Education is a Dangerous Thing: A Conversation with Wendell Berry
Wendell Berry on the Inherent Comedy in Formal Schooling, Teaching That
Cultivates Sympathy, and the Importance of Apprenticeship
Wendell Berry and his wife, Tanya, live in an unassuming but lovely white farm house, perched atop a grassy hill that overlooks a branch of the Kentucky River near Port Royal, Kentucky. A small herd of white sheep meander about the hillside with two friendly border collies, Maggie and Liz. And at the bottom of the hill, across the winding country highway that gives the property its address, sits the small, white, concrete out-building in which Mr. Berry has composed much of his written work, the life of the river in clear view. ¶ In many ways this property is what you might expect if you are familiar with his work: It’s orderly but lived-in; simple, but not austere; old-fashioned, but not outworn. It’s full of books and magazines, lovely paintings, and hand-made folk art, an assemblage that reveals Berry’s affection for the region in which he lives and to which he has dedicated his life and work. Yet, in keeping with his work, it’s not picturesque in a sentimental sort of way. This isn’t the farm house of some idealistic mid-century painting. It’s too real for that. It’s weather-beaten and slightly wild, romantic in the truest sense. ¶ Last October, on a blustery Sunday afternoon, Graeme Pitman (CiRCE’s creative director), our friend Martin Cothran (of Memoria Press), and I visited the Berrys for a chat. We had two hours set aside, the results of which we knew would appear in this space. But before we knew it, nearly three delightful hours had passed and we were 16,000 words into a truly illuminating conversation. Their kitchen was warm and welcoming, and both Wendell and Tanya laughed their way through the stories they shared.We discussed education at length, but, as the following edited transcript reveals, the Berrys’ sense of humor, abiding love for each other, and commitment to their native place took us, at times, far beyond the classroom. Always at the heart of the conversation was affection and gratitude: for place, for people, and for the poetry that is a long life, well-lived. I suspect that, years from now, what I will remember most is how much we laughed. I’m not sure a transcript can caputure that sort of thing. But it can capture the wisdom that breeds the humor.
— David Kern, February 2018
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David Kern: First of all, thanks again for having us out here.
Wendell Berry: Well, now wait, I don’t accept payment in advance!
David: Could you tell us a little bit about what you remember of your own education? What do you remember about your teachers and the way that you learned when you were young?
Berry: I was a very good boy until I was in the third grade. And from then on I hated school.
David: Because you were forced to stay inside?
Berry: Well, I had experienced freedom in the countryside, and to tell you the truth there wasn’t a lot going on in school that was very interesting. But I didn’t like the confinement. I made a lot of trouble, and I didn’t understand the implication of the trouble I was making. The implication was that I was going to get sent to a military school. At 14 I went away to school with my brother, who was a year younger than I. We went to Millersburg Military Institute up in central Kentucky. And I was about as well-suited to that as I would have been to, I don’t know, an assembly line, which in effect it was. And while I was there I had the good fortune to have maybe three teachers who really did something for my education. I received kindness from more teachers than that, from a couple more. There were two curricula: The first was what they intended to teach you, the second was what they didn’t intend to teach you. I learned something from both. But I had a bad attitude that they discovered early. It was defiance. Also I learned just to slip away and go for a walk somewhere. When I got to college, I liked that. There were, oh, half a dozen teachers I found in college who really did affect me. I respected them. The ones I respected the most were the ones who were hardest on me. But they had something to offer, you see. The teacher I had most often in college was Thomas Stroup. He taught Milton. He started me reading Spenser, although he didn’t teach a Spenser class at that time. He read T. S. Eliot’s “Journey of the Magi” one afternoon in his office, read it beautifully. He kicked me out of class one day and told me in front of everybody, “Your arrogance is exceeded only by your ignorance.”
Martin Cothran: This is in college?
Berry: There was nothing optional about it. The good teachers didn’t care whether you liked them or the course or not. The demanding ones made their demand. And Dr. Stroup never accepted a paper from me the first time. This I am very grateful for. He’d hand it back. He’d throw a bunch of papers at the class. He would write on mine, “This is unworthy of you. Do it again.” Sometimes “Do it again” again. And I was a fairly literate boy. The professors weren’t under so much pressure to publish then. They were expected to do a good job of teaching. And Dr. Stroup really did. I’m still a reader of Milton. Spenser too.
Another English professor, Arthur K. Moore, really put it on me hard. But he gave me a chance to triumph, you know. And I did finally. I was a graduate student then. There were three people in that class: two undergraduates and me. Dr. Moore wrote out an exam with 125 questions on it. He said, “Undergraduates answer 100, graduates answer them all.” They were not “true or false.” Every one of them asked for a statement of some kind. It was a brilliant exam, and I got an A on it. I’m still delighted!
