The Mad Teacher Manifesto

The Mad Teacher Manifesto

For a few years now, I’ve asked my graduating seniors to write a manifesto as a final assignment before we hand them their diplomas. It’s an assignment I score generously, even when I don’t entirely endorse their youthful conclusions about the world they’ve been bequeathed. For the most part, the papers that end up in my To Mark folder inspire me—some make me smile unto delighted laughter; others give me insight into their secret lives, as when I learn during the last quarter of school why one student is perennially late to school: They are caring for an aged grandparent while mom is at work. Their manifestos are sometimes poems, sometimes lists of aphorisms and rules to live by, and in a few instances formal statements modeled after “This I Believe” radio essays. Upon my request, students have read their manifestos at Commencement, at our less formal senior banquet, and in one instance on a radio show I host.

As a writing teacher, I declare to my students that I never make assignments that I wouldn’t be eager to write myself—but it occurred to me during last May’s commencement that I had, in fact, never written a manifesto of my own. Furthermore, I admitted that, as a teacher in the final years of my career, it might be high time I put my shoulder to the wheel and rolled out my own clear statement for all to see. To limit its length, I restricted myself to a single life-venue: my profession. May my students spare me the indignity of scoring my actual classroom behavior against my ideals.

For the record, I introduce our manifesto assignment by passing out a copy of Wendell Berry’s 1973 poem, “Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front.” The poem appears in Berry’s collection The Country of Marriage—a book I not only read in graduate school but in some ways lived by. Alas, I stuck out a doomed marriage perhaps longer than I should have because of poems in that book, and years later, when I married more wisely, my brother read an excerpt from “The Country of Marriage” at our wedding ceremony.

A quarter century ago, I was granted the sudden opportunity to bring Mr. Berry’s wisdom to my small town. As it happened, the Unitarian Universalist meeting I attended discovered a pleasant abundance of money lying dormant in an account dedicated to hosting a public lecture at our meeting house. As the newly elected chairman of the UU education committee, I was in charge of rejuvenating the lapsed lecture series by contacting a noteworthy speaker. “Wendell Berry!” I proposed, upon learning of the windfall. “Why not!” exclaimed the committee; “but how much should we offer him?” “The whole account,” I said, generous with other people’s money. That evening I typed and mailed Mr. Berry a letter (no computer emails!; I’d read “Why I’m Not Going to Buy a Computer”) and invited him to our little meeting house in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. I knew the Mad Farmer was himself fond of the Amish people who had been long settled in our county and continued to endure as farmers, communitarians, and technological skeptics there, so I promised that I would pick Mr. Berry up at the nearest airport and transport him to visit old friends in the Plain community. To my delight and eventual trepidation, he consented.

Let me admit right now that I am no farmer; through the years my backyard gardens have been expensive experiments in devoted-toil-ending-in-minimal-yield. But my forebears were farmers, and like so many of us who have farming roots, I grew into adulthood, plagued by guilt for moving to urban academia. Woven through my brown-thumbed embarrassment was an abiding adoration for people who labored in the field. For me, Wendell Berry was an amalgamation of my grandfather, my minister, and Robert Frost. You won’t be surprised to hear that I was an awkward, nervous mess throughout my tour of duty as his Amish-country chauffeur.

Decades after his lecture, I confess that not every word in Berry’s “Manifesto” do I hold sacrosanct; my faith is different from his, and his patriotism could, I fear, be easily co-opted by violent men who understand little of Berry’s deep commitment to the commons. Oh, and I do use a computer, to point out the obvious. But there are long passages in Berry’s poem still that ring true for me, and I wanted to share them with you before I dare to stamp my own manifesto into clay and slide it into the kiln.

Here's the way Berry’s poem begins:

Love the quick profit, the annual raise,

vacation with pay. Want more

of everything ready-made. Be afraid

to know your neighbors and to die.

And you will have a window in your head.

Not even your future will be a mystery

any more. Your mind will be punched in a card

and shut away in a little drawer.

When they want you to buy something

they will call you. When they want you

to die for profit they will let you know.

So, friends, every day do something

that won't compute.

Since I teach at a rural school dedicated to outdoor education, community stewardship, and sustainable practices, Berry’s words resonate with many of my students. I have to explain to them the image of a mind “punched in a card”—remember, Berry published the poem in 1973, when we still programmed computers with punch-cards—but as seasoned online consumers, they need no teacherly gloss for “When they want you to buy something/they will call you.” And since half of my seniors will soon be registering with the Selective Service—and a few will enlist—“When they want you/to die for profit they will let you know” has the verbal heft of an M-16 assault rifle.

Later stanzas are more practical, especially on a Youth Conservation Corps worksite or in my environmental-science classroom:

Ask the questions that have no answers.

Invest in the millennium. Plant sequoias.

