Tuesday, February 05, 2013

Notes on Wendell Berry, globalization, language, & education

  • When Berry talks about poetry he is talking about his vision for the right use of language.  I don't know if he views poetry as the highest/best use of language but when he talks about it he is usually talking about ethics and standards in language.
  • In general Berry is against "specialization" in language and knowledge, i.e. the way universities arrange disciplines. I think this has to do with uprooting human action from community/place.
  • Berry suggests these questions should be asked of poetry, rather than taking it as a professional, disembodied, specialized field where poets write for other poets:
    • What good is it?
    • Is it at home here?
    • What do the neighbors think of it?
    • Do they read it, any of them?
    • What have they contributed to it?
    • What does it owe them?
  • We could/should probably ask the same questions of the language(s) and communication strategies we teach. This makes good sense if you are in a community ESL situation where your primary goal is to welcome immigrants, newcomers, etc. to your community
  • But the issue here, as Berry rightly notes, is that the globalized industrial economy has created a situation of "destroyed communities." Two related problems for language education: genuine community life is barely possible, and the motives and purposes people have for language learning are frequently not based on being rooted in a place.
  • We are encouraged to think of neoliberalism / late capitalism / globalization as the Way it Is now, and that we need to educate for this -- think of James Gee's "people as portfolios," or human capital. That this should be an accurate or ethical view of humanity seems inimical to Berry's though, Christian though, or humanist thought more generally.
  • Yet it is clear that most English teachers and students buy into globalization pretty wholeheartedly, either because we see it as offering good possibilities for human flourishing on an individual scale (though again, Berry would probably rightly suggest that it does not allow for community flourishing, which ultimately is detrimental to individuals and humanity as a whole), or because we see that it is an inevitable organizing principle of who we are and what we do.
  • I'm concerned that we can't necessarily escape having a "global orientation" to our language and our profession because of current material conditions -- concerned because, as Berry writes, the idea of a "global community" or "global village" is a metaphor that could (should!) never actually exist. This may result in a rejection of "imagined communities" at a conceptual level (even though we should certainly allow students to be motivated by their own desires).
  • The question I'm left with is "How can we integrate the slow, the small, the permanent, and the communitarian into a world where the fast, the large, the transient, and the cosmopolitan are basically the rule?" I can't think of a good answer, though there are several, probably:
    • Commitment to living and working in one place
    • Intentional cultivation of (temporary) community in classrooms, institutions, etc (this isn't very satisfying, but a posture of inclusivity and love probably goes a long way)
    • Refusal to view people as portfolios/capital, even though we want to teach strategies that will allow people to get to where they want to be; view people as individuals rooted in communities, and encourage them to view themselves 
    • ...

  • There is probably more to be said here, especially about Berry's rejection of specialization, and some basic ideas of contemporary rhetoric (e.g., ambiguity, flexibility of language and meanings, etc). Overall I'm concerned about whether Berry's vision of ethics and standards in language use (and by extension teaching and learning,  I think) can a) be shown to be other than the Complaint Tradition, and b) square with ideas of polysemy, heteroglossia, ELF without a common grammatical core, and so on. I think we could take Berry to say that "Standard" language should actually be rooted in its attachment to communities and local ways of being, and merely lament that strong communities are rare in many of the situations where we live and work.

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