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Farm, Not Factory

How our metaphors determine whether we nurture or exploit in our schools

In Poetic Diction, Owen Barfield wrote, “If we trace the meanings of a great many words – or those of the elements of which they are composed – about as far back as etymology can take us, we are at once made to realize that an overwhelming proportion, if not all, of them referred in earlier days to one of these two things – a solid, sensible object, or some animal (probably human) activity. Examples abound on every page of the dictionary.”

Language is metaphor and, therefore, metaphor informs and shapes existence. The metaphors we employ to describe a thing help reveal our understanding of the thing, or at least what we wish a thing to be. Our metaphors should be consistent with the nature of a thing, or we risk doing harm to the thing itself.

Viewing a school through the metaphor of a business or factory does harm to the school, not simply because the school is not a business or factory, but because businesses and factories are of a different nature. Students are not products, unless we do not attend to their nature. Parents are not customers, unless we fail to attend to their nature. Headmasters are not CEOs, unless we fail to attend to their nature.

Granted, there may be some similarities between these things – students eventually leave as a product leaves a factory, parents pay a school as a customer pays a business, and headmasters preside over budgets and meetings as a does a CEO – but they do not possess a high enough degree of similarity to be fitting metaphors. We should not forget that similarity and nature are not the same.

So, what metaphor is suitable for a school? In what do we find a high enough degree of similarity to reflect the nature of a school, or of education itself?

Some time back, I heard Andrew Kern note, “Classical education is an agrarian form of education. Modern education is industrial. The human body is made of the dirt of the ground; we can’t know ourselves apart from the garden. It’s simpler, more local, more focused on the rhythms and harmonies of nature and the soul. Someday, perhaps, we’ll be able to see it again. But in my view, classical education must work dialectically with farming to restore a mind that is bound to reality – and happy to be so bound, like a happy marriage or a successful farm.”

Agrarian metaphors more fully reflect the nature of education, indeed the nature of life itself. When God created Adam, He gave him a place (Genesis 2:5-8). After forming him from the ground, God gave the ground back to Adam. The garden was part of the man, an extension of him. The fall ensured that man would return to the ground, ensured that the ground would raise up thorns and thistles, resisting the man’s tending, but the task of cultivating and caring for the land remained. That is, man’s connect with the ground was changed, but not severed. Speaking of man’s education in agrarian terms, then, is fitting.

Speaking of education in industrial, manufacturing, or even business metaphors is akin to applying the methods of industry, manufacturing, and business to agriculture without regard to its nature. Wendell Berry’s essay, “The Unsettling of America,” offers some applicable thoughts here. He writes:

“Let me outline briefly as I can what seem to me the characteristics of these opposite kinds of mind. I conceive a strip-miner to be a model exploiter, and as a model nurturer I take the old-fashioned idea or ideal of a farmer. The exploiter is a specialist, an expert; the nurturer is not. The standard of the exploiter is efficiency; the standard of the nurturer is care. The exploiter’s goal is money, profit; the nurturer’s goal is health – his land’s health, his own, his family’s, his community’s, his country’s. Whereas the exploiter asks of a piece of land only how much and how quickly it can be made to produce, the nurturer asks a question that is much more complex and difficult: What is its carrying capacity? (That is: How much can be taken from it without diminishing it? What can it produce dependably for an indefinite time?) The exploiter wishes to earn as much as possible by as little work as possible; the nurturer expects, certainly, to have a decent living from his work, but his characteristic wish is to work as well as possible. The competence of the exploiter is in organization; that of the nurturer is in order – a human order, that is, that accommodates itself both to other order and to mystery. The exploiter typically serves an institution or organization; the nurturer serves land, household, community, place. The exploiter thinks in terms of numbers, quantities, ‘hard facts’; the nurturer in terms of character, condition, quality, kind.”

When we approach education as business, industry, or manufacturing, we act as (unintentionally and unwittingly, no doubt) exploiters rather than nurturers. We assess a school’s success by enrollment, not by the health of souls. We divide learning into pieces or specialities, not arts. We aim at numbers (dollars, test scores, donations) rather than care of the community. We ask how big our schools could get, not how big they should be.

Take note of the last two sentences from Berry, adapted for educators with Kern’s words in mind as well – “The modern-industrial educator typically serves an institution or organization; the classical educator serves student, household, community, place. The modern-industrial educator thinks in terms of numbers, quantities, ‘hard fact’; the classical educator in terms of character (virtue), condition, quality, kind.”

We must choose carefully the metaphors with which we think about education if we are to be true educators at all.

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