“College has been oversold,” Wendell Berry tells overflow crowd at Warren Wilson

Author and activist Wendell Berry addressed an overflow crowd at the Warren Wilson College chapel last evening, Nov. 9, where he gave a reading from a collection of his short stories, and took questions students had submitted in advance, through a conversation with college dean Paula Garrett.

Berry’s appearance onstage was greeted with raucous applause, no doubt fueled by his notoriety for activism against mountaintop-removal mining, nuclear power, and American wars abroad, among other issues.

The award-winning author provided a one-hour reading from two short stories in the “Making It Home” series, chronicling a soldier’s return home to the fictional, small Kentucky community of Port William. The stories highlight the significance of ordinary things, such as man’s “intimacy between himself and the things he needs,” as exemplified in the act of making one’s own rope, or the simple freedom present in the act of walking outdoors: “Just get up on your legs and go.” An overflow crowd listened through live audio broadcast in the Canon Lounge on the main campus across the street.

After the reading, Berry was joined onstage by Warren Wilson College Dean Paula Garrett, who presented the author with questions she had collected from students. While he gently protested being placed “in the role of prescriber,” Berry offered his thoughts on such things as the role of faith in environmentalism, the ongoing “Occupy” movement, and the cost of attending college.

“College isn’t for everyone,” the septuagenarian told the crowd, adding that the decision to earn a degree merits serious thought, especially in view of the high cost of attending college. “College has been oversold,” he said, and can promote a feeling of inferiority among those who opt not to earn a degree. As for the institutions themselves, Berry argued that small colleges offer their leaders more institutional flexibility than large ones, comparing the former to a canoe: “Easier to steer, compared to a battleship, when it’s time to change course.”

On the role of faith in the environmental movement, Berry argued that humans are faithful by nature, and that even when earthly affairs look bleak, “things aren’t going to get so bad that someone can’t work to make it a little better.”

Berry said he views the “Occupy” movement as “a manifestation that people are getting really worried.” Even so, “a movement unaccompanied by local change won’t amount to much.

“Objectivity is impossible,” he said, urging listeners to work for change, and inform themselves. “History is participatory.”

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