Learning about Life from Wendell Berry

Meant to be. Supposed to be. Ought to be.

In the culture of whatever, those are contentious words. Sometimes and some places they are fighting words. “How would you possibly know? No one knows. And anyone who thinks they do is arrogant, even malicious.”

Twice a year I teach a semester-long course for post-graduate students who come to Washington for a year, two groups of 12 men and women who almost always want to learn about things that matter. In a word, the year is about the meaning of vocation, and after many years of teaching, I believe even more deeply in the richness of its curricular vision.


For the last two weeks the social ecology of Wendell Berry has been the subject of my teaching; I ask the students to read a book a week, graduate seminar-like, and write a paper to be read aloud for common conversation.

A week ago we took up Berry’s “That Distant Land,” 25 or so short stories about the Port William “membership,” a life together in and around a small town on the banks of the Kentucky River. In their different ways the stories are each a window into the glory and the ruin of the human heart. The most remarkable, unexplainable kindness and honor and generosity, and the worst sort of indifference and malice and selfishness— all mixed up together, in your heart and mine.

Because of course, that is the gift of a good story– we see ourselves in it. We recognize the characters because they are like us, able to do good and able to do bad at the same time. But that is where the words “meant” and “supposed” and “ought” become problematic. Whose to say what is good and bad? A supposedly moral majority? Perhaps we protest loudly, “Good is just a social construction.” Or maybe it is only me and mine, because justice is only and ever “just us”?

I offer them Berry as a way into this conversation about complex things. I want them to read and reflect, addressing Walker Percy’s argument that “Bad books lie. They lie most of all about the human condition.” What do you see in Berry’s fiction that gives you eyes to see more clearly into the human condition? That is my question.

I wish that I could give you their papers, and that an honest conversation could be had by people far and wide. Sons of Adam and daughters of Eve that we are, most of the time we just “know” when we’ve met a scoundrel, or when we’ve seen amazing grace made flesh. The windows that Berry opens into that reality is a gift, requiring the honest reader to account for both true good and true evil.

Pressing the point, I ask another question: what are the conditions for human flourishing? That is another way into these weeks together, listening and learning as we are to this Kentucky farmer and father, husband to his wife and husbander of his land, the one that serious critics call “the most serious essayist in America today.” To press the point, this week I had them read Berry’s essay, “Two Economies,” in which he makes the argument that there are always two economies at work. Lesser economies and a Greater Economy, the former being the economy of a small town or a large city, of a small business or a global corporation, of a state or of a nation; and the latter being the way things are, whether we like them that way, or want them that way, or prefer them that way. The “Greater Economy” is one we don’t get to choose, because it is reality, the way the world really is.

Twined in and through these two weeks are other lenses: the 75-year Harvard University study on men, and what matters most for human happiness; Pixar’s “Cars” film, and the slow realization of Lightening McQueen that people and place are critically important, even and especially for cars; and my work with the Mars Corporation and its Economics of Mutuality, a serious effort to rethink the global marketplace, believing that a more complex bottom line accounting for people and planet, as well as profit, is crucial for a company that wants to make money into the future.

Simply said, I want my students to wrestle with the hardest questions. Is anything “meant” to be? Can we really know if anything is “supposed” to be? Can we honestly say that something “ought” to be? I want them to see that human beings as human beings are always using these words; we cannot not. There is something about the world itself that requires it.

IMG_0283At the end of the day, “whatever” isn’t a very good answer to anything that we really care about. We know a good book, and a bad one. Like we know good marriages, and bad ones. Like we know good farms, and bad ones… good towns, and bad ones… good businesses, and bad ones… good governments, and bad ones… good schools, and bad ones.

Written into our very bones, we know, we just know.

(After the first class on Berry, I took one of the Fellows for lunch, and we enjoyed our Elevation Burgers, signposts as they are of eating as it is meant to be.)

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