An Open Letter to Wendell Berry (et al.)

Dear Mr. Berry,

Immersed in my third book of yours, having just watched your recent interview with Bill Moyers, I feel it is time you and I talked. Or at least that I should talk, then search for a way these words might reach your eyes.Berry

Before going further, I should clarify that yours are not the only eyes I hope this will find. Obviously, since I’m posting it to my blog, my intent is to broadcast these thoughts to a reasonably wide audience. More particularly, I hold out some hope that this post will also find its way to your friends Wes Jackson and Bill McKibben, as well as the moral philosopher Peter Singer.

(In addition to your The Unsettling of America, The Way of Ignorance, and Citizenship Papers, Jackson’s Becoming Native To This Place, McKibben’s Eaarth and Deep Economy, and Singer’s The Life You Can Save have informed my thoughts and contributed to my quandary—though I shouldn’t blame books for stirring me up. Indeed, isn’t that rather the point of stringing words together and releasing them into the wild, that they should find and affect people?)

I am also at least partially aware of the hubris of not only writing to such a prominent figure as yourself (and these other gentlemen), but dreaming of any sort of reply. However, I don’t know what else to do, and besides, modestly bold leaps such as this have, to some extent, characterized my career (if such a grand term might apply to my meanderings). Years ago I learned that if I let my ignorance prevent me from acting, or if I limited myself to so-called sensible undertakings, life would be far less interesting and meaningful.

All right then. My problem, in a word, is that I am stuck.

A career educator, seventeen years ago I discovered the Sudbury schooling model, which has transformed both my life and my work. This is not the place to delve into Sudbury in any detail, but suffice for now to say that its foundation rests on children’s innate curiosity and drive to learn, manifested as self-directed learning in mixed-age, democratically run communities. Sudbury is the most individualized and empowering form of education I’ve ever encountered. Having heard Sir Ken Robinson speak in his TED talks of a revolution that would take education from an industrial model to one that’s more agricultural, I believe Sudbury schooling fits this vision superbly.

However, as you likely appreciate quite well, visionary approaches often struggle to take hold in a culture still too mired in what you characterized in your essay “Two Minds” as the Rational perspective. When it comes to education, what passes for “reform” is, by and large, so many large-scale, top-down rearrangements of the existing pieces, rather than a rethinking of the whole enterprise from the ground up. Moreover, since 9/11 and, more recently, the economic collapse of the past five or six years, fear increasingly drives people’s thinking in education, as in other areas. Everyone recognizes that most schools aren’t working, and yet the bulk of proposals promote simply doing more of the same (more testing, longer school days and years).

Yet it’s not education reform that I want to focus on here, but rather a sort of meta-sustainability: the matter of how to promote sustainable living efforts so that they are themselves sustainable. I believe Sudbury schooling qualifies as such an effort, in that it respects individuals while simultaneously encouraging self-actualization, authenticity, and responsible community membership. Whatever the forum, I personally long to do whatever I can in the service of awakening people to an awareness of interdependence and an inclination toward compassion. For I believe our greatest challenge is not this or that particular policy or institution, but rather our habitual ways of regarding and treating our fellow creatures and this world we share.

So my question is, how do I go about this sort of work in a world where I require sufficient funds to afford such luxuries as eating and sleeping indoors?

I originally created this blog with the intention of discovering and sharing how one might go about living a life of passion while generating a modest, sustainable income. Unfortunately, nearly two years later I don’t feel much, if any, closer to an answer. The work I enjoy, that which best suits both my talents and my calling, often appears not to be valued by enough people to garner a living wage. But am I simply not looking in the right places? Am I not talking to the right people? Am I being selfish and holding too high a standard when I say that I do not want to waste my writing and editing abilities for causes that don’t seem worthy—which is to say, critical to the survival of all we hold dear?

On one level, I want to know how I can make enough money doing worthy work so that I can continue doing said work. For over half my adult life I have gone without things like savings, a home of my own and/or health insurance in order to keep pursuing my passion of demonstrating a more humane and effective education is not only possible, but is actually being done; that it’s well within our grasp to both honor who our children are now and prepare them for the world they will inherit. I’m not complaining or playing the martyr: I am willing to keep at this, to continue getting by on very little if I must.

But must I? How might I connect with the people and the opportunities that would make my calling more feasible? Whether or not I augment my Sudbury work with freelancing or part-time work for other causes, I cannot accept that I must take work that merely props up, for now, what is clearly an unsustainable status quo. Yet as a conventionally educated person who is relatively isolated from place and community, I am struggling to connect with and create the situations from which this impulse toward worthy work could spring.

Which brings me to my reason for writing you. Your wisdom and vision have inspired so many, and thus I am hoping against hope that you might see a path forward for me—at least enough of a map that I might choose a direction in which to move. Now that you (all of you, you inveterate idealists) have stirred me up, I’m hoping you’ll find yourself able and willing to help me figure out how to apply this energy in such a way as to make more of a difference with it.


Bruce L. Smith


Filed under My Quest

3 responses to “An Open Letter to Wendell Berry (et al.)

  1. Anne Sheridan

    Reading this (and I am not sure this is what you meant or if this is more reflective of my personal experience) I thought about how self-directed (Sudbury) education leads to existential crises. Now, most people think having a crisis is a bad thing, but I don’t, but I do feel that if I have the luxury of being able to engage in a variety of different activities (because I have enough money to meet basic needs) it is difficult to see the “path forward”. Not that it is a bad thing, and it is certainly preferable to following a path imposed by someone else, but our culture really isn’t good at showing us how to figure out our own way forward.
    I don’t have an answer of course – my own struggles revolve around whether I can be satisfied making a small contribution, knowing I helped make it possible for a bunch of kids to escape coercive schooling, or whether I really should be aiming for something bigger. On many days, I find the tension between the big and the small debilitating. Oh well.

  2. Anne, thanks for your comment. I hope all is better than well at Leeway Sudbury.

    Isn’t the Chinese character for “crisis” a combination of the characters for “danger” and “opportunity”? I can relate all too well to “the tension between the big and the small” and agree that for those us of who didn’t grow up at Sudbury schools, it can be especially difficult to chart a path forward. At least we have each other as allies in confusion and mindfulness. 🙂

  3. Pingback: Factory Farming, Factory Schools | Write Learning

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