In “The Whole Horse,” an essay in his book Citizenship Papers, Wendell Berry writes, “One of the primary results—and one of the primary needs—of industrialism is the separation of people and places and products from their histories. To the extent that we participate in the industrial economy, we do not know the histories of our meals or of our habits or of our families.”
If you’ve never heard of Wendell Berry, he’s one of the few public intellectuals of the last fifty years who has genuinely lived his commitment to the land and to public engagement. For us, he has been a model of principled resistance to the destructive forces of late-market capitalism and its culture.
Berry is also a dedicated writer who articulates cultural and economic trends in ways that are preservative: he keeps alive histories and hopes that otherwise may have been lost. In fact, sustaining histories and hope is part of his argument for an agrarian mindset in “The Whole Horse”:
Because a mind so placed meets again and again the necessity for work to be good, the agrarian mind is less interested in abstract quantities than in particular qualities. It feels threatened and sickened when it hears people and creatures and places spoken of as labor, management, capital, and raw material…. It is interested—and forever fascinated—by questions leading toward the accomplishment of good work…. questions which cannot be answered in the abstract, and which yearn not toward quantity but toward elegance…. It prefers the Creation itself to the powers and quantities to which it can be reduced.
In other words, this mindset insists that a horse be considered as a whole horse, not the sum of abstracted parts. This mindset, we think, would also insist that education be seen as an enterprise that cultivates a student’s potential as it arises from family history, from the economics and culture of that student’s neighborhood, and from the stewardship of the land on which that student was raised. This mindset, as we practice it, would also insist that politics and culture remember histories—especially difficult ones—rather than erase them. This mindset would insist: Start where you are—get rooted there—find the good work. And then “[look] for reasons to keep on.”
The Work & The Process
We believe, like Berry, that the good work includes hands-in-the-soil, feet-on-the-street, and words-on-the-page (or the blog, as it were). As for words-on-the-page, The Whole Horse Project is an editorial collective whose mission is intellectual engagement with pressing public issues. What is an editorial collective, you may ask? It may be best defined by describing our process.
Our grounding is in the values Berry espouses, but our project finds its form, in part, by the common ground that we share. We are a group of academics (and friends) living in the near South and Northeast who attended graduate school together. For the better part of the 2000s, we read and responded to each others’ writing, and we collectively learned how to teach by reading each others’ syllabi and responding to them, in person, over e-mail, and in essays of our own. The Whole Horse Project is an occasion for us to rekindle a community of deliberate, essayistic dialogue.
As often as possible we will publish an essay, article, or argument that will be accompanied by a response. Before each article is published, the author and a staff editor discuss and revise the piece. Then, a respondent uses the original piece as a seed leaf for new ideas or dialogue. We hope this dialectical structure will foster civil, thoughtful, and perhaps risky discussions about issues of public concern. What begins as an author’s conversation with him- or herself develops into a conversation between two people, then three, and hopefully more as each piece is shared.