To Boss or Be Bossed, and To Buy Things

Wendell Berry just read a draft of an essay on the economy at the Masonic Temple in scenic Salt Lake City. He’s a wonderful warm homespun intellect, and one of the many topics he covered was the shape of education. He quoted a friend as recommending that we have two majors in college instead of the one we have now (upward mobility). They recommend that we add “homecoming,” preparing people to be useful to their actual natal communities. In an impromptu discussion of the state of current education, he described it as teaching young people “to boss or be bossed, and to buy things.” I’m fascinated by what this means, whether it is true, and how to interact with the themes regardless of its truth content.

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Comments

  1. I would like to allow more diversity in education — public schools, private schools, charter schools, religious schools, regulated schools, unregulated schools, …

    I expect that this diversity would imply cultural diversity as well — in the sense of consumerism, authoritarianism, …

    I guess I see this as trying to live “the golden rule” — respecting the values of others just as I would like my own values to be respected. Even those that are disagreed with.

    Of course, at some point a trade off would have to be made.
    When do the values of society constrain the rights of a group to have an organization with values that clash with society?

    I think that the answer to that question has had implications for the LDS Church. In particular, in the early days when the public outcry against the Church resulted in the eventual death of Joseph Smith.

  2. I’d like to know more specifically what current education state that Wendell Berry is referring to. I found my own experience in under-grad and grad school to be delightfully free of this “boss or be bossed and to buy things” mentality. And yet, at the same time, so much of the criticism I hear of the state of current education is just the opposite: that it’s not focused enough on the market, that it strays too far afield of real life, day-to-day, practical concerns.

    What is he referring to?

  3. I love Wendell Berry. I wish I could have been there. I know exactly what he means. If you ask students why they are in college the first thing most say is to get a good job. Many want to make a contribution, and hope to, but this is generally a secondary consideration. I’ve seen many biology pre-med majors who absolutely hate biology, but being a doctor would be a great ‘job.’ Only once that I can recall did a student say, “I love this stuff, I just want to learn it.” I sense what Wendell Berry is saying is right. There is no real effort to understand community (including the larger community that includes our natural environments), and we march forward with thoughts of having the good things in life with a nod to service because it’s expected.

    Diversity of schools? As long as there are equally and standards. I’d hate to see a country seeped in bad science, because the alternate point of view on the flatness of the Earth needs representation too. An informed citizenry on the importance of art and science is critical.

  4. Universities are already too cluttered with vague global missions, that translate into politically loaded curriculum of questionable value (any sort of value, not just economic), to justify their prices. Nor do I think that “homecoming” can be taught effectively in a university environment.

    I would also question the value of Natalism itself. If a community lacks the ability to draw at least some of their children back, should their youth be compelled or should that community be allowed to die a natural and gracious death? I’ve been to through enough meth-infested, football-focused, half-literate, dream-killing towns in fly-over country to know that if tornado/flood was wipe every structure off the map (while everyone happened to me over the mountain at an basketball away game of course) it would be hard to identify any great loss if it were to force those residents into a healthier community, one without failing schools and record teen pregnancy. I don’t know that the benefit to the community is worth the cost to their children.

    Does it really benefit anyone if the formally hot-housed, ivy-league educated scion or scionette of the Cambridge or Upper East Side meritocracies returns to their neighborhood to campaign to protect urban green space or promote experimental theater? And if not, if those communities that can afford to export their excess and allow their children to chase their dreams, why should someone sap from Fargo, Accra or Lima be told that their place is back in the trenches?

  5. “I would also question the value of Natalism itself. If a community lacks the ability to draw at least some of their children back, should their youth be compelled or should that community be allowed to die a natural and gracious death? I’ve been to through enough meth-infested, football-focused, half-literate, dream-killing towns in fly-over country to know that if tornado/flood was wipe every structure off the map (while everyone happened to me over the mountain at an basketball away game of course) it would be hard to identify any great loss if it were to force those residents into a healthier community, one without failing schools and record teen pregnancy. I don’t know that the benefit to the community is worth the cost to their children.”

