Back to school.

Not long after I arrived in Madison, my friend John sent me an article by farmer-poet Wendell Berry with an accompanying note, saying:

I thought you would appreciate his perspective as you play near the fire of the beast of modern agriculture in the US. I hope you don’t get burned.

It has turned out to be a fitting welcome. I feel a certain tension every day that I walk on the campus of this land-grant university. Wendell Berry was an early influence as I began dabbling in farming, and his writing continues to be a source of inspiration. I first read his The Unsettling of America when I was a student at McGill, and I find myself referring back to it as I return to the world of academia.

His critiques of land-grant institutions and their faculty are scathing. He writes of a sacred obligation set forth for these institutions by the Morrill Act in 1862:

This ideal [of the land-grant colleges] is simply that farmers should be educated, liberally and practically, as farmers; education should be given and acquired with the understanding that those so educated would return to their home communities, not merely to be farmers, corrected and improved by their learning, but also to assume the trusts and obligations of community leadership […] The land-grant acts gave to the colleges not just government funds and a commission to teach and to do research, but also a purpose which may be generally stated as the preservation of agriculture and rural life.

As Wendell sees it, these institutions have failed to meet this obligation:

That intention [of the land-grant colleges] was to promote the stabilization of farming populations and communities and to establish in that way a ‘permanent’ agriculture, enabled by better education to preserve both the land and the people. The failure of this intention, and the promotion by the land-grant colleges of an impermanent agriculture destructive of land and people, was caused in part by the lowering of the educational standard […] The land-grant colleges have, in fact, been very little—and have been less and less—concerned ‘to promote the liberal and practical education of the industrial classes’ or of any other classes. Their history has been largely that of the whittling down of this aim—from education in the broad, ‘liberal’ sense to ‘practical’ preparation for earning a living to various ‘programs’ for certification. They first reduced ‘liberal and practical’ to ‘practical,’ and then for ‘practical’ they substituted ‘specialized.’ And the standard of their purpose has shifted from usefulness to careerism […] The land-grant college legislation obviously calls for a system of local institutions responding to local needs and local problems. What we have instead is a system of institutions which more and more resemble one another […] The colleges of agriculture are focused somewhat more upon their whereabouts than, say, the colleges of arts and sciences because of the local exigencies of climate, soils, and crop varieties; but like the rest they tend to orient themselves within the university rather than within the communities they were intended to serve. The impression is unavoidable that the academic specialists of agriculture tend to validate their work experimentally rather than practically, that they would rather be professionally reputable than locally effective, and that they pay little attention, if any, to the social, cultural, and political consequences of their work.

As I straddle the worlds of academia and agriculture, I spend a lot of time dithering about these things. It all comes down to this: can I exist in this world and remain oriented towards work that is practical and useful for farmers? I am here now, so I have to hope it is possible. But sometimes it is hard to have hope. After all, it is the University of Wisconsin, and universities like it, that made possible the industrialization of American agriculture over the last many decades—they have long been part of the problem, so it’s not intuitive that they could be part of the solution.

But when it gets down to it, I am an idealist, and the ideals upon which the land-grant colleges were founded inspire me. On my more optimistic days, I hope I can help the UW live up to those ideals. And perhaps I have reason to hope. My program emphasizes the importance of taking an interdisciplinary rather than a narrow, highly specialized view of agriculture. The center I work for seeks to meet farmer and citizen needs by involving them in setting the research agenda. There are voices of dissent, and they are shifting the conversation.

For now, what is there to do but learn to dwell in these discomforts? I continue to think and read and question, and try to understand my place in this complex institution. That is an education in itself.


Agricultural Hall, UW-Madison.


One thought on “Back to school.

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