What could a little digging in the dirt do for your curriculum? (Photo by Peter Prehn)
Two weeks ago, I ran a Buildings & Grounds item asking “Should a Liberal Education Include an Agricultural Education?” A number of colleges, like Evergreen State College, wrote to describe the educational value of their student-run farms. The topic of sustainable agriculture, education, and young people seems to be part of the zeitgeist.
Soon after the agriculture essay went online, I heard from Robert J. O’Hara, who posts essays about residential colleges and campus life on his Web site, The Collegiate Way. One of his latest essays is “Every College a Farm, Every College a Manufactory,” which argues that colleges, in order to enhance liberal education, should encourage students to learn to grow things and to make things by hand.
“Why a farm and a manufactory in every college?” he asks. “Because they will vitally link students to a vast range of human experience. It is only within the last century or two that people in industrialized countries have become disconnected from the material foundations of their survival. And yet much of the literature we study in the classroom, the political constitutions we live under, the philosophical frameworks that we move within, the religious traditions that many of us follow — all these things arose in times and places where people’s connections with the living and producing world around them were much more immediate. How can a student who has never picked apples understand Robert Frost’s ‘After Apple-picking’? How can a student who has never seen a forge in operation understand, viscerally, what it means to go after something hammer and tongs?”
Now here’s where facilties and grounds come in: That farm, that manufactory, should be right on the campus. “A sustainable university farm a couple of miles off campus that grows food for the central dining hall is of no more educational value to (say) an on-campus English major — with no prior interest in agriculture or the environment — than a university astronomical observatory on another continent,” Mr. O’Hara writes.
In an e-mail message, Mr. O’Hara pointed to another relevant agriculture piece, in The New York Times. Allen Salkin reports on young urbanites, some recent college graduates, who are relocating to the country to farm for reasons both idealistic and practical. In an audio slide show that goes with the article, Benjamin Shute, a graduate of Amherst College, talks about the intellectual attractions of farming:
“In addition to feeling good and being immediately satisfying, it’s also really intellectually stimulating — more so than jobs I had where I was just in some role being a coordinator for programs or something like that,” Mr. Shute says. “Here there are so many variables and so many things to keep track of. … Constantly you are learning, constantly you have new challenges. … There are these systems — between insects and soil and fertility and plants and equipment and managing a business. Being a farmer, you are a steward of the land, but really you are at the brink of where natural systems and cultural systems and agricultural systems meet, and you are trying to manage that … and that is such a complex task.”
Do you hear your students talking about their courses this way? What could a little digging in the dirt do for your curriculum? —Scott Carlson