Wednesday, 4 June 2014

The Agricultural Mind

Moya learning to scythe
'We grow down, and we need a long life to get on our feet... To plant a foot firmly on earth - that is the ultimate achievement, and a far later stage of growth than anything begun in your head.'

(James Hillman - 'The Soul's Code')

Many British Quakers seem to be suffering from over-exposure to an academic education that has undermined our capacity to engage usefully with the world. Modern educational institutions tend to reduce learning to a pre-packaged curriculum of information, theories and arguments, instead of an active process of reflection on experience. Too much of this ‘processed’ learning, just like too much processed food, can be bad for us.

Prolonged exposure to academic education leads to mental habits of abstraction that prioritise abstract concepts over lived reality. Any experience of reality that cannot be squeezed through the sieve of rational argument tends to be discarded as unacceptable to the over-educated mind. This leads many Friends to interpret the Quaker Way as a set of ethical principles rather than a religious path; editing out any religious experience and language that doesn't conform to narrow conceptions of rational discourse. Quakers are not alone in this condition of course. The habits of abstraction and rationalism are a common affliction of our whole culture. This idealist tendency has ancient roots in Greek philosophy, but it has been amplified by recent social and economic changes in British society.

Until recently, only a privileged minority of the British population received a prolonged academic education, while most people had to acquire the practical skills needed for agriculture and manufacturing. Over recent decades the UK economy has turned away from productive activity, to concentrate on the financial, service and retail sectors - what David Mitchell has called 'an economy based on lattes and ringtones'. Most of us are now educated according to an almost entirely academic curriculum. What we have lost in this process is not just a resilient national economy, but the physical, mental and spiritual capacities that are integral to skilled practical work.

Skilled trades such as farming or building require the exercise of a form of practical reasoning which is quite different to that taught by the academic curriculum. It is not just that skills such as growing, building and fixing are practically useful. They are also intellectually demanding in a very different way to abstract argument. Practical skills resist abstraction because they demand full engagement with the concrete realities of a particular place, materials and inhabitants. They require the kind of intellectual activity that Wendell Berry has called 'the agricultural mind':

'The agricultural mind is not at all impressed by the industrial legendary of gross national products, or of the numbers sold and dollars earned. It is interested – and forever fascinated – by questions leading toward the accomplishment of good work: What is the best location for a particular building or fence? What is the best way to plow this field? Should this tree be cut or spared? Questions which cannot be answered in the abstract and which yearn not towards quantity but towards elegance. And though this mind is local, it is not provincial; it is too taken up by its work to feel inferior to any other mind in any other place.'

(Wendell Berry, ‘The whole horse: the preservation of the agrarian mind’)

I grew up as a fairly typical member of what Rob Hopkins has called 'the most useless generation to ever walk the planet'. I managed to complete 18 years of full-time education without knowing how to fix a machine, maintain a house, build a bookshelf, grow food, or do anything much apart from read books and write essays. Learning to become an organic grower over the last two years has given me an entirely new appreciation of the value and importance of practical skills ('know-how') compared to abstract knowledge ('know-about'). When I decided to change my occupation I followed the standard middle-class route to learning by doing a course of academic study in Organic Farming. Although I learned much interesting information through this curriculum, it did little to help me acquire the skills needed for actual work, or for a full understanding of what I was seeing and doing on the land.

The essential aspect of education that was missing from academic study was observing and imitating the skilled practice of more experienced growers. I quickly discovered that the know-how required to make a good judgement about pruning a tree or ploughing a field cannot be acquired simply by following rules or applying principles. These judgements do require knowledge about processes such as tree growth habits and soil structure, but this knowledge cannot simply be 'applied' by translating it from a textbook. We first have to learn how to 'see' what is in front of us, how to interpret it, and how to judge what is most relevant. The only effective way to do this is by working alongside a skilled colleague until we begin to see through their eyes, and then to practice learning from our own mistakes.