    We moved to one of those communities 10 years ago. My husband would probably agree with you, but I see the history here and I can not. People still live in the homes their grandparents built. There is a feeling of continuity here that I have never experienced anywhere else.

    I don’t know that we need experimental theater or greenbelts, but tech industires would be a major blessing.
    The best of our youth leave and if they are LDS they go to Utah. Others go to Albany or Syracuse or even Chicago. We can’t throw away the things that define the American experience without losing the American identity.

  6. The “to buy things” education starts well before college. My four-year-old son is an expert consumer -just from watching cartoons (and commercials) on TV.

    The “boss, be bossed, buy things” education system is only part of a larger cultural structure.

  7. I think 5 was a threadjack – sorry.

    I agree with 6. The mentality referred to in this post is taught from the cradle these days, not learned in college. College just fine tunes the values we already have.

  8. –“They recommend that we add “homecoming,” preparing people to be useful to their actual natal communities.”

    I’d be satisfied if we began by deleting the qualifying “their actual natal” from the sentence above and just began with a focus on how to be useful to ANY community. I don’t think we’re even teaching the general case very well, let alone providing reason, ability, and desire to return to a specific community. Baby steps.

  9. I never obtained a high school diploma or equivalent, so I’m as happy as the next guy to decry the state of public education. But I think that your friend is wrong.

    Watching my daughter’s education, I don’t see the slightest hint of “Boss or be bossed.” In fact, I wish that there were more. Effective organizations must be hierarchical, and when push comes to shove, sometimes one just needs to tell someone what to do (or do what one is told). It seems to me that school instills in children an unrealistically egalitarian outlook.

    I also object to the use of the phrase “Boss or be bossed,” because it’s just plain silly. It is loaded and reflects the advocacy of its user enough to surrender any claim to objectivity. One might as well use the phrase “Offer Christlike leadership or search for Christlike leadership.”

    And it sounds really good to disparage buying things. But what does he propose as an alternative?

  10. If you send your kids to BYU to marry, most will not be returning to their communities.
    I know what Wendell Berry is saying: For me, I knew I was in school to learn to be “bossed”. I was going to be someone’s employee. I was preparing myself to have a value someone else would be willing to pay me for. I would be a ‘worker Bee’. My BA would show I was teachable and capable of working for them.

  11. As a humanities major, I was often asked in disparaging tones “what are you going to do with that?” The only answer I could ever give was that I was in school to get an education, not job training. I do think that more people than not go to school in order to better their economic future, not to enrich their intellectual life or contribute to the cultural or spiritual stores of the world. And depending on your program, you’re either being trained to fill a slot as an employee (“to be bossed”) or to be an entrepreneur, professional, or social leader (“to boss”).

    I can’t tell from this short clip of Berry’s comments, but I wonder if by “natal community” he didn’t necessarily mean the literal town someone grew up in, but rather the “real world” as opposed to the coccoon of school.

  12. donutlover says:

    I happened to catch part of a radio show last night where Wendell was a guest. While I agree that he has a simple, charismatic nature and some interesting ideas, my overall impression is that he is horribly out of touch, almost a sense that his ideas are simply based on lamenting the loss of the past, pining the loss of the ‘simple life’.

    He didn’t come out and say that technology was evil, but he spoke of it completely in negative terms, talking about how it’s been used as a means of destroying jobs and is viewed as a way to reduce the amount of ‘work’ we have to do. Then he spoke sadly about how people don’t get satisfaction out of work anymore, and mentioned the luddites and how they saw this coming.

