Just a few more on the Road and Wheel before I move on…

I think I have probably about worn this wheel down into the road.  But Berry had two more ways of comparing these views and so I will treat each rather quickly in this post.

First, there is the “Road’s” desire for the new, the unique, and the original.  What’s behind is gone.  What is new is cool, interesting, and engaging.  There is no time for the past.  Everything is in the future.  The “Wheel” thinking person looks ahead as well, but by looking back he better sees the future, and in that future he sees renewal, the recurring.  In education, this has had severe consequences on both sides.  The Road path has led educrats to seek a new technique, new material, new ways of learning around every curve.  Meanwhile, the wheel thinkers have sought to renew the old in new ways.  Man is basically the same, so the same things must be taught, learned, and loved.  But the old idea fit to the new day is basically the same.  The Road cannot tell if it is the same or different: it only cares that it is new.  And then Quohelet’s phrase, “There is nothing new under the sun” comes thundering in and those on the Road have to hold their ears.


Second, and finally in this long list of comparisons, The Road seeks only life.  The here and now, this life, my life, is all that is considered.  But the Wheel must consider both life and death.  This is not it.  There is more than just this life.  There is the life before and after mine.  There is for some a life beyond this life (by some I simply mean that some people believe in life hereafter, others do not – as a Christian I certainly believe in such).  I believe that for both WB and myself this is the summary comparison.  Mention the end of the road to those on the Road and they grow nervous, perhaps even angry.  Why bring that up?  But mention death in the context of life to one viewing things with the Wheel and you get quite a different reaction: one of peace, unity, harmony, understanding, perhaps even joy.  And you can’t teach from either point of view without causing the same reactions in your students as you would have.  So for the Road, youth, long life, health, etc. are key ideas.  For the Wheel, it can include such considerations as how to die well, how to pass on things beyond our own life.  We can plant trees, invest in the millennium, and the like.  I think WB’s poem is the best way to end this extended meditation of the Road and Wheel:

Ask the questions that have no answers.
Invest in the millennium. Plant sequoias.
Say that your main crop is the forest
that you did not plant,
that you will not live to harvest.
Say that the leaves are harvested
when they have rotted into the mold.
Call that profit. Prophesy such returns.

(from Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front” from The Country of Marriage, copyright © 1973 by Wendell Berry)

Algebra in Real Life

Facebook may be a nuisance, often trite, a waste of my time, and several other negative things, but it can make me thoughtful.  Especially these meme things.  You know what I am talking about?  The graphic with the text superimposed over it, usually witty or wittywannabe in nature.  It is the social media form of the bumper sticker.  And these things can go “viral” with ease, because they are so easy to agree or disagree with.

So one has come across my path at least twice now.  It’s text says some variation of “Another day I have lived without using Algebra.”  And gets liked and shared and commented upon a lot.  Allow me a few lines to first seek to understand what is behind it, and then comment on why I disagree with what I think it is trying to say.  All of this will eventually wind up at Wendell Berry’s Road and Wheel analogy again, this time to look at the two ways of “gaining” from learning: Possession v. Usufruct.

algebra dis

So first there is the meme.  It seems rooted in a frustration born out of a common misconception that is itself the product of taking a good thing too far.  I will see if I can reconstruct this argument chain:

  1. Man, even prior to the Fall, is a being made to “do.”  He was placed in a garden and was to tend that garden.
  2. The garden became work at the Curse immediately following the Fall.  Now there was sweat, but there was still “gain” from work – we now eat when we earn the necessary means to do so through the “sweat of our brow.”
  3. As we went through the Medieval period, work became a measure of manliness.  If real men honor God by their labor, then our labor is a measure of our faithfulness, our manliness, our godliness if you will.
  4. As God was erased from the picture, work remained.  Remember, it’s part of the Fall, it is now worked into the nature of our existence here.  We cannot escape it.
  5. So, instead, we ran with it.  If work could produce gain, and gain provided the means to not just survive, but even “move ahead” and find happiness through less laborious work, say using our saved money, our capital, to employ others to do for us, while we did things more enjoyable, then work was even more the measure of our abilities, our cunning, our clever use of the talents we had.
  6. But to be a good worker, one must know not only how to work, but how to do so well.  In fact, if by education you could gain an advantage in the work place, you would be a greater success than others.
  7. So now education was brought into a measure of work.  To the extent that our study made us more able to “get ahead” it was good.  Study for other reasons got in the way of the trump card: profit.  This is the lie that affects all that comes after.  Study in school must reveal itself as obviously and clearly profitable, or it is worthy of scorn and ultimately of being ignored.  Such studies are seen as superstitious relics of past curriculum that did not have as efficient and practical thinking at their core.
  8. So now we can get to Algebra (and you can insert any subject here, but Algebra I think is used because math in particular has fallen prey to the lie in spades).   If I don’t use something I learned in school, almost daily, then I wasted my time on it.  And that I believe is the soul of the meme we started with.