Martin: I was thinking when you were talking about these professors that were hard on you but to good credit. And I was thinking of Dr. Ardmire in Jayber Crow. Is there a . . .
Berry: No, I didn’t know a Dr. Ardmire.
Martin: Jayber has grudging respect for him.
Berry: Yes, he said Dr. Ardmire was the kindest of his teachers because he told him the truth.
David: You ended up at Stanford eventually, right?
Berry: Well, in Stanford eventually. And by good luck. It was a freakish thing, wasn’t it, Tanya?
Tanya Berry: Yeah! (laughs)
Berry: I wanted to go to California. I hadn’t ever been out there, and I wanted to go, so I applied to Stanford. For what they now call the Stegner Fellowship. But I don’t think I was confident enough to do what I did. I think I was probably just stupid enough. I applied out there and didn’t apply for anything else.
David: Had you published any fiction at that point?
Berry: In student magazines. Small magazines.
David: Had you conceived of the characters that you ended up writing about?
Berry: I had begun to write the little novel called Nathan Coulter, which is very much a young man’s job of work.
David: And would you consider Stegner one of the primary reasons you became a successful writer? Or is that just pure talent?
Berry: He had a good deal to do with the kind of writer I became.
Tanya: And the kind of jobs you got. He was behind a lot of it.
Berry: People often ask me how Stegner was as a teacher. He was simply trying to help you to write as well as you could. And that meant that his criticism was often technical. He taught like a good editor. I never did say that before, but I think that’s pretty accurate. And he had a presence that made you feel, when he was around, like you ought to be somewhere at work. There were two phases of Mr. Stegner’s influence on me. One was when I was his student. It took me a long time to understand what my vocation was—12 or 15 years after I got out of high school. After Tanya and I moved here, I began to understand Mr. Stegner in a better way. I’d read some of his things in preparation for going out there. But it was hard to find writing by him then. He had written Big Rock Candy Mountain and he was an appreciable man. He just didn’t have a wide reputation, and he came from the West. The New York Times, late in his life, named him “the dean of Western writers” and called him “William Stegner.”
I pretty well understood what I was supposed to do by the time we settled here in Kentucky. Wolf Willow came out not long after that. I read it and I really started to need him then. I began to see that as a writer he had been a responsible inhabitant of his region. That really mattered to me. So did Harry Caudill’s Night Comes to the Cumberlands. I knew I was coming home by the summer of 1963, though I had committed to teach another year in New York. But I read Harry’s book when it was published that summer. It struck me as an exemplary piece of writing, both for its message and as an act of responsibility. My dad had done pretty much the same thing Harry did—went home with his education. My dad wasn’t a writer like Harry, but he was a lawyer and an advocate for his own people. So I think Mr. Stegner finally took his place in my mind as a model, an exemplary man. I felt very clearly and securely that you couldn’t live in your home just as a place to hang your hat and lie down to sleep, but you had to take responsibility for it. My grandfather Berry had felt that. My dad certainly had. So I was ready to learn it when my time came. It took me a longer time. I have a slow mind. It takes me a long time to learn anything. Eighty years for some of it.
David: I’ve read that you’ve said that your dad and brother have the quick minds and that’s why they’re lawyers.
Berry: That’s right.
David: You wouldn’t have enjoyed the courtroom?
Berry: I don’t think so. But they performed really very well on the spot. They could make a speech spontaneously and say what they ought to say. If I spoke off the cuff I’d not think of the right thing to say until later.
David: So when did you become a teacher?
Tanya: After you tried to get into the Navy and they wouldn’t take you.
Berry: I was going to join the Navy. But they wouldn’t have me, and I was not very sorry. I had been to military school, and it wasn’t a diet that suited me. But then I had to do something, so I applied to Georgetown College. They had a job opening and we went there for a year. That was when I applied to Stanford. I had a little backup system. I could’ve stayed in Georgetown if I’d had to, I think.
Tanya: We had friends in California. That’s one reason you applied out there.
Berry: Yes, James Baker Hall was at Stanford and Ed McClanahan went to Oregon State at the same time you and I went to Stanford.
Tanya: It seemed like everybody was out there for a while.
Berry: I was still thinking that I would be a kind of academic vagabond. I would just go wherever I could get paid enough to be able to write. All the while, I was writing about this place, and I had sense enough to see that if I was going to have a vocation the calling would come from here. And it did, but it took me a long time to hear it. Everybody assumed that an academic career was a kind of vagabondage. You taught at one college, and you waited for a thousand-dollar mark-up and a couple of martinis, and you went to another college. That’s a career as opposed to a vocation.
David: Did you feel displaced? In New York City and then California?