This contextual learning has parallels with the way that we practice ethical judgements and spiritual discernment. Abstract principles cannot offer us a guide to how to live and respond to real-life challenges. For this we need practical judgement of a similar kind to that required by skilled work. We need to be able to 'see' our situation in all the complexity of its specific context; to recognise its most important features and tendencies. This kind of judgement cannot be learned in the abstract from a book. There is no substitute to learning from each other, ideally in a community which constantly tries to practice discernment and in which we share our experiences and mistakes. This is also why mentors and spiritual friends have played such an important role for many of us. A spiritual accompanier or mentor does not tell us what to do, but helps us to see the reality of our situation with the eyes of experience, enabling us to discern for ourselves how we are being led to respond to this concrete situation. Books, discussion and academic study can all enrich our thinking and broaden our perspectives, but the business of living is finally a practical occupation. It requires skills of judgement that are far closer to the work of making, growing and fixing than the abstract theorising for which our academic education has largely equipped us.

I am interested to hear from others about your experience of education and work. How have you acquired the skills needed for life and work? Have you been 'mentored' by someone who has helped you to see with the eyes of experience?


  1. Engineers! I think myself fortunate to be the daughter of an engineer and the wife of one. My father was of very philosophical bent, but strove all his life to blend his understanding of the material world with this. I inherited a great respect for things and the way machines work, and the beauty of physics. Our culure undervalues engineers.

    1. Thanks Susie, I am sure you are right. Engineering was once a prestigious occupation, and perhaps it will become so again, if we rediscover the importance of making things that serve real needs.
      In Friendship,

  2. I am the son of a journeyman maintenance fitter (apprenticeship served in the Glasgow shipyards), and my brother is a journeyman maintenance fitter - who served one of the last 'proper' apprenticeships offered in this country, in the 1970s. I have the same genes.
    I was the first person in my family to go to university, and everyone thought that an academic education was superior. It is not, as Craig has discovered. But in the Scottish equivalent of the sixth form, our new enlightened headmaster offered those of us who didn't like games the chance to do woodwork and metalwork - our school was a 'country grammar' so all levels of education were offered. Our elderly skilled teacher enjoyed having a small class of motivated pupils. I took to the class like a duck to water. I made a wooden box for the hi-fi amplifier which I made at home from individual components. I still have it.
    My university degree got me into computer programming, but the content of the degree, even though it was applied mathematics and computer science, being academic, was ignored. Software Engineering is highly practical and I forged a career as essentially a software maintenance engineer, applying exactly the same skills as my father and brother. But it lacks physical engagement, and I always needed to get into the workshop to compensate.
    It is this down-to-earth practical problem solving mindset that attracted me to Quakers - theological dogma and doctrine in other churches left me cold. Quakers have been said to practice 'practical mysticism', but 'mysticism' is a slippery word, and it seems to me that many Quakers are using the word to refer to some other world, the awareness of which is found in silent contemplation, in the hermit's cave, on the mountain top, but certainly not in the soil and the workshop with their dirt and hard edges.
    I agree with Evelyn Underhill's definition ( 'Mysticism is the art of union with Reality' – but there is only one reality, and it is the one we are in, but usually perceive 'through a glass, darkly'.
    The person with an 'agricultural mind' (or the mind of the craftsperson, for it is found no less in the forge and factory workshop) knows this mysticism instinctively.

    1. Thank you for this Gordon, which is so eloquently expressed. I would love to see some of the things you have made some time too.
      In Friendship,

  3. My Dad was a Baker and a Handyman. We had a well-tooled shed. I knew the difference between a screwdriver and a bradawl by the age of five. My education was arts, science and a little sport. Only when I became apprenticed to a Blacksmith aged 29 did I gain any craft / practical experience of materials and tools as an adult. Books are great, but the stuff we need isn't in them. Are Quakers in danger of living for the (recorded) minute rather than the moment?

  4. This cropped up on Facebook today


"When words are strange or disturbing to you, try to sense where they come from and what has nourished the lives of others. Listen patiently and seek the truth which other people's opinions may contain for you. Avoid hurtful criticism and provocative language. Do not allow the strength of your convictions to betray you into making statements or allegations that are unfair or untrue. Think it possible that you may be mistaken."
(From Quaker Advices and Queries 17)