Friday, April 12, 2013


One of the approximately 76 books I am reading presently is Wendell Berry's The Unsettling of America, first written in 1977. I got it from the library and it has been dynamite so far. It is one of those books that I want to highlight every other passage (which I can't since it is a library book!). Few people write quite this well today in our age of sound bytes and emoticons.

Even worse, a system of specialization requires abdication to the specialists of various competencies and responsibilities that were once personal and universal. Thus, the average-one is tempted to say, the ideal-American citizen now consigns the problem of food production to agriculturists and "agribusinessmen," the problem of health to doctors and sanitation experts, the problems of education to school teachers and educators, the problems of conservation to conservationists, and so on. This supposedly fortunate citizen is therefore left with only two concerns: making money and entertaining himself. He earns money, typically, as a specialist, working an eight-hour day at a job for the quality or consequence of which somebody else-or, perhaps more typically, nobody else-will be responsible. And not surprisingly, since he can do so little else for himself, he is even unable to entertain himself, for there exists an enormous industry of exorbitantly expensive specialists whose purpose is to entertain him.

The Unsettling of America, pp. 19-20

Wow. Two concerns, making money and entertaining himself. A lot of the money we make is funneled right into that entertainment so in some ways we are simply working to entertain ourselves.

It is amazing how many Americans are employed in occupations that are completely unnecessary or even frivolous. That is not to denigrate those employed in those occupations (mine probably falls into that category), people work where the jobs are. It just speaks to our society as a whole which is by and large a pretty self-absorbed and frivolous enterprise. We don't make much anymore because American labor is priced way out of competitiveness. More and more of us work in cubicle farms or some sort of public facing service jobs. We spend billions on smart phones, tablets, cable/satellite TV, movies, vacations, cruises, etc. etc. Because our lives are so compartmentalized and segmented and our existence so tied to convenience and comfort we have little time or inclination to do much.

Men and women, in different ways, used to be pretty versatile. My dad is a great example of this. He went to a vocational school in high school but then went off to college and eventually medical school. As a doctor he could do doctor stuff. He also was incredibly skilled at woodworking, both beautiful finely crafted work and more utilitarian items. When I was a kid he would work all day at his office and then spend time in the evening building a deck or making furniture or carving various animals. He was a passable painter. He could hunt and especially fish. He sort of played the piano and the guitar and occasionally the bagpipes. There were some things he couldn't or wouldn't do, he didn't like working with metal or engines, preferring the cleanness of woodworking. Regardless he is a versatile guy with a wide variety of interests and skills.

There are fewer and fewer men like that and a corresponding decrease in the number of women who are skilled in practical ways. The traditional arts of men, skills that I have virtually none of, like fixing stuff and making stuff are being lost just as the traditional arts of women in the home, sewing and mending and cooking. What is the point of learning to cook if you plan on being employed and getting home so late each night after work and kids activities that you order a pizza? Why learn to sew when you can just throw away a garment and buy a cheap replacement made by some kid in a foreign country? No one has time to work on their car, you just take it to a mechanic. Why bother learning how to fix stuff around the house when you can call a specialist? Everything is disposable and able to be subcontracted to specialists. When everything is cheap and convenient, nothing has value and why bother learning how to do something that has no value?

Last summer we had a really bad windstorm that tore up a lot of stuff. Months went by and many houses in suburbs still had tarps on them, waiting for an insurance adjustor and a professional to fix it. Meanwhile damage to Amish homes was fixed within days, even barns that collapsed were back up in a matter of days or weeks. Sure they have specialists but they all know how to do something. It used to be that everyone was like that. Today we think we are so advanced because we have such a limited scope of responsibility and we are "freed" from the drudgery of raising food and mending socks and fixing our roof. Perhaps that is true. What exactly are we freed to do? Week after week of both parts of the couple working at jobs with very little meaning getting home late after rushing around to take kids to a million activities so those kids can get into the right school and get the right job so that they can repeat the cycle, terrified that if they don't follow the path they will get left behind in our "global economy". If the cost of admission to the global economy is endless, empty business broken up occasionally by mindless "entertainment", count me out. We exist in a society of practically endless information where no one really knows anything of value.

As always I want to tie this back to the church. Do we suffer from the same issues of specialization? I think so and without question. We subcontract so much of what the church is called to do to a variety of specialists who specialize in "ministry" and in turn often have limited skills to do much else. Ask a former clergyman how easy it was to find a private sector job? Ask the average "layperson" what their function is in the church and beyond praying, paying and staying I doubt many have any idea what they can or should be doing. This specialization syndrome is one more way that the church is modeled after and emulates the world and it is every bit as unhealthy for the Kingdom as it is for our society.

Being good at something is not a sin. Being so specialized that you can do little else, while not a sin, is certainly a dangerous situation for our society.


bob pinto said...

Good article.

Leaving matters to specialists has its merits when you can't do it yourself. But that leaves you open to LAZY specialists who do the bare minimum, if even that.

Our observations can be and should be thoughtful but sometimes we need to be our own jack of all trades , master of none.

Experts often give out diagnosis based on limited input and our input might have some facts and insight.

Doctor,mechanic,theologian- we would bode well to be like Beareans.

John Mureiko said...

Good word, brother! I'm going to put up a link to this post on my site. Totally what I've been meditating on over the past few months.

Arthur Sido said...

Thanks John, I have been pondering this a lot over the last year and how it should impact our lives.

Arthur Sido said...

Bob, that is a valid point. We need to know how to do more than just the narrow spectrum of immediacy, there is a whole world out there that I know next to nothing about. if nothing else it helps to be able to talk to a wide variety of people I am called to witness to.