In summer 2020, I reflected on reimagining higher education in light of Smith and Felch’s (2016) book, Teaching and Christian Imagination. Today, I want to build on that blog post by reflecting on another book, Wendell Berry and Higher Education: Cultivating Virtues of Place (Baker & Bilbro, 2017).
I was introduced to Wendell Berry by Dr. Baker during my senior year of undergraduate study at Spring Arbor University. The insights I gleaned from Berry’s essays, poems, and stories have stayed with me ever since. I read Wendell Berry and Higher Education shortly after it was published. In returning to the book five years later, I realize its themes are more timely and relevant than ever—especially the themes of storytelling, imagination, and love.
Telling the Right Stories in Higher Education
If you’ve been following our blog for a while, you know that I’m a big believer in the power of stories (see my post about why storytelling matters in teaching and instructional design). The stories we tell in higher education have the power to move students, faculty, and staff to action, both on campus and beyond. Baker and Bilbro (2017) assert that if we tell our stories right, we will provide students and our communities with visions of health and shalom [peace, wholeness, and well-being]. This vision of health and shalom not only guides and motivates us, but also provides us with the foundation of a well-rooted education (p. 42). Stories that provide visions of health and shalom provide a common standard for students, faculty, and staff when they ask, “What are the effects of my work? Does my work tend toward health?” and for students when they ask, “What is my education for?” (p. 42). Telling the right stories in higher education is both possible and necessary because these stories become “threads woven into the garment of our lives…” (p. 3).
As you reflect on telling the right stories higher education, whether as faculty or staff, ask yourself the following questions:
- What stories are we telling our students?
- Are these stories speaking to our students about health, contentedness, the goodness of human limits, and love?” (Baker & Bilbro, 2017, p. 3)
Telling the right stories that offer visions of health and shalom provides students, faculty, and staff with a richer imagination of the good (pp. 41-42).
Reimagining Higher Education
Stories that cast visions of health and shalom shape the imaginations and affections of students, faculty, and staff “so that rather than desiring upward mobility, they can imagine healthy, placed lives” (p. 1). Fraser (2020) concurs, observing that we are “imaginative and storytelling creatures at our core” (p. 93). Imagination shapes our understanding of the world because it “presents us with an opportunity that asks, ‘What if?’” and is “a vessel of possibility and hope” (p. 89). Those who serve, teach, and learn in higher education need to cultivate healthy, vibrant imaginations in order to create a rooted university (p. 40). After all, imagination is the foundation needed for us to come together, collaborate, and work toward “truly practical solutions; good work must be guided by an imagination that mediates between the particular and general, the internal and external” (p. 45). In the craziness and demands of higher education, it is difficult to set aside time to imagine innovative and creative possibilities and discover practical solutions to the challenges we face every day.
As you reflect on reimagining higher education, ask yourself the following questions:
- When was the last time I set aside time to imagine new possibilities or practical solutions for my curriculum or my department? When can I set aside time to do that again?
- Who can I imagine with in my own department or another department on campus?
- How can we bring two or more departments together to imagine new possibilities and/ or practical solutions to daily challenges we face?
In the end, imagination and stories are nothing without love.
Loving Each Other Genuinely in Higher Education
In his essay, Higher Education and Home Defense, Wendell Berry observes that education is “an enablement to serve…To educate is, literally, to ‘bring up,’ to bring [students] to a responsible maturity, to help them to be good caretakers of what they have been given, to help them to be charitable toward fellow creatures…” (as cited in Baker & Bilbro, 2017, p. 8). Baker and Bilbro concur, asserting that without love, education “lacks a healthy telos and is adrift in a sea of competing moral and amoral ends” (p. 167). When those in academia serve, teach, and learn together in love, asking the question “What do you need?” leads to an education in charity, which helps students, faculty, and staff organize knowledge differently and better enables them to serve the health of their places (pp. 9, 35). Genuine love not only serves, but also seeks “the good of another” and “aspires to understand and preserve the connections between members, because these connections lead to the health of the whole community” (p. 167).
As you reflect on loving others genuinely in higher education, ask yourself the following questions:
- How can I design curriculum and/or teach in a way that asks the question “What do you need?” and seeks the good of others?
- In what ways am I serving, or can I better serve, students, colleagues, and the community?
Historian William Cronon, asserts that “‘more than anything else, being an educated person means being able to see connections that allow one to make sense of the world and act within it in creative ways’” (as cited in Baker & Bilbro, 2017, p. 182). Cronon believes that an educated person exudes the following habits and qualities:
- They listen and hear.
- They read and they understand.
- They can talk with anyone.
- They can write clearly, persuasively, and movingly.
- They can solve a wide variety of puzzles and problems.
- They respect rigor not so much for its own sake, but as a way of seeking truth.
- They practice humility, tolerance, and self-criticism.
- They understand how to get things done in the world.
- They nurture and empower the people around them. (as cited in Baker & Bilbro, 2017, p. 182)
Baker and Bilbro believe change in higher education and academia is possible, and it begins with students, faculty, and staff telling the right stories “about rooted, contended lives; about the grateful, loving pursuit of wisdom; about people who sacrificed their private ambitions to serve the health of their local places” (p. 191). Telling the right stories allows students, faculty, and staff to imagine and cast visions for rootedness, health, and shalom.
Baker, J., & Bilbro, J. (2017). Wendell Berry and higher education: Cultivating virtues of place. University Press of Kentucky.
Fraser, B. P. (2020). Hide and seek: The sacred art of indirect communication. Cascade Books.