The Old School HouseAfter a great weekend of hiking, bird watching (and squirrel-watching), and just visiting with my folks, my brother, sister-in-law, and nephew, as well as my own family, I’m finally getting back to the Aedificium.

I kind of need to fess up a little. I’ve got a TON of things on my mind these days, ranging from school life to food production and consumption to money and economics to the education of my children and my own students to the state of the Christian faith to domestic politics, social justice, and foreign policy of our own nation. In between my work, my family, various church activities, and, when we can get away to do it, my walks in the woods, I’ve been blogging and returning to Wendell Berry.

I’m currently engaged in a project on concepts of “imperial” vs. “indigenous” or “local” education, and in the course of reading I’ve come across this gem, from Mr. Berry’s essay “Thoughts in the Presence of Fear:”

“The complexity of our present trouble suggests as never before that we need to change our present concept of education. Education is not properly an industry, and its proper use is not to serve industries, either by job-training or by industry-subsidized research. Its proper use is to enable citizens to live lives that are economically, politically, socially, and culturally responsible. This cannot be done by gathering or “accessing” what we now call “information” — which is to say facts without context and therefore without priority. A proper education enables young people to put their lives in order, which means knowing what things are more important than other things; it means putting first things first.” (emphasis mine)

There is so much in this quote that I almost don’t even know where to start, except to say that the first reaction for this educator and former librarian (a.k.a., “industrial and capital information specialist”) is a defensive one. The entire information industry (and make no mistake, it is an industry) depends on job-training and research. But the defensiveness is short-lived for me. Library schools no longer teach students knowledge-management, but information management, and even while I was in library school I could see how dependent the library profession was on the technology industry in all its various guises. To an extent I think that this has to happen, but the thing is that this technology industry has infected elementary schools.

As an archivist and librarian, my emphasis was always less on the technology and the information industry than trying to carve out a space in the institution a space for those materials that preserved and promoted a kind of ethical history of whoever I was working for, and how the institution’s history fits into (or did not fit into) the kind of “moral tide” of its community and of the nation. Which is to say, of course, that for institutional librarians and archivists, the selection of “information” to manage is a political, economic, and ethical act.

As an educator, I have long held to the belief that Berry articulates here, that education’s proper use is to enable cultivate an ethic of responsibility in the lives of young people (and of older ones as well). But again, expressed this way, teaching is a political, economic, and ethical act. If educators are to be entrusted with the responsibility to teach “young people to put their lives in order” and to “know what things are more important than other things,” we have to realize the subjective nature of the educational endeavor. It is an awesome responsibility, and if teaching is taken seriously, as it is in my household, it should scare the living bejeezus out of those of us who have it as a calling.

And finally, perhaps most importantly, as a Christian, I am constantly evaluating two things; first, whether or not Christianity, as it is currently preached, practiced, and understood by millions in this country, is compatible with the educational goal of enabling citizens (and not just “Christian Citizens”) “to live lives that are economically, politically, socially, and culturally responsible,” and second, if it’s not, then Why not? and What can we do about it? What went wrong, and where? Isn’t the entire heart of gospel ethics rooted in this call? In the life and teachings of Jesus as well as the Prophets?

William Sloane Coffin, Jr., in the “Quote of the Moment” pane up on the top right,” noted that while he was not particularly optimistic, he was full of hope, and I have to admit that this expresses my own position on the issues I raised in that last paragraph. I am a cynic about Christianity’s ability to contribute to economic, political, social, and cultural responsibility as it is currently preached, practiced, and understood. I’m not especially optimistic that its current dominant “manifestation” here in the 21st century can adjust itself to meeting that responsibility either. But I have hope, because I’m seeing numerous individual, community, and even church efforts that share this hope and are beginning to live radically different expressions of our faith that do live out the radical ethic of Christ, one that we educators can employ in our mission not to inform, but enable.

Teachers, let’s get to work.

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