    Later a caller disagreed with him on the job destruction point and the net effect technology has on work. Wendell’s response was that the caller’s comment was too broad, and then began talking about technology being destructive in the sense that it destroys the coherence of the local community. One example he gave was that ‘there are no local stories anymore, everything comes off of the TV’. This is the point where I immediately disagreed and commented to my wife that the guy is out of touch. There are still things of interest that go on locally and are shared among friends and family, and if anything, technology has enabled and encouraged that. Yes, there is national media, but at the same time the individual’s ability to share unfiltered information has exploded. In addition, if you swallow your engagement ring and the national news picks up the story, what’s wrong with that? Is it somehow a less valuable story or tainted news because it wasn’t kept in the community and passed around locally by word of mouth?

    Specific to this thread, if anything, I think bosses these days are markedly less bossy, then again they can’t get away with many of the things they could in the past. Regardless, workplaces seem more progressive and are focused on teamwork, sharing, and new ideas. My employer spends quite a bit of money and effort to drill ‘core values’ into their employees, values that go directly against a ‘boss or be bossed’ frame of mind. I must have missed they day in school where they sat us all down and said ‘if you don’t take the lead and push your will on others, someone else is going to push their will on you’. I just don’t see where that idea is coming from unless it’s just pure ignorance, or perhaps too much reality tv. ;-)

  13. donutlover says:

    Ok, so I see everyone’s point about education being viewed simply as training to work, a way to make money. What I question strongly, however, is how much of that has changed ‘these days’ compared to, say, fifty years ago. I wonder what the balance is between cultural enriching subjects versus the core competencies and vocational learning that goes towards a career.

  14. Mark Ashurst-McGee says:

    Ardis, re #11, my understanding is that Berry farms in the Kentucky county of his birth.

  15. Mark D. says:

    Sam B, I think that characterization of education, and vocational education in particular is amazingly superficial. How about, “(vocational) education teaches people how to effectively work together to rise above a state of abject poverty and engage in other worthy social, economic, and civic enterprises”?

    A better question is if education did not prepare people for a vocation – in general or specific terms – to what degree would the public be willing to fund it? I suspect at about 10% of its current level – so low that without vocational preparation as its primary objective, public education would largely cease to exist.

  16. Peter LLC says:

    to what degree would the public be willing to fund it? I suspect at about 10% of its current level

    Too high. Given the option, we’d all be free riders.

  17. S.P. Bailey says:

    I like both Wendell Berry and the Andy Griffith Show.

    But Berry fails to ask the right question: why can’t Mayberry make better use of the myriad of things a kid can learn at college or trade school?

  18. S.P. Bailey says:

    Mayberry Employer: What did you study in college?
    Native Mayberry Kid Job Applicant: Nostalgia. You know, Wendell Berry and stuff.
    Mayberry Employer: Unfortunately we are looking for somebody with an accounting background.

  19. I was at the Berry reading and found it quite inspirational. I am a university instructor myself and his remarks caused me to reflect on how useful I am helping my students to be. Even setting aside the question of whether they are “coming home” with their education, they are at least taking it somewhere and having some kind of an impact.

    If you haven’t yet read Wendell Berry (and it looks like a number of you have not yet had that privilege), I highly recommend that you do. A careful reading I believe will reveal that he is not advocating nostalgia per se nor is he wanting to turn every community into Mayberry. I think that “natal” was Sam MB’s term, not Berry’s. My sense of Berry’s thesis is that we have become abstracted from a sense of belonging to a place and that our stance toward education enhances this problem. I imagine that he might agree that there are myriad ways to belong to myriad places–that much of what works in Mayberry will be very poorly suited to Salt Lake City and vice versa. I understood him to be advocating for Mayberry’s students or Salt Lake’s students to approach their education with the question of how what they are learning might serve their home. They would ask what is particular about the place that they live–culturally, environmentally, economically, artistically, etc.–and how their vocation can contribute.