Say that your main crop is the forest

that you did not plant,

that you will not live to harvest.

Say that the leaves are harvested

when they have rotted into the mold.

Call that profit. Prophesy such returns.

Put your faith in the two inches of humus

that will build under the trees

every thousand years.

While younger students adore questions that have answers, the métier of many high-school students is, just as Berry suggests, asking questions that have no clear answers. Certainly asking such questions is the task of good teachers, too, we who flail daily in the slough of noble intention. And certainly “What good will this do me?” is a question every student is entitled to ask of their teachers, and it is every teacher’s duty to answer it as best they can. “Why must we work in groups when I’m better off alone?” “What do I owe the commons?” “Why must I act for future generations that I won’t even know?” and “Who says I have to keep pushing this rock up the mountain?” are other such questions, the complex ones we teachers have the anguish and joy of exploring with young people.

Wendell Berry’s poem concludes with these words:

Be like the fox

who makes more tracks than necessary,

some in the wrong direction.

Practice resurrection.

Listen, I’d be flattering myself to claim that my errant tracks have all been for the sake of fooling my pursuers; most of my misplaced steps were taken out of ignorance, & I’ve had my share of epic blunders. But I relish Berry’s closing lines because they give a teacher—or a parent, or a craftsman—permission to err, to utterly fail, with the expectation that we will endeavor to fail forward. Teachers, especially, must believe in the value of error and create a safe space to flounder and, later, with luck, to face up to the unpleasant but hopefully not permanent consequences of their actions.

For some pages now I’ve let Mr. Berry speak for me, but I promised to declare my manifesto, and so here are my words, tested in the fire of 5000 teaching days, and still marred by prejudices unrecognized. My debt to Wendell Berry is obvious.

To My Students: A Mad Teacher Manifesto

Despite what you heard on the radio this morning,

report for duty. Trust can seem like madness—

but live a day without it

and our whole village may be razed.

Neither gods nor saints will preserve us.

Neither “nature” nor our untried congeniality are looking out for us.

Only others, in their vast conspiracy of decency,

care the first thing about you and me.

So let us learn together how to build our village.

Let us admit first that we are animals,

then find relief that we are social animals.

We sniff the air, we look furtively into other creatures’ eyes--

But later we might meet around a table, or better a fire,

and state reasonably what we expect of each other.

Let us make room for solitude, too, and for peculiar tastes,

but at the end of each day we must sit down to feed one another.

There is no question too ghastly to contemplate.

There is no truth that persists unsupported.

There is no such angel as blind faith, either—

Oh, but count on claws coming out once her feathers are plucked.

Violence shows only that thought and compassion have failed.

Don’t bring a gun to the negotiating table.

Disarm the armed with reason and humility.

That being said, don’t kid yourself; be ready to take cover.

Fear is useful, as long as you invite it in later for a long talk;

it knows truths you aren’t willing to admit.

By the way, there may be no such thing as free will,

but it’s all the same if you live as if there were.

Binaries are useful in an emergency, but they’re otherwise

illusory. You are entitled to every vein of your reticulated complexity.

Remember, those in love: there is private love and public;

argue eloquently for public love, which West named Justice.

If you can, believe in “the long arc of the moral universe”—

but don’t let the arc stretch beyond the horizon of your children.

When the arc recedes, recall that blessings sometimes arrive in tatters.

And always be wary when you’ve won.

Parents and other teachers are sometimes wrong;

may they be not often so. Alas, a few are often so.

We old ones are clanking around, bedraped in our own chains,

just as you are. Forgive us. But move past us.

You are not now who you were at 5; nor will you be at 25 or 55

who you are now. But like Big History,

your character will rhyme.

When you need to, change the course of your history.

Indecision can keep you stalled.

But its mother, skepticism, will you make you strong and wise.

It’s easy to confuse the two;

one dithers, confused; the other remains humble, even when right.

Pick your dreams with care, and pack only a few.

Careful; an arrogant dream can make you a monster.

If you ask me—did you?—the wisest dream is to love.

Give it away. Give it away.

I’ve been mad at kids, parents, colleagues,

people with guns, people with unearned power,

fearful people who stalled in their thinking,

And not once has my anger served me.

It was only the reflecting afterwards

that brought any light to the darkness.

And let’s admit it: some days,

the anger is all you end up with.

No happiness without concentration!

Make things: bowls, poems, gardens,

commitments. Work your hands.

Work well with others; say we as often as is honest.

Be like the raven. Inhabit the high places

but don’t overlook the bin where people throw things.

Carry Thought and Memory on your shoulders

and share them each night in the high branches.

Like the Diné weavers,

leave a thread at the corner of the blanket—

an escape route. Glance sidelong at the advice-givers.

Really, they mean well. But meaning well is never enough.