Berry: I was exhilarated to be in those places. The first morning I woke up in Mill Valley in California, after we got there in the middle of the night, and I looked out and saw that place . . . I had never seen anything like it. It was wonderful. And to be in New York, to get used to it, you know, and to have your burrow that you could run into. Well, it was a great thing. I had to learn how to be a New Yorker, which was largely to quit paying attention to every person I saw. For a while there, I’d ride the subway to my work and I’d look at all those people and wonder about them, what kind of people they probably were and so on. I’d just be exhausted. That’s the way we live here. We look at people. It took me a long time to get over that. But when you think of New York, everything you can imagine is up there. Except home. Tanya was the one who understood where I needed to be.
David: How did you see that?
Tanya: Well, little by little, you know. He was happy to be coming back and then I would be happy to be coming back for holidays or for the summer. I had assumed we’d be in the colleges and the universities and that was that and that suited me. But then it became evident he wasn’t going to be happy there. And I wanted my children to belong somewhere, too. We didn’t get Mary back here until second grade and that was a little late for her. She should’ve come back earlier. Den, our son, never knew anything different. It was partly that I wanted to have a place and the kids to have a place.
Berry: She had sense. I had to get sense, I think.
Martin: Well when did you start to feel that pull? She had it, but it sounds like you didn’t have it for awhile.
Berry: The pull was there because I was writing A Place on Earth. I started writing it in January of 1960.
Martin: What age were you when you sort of left Kentucky for an extended period of time?
Berry: Well I hadn’t really left Kentucky until we went to California. I was 24.
Martin: Because I think about when, in A Place on Earth, there was a scene where there were these old guys and they’re playing cards and it’s during the war and you’re going around the table and several of those old men had had people killed in the war and all that. Where did you get that experience, that you could write about it?
Berry: Here. My granny (my mother’s mother) sent me down to the store to find my granddaddy one time. He was playing a card game we called “rummy” in the back of Ralph Berry’s store. Ralph was in the army and it was just a bunch of men sitting in what I guess was the office of the store with a fire going, playing cards. You don’t forget that. And then a family here lost their boy. He was missing in action and they never knew anything more. Those things had been on my mind a long time. So I grew up with an old mind in a way. I grew up very much under the influence of my grandparents. When my grandfather Berry died in early 1946 I was 11 years old, and I began to spend a lot of time with my grandmother Berry as sort of the man of the house. I wasn’t altogether dependable, but I did milk the cow for her and helped in other ways. And then she started living in the winter in the hotel in New Castle. When she went back to the farm in April I’d go with her. And there were two reasons for that: I liked being there with her, and she spoiled me. I could get away with a lot. That’s part of the reason I wound up in military school, I reckon. But I listened. Both my grandmothers began their wifehood in households reigned over by their mothers-in-law and so they had long, long memories.
Martin: On this issue of, how’d you put it, you had an old person’s mind . . .
Berry: I was hanging around and listening.
Martin: Yeah, because when did you write The Memory of Old Jack? That was fairly early on.
Berry: That was published in 1974 when I was 40. I had a good bit of it written, and then I had a sabbatical. I cut tobacco with my neighbors for six weeks at the end of that summer. I’ll never forget how strong I was when I went back to work on that novel and how it helped me to be so strong. Tobacco culture is (or it was) a talking culture. People talked in the stripping rooms and the barns, at the row ends: a lot of crew work. You couldn’t have had better training as a writer than that. You were hearing stories. But also you were hearing people who were careful about the way they talked. Not that they were educated. Some of my best teachers were eighth grade graduates. I just wrote about an old black man who was my friend when I was a boy. I said it seemed to me that of all my exemplars maybe he was the most profound. He didn’t have any formal schooling at all. But he never hurried. That was what impressed me as I thought about him again. He didn’t not hurry because he was no account. He took his time because he learned he had to do that if he was going to work to his own satisfaction and in order to do justice to all the details.
Tanya: He lived on your grandfather’s place. Would you call him a tenant?
Berry: No. He worked by the day. But you see the thing about day wages as opposed to hourly wages is that day wages don’t hurry you. If you had somebody hired for a dollar a day, straight time, he got the dollar whether or not he got rained out, whether it’s a time of heavy work or not. And a considerable part of his livelihood came with the wage: a house, firewood, milk from a cow, a meat hog or two, a garden spot. But the hourly wage drives people. It imposes haste. It becomes a different thing psychologically. Then the need to run through work can cause contempt for it and contempt for yourself for doing it and contempt for the world you’re doing it in.
Martin: It’s not a calling.