  20. I heard Berry speak last night and his point was that many students, in his experience, have no sense of community or home. They don’t know where they belong, they don’t have a community to return to. Their goals are to be successful without accountability to a larger community. And his criticism is that the tendency in our society is to form “communities” around superficial connections in a consumer economy. Yes, he’s somewhat nostalgic in his outlook, but if you read his writing, especially his fiction, you get a sense for what he idealizes as a community: a place where people live together, accept each other, recognize the value of all members of the community, and support each other in their living, in good times and bad. It’s demeaning to compare that to Mayberry. I’ve always thought it sounded like the ideal of the Mormon ward.

    I didn’t take notes last night, so these are my words, not his. The way Berry sees it, students are educated so they can “get ahead.” But this getting ahead is divorced from a sense of home, of belonging, or of responsibility to anyone but themselves. In the context of the essay he read, that is the personal side of the economic crisis we are in: no one is responsible. We are all caught up in an artificial growth economy in which we buy things we don’t need and worship new technology that does little to improve the human condition. Technology keeps people employed, and it increases the scale at which business can be conducted. But ultimately his point is that it is destructive to our ecology, to the planet as a whole. And that’s a whole different topic.

    Berry pointed out that human happiness is found in the simplest of economies when those economies are based on the good of the community (not the enrichment of the elite few). He mentioned the Amish tradition in which decisions are made for the community, by the community. If something is ultimately bad for the community as a whole, then they don’t do it. Berry’s vision is radical, but if you look at the obvious failures of the growth economy we are stuck with, I don’t think you can simply dismiss him as being out of touch.

  21. Effective organizations must be hierarchical, and when push comes to shove, sometimes one just needs to tell someone what to do (or do what one is told).

    Doesn’t Christ only sometimes tell someone what to do, and then allow that someone do it or not?

    There are exceptions, of course. God sometimes uses the “must” phrasing. But that is God’s option.

  22. Given the option, we’d all be free riders.

    First rule of economics. Universal free riding is not an option. The corresponding option is no public education system at all.

  23. DKL,
    The point is not whether or not bossing, being bossed, hierarchy, or buying stuff are intrinsically bad; the question is whether those things ought to be the focus of education, especially higher education. I think watching movies is cool, but I don’t want my kids to learn primarily the value of watching them in college.

  24. #17: “Why can’t Mayberry make better use of the myriad of things a kid can learn at college or trade school?
    Like what? If you have a degree in Police Science, are you going to replace Andy? If you learned computer repair in trade school, and there are only 8 computers in Mayberry, are you going to make a living? Car repairs? Sorry, they already have someone for that, and his son is going to replace him.

  25. I reject the notion that someone who gets a good job and uses it to support themselves and their family is not “making a contribution” or “having an impact.”

    (In fact it seems to me that Wendell Barry’s unusual ability to live a comfortable and pleasant life as a smug poet-farmer would be impossible without these very people.)

  26. Berry’s vision is radical, but if you look at the obvious failures of the growth economy we are stuck with, I don’t think you can simply dismiss him as being out of touch.

    The biggest problem here is the unstated assumption that economic crises are an essential part of a “growth economy”. They aren’t. There is a simpler solution. Return to the traditional legal standards that prohibit fractional reserve banking and financial crises will be a thing of the past. Case in point: Bank of Amsterdam during the French invasion of 1672. Not a problem to be had, because 100% reserves were carried for all deposits.

    The real problem with the current banking system is that it manufactures credit without corresponding voluntary saving, indeed at a incredible multiple to voluntary “deposits”. Because lending that is not backed by voluntary saving leads to investment in more projects than people really want or can sustain, fractional reserve banking on average (especially when combined with government guarantees) is essentially a government endorsed looting of productive resources with the majority of the ill gotten gains distributed to the mandarins who direct this unsustainable enterprise.

    The only comfort in this present crisis is that at least the actual owners (and soon bondholders) of this government endorsed quasi-Ponzi scheme have or will largely lose their ill gotten (if legally acquired) gains. Citigroup trading at $1 is a reason for long term cheer all around. Someday the public will realize that fractional reserve banking is just banana republic economics in slow motion.

