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A Very Contrary Berry

A sparkling gem of a quotation mined from Wendell Berry's fantastic The Unsettling America, which offers innumerable other nuggets of brilliance to be mined (or perhaps, to choose a metaphor more to his liking, kernels of brilliance to be gleaned):

"The first, and best known, hazard of the specialist system is that it produces specialists--people who are elaborately and expensively trained to do one thing. We get into absurdity very quickly here. There are, for instance, educators who have nothing to teach, communicators who have nothing to say, medical doctors skilled at expensive cures for diseases that they have no skill, and no interest, in preventing. More common, and more damaging, are the inventors, manufacturers, and salesmen of devices who have no concern for the possible effects of those devices. Specialization is thus seen to be a way of institutionalizing, justifying, and paying highly for a calamitous disintegration and scattering-out of the various functions of character, workmanship, care, conscience, responsibility....

"The beneficiary of this regime of specialists ought to be the happiest of mortals--or so we are expected to believe. All of his vital concerns are in the hands of certified experts. He is a certified expert himself and as such he earns more money in a year than all his great-grandparents put together. Between stints at his job he has nothing to do but mow his lawn with a sit-down lawn mower, or watch other certified experts on television. At suppertime he may eat a tray of ready-prepared food, which he and his wife (also a certified expert) procure at a cost only of money, transportation, and the pushing of a button. For a few minutes between supper and sleep he may catch a glimpse of his children, who since breakfast have been in the care of education experts, basketball or marching-band experts, or perhaps legal experts.

"The fact is, however, that this is probably the most unhappy average citizen in the history of the world. He has not the power to provide himself with anything but money, and his money is inflating like a balloon and drifting away, subject to historical circumstances and the power of other people. From morning to night he does not touch anything that he has produced himself, in which he can take pride. For all his leisure and recreation, he feels bad, he looks bad, he is overweight, his health is poor. His air, water, and food are all known to contain poisons. There is a fair chance that he will die of suffocation. He suspects that his love life is not as fulfilling as other people's. He wishes he had been born sooner, or later. he does not know why his children are the way they are. He does not understand what they say. He does not care much and does not know why he does not care. He does not know what his wife wants or what he wants. Certain advertisements and pictures in magazines make him suspect that he is basically unattractive. He feels that all his possessions are under threat of pillage. He does not know what he would do if he lost his job, if the economy failed, if the utility companies failed, if the police went on strike, if the truckers went on strike, if his wife left him, if his children ran away, if he should be found to be incurably ill. And for these anxieties, of course, he consults certified experts, who in turn consult certified experts about their anxieties."


Hah! Actually, this sort of thing struck me today as I was visiting my sister, who just recently gave birth. She was saying that earlier they had trouble getting the baby to breast feed properly, and it took a couple of nurses (plus my mom) to get everything going--which left my brother-in-law and I thinking, "People have been having babies since time immemorial--shouldn't we be able to figure this out without a small army of highly trained specialists?" So it was a really striking example of how specialization renders things that should be utterly familiar and natural and commonplace--like nursing a newborn--completely alien and weird.

(Also, a related thought: I was learning a bit about how breastfeeding works, and how at different stages in the baby's development the milk contains different nutrients and so forth, and just sort of marveling at the machinery of it all. And then I thought: my god, how could any woman ever want to get plastic surgery that would tamper with that? Don't they realize that breasts actually have an important function--to provide food to the child?

I guess I never quite considered that specialization--and the compartmentalization that comes with it--could be the cause of so many pathologies of modern living. You can have a woman so isolated and unfamiliar with the pattern of human reproduction that she would consider her breasts solely as sexual objects, and not also as baby-feeding objects. And the same dynamic seems to be at work with other moral failures, such as with war, the treatment of farm animals, etc. Specialization undermines our basic ability to empathize and make good moral judgments, it paradoxically though we're in an era of unprecedented amounts of human knowledge, we also might be entering into a sort of dark age of moral knowledge, due to our massive ignorance of the world outside of our specialty and the specialists who interface with us..)

November 23, 2009 at 6:27 AM  

Very good observations. I've had a lot of the same brought home to me over the past few months as my wife has cared for our newborn son. Here we are having to watch nursing instructional videos and read all these books to learn very common-sense things about how what the mom eats will affect the baby. Living in the information age doesn't make us more knowledgeable--it only means we have to rely on "information" as a substitute for the hard-earned knowledge of generations that we have despised.

November 24, 2009 at 12:47 PM  

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