Berry: It’s not a calling. There’s a very strong strain in black culture, or there used to be, of agrarianism. I just read Crystal Wilkinson’s novel, The Birds of Opulence. Two of her chapters are straight agrarianism. This black family has a “home place,” a little farm, and the younger members have got too good for it because of urban employment. Crystal Wilkinson understands the old agrarianism of her people exactly. You see it in Ernest J. Gaines’s work. In his novel A Gathering of Old Men, one of the old black men remembers the work they did and the pride that they took in it. They were not working on land they owned, but they took pride in their work. They took pride in their own history. Their speech lays claim, far precedent to any deed, to the land. The land is theirs, their homeland, because of the work and the life—also the suffering—they have invested in it.
Ernie is a year older than I am. In 1948, the year I went to military school, he put his belongings in a worn-out suitcase and tied a white handkerchief to a stick and walked out to the road from the plantation quarters where his people had been slaves. He flagged down the bus and went to the railroad station. He had a ticket his parents, or his mother, had sent him. By himself he rode the train to Vallejo in California. When I got to Stanford in 1958 there Ernie was, also a Stegner Fellow. I don’t know much of his history before he went to Stanford, but we were both farm raised. Probably the two of us had more in common than any other two people in that class. We had done the work of the farms of our regions. We had between us the difficult mutual history of our two races. And since then we have been friends. Eventually, Ernie went back home, just as I did. He bought four acres of that plantation and he built a house on it right down at the road where the quarters used to be. He bought the church that he had gone to church and school in and put it in his backyard and saved it. And he started a homecoming. Once a year, the descendants of that slave quarters come back and they eat together and they talk and they clean up the graveyard and they whitewash the stones.
I should add here that Crystal Wilkinson appropriately received the Ernest J. Gaines Award for Literary Excellence. It seems remarkable to me that my agrarianism is so strongly confirmed by those two black writers. There is really no difference that I can see between their agrarianism and mine. We are to that extent of a kind. To some people now that may seem strange, counterintuitive maybe. But then who would be better positioned historically than black Americans to understand the importance of land ownership? The freed slaves, after all, wanted “forty acres and a mule.”
Martin: What makes some people leave and be just fine with it and others . . .
Berry: Some people leave and they think they’re escapees, and they give thanks to God every day.
Tanya: Parents have a lot to do with it.
Berry: Well my grandmother told me, “Honey, don’t ever farm.” Of course I haven’t farmed for a living, and I couldn’t have been a writer and farmed for a living, I don’t expect. But anyway, they have had a hard time, the farmers. The burley tobacco part of the federal tobacco program made a little island here and farmers for a little while had an asking price for one crop. The statistics on that are remarkable. From 1941 till 1970 the number of tenant farmers, members of that co-op, decreased from 33 percent in 1940 to 9 percent in 1970. You have to factor in the possibility that some of them died and some of them quit farming. But most of them became land owners. They came to own their own farms, and I can name you names of families that did so. Gary Snyder’s new book, The Great Clod, gives a vital piece of history. The Chinese Neolithic village, Gary says, was a village culture, an agricultural culture of course, and in that kind of a culture surpluses disappear in exchanges among neighbors. The coming of bookkeeping and clerks provided the means of gathering up the surplus to benefit the better people. And then the villagers became peasants. They were dispensable people and that idea of dispensability has adhered to farmers until now. Modern farmers handle millions of dollars, buying equipment, renting land, borrowing money to work more and more acres, and they are thought to be dispensable.
David: I was thinking about this recently when I was rereading Jayber Crow because I was thinking about Troy and how it seems like he was trying to follow the “get bigger or get out” thing. They get bigger and bigger until they just become dispensable. It doesn’t make him any less dispensable.
Berry: Nobody ever learned the lesson until too late. The assumption always was, “It’s not going to happen to me.”
Tanya: “I’ll still be the top dog. The other ones will drop out.”
Berry: Yes, because obviously, “I’m smarter than the rest of them and more careful.”
David: More clever.
Berry: More clever. I’ve got a new book, and in it I make a comparison. A friend of mine found an ad in The Henry County Local of September 27, 1946, that the town of New Castle had placed, advertising itself as a place to shop. New Castle, with a population then of about 650, had 55 business and professional services: lawyers, doctors, undertakers, insurance brokers, but also four grocery stores, two hardware stores, two dry good stores, it just goes on that way. And the Amish in Holmes County, Ohio, would not have been very distinguishable from us in 1946. Those were two agrarian cultures, depending on the farm economy. The Amish now are still pretty much like we both were in 1946. If you go up and look at Holmes County, those little towns are thriving. There are a lot of little independent stores. Most of that local diversity and self-sufficiency is now long gone from here.
David: How have they sustained that? What did they do better?
Berry: By loving their neighbor as themselves. Period. We had churches and they were a lot better attended then than they are now and they were probably teaching that law. But they thought it was spiritual. The Amish genius was to see it as a practical imperative, finally an economic imperative. If you love your neighbor as yourself you don’t want his farm, you won’t trade him off for a tractor. So the Amish kept the horse teams in the field instead of buying tractors. The horse dictated the farm’s scale.