  27. teaching young people “to boss or be bossed, and to buy things.”

    That is pretty much how 17 and 20 year old kids see it. They have been taught that is what matters who decides and now that I have my own money I buy what I want to buy.

  28. S.P. Bailey says:

    Bob (no. 24): Yes, kids come out of college and trade school with training that is useful to Mayberry. But Mayberry’s stagnant economy has no place for them. So they migrate to better opportunities. My point: how is this a failure of the education system? Something for Andy, Barney, Gomer, Goob, and Aint Bee to chew on over at Floyd’s barbershop.

  29. It is my observation that when you start working, you do the job given to you. Time passing, the job you do is what you have made it. Your choice. You can keep doing what you have been given or expand on it.

    I am not sure where bossing and being bossed comes in here. I do remember a conversation I had with the U of U chairman of the EE department when I was interviewing job applicants at the U. He was very disconcerted by the legislature’s requirements that education was too expensive to waste on non-job related subjects. In other words, a state school had the task of making replaceable cogs in the machine, to turn on economically viable products. This, it seemed to him and to me, as counterproductive to the overall goals of civilization.

  30. #28: One person’s stagnant economy is someone else’s stable economy. Some days a good day at the stock market are the ones you get to kept all your money.
    I feel the individual’s goal for a good education is to prepares him/her for a job and for a life. But the system’s first goal should be to provide society’s needs.

  31. To boss and be bossed, and to buy things sounds like my life as a stay-at-home mom. My college classes didn’t prepare me run a household, purchase the things we need and manage the children. Berry laments the loss of house-wifery and animal husbandry skills, the actual skills and work needed to be independent and self-sufficient, that connects families and communities in the place they live. In my family, I am boss. I make decisions, do the work, delegate chores. Volunteering at church or school, I am bossed, taking direction from another’s vision, working to help others. I was not able to hear Berry lecture last night, but I can’t imagine he would advocate mindless consumerism. But I can see how college kids could use some guidance in distinguishing what purchases are necessary, prudent, and useful as opposed to impulse buys on the bandwagon.

  32. StillConfused says:

    What he says is true. Education is about establishing the pecking order professionally. It is true that people should have more interest in their communities. But I am not sure that school is the place for that. Those sound more like home values or church values or community values. When we try to teach values in school, things tend to get a little jacked because while 2 + 2 equals 4, the specific values set for a person, community or group varies.

  33. #32: ” Education is about establishing the pecking order.”
    I never found this to be true in the real world. It still came down to your ability and what value you could add to the group. Your degree just got you in the door.
    In my ‘hay day’, I had 40 attorneys and 10 doctors under my control. All had better degrees than me.

  34. Lisa F. says:

    Wendell Berry came from a land that was forcibly stripped mined (in the 60’s and 70’s) for coal and then abandoned. Many people lost their homes. At that point, he and his wife decided they make their way in the world without dependence on electricity or disposables.

    He uses an automobile as he must, but he writes all of his work in longhand, and his writings are typed on a Royal typewriter. One of his best essays is “Why I am not going to buy a computer.” He has attempted to show, with his life, a different path. We can form our communities differently if we choose too. As I type on this computer…I still think that his writings are some of the best on the planet.

    His writing about education proposes that education is, as Ardis said, to become “educated” and culturally connected and grounded — not just for financial gain. It is to partake of the best knowledge that we have so far, and then to be able to pass on what we know.

  35. Wendell Berry's wife says:

    Every month for a few days I really miss my disposables.

  36. Brad: The point is not whether or not bossing, being bossed, hierarchy, or buying stuff are intrinsically bad; the question is whether those things ought to be the focus of education, especially higher education. I think watching movies is cool, but I don’t want my kids to learn primarily the value of watching them in college.

