Twelve Timely Excerpts from Wendell Berry’s 1971 Essay, “Discipline and Hope”

Wendell Berry

Read the following excerpts, and remember, Wendell Berry wrote this essay, “Discipline and Hope,” in 1971. For perspective, this was a decade before IBM introduced its first personal computer in 1981.

1) Nearly all the old standards, which implied and required rigorous disciplines, have now been replaced by a new standard of efficiency, which requires not discipline, not a mastery of means, but rather a carelessness of means, a relentless subjection of means to immediate ends. The standard of efficiency displaces and destroys the standards of quality because, by definition, it cannot even consider them.

2) Specialization has tended to draw the specialist toward the discipline that will lead to the discovery of new facts or processes within a narrowly defined area, and it has tended to lead him away from or distract him from those disciplines by which he might consider the effects of his discovery upon human society or upon the world.

3) Training is a process of conditioning, an orderly and highly efficient procedure by which a man learns a prescribed pattern of facts and functions. Education, on the other hand, is an obscure process by which a person’s experience is brought into contact with his place and his history.

4) The process that produces astronauts may produce soldiers and factory workers and clerks; it will never produce good farmers or good artists or good citizens or good parents.

5) Though I can see no way to defend the economy, I recognize the need to be concerned for the suffering that would be produced by its failure. But I ask if it necessary for it to fail in order to change; I am assuming that if it does not change it must sooner or later fail, and that a great deal that is more valuable will fail with it. As a deity the economy is a sort of egotistical French monarch, for it apparently can see no alternative to itself except chaos, and perhaps that is its chief weakness.

As a deity the economy is a sort of egotistical French monarch, for it apparently can see no alternative to itself except chaos, and perhaps that is its chief weakness.

6) A better economy, to my way of thinking, would be one that would place its emphasis not on upon the quantity of notions and luxuries but upon the quality of necessities. Such an economy would, for example, produce an automobile that would last at least as long, and be as easy to maintain, as a horse.

7) If the culture fails to provide highly articulate connections between the abstract and the particular, the organizational and the personal, knowledge and behavior, production and use, the ideal and the world – that is, if it fails to bring the small disciplines of each man’s work within the purview of those larger disciplines implied by the conditions of our life in the world – then the result is a profound disorder in which men release into their community and dwelling place powerful forces the consequences of which are unconsidered or unknown. New knowledge, political ideas, technological innovations, all are injected into society merely on the ground that to the specialists who produce them they appear to be good in themselves. A “labor-saving” device that does the work it was intended to do is thought by its developers to be a success: In terms of their discipline and point of view it works. That, in working, it considerably lowers the quality of a product and makes obsolete a considerable number of human beings is, to the specialists, merely an opportunity for other specialists.

8) We have allowed and even encouraged a radical disconnection between our words and our deeds. Our speech has drifted out of the world into a realm of fantasy in which whatever we say is true. The President of the republic* openly admits that there is no connection between what he says and what he does – this in spite of his evident wish to be re-elected on the strength of what he says. We find it not extraordinary that lovers of America are strip mining in Appalachia, that lovers of peace are bombing villages in Southeast Asia, that lovers of freedom are underwriting dictatorships.


9) There is no better example of this deterioration of language than in the current use of the word “freedom.” Across the whole range of current politics this word is now being mouthed as if its devotees cannot decide whether it should be kissed or eaten, and this adoration has nothing to do with its meaning. The government is protecting the freedom of people by killing them or hiding microphones in their houses. The government’s opponents, left and right, wish to set people free by telling them exactly what to do.

10) That good ends are destroyed by bad means is one of the dominant themes of human wisdom.

11) A corollary of this is the notion, rising out of the work of the geneticists, that we can assure a brighter future for the world by breeding a more intelligent race of humans – even thought the present problems of the world are the result, not of human stupidity but of human intelligence without adequate cultural controls. But ideas are typical of the materialist assumption that human destiny can be improved by being constantly tinkered at, as if it were a sort of balky engine. But we can do nothing for the human future that we will not do for the human present.

12) Education is coming to be not a long-term investment in young minds and in the life of the community, but a short-term investment in the economy. We want to be able to tell how many dollars an education is worth and how soon it will begin to pay.

You can read the entire essay in A Continuous Harmony: Essays Cultural and Agricultural

As we mentioned before, Wendell Berry gave his seminal speech, “It All Turns on Affection” as the 2012 National Endowment for the Humanities Jefferson Lecturer.  

At the start of the lecture (which starts around 10 minutes in, although you might want to see Bobbie Ann Mason as well), Berry makes a bit of a wry remark about the courage required to let him give a speech without vetting it in advance. The speech does not disappoint.  Jim Leach was the director of the NEH at the time of Berry’s talk, though he resigned the next year.  His legacy will include an emphasis on civility, as well as Berry’s superb contribution.

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