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.


The Road and the Wheel

I have said many times that if you read Wendell Berry’s essays, substituting “education” every time you read “farming” you will have a great deal to consider about teaching well.  That being repeated again, I have been working through his essay, “Discipline and Hope” doing just such.  One major section of this long essay is entitled, “The Road and the Wheel,”  in which he examines the differences inherent in a linear view of life and a cyclical one.  I think there is much here worthy of thinking about on this blog.  So I am taking a chart of his on the two views and dividing it up into a series of posts over the next several weeks.  Jump right in with comments.

First, let’s get his basic points out there:

He sees there being two fundamental ways of looking at the nature of human life and experience — The Road and the Wheel.

  • The Road – this is the idea of progress.  The linear vision looks fixedly straight ahead.  It believes in discarding old experience as it encounters new ones. Quantity depresses quality, and thus we arrive at waste and disposability.  Its constant hunger is for better, now, without concern for past or future.
  • The Wheel – this is a much older view that includes death in the mix with birth and life.  What is here will leave to come again; in getting there must be a giving up.  This holds on to what is known even while adding to it what is learned, in hopes of passing it on to those who come after.

This basic comparison yields up a great number of specific contrasts.  I will blog on each of these in coming days.  For now, consider these two basic views in light of how we currently educate and how we have educated in the past.