Work Within Reach

Many of my posts here are generated by things that Alan Jacobs has posted about. One reason for this is that he posts a lot (despite having resolved, many times, to quit) and another is that his blog doesn’t have a Comments section, so if I want to respond, I have to do so here.

There’s also something about the way Jacobs writes that prompts reflection. I think his great strength as a writer (and probably as a teacher) is his ability to pull together ideas from many different sources and put them side by side. As far as I can tell, this doesn’t require a photographic memory. He’s just a very careful reader. Here’s what a page looks like after he’s read it:

I always come away from a Jacobs post or book itching to read the authors he writes about. He truly does have a gift for presenting their ideas clearly.

In one recent post, Jacobs described his “great project”/”glorious endeavor” (somewhat tongue in cheek): a college Where the New Liberal Arts Meets the Old. One of his foundational courses would be the Care of Plants and Animals, an idea he cheerfully stole from Auden’s “daydream College for Bards.” Here’s Auden’s full description:

In my daydream College for Bards, the curriculum would be as follows:

(1) In addition to English, at least one ancient language, probably Greek or Hebrew, and two modern languages would be required.

(2) Thousands of lines of poetry in these languages would be learned by heart.

(3) The library would contain no books of literary criticism, and the only critical exercise required of students would be the writing of parodies.

(4) Courses in prosody, rhetoric and comparative philology would be required of all students, and every student would have to select three courses out of courses in mathematics, natural history, geology, meteorology, archaeology, mythology, liturgics, cooking.

(5) every student would be required to look after a domestic animal and cultivate a garden plot.

A poet has not only to educate himself as a poet, he has also to consider how he is going to earn his living. Ideally, he should have a job which does not in any way involve the manipulation of words. At one time, children training to become rabbis were also taught some skilled manual trade, and if only they knew their child was going to become a poet, the best thing parents could do would be to get him at an early age into some Craft Trades Union. Unfortunately, they cannot know this in advance, and, except in very rare cases, by the time he is twenty-one, the only nonliterary job for which a poet-to-be is qualified is unskilled manual labor. In earning his living, the average poet has to choose between being a translator, a teacher, a literary journalist or a writer of advertising copy and, of these, all but the first can be directly detrimental to his poetry, and even translation does not free him from leading a too exclusively literary life.

From Auden’s The Dyer’s Hand, an excellent book. I found this passage online here.

Number 5, which I put in bold, would also be a feature of Jacobs’ Cassiodorus College. I’m struck by this emphasis on gardening as a fundamental part of a good education, especially when paired with Wendell Berry’s essay on the dead-end worldview that is Global-Thinking. The only way to “make ecological good sense,” as he puts it, is to focus on what’s in front of you:

The right scale in work gives power to affection. When one works beyond the reach of one’s love for the place one is working in, and for the things and creatures one is working with and among, then destruction inevitably results. An adequate local culture, among other things, keeps work within the reach of love.

“Out of Your Car, Off Your Horse,” originally published in the Atlantic

Besides the connection to Good Work (a new zine that you should subscribe to), I think this passage is important because Berry and Auden both emphasize working with one’s hands on things that are literally within reach. What benefit does gardening have to education and building a culture? I could rope in Matthew Crawford and Robert Farrar Capon here, but I’m worried this post is getting too dense as it is, so I’ll summarize two ways that manual labor can educate a person:

  1. Using your hands makes you aware of your own limits, both physically and in terms of your ability. A bell pepper exists independently from you. It’s easy to forget that kind of thing when you spend all day in a classroom.
  2. Gardening and caring for animals makes you aware, in a palpable sense, of time. You can’t grow a tomato in an instant. If you did, it wouldn’t be a tomato. A yearling calf is a year old (roughly). Again, it’s easy to forget, when you sit around a table with other brainiacs, that good work can’t be accomplished in an instant.

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