University of Vermont

Vermont Quarterly

The Fence Viewer

illustration by Grace Weaver ’11

Departments / Extra Credit

The Fence Viewer

by Carl Reidel

In some rural Vermont towns there are two or three people appointed to serve as fence viewers. When disputes arise over ownership boundaries, the fence viewers decide, based on experience and records, where the true boundary lies. When people complain about stray livestock, the fence viewers can order a fence to be built, allocating the cost between neighbors as they deem appropriate to the benefits gained. And, as times change, the fence viewers may allow unneeded fences to be abandoned, or order them taken down.

Good fence viewers are essential in a free society, but they are hard to find. In many ways, the central task of a university is to prepare fence viewers for service—to help you discover the philosophical and practical tools that an educated person must have to enrich the lives of all.

You will be challenged here at UVM to examine the validity of boundaries of our well-fenced society—to find the proper limits between liberty and justice, reason and passion, rights and responsibilities.

Here especially—at university—you will discover a maze of fences you’ve never before imagined: departments and colleges, programs and schools, majors and minors, distributions and cores. You will also find knowledge divided into disciplines and academic kingdoms whose bastions are defended with the fervor of the Crusades. Some of these fences bring necessary order and discipline to reasoned scholarship. But some merely use reason in defense of selfish passions; to defend old boundaries which obscure truth and fragment wholeness.

As fence viewer scholars you must learn to assess the validity and purposes of the fences you encounter. As we know from study of environmental and cultural systems, there is far more interconnectedness between all life than isolation. The truth presents we fence viewers with our greatest challenge: to take down old fences which separate us from one another. The task is not just to remove fences that are no longer necessary, but to lead the assault on those which prevent us from becoming whole and complete.

These fences can be as dramatic as barbed wire encircling concentration camps, or as subtle as unrecognized racism in our hearts. They are as vicious as the words we use to fence others out of our lives—nigger, JAP, granola, preppie, fundamentalist, communist—or as insidious as the intellectually disguised sexism, racism, and disciplinary arrogance you may encounter in a classroom or your dorm. They are everywhere in a well-fenced society like ours.

The good fence viewer is always seeking, by reason and experience, by courage tempered with compassion, to understand the meaning of old fences; to maintain the best of them, to take down those which divide us, and to create new limits that ensure justice for all.


Carl Reidel, who passed away in November, delivered these comments in greeting to UVM’s Class of 1992 at the university’s convocation ceremony on August 19, 1988. A professor at UVM for twenty-eight years, Reidel founded and directed the university’s innovative, cross-disciplinary Environmental Program.

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