Tanya: And you help your neighbor whether he’s Amish or not.
Berry: My friend David Kline just published a book called The Round of a Country Year. It’s the happiest book I’ve read in a long time. He and his family are busy all the time, but they’re not too busy. Family members and neighbors work together. The Klines have an old non-Amish neighbor. Every time he needs to go to town he drives over and gets David. David goes to town with him to help him get his business done. He doesn’t want to drive by himself. He can’t manage by himself. He goes to get a knee replaced and have therapy, and he’s gone for quite a while. David and his family keep his orchard clean and his yard mowed. When he comes back his house has been cleaned, his windows washed, his scatter rugs replaced by better ones, his mail piled up and sorted.
Martin: We have these conferences for homeschoolers and teachers and we’re to the point now where we’re bursting at the seams, and so the question is do we move—do we go and use another facility to house more people?—and we decided no. Quality is more important than quantity here. If you go someplace else, you make the quantity increase but the quality decrease.
Berry: That’s the most interesting question in the world. How big is big enough? The Amish pretty much have solved it.
Industrialism doesn’t propose a limit. David Kline, my friend, went to a Mennonite meeting. They were asking what community meant. And he said, “When my son and I are plowing in the spring, we rest our teams at the highest point on our farm. And from there we can see 13 teams at work. And I know that if I got sick or died those 13 teams would be at work on my farm.” Rightness of scale, you see, permits obedience to the Gospel’s second law.
David: It seems like this comes down to education.
Martin: Well the school used to be a community institution.
David: But now the schools prepare students to go off somewhere. It seems like the metaphor for education right now is all about broadening horizons. As if going farther away and knowing more places is the ultimate good. And that seems like a metaphor that is sort of antithetical to the idea of education for homecoming.
Berry: What we’ve got to face up to is the inherent comedy in formal education. It always is set up on a scheme. “If we do this and this and this, these kids will turn out this way.” The comedy is that it never works. You save the educational system for three good teachers in any school. It’s a gamble. You’re not offering them a complete high school education with science and math and history and English and a foreign language or whatever. You’re offering them a bunch of teachers. I once was teaching a composition class for teachers and I’d tell them, “Now I know you all are learning a lot of methods about how to teach, and I’ll tell you something: None of them will work.” (laughs)
David: So then, if you were trying to help a young teacher become a better teacher, what advice would you give them?
Berry: I’d tell them to learn all they can. To keep on learning. To pick up a worthy subject that interests them without limit and keep learning it. And that’s what they would teach. They’d teach as a learner, and maybe some of it would rub off. That wouldn’t make them the best teacher for every student. But it would keep them alive, you see. That’d be the main thing. To keep the teachers alive. The best teaching and learning won’t happen in a class of 300. It’ll happen when the teacher and the student look into each other’s eyes. “If I tell you to do this, will you do it? If I tell you this is a bad paper and I explain why, are you going to listen to me?” That kind of thing.
Berry: Yes. The teacher then commits. “I’ll do anything that is necessary to help you learn this, if you want to do it.”
Martin: I had to fill in for somebody at a League of Women Voters/Common Cause thing at Frankfort on campaign finance reform, but the subject turned to education at the end of this conference and somebody from the audience asked why there were no young people at this meeting. The person continued, “Shouldn’t we be worried about our young people?” And the MSNBC reporter who was there said, “No, I don’t think we have anything to worry about.” So, I said, “I think we have everything to worry about because they’re not teaching as much history or literature anymore as they used to.” And I talked to a lady afterwards who came up and said, “I totally agree with you. I was a teacher here in Frankfort and I went to work for the LRC for a number of years and I retired and I went back out into the schools. And I walked by just about every class and their laptops are sitting there and their teacher is basically going around and making sure they’re interacting properly with the machine.” So what do you think about the role of technology in education?
Berry: Well, it’s not making anything better to start with, and the problems it’s causing are just immense. I’m very sure that these smartphones are addictive. Just like drugs. Here’s the way I’m trying to think about it: I like my physical life. I mean, I’m committed to live my physical life. I want to live my actual life, my body’s life, and die my body’s death with as little interference as possible. But I think that life for most people is getting less physical all the time. There’s a sort of death wish now operating among us. The future is eating us alive. If you’re obsessed with the future you can’t live in the present, and the present is the only time you’re alive. If you’re alive in the present, however bad the world is, goodwill still has scope to operate. You still can do a little something to make it better. Now is when the butterflies are flying and the flowers are blooming and the people who love you are putting their hands on you. That’s where it’s happening.
