If we’re wise and willing to learn, then tough times can sharpen our sense of priorities, forcing us to think more deeply about what’s important and what isn’t. With any luck, the long-standing stresses in the global economy will prompt us to do just that. At some point, the world’s economy will rebound into a sustained recovery. But what sorts of goods and services will we want as the key ingredients in this new prosperity?
We can think of no better guide to that question that Wendell Berry, a Kentucky farmer and writer who was recently selected as this year’s Jefferson lecturer by the National Endowment for the Humanities. Each year, the NEH selects a wise person to give a talk, picking from among the best and brightest Americans to teach us something new — or to remind us of abiding truths we’ve perhaps forgotten. Previous lecturers have included Louisiana’s own Walker Percy, as well as Robert Penn Warren, another writer with strong Louisiana connections. Historians David McCullough and Barbara Tuchman have also been Jefferson lecturers. Many of these previous lectures are online at http://www.neh.gov/about/awards/jefferson-lecture. Spend an hour at this website, and you’ll come away with a windfall of good sense.
Good sense defines the work of Berry, who’s written novels, essays and poems for many years on his Kentucky farm. His prevailing theme is the value of local communities — and the complications that can arise when large institutions, including government and corporate bureaucracies, become disconnected from local concerns.
In his Jefferson lecture, Berry makes a distinction between economic speculation that mortgages the future for short-term gain, and a more constructive economy sustained by what author Wallace Stegner called “stickers.” Stickers — the folks who stay in one place and nurture it as a community — tend to think not of the next economic quarter, but the next generation.
Berry elaborates this case in the lecture posted at the NEH website, and it’s good reading with deep relevance for these troubled economic times. His message, which defies being labeled as either liberal or conservative, is worth considering as Americans consider what a healthy economy might look like.