Wendell Berry on the University

I had the good fortune to hear Wendell Berry read at Northern Kentucky University Sunday afternoon. Apparently, he does not accept many speaking engagements these days, but accepted NKU’s invitation because he and the university are neighbors (Berry lives in Henry County, Kentucky, about a hour south of NKU). The reading was terrific, and, as usual, Berry’s words provided much to ponder.

At the end of a reading from his essay, “Is Life a Miracle?” Berry noted that, formerly, the university was unified under religion, but that time has gone and is not coming back. Instead, he proposed unifying the university under a commitment to the local community, as was the original mission of land grant universities.

The idea has some appeal to me, since I am a proponent of local communities and think Berry has some very worthwhile ideas on the subject. I plan on researching his views on the university in more depth. However, setting aside the questions of feasibility (e.g. how can mathematics be committed to the local community? why should someone who earned their BA in Michigan, their PhD in California, and tenure in Kentucky be committed to one community over another?), I wonder about the nature of this commitment. I think I have a fairly good idea of what Berry means by this commitment to the local community. However, it doesn’t take long to see that not many people share Berry’s perspective, and that local visions for the local community differ wildly.

What do you think? How important is a university’s commitment to its local community? Is this is a good way to organize a university’s mission?

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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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  • Tom Grosh commented on September 25, 2008 Reply

    Berry’s classic piece “The Loss of the University” is found in “Home Economics” (NY: North Point Press, 1987).

    Here’s a quote from the opening paragraph, “the various disciplines have ceased to speak to each other; they have become too specialized, and this overspecialization, this separation, of the disciplines has been enabled and enforced by the specialization of their languages. As a result, the modern university has grown, not according to any unifying principle, like an expanding universe, but according to the principle of miscellaneous accretion, like a furniture storage business.”

    A few paragraphs later he boldly states “The thing being made in a university is humanity. … responsible heirs and members of human culture. … Underlying the idea of a 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. This, as I understand it, is the definition of the name university.”

    In the conclusion we find, “If for the sake of its own health, a university must be interested in the question of the truth of what it teaches, then, for the sake of the world’s health, it must be interested in the fate of that truth and the uses made of it in the world. It must want to know where its graduates live, where they work, and what they do. Do they return home with their knowledge to enhance and protect the life of their neighborhoods? Do they join the “upwardly mobile” professional force now exploiting and destroying local communities, both human and natural, all over the country? Has the work of the university, over the last generation, increased or decreased literacy and knowledge of the classics? Has it increased or decreased the general understanding of the sciences? Has it increased or decreased pollution and soil erosion? Has it increased or decreased the ability and the willingness of public servants to tell the truth? Such questions are not, of course, precisely answerable. Questions of influence never are. But they are askable, and the asking, should we choose to ask, would be a unifying and a shaping force.”

    I believe that ESN says, “Amen.” And furthermore, such is the call of InterVarsity’s Graduate & Faculty Ministry’s Following Christ Conference which at year end will advocate “Human Flourishing.” Many topics jump out to me in these quotes, but I have to run for an appointment. Hope to post some more later.

  • r.gabrielse@att.net'
    Randy Gabrielse commented on January 7, 2010 Reply

    Can a modern land grant university, or grad students or individual faculty in such an institution serve a local community?

    I believe they can, but that it is hard work, and requires a conscious commitment to be “Resident Aliens” of the university.

    When I was a student leader of Graduate InterVarsity at Michigan State University in the 1990s, we committed to fully inhabiting the university, even though we did so as resident aliens. Grad IV students served on graduate student government and helped start a student food bank that provided food for poor American students and overseas students and families. I also worked bi-weekly on Habitat for Humanity construction and occasionally with Developmentally Disabled Adults. Doing so lengthened the time it took to finish my degree, but I saw this as part of being a resident alien of the university community.

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