Wendell Berry in his extended discussion of the Road and the Wheel, which I have blogging on lo these past many blogs, compares the two views of life in this regard (among many): Possession vs. Usufruct.  Yes, I had to look usufruct up: literally, “the legal right to use and enjoy the advantages or profits of another person’s property” but often used to mean the understanding that what I “have” has been inherited, and will be passed on. That is why Berry also uses the term ” relinquishment” for it as well.  The life lived on the “road” seeks to gain and then hold on to or possess (picture a tightly gripped money bag) while life lived in the wheel acknowledges his debt to the generation preceding and seeks to pass on even more than he received from them to the ones coming after.

So with Algebra, the road walker would seek to find in Algebra that which will add to his own gain, that which will make the “walk” easier and more profitable to him.  The subject of Algebra is not his concern, but rather the gain or benefit to be derived from its study.  The wheel rider however will come to the same study with a much different desire.  There is something in this knowledge which helps me live in this world, as it did for my predecessors and will also do for my progeny.  So how can I honor nature and my family by learning these things in a way that makes me more wise?

The person who does not use Algebra every day never learned to see it rightly.  We live in a world of things, and therefore we need to relate those things to one another rightly.  This is the heart of any study of number.  Algebra, perhaps one of the greatest gifts the Muslim culture has brought to us, can in part help us think more clearly and more orderly about the world in which we live.  So either you used Algebra today and did not realize it; or you did not think today.

What is Heaven?

One of the great contrasts that Wendell Berry makes between “the Road” and “the Wheel” views of life is that of what constitutes “heaven” for each.  I think he is working off the differences between a classic Christian sacramental view of this world and the next, and the commonly held heresy of Gnosticism, found throughout much of modern Christendom.  If I seek heaven through the Road analogy, I am seeking to leave this world for the next.  I am seeking to get “there” by consuming “here” in order to get “there.”  This view sees creation as commodity.  We have been given this world so that we might get to the next world.  This frequently results in seeing the present material world as a barrier to the next.  Matter is seen as evil.  Enlightenment is found in escaping this world for the next.

But the orthodox understanding of creation has not agreed with this view throughout Christian history.  It has asserted that there is a coming Reconciliation of heaven and earth in aspiration toward responsible life. The creation as source and end.  The order found in this life (albeit broken by the Fall) is being redeemed by the Gospel and the next life is the recovery of our former life in Eden.  This world is a down payment on the next, and as such demands our affection, our proper consideration of it as such.

And all this has much to do with education.  Too much of our modern focus on education has been trying to get students from “here” to “there” and not rather helping them become here what they should be both here and there.  The ideas already developed of what has come before and what shall come after we depart “the here and now” become even more pointed when we understand that the major goal of education is form a responsible creature.  We are to point students toward who they are by showing them from where they have come and to where they are going, and if we get the destination improperly defined, we lose much of the battle.

So how we view heaven determines how we teach our children.  Let’s think carefully about such.

Bound for the Promised Land?

I just finished a rather long and delightfully enlightening read of Diane Ravitch’s Left Back. A history of the educational debates of the 20th century, it really helped me see the differences between the progressive and the classicist or traditionalist. While those in my league, the traditionalists, lost the debate early on (by 1915 it was over), the debate still carries on. And this reading coalesced with my desire to treat the next comparison Berry gives in his Road and Wheel analogy.

He seeks to show the difference as being exemplified in part through a comparison of motifs: On the side of the Progressive (Road) view, there is “The Promised Land” motif in the great Westward Movement of America. Contrasting that view is his use of the native American Black Elk’s sacred hoop motif.


In the “Promised Land” view, we are moving forward, to that which is better. Ultimately there is a utopia we are seeking. This Utopian view steers much of the philosophical and practical energies of the majority of the educational debates. What is old, what is past is by chronological necessity “bad.” It must be new to be true. The idea that what is best is out there somewhere, and all that has gone before is only a falling short of the real knowledge that if we just seek it we can find someday compels this view forward to the next new idea. The cynicism and snobbish condescension that such a view engenders toward the past is easy to see. As Berry has been seeking to say all along with this extended metaphor, the Road leads from A to B with no backward glance or gratitude for what has come before, nor really any hope past B (i.e. our death).

Black Elk’s view of the hoop or wheel is quite different. We are cast as members of an ongoing community with much gained from those who have come before us and all of our concern being focused on what will be left by us for the future members of this community. It is rooted in place and revels in proven practice. It holds to the ideal that what is best is past on, what is unworthy of keeping is thrown aside. And it believes that much more is worth passing forward than falling on the trash heap. I know I am saying the same thing over and over. I believe deeply that as we learn to revolve around these ideas our appetites will change, and in the end, that is the source of changing something permanently. Our current appetites are not sustainable. The Wheel is a better version of appetite than that of the Road.