Literature is, as I see it, the most physical of the arts. When you write it out you shape it with your hand. You see it with your eye. You hear it with your ear. You’re shaping the words on the page. They’re shaped in your mouth. It’s extraordinarily intimate physically. And to reduce all that to pushing little buttons just takes your body out of it. It’s a death. Listen to these people at their jobs: “Thank God it’s Friday.” That’s a death wish. These people are living for Friday, weekends, vacations, retirement. How could you have greater contempt for your body’s life in the actual world?
David: Would you say that the industrial machine asks them to be that way though?
Berry: It asks them to agree to be replaced, to welcome their replacement by technology.
David: In the face of that, how could you not have despair?
Berry: How could you not? That infection—despair—is moving among us. Where it begins is pride, the belief that you’re too good to carry out your own slop. So you go to Africa and get some slaves. They can carry it out. That’s where it all starts. So we’ve about founded our civilization on the search for an inferior somebody or some technology to do the body’s work and to live its life. The Amish take care of themselves and one another. They’re not asking somebody else to step in, and they limit their use of technology so as not to replace one another.
Tanya: But they don’t look down on the work they do.
Berry: Here for a long time everybody either knew how to work and how to help somebody work. Everybody. Now, some of them were lazy. There have always been representatives of sloth among us. But a lot of people took pride in their work. And then it hit people that they ought to be where the lights are bright. That they ought to despise themselves for doing bodily work and they ought to despise the place where they’re doing it. I remember perfectly when the first man came to work on our home farm whose theme song was, “Let the good times roll.” (laughs) “When you dead you done, so let the good times roll.” Well the good times, as they were then defined, couldn’t roll on the farm, and so, as my daddy put it, the age of the gentleman farmer was over. The age of the farm hand was over.
Tanya: Now they’re saying, “Who’s going to build the wall?” The Mexicans will have to work for nothing to build the wall to keep themselves out. Being mistreated, being underpaid, being hated, and now sent back home.
Berry: So it’s the same tragic mistake again. They came here to do the work we no longer wanted to do or could do. And we demean them as we’ve always demeaned the people we’re dependent on.
David: I was reading “It All Turns on Affection” again, your Jefferson lecture. And you talk in there about a sense of imagination that cultivates sympathy for one another. Would you say then that the work of a proper education is to cultivate that imagination?
Berry: It better be, hadn’t it? But you can’t wait till a child is six years old to teach that. I mean, a child who receives love from a parent has already begun to learn that.
David: Do you think schools are doing the opposite of cultivating that? Would you say that schools are undoing the work of a parent who loves them in that way?
Berry: I don’t know. Schools are being called on to replace parents who once loved them in a physical, practical, steady, at-home way. No doubt about it. That title of mine is more interesting to me now than it was when I used it. I took it from an E. M. Forster novel, Howards End. A woman says it, in desperation, to an affectionless man. If you love your work, that’s going to affect your economy. A shepherd who doesn’t love sheep is up the creek. (laughs)
I’ve become more interested in the economic value of intangible things. Your livestock’s knowledge of your place has an economic value. If my sheep know where they’re going when I’m moving them to a different pasture, it’s much quicker for one thing. It saves time. The shepherd knows the sheep, the sheep know the shepherd, the shepherd knows the dog, the dog knows the sheep, the sheep know the dog. They all know the way to the pasture. It’s like the house that Jack built, you see. It’s all of a piece.
We had a visitor here not long ago, James Rebanks, a shepherd and writer from the Lake District in England. He grew up in that ancient way of using the mountain pastures of the Lake District. The Herdwick sheep are the local breed, adapted to those pastures. The farmers there don’t have fences. They do what they call “hefting.” The sheep stays on the pasture or “heft” it was born on. It knows where it belongs. So there’s a sort of sheep culture there. And there’s a human culture there that is intricately involved with the sheep culture and vice versa. And then the dog culture takes its part. If you want food from those mountain pastures the only way to get it is by way of that ancient culture involving people, sheep, and dogs, and their native places.
Tanya: You’re talking about hefting and we have never talked about it in relation to children, but the children have been removed from their hefts by these consolidated schools. If you could put the local schools back in, you’d have children hefted to their area. I hadn’t thought about that before. That’s an interesting concept.
Berry: You’ve just been pretending that you didn’t think of it before.
David: So she’s the real poet.
Berry: She thinks better than I do about the community, its children, and their education.
Martin: So let’s interview Tanya for the rest.
Berry: In fact, you should.
Martin: Why is the teaching of history and literature important in schools today?
Berry: To reduce surprise. (laughs)
Martin: We’re condemned to repeat history . . .
