The talk was titled "It All Turns on Affection." Rehearsing the well-known problems facing American society, Berry traced the roots of the current ecological crisis, the increasing corporatization and alienation of modern life, and even the recent financial crisis, to a loss of affection—a sentiment, Berry argued, that if properly cultivated can save us from ourselves.
The crux of Berry's argument is that people are limited beings. They will only properly understand and care for those things they can readily imagine, things that fall within the scope of individual experience. Our current predicament is mainly due to the scale of modern life and the disappearance of the circumstances in which imagination and sympathy, the wellsprings of affection, can flourish. Most importantly, Berry argues it is only on the basis of these local affections that “we see the need to grant a sort of preemptive sympathy to all the fellow members, the neighbors, with whom we share the world.” Berry is mainly concerned with the problems that accompany industrial capitalism. But over the last year I have considered how his ideas might apply to my own profession as an academic. In what follows I'd like to consider the ways in which an ethic of affection could reshape the world of higher education during a time of dizzying change.
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