Community Engagement: Going Barefoot with Illich, Berry & Co.

By November 19, 2019May 12th, 2020Faculty Blog

As soon as our (SSU’s) new focus on community engagement and innovation started to take hold, what excited me was the sense that we had found the missing piece. Here was the intentionality that would help us address “justice, beauty and compassion and a humble engagement with our world” (from our mission statement) in ways we had not yet found.

Over the years, I had listened to voices that critiqued the role of education and the university in contemporary society. Ivan Illich, Wendell Berry and the Barefoot College, founded in India by Bunker Roy, are among these idealist voices that have much to say. A deepening of community engagement is what these voices are calling for.

Ivan Illich was a renegade priest and iconoclastic voice active in the field of development and education in the seventies with a series of creative, polemical booklets on how the Church, western development and education were failing the people they were meant to serve. In works like Deschooling Society and Tools for Conviviality, he critiqued what was failing and shared an alternate vision. He believed that educational institutions commodified education with the typical market outcome of making their product scarcer to drive up its perceived value. They stratified societies more often than they helped communities find solidarity and equality.

Instead he imagined more “convivial” webs of learning – educational practices on a more human scale that placed responsible limits on their claims, acknowledging the learning already taking place naturally in villages and non-Western countries. He felt the value of a good lecture was not primarily in its substance but in the opportunity it created for a hospitable gathering of friends to keep talking afterwards.

Wendell Berry also stresses limits and a more human education. It makes no sense to Berry that a university would take people out of their communities and train them to be useless to the places they came from. A good university must serve a real place and understand deeply its effect on human and natural communities.

A final, similar, voice is that of Barefoot College in Tilonia, India. Based deeply on village life and the values and lifestyle modeled by Mahatma Gandhi, Barefoot College was created by Bunker Roy in order to facilitate and enable the best education that was natural and innate in the villages of the poor. There, particularly among women (and even more particularly among grandmothers), he found the expertise and the approach that was needed to allow education and appropriate technology to flourish. They built their own solar-powered campus, barred anyone with a graduate degree from teaching, and spread throughout the world with their approach. The only “certificate” they are interested in is the acceptance of the community in which their people serve.

These are all radicals and idealists. I don’t want to be barred from teaching because I have degrees. But I do want to be inspired by all of them to be creative about serving our communities and our students with more justice, beauty and compassion.

As we develop our new emphasis on community engagement, here are three questions that I have for us at SSU that are inspired by voices like theirs:

  • Can we find the perfect fraction of SSU education to take place outside of our walls?
  • Can we develop the gift of searching for, identifying, participating in and offering academic credibility for genuine learning (related to university education) that takes place outside of traditionally accredited experiences?
  • Can we make SSU’s educational experiences and resources as available as possible to the communities around us?


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