Berry: John Lukacs says it doesn’t exactly repeat itself. It does sort of cycle. There are things that you can expect to happen. I mean you can expect families to decline if their values aren’t right. If they get too affluent and lazy. “Shirt sleeves to shirt sleeves in three generations.” That’s something I’ve seen happen over and over again. That’s history. You see what happens to people when they get power, for instance. You see the abuse of resources. You see that culture doesn’t happen in a vacuum. We think now that culture happens in a vacuum, that you can go to school and get it. It’s easy from there to the idea of multiculturalism. But authentic multiculturalism can come only from local adaptation to a multitude of local ecosystems. Real multiculturalism in this country was what the Indians had. They knew how to live where they were, and pretty well without using it up. We haven’t learned that yet.
Most of the stuff that was here in Kentucky in 1775 is gone. I mean most of the resources. The top soils, the minerals, the forests. I talked to a stream restorer at the University of Louisville who said that the original flood plain of a creek is often 12 feet under the sediment from the upstream slopes. This is a terrible indictment of our history here. This river [the Kentucky] doesn’t have muskrats in it anymore. The native black willows are gone. The Licking River doesn’t have muskrats in it anymore. I learned this from the trappers. They know because, unlike the conservationists and the industrial farmers, they go back to the same places over and over again. My friend Barth Johnson over on the Licking River and a friend of his trapped 15 miles of the Licking River and they caught no muskrats.
Martin: Why is that?
Berry: Something in the water.
Tanya: Poison probably.
Berry: You can’t find out. I’ve been trying to find out ever since 2002 when I finally had a boat with a motor. I patrolled this pool. You can’t find willows at the low water line. There are a few old ones at the top of the bank. On tributary streams you still find them. The last I looked you could still find them along the Ohio at Carrollton, Kentucky. But this river carries the outflow from the strip mines, heavy metals, and acids. Then it picks up the so-called “waste” down through central Kentucky, and then the runoff from these soy bean and corn fields which is toxic. Nobody knows. I called up experts. “I hear that you say there’s too much glyphosate in the Midwestern rivers.” “Oh yes, there’s too much.” “Can you tell me the effects?” “Ha, a lot of people would like to know.” To connect cause to effect in a large body of flowing water is virtually impossible.
David: Makes it easy to get away with stuff. Good for people in power, I guess.
Tanya: Money power.
Berry: Then you’re back to money. Dante put the usurers in hell because what they were doing was unnatural. Making money from money. Ezra Pound wrote about this in the so-called Usury Cantos, “contra naturam.”
Martin: When you came and taught classes at Highlands, you would often read from the book of Genesis.
Berry: Probably I did.
Martin: Well you know it seems like a lot of what you write stems from the idea of good stewardship, which I gathered came from the book of Genesis.
Berry: A lot of it does because the real economy that we live from is a gift economy. We didn’t make it. It’s necessary to understand that it’s all given and that you can’t have anything that’s not derived from what you’ve been given. That brings on humility.
I just went to a kind of a rendezvous of horse loggers down at Russell Springs, Kentucky, last weekend. Those people combine horse logging with ecological principles of forestry, a practice they sum up in the phrase, “worst-first, single tree selection.” It was something to see these people trying their best to make sensible choices as to what to take out and what to leave. Troy Firth says a bad logger goes to the woods thinking about what to take, whereas a good logger goes to the woods thinking about what to leave. So the forest ecosystem stays intact. And with horses the skid road is about half the width a skidder requires. This kind of forestry can be staffed and largely supplied locally. So we’re back to the idea of a local economy. But these are people who like each other. They were talking eagerly to each other about the work they were doing.
David: One of the things you talk about in the Jefferson lecture is the idea that the economic arts are as important—maybe you said refinable—as the fine arts. We represent a lot of homeschoolers and families who are trying to cultivate those economic arts in their own ways in their own small communities and homes. What advice would you have for those moms and dads who are trying to cultivate skill and virtue in the economic arts but who don’t know how to do that?
Berry: I’ll give you an example. I often kept my grandson with me from the time he was about three years old. If I was cleaning the barn I’d give him a fork. He’d get it hung in the bedding and say, “Granddaddy would you load this?” And I’d go over and load it. I’d hand the fork back to him, and he’d get it hung again. And it went on from that.
There came a day when he was a big boy, strong enough to hold the lines of a team. I put him on a mowing machine, and I said, “Now you drive, and I’m going to walk behind you.” We went around several times. I said finally, “I can’t do this all day. I’m too old. You’re going to have to drive on by yourself now. I’ll be up on this knoll and I’ll see you all the way around.” “Can’t you walk with me one more time?” “No.”
And then, you know, he gets bigger and stronger, he gets more knowledgeable. There comes a time he’s here to work one morning and I say, “Honey, go get your team up and harness them and go to work. I’ll be there after a while.” That’s the time. There’s a wonderful logger from Virginia, Chad Miano, telling me the same thing about his own boy, who’s now logging on his own. Doesn’t need his daddy for that anymore. Among the Amish, the boys and girls grow up pretty quick. They know what they’re going to do. They’re not driven crazy by “alternatives.” You see they have never been lied to by being told they could do anything they want to do or be anything they want to be. But they have a lot to learn. Lots to know. A lot to take pride in.
