Most people think topsoil is just dirt. But it is far more than that. When people lived closer to the land, they knew this, but now farming is mechanized and we have an industrialized food system. To most people, this all seems just fine. Food is easy to get—and cheap.
What else matters?
What few people hear about is the degradation of the soil that produces our food. According to many reports, we are losing topsoil at an alarming rate. According to one expert, we are losing “30 soccer fields of soil every minute.” In an article in Time magazine, John Crawford at the University of Sydney says we are “stripping the topsoil of nutrients at 10 to 40 times the rate that it can be naturally replenished.”
Over-farming. Over-grazing. Deforestation. The use of artificial chemicals. “Simply put,” says Crawford, “we take too much from the soil and don’t put enough back.”
Harry Caudill, a writer who worked for years as a country attorney in the hills of Eastern Kentucky, described how topsoil is formed:
The first layer is made up of clearly recognizable leaves from the most recent autumn. The next layer is less recognizable, the one after that formless, and finally there is a rich mass of unremembered mold from remote times. But the plant atop this composition grows out of it all, is nourished by it all, and contributes to it all. The composite layer is the plant’s heritage.
According to Scientific American, it takes a thousand years to produce an inch and a quarter of topsoil. Through proper care of their land, farmers can help in this process by continually giving back to it. But it still takes a long time.
“A culture,” says Caudill, “is accumulated in the same manner, an accretion deposited by each generation.”
Six or eight generations back, the deposits become formless, but the influences persist. We cannot escape the consequences of what those old dead generations did and left to us. Daily we confront in others, and ourselves act out, influences whose social beginnings were old in Europe when Caesar’s legions sailed for Britain.
Culture is lost and degraded in the same way as topsoil—through the failure to preserve and replenish it. Instead of inculcating in each new generation a knowledge and appreciation of the ideals and values that constitute the underlying layers of our Christian civilization—a civilization with deep roots in Greek philosophy and poetry, Roman social and civil order, and the Hebrew nation’s record of its dealings with the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob—we increasingly use up the benefits of our past without putting anything back from which future generations can thrive.
We used to have a way of preserving our cultural topsoil. It was called “education.” We grew each new generation out of the richness of our past so they could add back to the cultural soil. But our industrialized education system no longer considers passing on our heritage to students to be a priority.
The primary purpose of classical education is to pass on the accumulated wisdom of Western civilization. And it does this through the proper cultivation, not of the soil, but of the soul—a practice that not only uses the heritage we have been given, but adds another layer to it.
Originally published in The Classical Teacher Summer 2017 edition