By Marcy Slapcoff, Teaching and Learning Services
This summer my husband taught me to use a scythe. I accepted my friends’ indulgent smiles when I raved about the experience but I knew that many considered this to be a foolhardy and retrograde pursuit. Some asked, “Would you like to borrow our mower?” or “Why not pay your neighbor to cut the field?” assuming our choice was due to lack of funds or lack of awareness of the advancement in power tools since the Industrial Revolution. I, however, grew to love the scythe and savored the time I spent moving the blade back and forth across our meadow in Vermont. I could extoll the virtues of the scythe at length – the contact it allowed me with the grass and the ground, the slow and steady pace it set, the satisfaction it led to a job well done — but I could never match the accuracy or the beauty of the celebrated essay by Wendell Berry “A good scythe.” In this essay, Berry recounts how short-lived experience with a power scythe led him to believe in the superiority of the hand-held, human-motored version.
Berry writes, “These differences have come to have, for me, the force of a parable. Once you have mastered the hand scythe, what an absurd thing it makes of the power scythe! What possible sense can there be in carrying a heavy weight on your shoulder in order to reduce by a very little the use of your arms? Or to use quite a lot of money as a substitute for a little skill?” (Organic Gardening Magazine, January 1980)
I consider these words of Berry’s to be wisdom for the ages. There is a common belief right now in higher education that students are so accustomed to communicating via digital technologies that traditional modes of education are no longer adequate. I resist this notion. It is true that today’s digital natives are much more at home with new technologies than previous generations but that does not mean that they can’t learn from older, slower forms of instruction that prioritize human contact, dialogue and interaction. Like the old-fashioned scythe, the old-fashioned classroom has a place IF it is well-made, with attention to details that make it powerful. In the case of the scythe that might be the arc and sharpness of the blade, the length of the handle, the overall weight of the tool. In the case of the classroom the details that matter are the potential for instructors to convey the changeability of knowledge, the opportunity to invite questions and dialogue, the time to celebrate collaboration and reflection. These elements are old-fashioned but they are still powerful and they still need to be nurtured in the modern university.