Martin: Is that what you call an apprenticeship?
Berry: That’s it. The master finally lets the apprentice go, not because he’s passed a test but because of confidence. “I’m going to turn you loose now because I have confidence that you know what to do. Now go out and do it.”
David: It’s like sending the boys out to the barn to play.
Berry: I didn’t do much work with my dad—who, in addition to other interests, had a busy law practice—but he saw to it that I worked with people who knew how. I remember a moment when one of my teachers said, “Hang on a minute. You handed that stick of tobacco to me wrong. Now I’m going to hand it back to you right. Now you hand it back to me right. Now that’s the way I want to you to do it from now on.” So it goes.
Martin: Several times I’ve heard you refer to the Western literary tradition. You were teaching Shakespeare and sometimes you would say the Western Christian literary tradition. This is not popular anymore.
Berry: I think that the tradition ought to live, and it’s disheartening to run into young people, even practicing writers, who don’t know any writer who lived before WWII. When I was coming along, two of the great figures of poetry were T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound. And of course if you’re going to make any sense of them you’ve got to read at least something of what they read. You’re thrown back to the tradition. Finally, both of them send you back directly to Dante. If your reading is all recent, you’re missing a great wealth, a great pleasure.
I’m rereading Tom Jones for the third time. Hardly a modern novel, but it’s so witty. Robert Frost said that what he liked for a reader to get from a poem was a sense of what a hell of a good time he had writing it. You get that from Fielding. He’s having a very good time making fun of Thwackum the preacher and Square the philosopher. The human heritage, if you have it, saves you from being too surprised. It’s a shame for somebody to have to fall in love and think that she’s the first one that it ever happened to. Never heard “My love is like a red, red rose.” It oughtn’t have to come as a big surprise. Nobody ought to have to suffer the death of a loved one without some poetry to remember, an elegy or a lament.
And they need to know the King James Version of the Bible. People think that translation has had a big influence on English. But some of it is English. “Intreat me not to leave thee or to return from following after thee: for whither thou goest, I will go; and where thou lodgest, I will lodge: Thy people shall be my people, and thy God my God . . .” That’s our language. “And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shown round about them: And they were sore afraid.” How beautiful. That’s our language.
David: Have you spent most of your life trying to memorize?
Berry: No. I just find sometimes that I know a passage or a poem. A lot of people are very much better memorizers than I am. I just have a few things that I know by heart. There ought to be things like that in a person’s mind.
Tanya: I wonder what’s going to happen, though, because everybody can punch a button now and find whatever they want to find on their machine. And I don’t know if that’s going to stop memorization or not.
David: Sometimes you don’t know what to ask for. You wouldn’t have known to ask for that passage to come to mind. But it was in your mind.
Berry: One of the most interesting things in my life is that over and over again I have found the book I needed when I needed it, or have found a friend I needed when I needed such a friend. Over and over again. And, you know, finding Tanya was sheer serendipity. The only girl in a whole generation who could’ve lasted with me.
Martin: How did you all meet?
Tanya: University of Kentucky. My father was teaching there.
Berry: Her dad was teaching art and aesthetics.
Tanya: He came back to get a further degree and to teach there so I was there when I was a sophomore.
Berry: One time I said, “Tanya, what did I ever do to deserve a woman like you?” She said, “Nothing.” I get these book reviews such as I’ve never had before. I show them to her and she says, “Well it’s not going to make any difference around here.” And then I have to tell you the blurb she gave me for my new book: “Not to be critical, but it’s amazing to me that some people seem really to like this book.”
Tanya: It is a very odd book.
David: This is your new one?
Berry: A brilliant critic.
Tanya: It didn’t mean I didn’t like it.
David: So you graduated from those tough college professors to her?
Berry: Right out of college right into her tutelage.
David: In “Starting from Loss” you mention how education in Kentucky often avoids homecoming, borrowing Wes Jackson’s term. So what does education that “sees virtue in settlement,” as you put it, look like?
Berry: Here you’re getting into attitude. If the teacher thinks that the place she’s teaching in is a good and worthy place then certain things are going to be communicated. “I’m teaching you things that could make you a powerful person. I don’t want you to start from here and get an education and come back here and desecrate this place.” Now most teaching has been done by people who think, “Coming from here is no advantage. I’m trying to give you something that will help you go to a better place.” Nowadays we easily forget that education makes bad people worse. But if you’re teaching for homecoming you can’t forget it.
David: It’s a dangerous thing, educating someone.
Berry: It is! It’s dangerous to teach a crook mathematics or physics.