Education in the true sense, of course, is an enablement to serve-both the living human community in its natural household or neighborhood and the precious cultural possessions that the living community inherits or should inherit. To educate is, literally, to ‘bring up,’ to bring young people to a responsible maturity, to help them to be charitable toward fellow creatures. Such an education is obviously pleasant and useful to have; that a sizable number of humans should have it is probably also one of the necessities of human life in this world. And if this education is to be used well, it is obvious that it must be used some where; it must be used where one lives, where one intends to continue to live; it must be brought home.” –Wendell Berry, Higher Education and Home Defense, in Home Economics
Begin from the Hearth Stone
The idea of developing the seven liberal arts within myself has come about in a response to a need to correct imbalances within the development of my intellect and skill set. It has arisen as a keen need to create a greater sense of harmonious proportion within me, and from a desire to develop myself more fully as an individual. In doing so I can play on my strengths and use them to firm up my weaknesses. In a traditional classical education the idea was to create a well-rounded life. Immense personal satisfaction can be enjoyed by bringing forth the abilities that lie dormant within all of us. If doing this is in turn approached from a sense of making yourself more available to give back and be of service to the world, all the better. The planet is in need of individuals and groups of individuals who are engaged with the arts and sciences to help re-enchant the world. Pursuing this goal should not be looked at as a task separate from the rest of life. Often times in our divided world it does feel this way. These splits between work life, home life, hobbies, and other “extra-curricular” activities are part of what needs to be healed. The fine lines humans make between our pursuits do not exist as such in the greater world of nature, but are rather part of an ecological web. Personal development in the seven liberal arts or any other system can be approached first by centering them in the home economy. Home Economics is the foundation stone from which the seven liberal arts will emerge. The home also provides a reason to learn the seven liberal arts in the first place. They can be employed to defend this earth home, and to enrich the experience of life.
To learn the seven liberal arts it has become necessary to make them a part of my household budget.
An Ecological Budget
The thing about making a budget is you work to keep it balanced and out of the red. Just as the planet is a whole system built up out of finite resources, a person exists within a web of relationships, responsibilities, and resources. As humans our bodies are systems of cells and organs. The body lives in the system of a home, itself a made up of multiple people, whether a nuclear or blended and extended family. The family draws on resources and energy inputs from both near and abroad. In the contemporary American setting the majority of households act like leaches, sponging off the planet around them, while outputting little of value. The scales are out of balance. This can be redressed by relearning the traditional skills associated with husbandry and homemaking –or the more romantic appellation, hearthkeeping. We can began to produce things at home for own immediate benefit once again. When the household ecology is strong and bountiful enough we may find we even have a surplus to share, barter or sell within the circle of community. Homes that do so will become nodes of resilience, strong points in the web, patches that have been rebuilt and restored. A regenerative home will be able to help strengthen connections throughout the web of life.
The model of a regenerative household, based on ecological thinking and informed by the principles of permaculture or other systems-based natural philosophies is a microcosm for learning about the larger universe. The front door of a house opens inwards and outwards on the world. A comfortable home invites guests, but also from time to time requires departures, pilgrimages to learn in the greater collegium of the bioregion, country and world. On the return from the voyage the home is replenished by gifts, whether goods from abroad or the enrichment of a soul broadened by exposure to foreign lands and culture.
Yet I can think of no other place as neglected in these times as the home. It can be argued that a culture that embraces the pleasures and politics of place is reemerging, as much from dissatisfaction with the status quo as from the increasing ecological and economic necessity. They remain on the fringe and in the minority. That minority will expand as the pressures of survival in a crumbling American empire build, as jobs in the so-called service industry disappear (what service are fast food restaurants and big box stores doing except creating a populace afraid to use their own minds and hands?). At the same time there are still many people who believe in the myth of American progress and a national dream whose realization has depended on slavery, sweat shops, the exploitation of animals, non-renewable resources, and the desecration of life in general.
I don’t believe in the efficacy of mass movements, of protesting what the corporations and centralized government are doing wrong when we aren’t willing to change ourselves. They have their place as a tool among an engaged citizenship. Protest movements such as the recent Occupy hullaballoo fall flat when the so-called resistors of hegemony continue to embrace a lifestyle predicated on imperial tribute. They can do much better by taking visible steps to commit to the values they espouse. Furthermore a positive self-reliance has long been an American value. It has seen much neglect in our willingness to outsource jobs and tasks once done inside the comforting walls of a home. By reengaging the home economy, people can begin the process detaching our fangs from the bloating corpse of the Earth. Instead of living purely as predators, parasite and competitors, we can shift towards cultivating a personal strength that will then branch outwards to mutualism.
Any meaningful change must begin with ourselves in the place where we find ourselves now. This is why I am distrustful of the upward mobility encouraged by careerist universities and the businesses and corporations they cater to who would shuffle people around the country and across the planet in a way that discourages them from ever putting down roots. Rootlessness destroys the soil and leads to stem rot. When you don’t have a stake in the long term well-being of a plot of land, whether it be a house on a street in a neighborhood of a city, or a farm bounded by hedges, fences, and stone walls in a large watershed, it won’t hurt you personally to see a stand of trees chopped down to make room for another Walmart. It is upsetting to hear so many talented people leave a place to seek out real or imagined opportunities elsewhere. This has been referred to as “the great American brain drain” where the educated classes move from their places of origin to cities where jobs in the information economy exist, for the time being. When a person is unsettled they are more unwilling to make strong connections to people, because it is harder to drift away to the next place when heart strings have formed attachments. By contrast, when a person commits to living in one place for life they develop a sense of protection and identity that fuses with the land. From this they may be called to do work to heal imbalances and damage to the land and to do service work in family and community.
This negligent rootlessness is mirrored in the way people treat marriage and relationships. People, like places, become mere products. If they do not give a suitable return, or if our pleasure in them goes through a difficult phase, they are discarded. Products are replaceable. The unfortunate side effect is that we never develop the enduring love which can be built from working, living and being in a place with the people who are already there.
This is not to denigrate respectful travel and pilgrimage across the Earth, or to belittle the needful development of friendships in fields of interest where those who could learn and share much with each other are distant geographically. Rather it is to approach life and what we pursue in it from a home base, restored both in honor and in function.