    I think that you’re missing the point. I’m saying that Wendell Berry is wrong that schools shouldn’t teach “bossing and being bossed,” because there should be more “bossing and being bossed” teaching in higher education. They absolutely should be the focus of education. I’ve had to hire idiots fresh out of college. Trust me. They need it. Plus, The phrase “bossing and being bossed” is designed to trivialize the importance of this kind of learning.

    Furthermore, you can’t compare purchasing things to going to movies. Purchasing things (whether it involves currency, barter, or tokens) is a basic, defining characteristic of civilization. Without it, the specialization of labor that civilization requires is utterly impossible. It’s popular among less-than-serious thinkers to decry the notion of purchasing as somehow coarse or crass. In fact, it’s as fundamental to the existence of civilized people as agriculture.

    So let’s get serious: Kids need to be taught that people besides them are in charge, and they need to know how money works.

    Furthermore, all this nonsense about “returning home” is counter productive — a mobile workforce is an essential feature of a robust economy. We need to encourage people to move to where things are better. After all, where would American science and culture be if all the Jews who fled here to escape European oppression headed home?

  37. My husband and I graduated from BYU in the early 70s. We received a pretty clear message at that time (from BYU and from Church leaders) that we were selfish if we wanted to return to our home communities, that what the world (and the Church) needed was an educated work force of men and women (mostly men) willing to go anywhere and move their families around. We were told that we would find our community in the Church wherever we were.
    Several of my children and their spouses have attended BYU in the past fifteen years, and they have received the same message. Not only have they been told to “go out into the world” and be mobile, but they have been taught (at BYU, not in our home) that if they did, they would be financially blessed and get to be the bosses.
    Ironically (and fortunately for their parents and community), with the exception of the one who is still in graduate school, they have all come home, they all work in pretty egalitarian workplaces, and they are ever so much happier that we ever were at the same age.

  38. I do remember a conversation I had with the U of U chairman of the EE department when I was interviewing job applicants at the U. He was very disconcerted by the legislature’s requirements that education was too expensive to waste on non-job related subjects. In other words, a state school had the task of making replaceable cogs in the machine, to turn on economically viable products. This, it seemed to him and to me, as counterproductive to the overall goals of civilization

    There is a gap in this argument related to the role of public funding. The legislature provides public funding for higher education. However, it is not the only source of funding.

    Public higher education institutions can and do raise funds from private, voluntary sources. Such sources traditionally provide the majority of the resources for things that are primarily of cultural rather than economic value.

    The legislature’s preference to fund primarily things of economic value doesn’t stop a state institution from raising private funds for things of cultural value anymore than it prevents private institutions from doing such things.

  39. My husband and I graduated from BYU in the early 70s. We received a pretty clear message at that time (from BYU and from Church leaders) that we were selfish if we wanted to return to our home communities, that what the world (and the Church) needed was an educated work force of men and women (mostly men) willing to go anywhere and move their families around. We were told that we would find our community in the Church wherever we were.

    This message has been going on since at least the early 60s, from all accounts, and it’s driven by the goal of growing the Church (and an intrinsic belief in the Church that hometowns don’t matter in the eternal perspective).

    For me, there was never a question about going back to my home state. The Lord made it pretty clear where my wife were supposed to settle — not near our parents, but where he wanted us to settle. We’ve never been unhappy following the course of moving where the Lord wanted us (our parents might feel differently, but that wasn’t particularly part of the calculus).

    But even if I took the Lord out of it, I wasn’t ever going back home, because there was no economy and no growth.

  40. Peter LLC says:

    The legislature’s preference to fund primarily things of economic value doesn’t stop a state institution from raising private funds for things of cultural value anymore than it prevents private institutions from doing such things.

    True, but is funding from private sources sufficient, assured and predictable, even in times of, say, economic crisis? If you can find one organization that prefers voluntary contributions over a regular budget I’ll eat my hat and swallow the buckle whole.

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