a time when all the saint-intellectuals refuse to continue in higher education becuse they love learning and God too much? Has the time already arrived when the school is no longer a congenial or safe or holy place to cultivate the life of the mind?

The second, from Wendell Berry’s 2007 Commencement Address at Bellarmine University. Bellarmine is a small Catholic liberal arts college in Louisville, KY. I once heard Czesław Miłosz read there a few years before his death. Berry opens his remarks by observing how obsessed Americans have become on the issue of education.

And yet by all this fuss we are promoting a debased commodity paid for by the people, sanctioned by the government, for the benefit of the corporations. For the most part, its purpose is now defined by the great and the would-be-great “research universities.” These gigantic institutions, increasingly formed upon the “industrial model,” no longer make even the pretense of preparing their students for responsible membership in a family, a community, or a polity. They have repudiated their old obligation to pass on to students at least something of their cultural inheritance. The ideal graduate no longer is to have a mind well-equipped to serve others, or to judge competently the purposes for which it may be used.

Now, according to those institutions of the “cutting edge,” the purpose of education is unabashedly utilitarian. Their interest is almost exclusively centered in the technical courses called, with typical ostentation of corporate jargon, STEM: science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. The American civilization so ardently promoted by these institutions is to be a civilization entirely determined by technology, and not encumbered by any thought of what is good or worthy or neighborly or humane.

Berry’s suspicion of uncontrolled technology is well-known. After reading his whole statement, if you are in a STEM field, how would you respond to his concerns?

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Micheal Hickerson

The former Associate Director for the Emerging Scholars Network, Micheal lives in Cincinnati with his wife and three children and works as a web manager for a national storage and organization company. He writes about work, vocation, and finding meaning in what you do at No Small Actors.

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One Comment

  • tobingrant@gmail.com'
    JTG commented on August 29, 2009 Reply

    Where’s Peterson’s evidence?

    If it’s just his own impressions, let me give mine. Grad school can be stressful, but no less stressful than working a “real job” 40-60 hours a week right out of college. I had a blast in grad school. It’s fun to learn and to learn how to learn more. It certainly wasn’t diabolical.

    At issue is whether the few years of preparation for an academic career should be the place to find people living a life of the mind. I think not. To use an analogy, this is like going to a pre-season workout for a football team, seeing all the players straining and complaining, and then wonder where the joy is in the sport. Practice is tough, but it’s necessary preparation if the season–which is much, much longer–is to be a time of excellent play. Imagine the team that took no time to train, practice, and build up endurance but to just play. The season would a time of failure and misery.

    So it is with grad school. Where it’s difficult, it is because there is a greater good–the lifetime of the mind–that, if it is to be excellent and enduring requires preparation. Grad school, like preseason practice–is not the end, it is just the beginning.

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