By Tara M. Tuttle
Response to “Institutionalizing Agrarian Thought” by Leah Bayens
Doing activist work in an institution is tricky. Institutional practices can suppress activism in a variety of ways including discouraging dissent, depleting resources of time and energy, and distancing activists from the individuals directly affected by the very injustices they are trying to prevent. On the other hand, institutions sometimes support activism through providing funding, disseminating information, coordinating volunteer or paid labor, or hosting space for public dialogue. Social justice educators and activists working in institutions must navigate this confusing and often contradictory landscape.
The same afternoon I read Leah Bayens’s article on institutionalizing agrarian thought, I found myself grimacing at the evidence of callous disregard on the part of those responsible for the contaminated water in Flint, Michigan. Details are still emerging, but what has been revealed is that a disproportionately African-American and low-income community was poisoned when its water supply was switched to a corrosive source nearly two years ago. Though community outcry was immediate, government officials dismissed the claims of desperately frustrated residents horrified by the brown liquid pouring from their taps. Those residents would later learn that by using the water, which officials repeatedly reassured them was safe, they may have exposed their children and other loved ones to illness and disease resulting from exposure to lead. Though many of the facts remain concealed, government officials responsible for the switch were made aware of the problems many months ago. Unsurprisingly, most of these decision-makers did not reside in the affected community. They did not have to live with the problem in the same way Flint residents have had to live with it.
What is clear is that many members of the governmental institutions lacked affection in their oversight of Flint residents. Charged with protecting the public of Flint, its institutional leaders, in effect, chose to poison residents through economic negligence.
Bayens defines ecological agrarian education as “an affection-based curriculum.” Her label, of course, alludes to Wendell Berry’s discussion of affection in his 2012 Jefferson Lecture and other writings. Berry respects those who become invested in the places they live and contribute to their preservation. He says in the Jefferson Lecture, “it is in affection that we find the possibility of a neighborly, kind, and conserving economy.” Berry does not believe idealistically that neighbors are always kind to each other—sometimes they aren’t—but that neighbors share a stake in the community and its resources (for example, a water supply). Berry’s work consistently warns against the displacement of decision-making to entities beyond the community. Meanwhile, in Flint, displacement of the community seems to have been a deliberate goal of Michigan’s financial emergency policy. Michigan’s Public Act 72 actually prohibits former city employees from serving as emergency managers for their cities, a legal provision that makes it more likely that appointees will be individuals from outside those communities placed under financial emergency.
Beyond geographic neighborliness, Berry and Bayens also want to foster an enhanced sense of human-to-human and human-to-earth connection. They propose to ensure that even those who do not share a property border may take a neighborly, affectionate approach to environmental problem-solving. This is what the institutionalization of agrarian thought could help accomplish, and it is precisely what was missing in Flint.
We need leaders who appreciate the interconnectedness of environmental systems and human impact upon them. In their article on Wendell Berry’s “oikonomic alternative to neoliberalism,” Joseph Henderson and David Hursh assert that the creation of policy that is simultaneously ecologically and economically sound “would require a citizenry capable of understanding their place in the world at multiple levels, and education could facilitate such an understanding.”1
Could Michigan Governor Rick Snyder (R) have supported the decisions of the emergency manager responsible for Flint’s polluted water supply—the decision to switch from a safe water source to a polluted one—if he were exposed to agrarian values at some point during his path to higher education?
Optimistically, perhaps naively, I think he could not. Berry points out, “Power deals ‘efficiently’ with quantities that affection cannot recognize” because affection does not allow for the reduction of people to mere numbers or water to mere product.2 Officials switched the Flint water supply to save money, a myopic decision that has now yielded an estimated repair price of over a billion dollars, not to mention the inestimable human cost. In failing to look beyond the bottom line, Governor Snyder’s administration failed to protect and to serve the community of Flint. Using the buzzwords that might arise from an institutionalized, affection-based curriculum, the decisions of “boomers” like Governor Snyder made Flint untenable for the “stickers”; even some residents who still say they love the place now feel forced to leave as a matter of family survival.
