Monday, July 16, 2007

Wendell Berry on technological tyranny in our universities

Bellarmine University has posted the text and video of Wendell Berry's commencement address this past spring. Berry gave it partly because his granddaughter Virginia was in the graduating class. Virginia was one of my students at Highlands Latin School, where Berry gave the commencement address in 2003, and where he is a visiting instructor in English. Berry's observations on the modern technological tyranny and its dominance over the curriculum of the modern university are, as usual, right on target.

Here is a choice selection:
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.
He goes on to urge the graduates to join a resistance to the technological tyranny that now dictates the policies of large universities:
You will have to avoid thinking of yourselves as employable minds equipped with a few digits useful for pushing buttons. You will have to recover for yourselves the old understanding that you are whole beings inextricably and mysteriously compounded of minds and bodies.

You will have to understand that the logic of success is radically different from the logic of vocation. The logic of what our society means by “success” supposedly leads you ever upward to any higher-paying job that can be done sitting down. The logic of vocation holds that there is an indispensable justice, to yourself and to others, in doing well the work that you are “called” or prepared by your talents to do.

And so you must refuse to accept the common delusion that a career is an adequate context for a life. The logic of success insinuates that self-enlargement is your only responsibility, and that any job, any career will be satisfying if you succeed in it. But I can tell you, on the authority of much evidence, that a lot of people highly successful by that logic are painfully dissatisfied. I can tell you further that you cannot live in a career, and that satisfaction can come only from your life. To give satisfaction, your life will have to be lived in a family, a neighborhood, a community, an ecosystem, a watershed, a place, meeting your responsibilities to all those things to which you belong.
Berry's warnings are largely motivated by his view of stewardship. If you read his writings you will find him constantly contrasting two models for dealing with the world: the husbandman and the exploiter. He is right in seeing our supposedly great institutions of higher learning firmly in the grip of the latter. University administrations are no longer interested in the common good; they are interested in grant money.

I'll give just one first hand example of this. Several years ago, I was called in by a state senator to try to broker a deal between a state representative who had sponsored a bill barring the cloning of human embryos and representatives of the state's two largest universities, which strongly opposed the bill.

Despite my best efforts, negotiations finally broke down. The universities used all the power at their disposal (which is substantial in the state legislature) and managed to defeat the bill by just a couple of votes in the state senate. But during the negotiations, it became very clear to me that these people had no interest in whether or not what they were dealing with was human. They cared for one thing and one thing only: money, specifically, how much their research programs would be giving up if the bill passed.

These people lied in committee testimony about what they were doing, lies which became very evident during the testimony. If you want to see dissembling in its most quintessential form, just go back and order the video tape of the senate hearing on the cloning bill (I think it was 2002).

And by the way what ever happened to the liberals who were concerned about the effects of greater control by big corporations? Are they now an extinct species?


solarity said...

The notion that our universities should actually be something other than "puppy mills" for corporate america is, well, rather quaint. The change actually occurred several decades ago and Wendell Quixote could hardly have found a situation less likely to change in his lifetime.

Martin Cothran said...

Yes, but I am a sucker for lost causes. All good causes are, in fact, lost causes--at least temporally speaking.