“The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point, however, is to change it.”
— Karl Marx, Theses on Feuerbach.
There are many ways to poke people with a sharp stick; here Marx provides one of them. Hearing this sentence for the first time years ago in a course on liberation theology, I was enchanted. The complexity and messiness of the political process could be sloughed off like an old snakeskin: we could skip the cautious questioning and go directly to the barricades! It’s the interpreters against the change agents: wimps vs. superheroes. Not much of a contest when you put it that way.
Marx had a way with words; he could turn a phrase that would ring in the world’s ears for years to come. This one is no different. In a simple sentence he manages to disparage centuries of philosophical thought, subtly undercut the importance of recognizing the perspectives of others, and assert that changing the world is a duty bound to be self-evident.
The Tao Te Ching begs to differ: “Do you want to change the world?/I don’t think it can be done,” says Stephen Mitchell’s luminous translation. But we need not be whipsawed back and forth between these two, for the truth is that interpreting the world changes it. When we perceive and accept the present reality we do so from our limited but personally persuasive point of view. What we perceive we act upon—monkey see . . . monkey do.
Marx had a point, though, and he kept poking the spectators of life with it. Are you in or are you out of the game of life? Are you simply going to observe the roiling turbulence of the world from your safe position and then walk away, smug in the assurance you are above the common rabble? The act of interpretation, says Marx, should move us from inertia to engagement with the world. With our eyes wide open we grasp the world with both hands and change it! He saw a seamless and inevitable movement from awareness of the conditions to revolutionary change. Once I was blind, but now I see—and so does every other person caught in this situation. Together, in lockstep, Marx’s minions would change the world. But that’s where he missed the mark. He got it half-right—awareness triggers interpretation and may lead to action—but he didn’t see that each of us interprets and acts from our needs and according to our abilities. All of us together, changing the world in our own ways.
A myriad of teachers have written movingly of wanting to change the world one learner at a time. And if there’s one thing I’ve learned in my brief tenure in “faculty development” it’s that there is no one way to do that. Every classroom is different, every learner is different, every teacher is different. Not so different that they have nothing in common, but different enough that one pedagogy does not fit all.
Wendell Berry, a farmer who writes and a writer who farms, goes to the heart of true individuality in an essay in The Way of Ignorance:
The most insistent and formidable concern of agriculture, wherever it
is taken seriously, is the distinct individuality of every farm, every field
on every farm, every farm family, and every creature on every farm.
Farming becomes a high art when farmers know and respect in their work
the distinct individuality of their place and the neighborhood of
creatures that lives there. This has nothing to do with the set of personal
excuses we call ‘individualism’ but is akin to the holy charity of the
Gospels and the political courtesy of the Declaration of Independence
and the Bill of Rights. Such practical respect is the true discipline of
farming, and the farmer must maintain it through the muddle, mistakes,
disappointments, and frustrations, as well as the satisfactions and
exultations, of every actual year on an actual farm.
Berry’s persistent theme is the loss to America of the family farm, swallowed in the corporate maw of industrial agribusiness. He thinks of the farmer as an artist, a craftsman, a musician constantly attuned to the creative environment, aware of the subtle changes in soil, wind, rain, slope and sun. The farmer works with the earth, not in spite of it. There’s nothing romantic about it; his farmer is practical, solid, a realist who hopes from the foundation of experience.
If American education is to become fertile ground again it will not be through the commercialization of teaching practices nor the commodification of a student’s vocation (from Latin, vocare, ‘to call’). Change that matters will come when one teacher after another works with students where they are to help them learn how to learn—how to interpret their world for change. Every farm is different.