Archive: Aug 2013

If it turns out that our innermost being does not dangle from the puppet strings of some hobgoblin of fate, but on the contrary that we are draped with a multitude of small haphazardly linked weights, then we ourselves can tip the scales.  Robert Musil


For most sociologists, the wisdom of Isaiah Berlin is unknown. If one knows anything about him, it is probably the title of his famous essay on Tolstoy, “The Hedgehog and the Fox.” The title comes from a fragment written by the ancient Greek poet Archilochus:

The fox knows many things,

But the hedgehog knows one big thing

For autobiographical reasons, one of my favorite Berlin essays is “Political Judgment.” My appreciation of Berlin came late in life, more as a confirmation of lessons learned than as new revelations. In 1967, I dropped out of the University of Minnesota and spent the next six years as itinerant movement activist. As an aspiring hedgehog, I wanted to know one big thing. The Sixties abruptly expired in 1973. I began a long, and often painful, apprenticeship as a grassroots organizer. I started to master my craft only after confronting the implications of what Max Weber called “inconvenient facts.” In spite of myself, I was becoming a fox.

“What is it to have good judgment in politics?” With that simple question, Berlin proceeds to elucidate the practices of a fox in public life. In addition, his analysis goes a long way toward explaining why the academic left is so ineffectual outside the ivory tower:

To seize a situation in this sense one needs to see, to be given a kind of direct, almost sensuous contact with the relevant data . . . Above all this is an acute sense of . . . what the result is likely to be in a concrete situation of the interplay of human beings and impersonal forces.

The complexity of our present trouble suggests as never before that we need to change our present concept of education. Education is not properly an industry, and its proper use is not to serve industries, either by job-training or by industry-subsidized research. It’s proper use is to enable citizens to live lives that are economically, politically, socially, and culturally responsible. . . . A proper education enables young people to put their lives in order, which means knowing what things are more important than other things; it means putting fi rst things fi rst.
Wendell Berry