catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 10, Num 9 :: 2011.05.06 — 2011.05.19


Reframing brain drain

A couple of years ago, I heard a paper presentation by a professor who teaches a course on intentional communities.  Among the learning outcomes for the class, which visited a local intentional community several times throughout the semester, was developing the skill of having a conversation while washing dishes.  “Yes,” I thought.  “Exactly.  That’s a very useful skill that college students ought to be learning.”

In fact, learning to have a conversation while washing the dishes, along with who washes the dishes when, was one of the most important skills I learned in college.  It was never just about keeping the moldy clutter off the counter, but about keeping the peace of the household and serving each other well.  And now, my husband and I find ourselves on the cusp of an adventure to cultivate an internship program and eventually an off-campus college program in our small rural town that will turn on such advanced skills as walking.  And serving a cup of hot coffee.  And making up a bedroom for a guest.  And listening with full attention when someone is speaking to you, even if the words are incoherent.

It’s not that we think our young friends will come to us completely unaware of how to conduct basic human interactions.  However, we know from experience that the “higher” education we pay for tends to teach us how to study and write and compute, while the free perks that squeeze themselves into the cracks between assignments teach us just as much, if not more, about how to be human.  We hope that teaching such skills intentionally will make us better housemates, but more than that, better lovers of others, and of God, too.

I have to admit that we’ve described one of the benefits of locating our program in our small town as an effort to resist the pull of brain drain, so common to rural areas all over the world.  But in reconsidering what we’re really hoping to teach, I’ve realized that brain drain is at best inaccurate, and at worst, insulting.  In fact, people who have never been to college (or even finished high school) have a lot to teach.  I don’t want to romanticize a lack of formal education, as if some pure innocence survives in the absence of classroom discipline, but I also don’t want to fall into the elitist trap of privileging expensive knowledge over the folkways that get passed down for free by living side by side.

It’s no surprise that Wendell Berry has something to say about all of this.  In his 1983 essay “Higher Education and Home Defense,” Berry tells the tale of attending a community meeting about a local nuclear power plant and witnessing the tension between the objectives of deeply rooted locals and highly educated experts.  The education the experts had purchased for themselves had trained them in the ways of abstract probabilities and resource capacities, but not in the ways of love or home.  “Unlike life at home, which makes ever more particular and precious the places and creatures of this world,” Berry writes, “the careerist’s life generalizes the world, reducing its abundant and comely diversity to ‘raw material.’”  The trend of educated young people leaving the communities where they grew up isn’t so much a matter of brain drain, but of heart drain — or rather malformed hearts set in the mass-produced mold of an acquisitive drive for upward mobility and fashionable neighborhoods.

Now, I know a lot of people who experienced what is now status quo higher education and emerged on the other side as caring, sacrificial, loving, place-based, creative people.  And their character is not developed this way in spite of the education they received in college, but because of it.  I think a critical common component is having the opportunity to witness the lives of people — their parents or other adults — who have lived not as if college is a ticket out, but rather, their ticket back in, and back in more deeply.  Such mentors don’t always return to the exact same communities they grew up in, but wherever they are, they tend to live in ways that honor those places’ legacies and futures as if they had grown up there and hope their children and grandchildren might stick around.

“Education in the true sense, of course, is an enablement to serve — both the living human community in its natural household or neighborhood and its precious cultural possessions that the living community inherits or should inherit,” writes Berry.  “To educate is, literally, to ‘bring up,’ to bring young people into a responsible maturity, to help them be good caretakers of what they have been given, to help them to be charitable toward fellow creatures.”  Such an education is not one that can be purchased on government loans in four years (if you’re lucky) as an investment in a career, but one that begins and ends at home and takes a lifetime to receive.  And ideally, home and its surrounding neighborhood will be a space of infinite, priceless lessons about how to love real people and real places better, for the sake of an incarnate God.  The kitchen sink might be just the place to start.

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