Productive Inquiry

Two weeks ago the Academic Planning team here at Saxifrage Headquarters spent two hours coming up with these two words: “productive inquiry”. The goal was to find a phrase that we thought would aptly describe the entire academic program of the School. Rather than constantly referring to the program as “a balance of the practical and the theoretical” or “technical skills and the liberal arts” we wanted a name that combined the two.

I had been considering lately that what we really mean to say is that the liberal arts ought to be extended outward to include the trades, the technical work of actually making economic goods. In this way it is not separate, but balanced. It is integrated into the whole and exists as part of the broad conversation concerning what we need to live well.

After coming upon this phrase, “productive inquiry”, I have been parsing it ever since and, simultaneously, trying to find texts that hold it up and support our use of it. Here’s the parsing:


It means to produce something tangible. To make.
But it also means to take part in a necessary economic act. To create something worthwhile. By standards of utility, it means to have used your time well.

To consider deeply, to analyze, to judge. An investigation into the truth of things. A deciphering and a theorizing about what things are and what they should be.

All together now:
Productive Inquiry
It entails an inquiry that does not end in theory, but works with the object of inquiry. It goes from ideas, all the way to things (and then back again). Judging the ways something is done and then doing it. Or, conversely, doing something, and then deeply considering the value, quality, and purpose of the product.

This, this right here, is exactly what the academic program of The Saxifrage School seeks to embody. We want students to learn to do things, but also think about what they are doing. As the poem says, “no ideas but in things” . We envision programs in which the student acquires skills in farming, but considers the philosophical, historical, economic, and aesthetic aspects of that farming; a program where they learn to program computers, while simultaneously judging whether or not that programming is serving to improve our culture, the peace of warring nations, and our communities; and a program where they learn not just to build homes, but to build and design complete homes from the ground up, equally considering the quality of the home’s materials and the effect it will have on the community and environment.

After deciding on the phrase “productive inquiry”, I, fortuitously, began to read Wendell Berry’s essay on higher education entitled The Loss of the University. He offers up an educational philosophy that very closely mirrors the one we are coming to understand. He says, “Beside every effort making, which is necessarily narrow, there must be an effort of judgment, of criticism, which must be as broad as possible. That is, every made thing must be submitted to these questions: What is the quality of this thing as a human artifact, as an addition to the world of made and of created things? How suitable is it to the needs of human and natural neighborhoods? [...] These two problems, how to make and how to judge, are the business of education.”

Recognizing this double purpose–this potential wholeness–of education is essential for the quality of human progress. When we are concerned with both ideas and things, we are better able to innovate and, most importantly, to temper that innovation with responsibility and prudence. Moreover, this sort of education prepares students for a more holistic life of work and study that sees life in the world as One Great Subject (this idea comes, in part, from Sir Albert Howard). While our study ought to mimic the reality of the natural world and be overlapping and connected, it is too often narrowly specialized. Berry, again, offers an apt description using the classic metaphor of the Tree. Although the branches of a tree are divided, they are indisputably connected and all depend upon the health of one another, as well as the trunk, the roots, and the surrounding soil. Berry critiques the increasing departmentalization of knowledge arguing that our “modern university, at any rate, more and more resembles a loose collection of lopped branches waving about randomly in the air.”

This disconnection between learners and works in different fields not only has no basis to reality, but is harmful to it because it allows few to see the whole reality of things and, therefore, limits our ability understand (or even see) problems and imagine solutions. Our specialized mastery–and therefore specialized interest–causes general ignorance in the same way that it dramatically limits our responsibility. This is why we are fed the least healthy food at the hospital; it is why blame cannot be easily placed for an oil spill; it is why stores like Wal-Mart have flourished at the expense of small businesses and main-street economies.

A Sort of a Song

Let the snake wait under
his weed
and the writing
be of words, slow and quick, sharp
to strike, quiet to wait,
–through metaphor to reconcile
the people and the stones.
Compose. (No ideas
but in things) Invent!
Saxifrage is my flower that splits
the rocks.

- William Carlos Williams