Affection Isn’t Foolproof
In my horrified response to Flint’s water crisis, I feel tempted to bypass reservations about the potentially adverse effects of institutionalizing agrarian thought. There are too many benefits of bringing it into institutions—of higher education and otherwise. The promise of such a program is tremendous. Bayens’s goals for institutionalizing agrarianism prioritize the very values which have been missing among the officials responsible for the Flint lead contamination—not only affection for those affected but also comprehension of “the inseparable connections between disciplines,” the far-reaching benefits of “bolster[ing] local economic networks,” the need to promote “healthy and humane” conditions for workers and consumers, and the development of stronger connections between communities. Examples like Flint demonstrate the urgency with which these affection-based ideas must be spread.
However, Bayens is right to be mindful of the dilemmas of institutionalization. After all, affection isn’t foolproof. There is a long history of activists—who felt they were working towards what was best for oppressed groups—making decisions with far-reaching negative side effects. More generally, in an earlier article on The Whole Horse Project, “The Beauty of Education,” Beth Connors-Manke observes that “education can be used for many ends, including preservation of a status quo that destroys ecologies of the social and natural worlds.” After all, it isn’t as if Governor Snyder, Emergency Managers Darnell Earley and Ed Kurtz, and others possibly bearing responsibility for Flint’s poisoning are uneducated individuals. Governor Snyder earned both an MBA and a JD. Earley holds a Master of Public Administration. Kurtz not only completed a doctoral degree, he is the former president of Baker College, a system of 13 career colleges. But the “guiding principles” of that college system include language that refers to students as “customers” and proudly describes the college’s curriculum as “market-driven” and designed to “lead to employment and career advancement.”3 These capitalist values are encroaching upon even liberal arts colleges, though liberal arts colleges view education as a holistic, transformative endeavor designed to develop engaged citizens, not merely well-trained workers. When reduced to a consumer product, the means to a strictly personal end, the quality of education is altered and, some would say, contaminated.
What Bayens proposes by institutionalizing agrarian thought is that education can be put to the opposite use. Instead of preserving the status quo, it could upend it; instead of destroying ecologies, it could help sustain them. And why not? Cultivating affection leads us in the right direction. In his foreword to Advancing Social Justice, Larry D. Roper writes, “A new approach to social justice demands that we have affection for the learner, regardless of the degree to which the student’s attitudes or perspectives align with our own, as it is only from a place of affection that we can responsibly and humanely support students in the learning process.”4 Centralizing affection in the process of institutionalization is one strategy for guarding against what Bayens calls the “nullifying and constrictive power” of institutions.
We Already Exist
More broadly, many of us who work in institutions of higher education have aspirations of social transformation; we want our colleges and universities to foster liberatory practices and thought. Countless college mission statements echo Berry’s assertion that education should “enable citizens to live lives that are economically, politically, socially, and culturally responsible.”5 Numerous faculty across the country are frustrated by neoliberal policies constraining and diluting the integrity of liberal arts education. A community of educators committed to goals akin to Wendell Berry’s already exist on college campuses everywhere. Their goals partially overlap with the aims of various interdisciplinary programs offered on many campuses: honors programs, gender studies programs, ethnic studies programs, and critical race studies, not to mention the missions of religiously affiliated institutions led by Dominicans, Jesuits, Quakers, and others. People and institutions who prioritize values of affection are already in place. We are already there, fighting for institutional reform. Institutionalizing “the accomplishment of good work,” as Berry puts it, should not be so difficult.6
This sort of institutionalization provides benefits that far outnumber the risks. Bayens points out that institutions can help to establish practices and ideas shared by those with social justice goals. Social justice educators must, of course, be vigilantly self-aware of their membership in institutions. We should pair deliberate reflection with affection-driven analysis to avoid replication of the unjust, dehumanizing institutional practices we rightly fear. As I consider the poisoning of Flint, I am much more afraid of what will happen if we don’t.
Editor: Danny Mayer
Copyediting by Beth Connors-Manke
Featured Image: “Water Roulette” by Brian Connors Manke