Education for a sustainable agriculture: A vision


As the coordinator of the University of Massachusetts Sustainable Food and Farming undergraduate program, I spend a lot of time thinking about education for a more sustainable agriculture.  This blog post presents a few ideas related to sustainability education. I hope you find it useful.


A report on sustainability education I helped write a few years ago stated…..

…. the next generation of students graduating from public universities will be faced with an unprecedented challenge to redesign nearly every major natural resource based system on the planet.  These women and men will inherit systems of industrial growth that are simultaneously degrading ecosystems and endangering non-human species, while offering the highest material standard of living ever known to some humans.

As we begin this task, we must clarify core community values so that science and technology may be guided to serve the needs of present and future generations.  This work will require skills, knowledge and wisdom not currently central to the academic enterprise.  Education for a sustainable agriculture must help us re-imagine and re-create our industrial farming systems in ways that no longer rely on non-renewable resources,no longer use natural resources at non-sustainable rates, and no longer cause harm to people or the natural world.

We must ask – are our graduates ready?

Today\’s graduates from university agricultural programs are generally well-prepared \"\"to address problems and opportunities from both a practical management and a theory-based perspective at the organism, organ, cellular and molecular levels.

Graduates in the future will also need to understand complex food and farming systems at the population, community, and ecosystem levels.  Studies of social systems must complement studies of biophysical systems at these higher levels of complexity.

The current situation

Most science-based undergraduate education focuses primarily on building knowledge within a specific academic discipline.  Sustainability education on the other hand, requires a broad set of learning that integrates multiple disciplines with new practical skills and the evolution of personal and community wisdom.  Lacking wisdom… knowledge can be dangerous. Human knowledge for example, has built weapons capable of destroying everything we love.  Human knowledge has degraded ecosystems and created cycles of poverty and despair.  Human knowledge alone cannot solve the problems that we have created.  To solve the problems of humanity, we must go beyond knowledge.

Today we need skills, knowledge AND wisdom (where wisdom is defined as the awareness of what has value in life).  More than a technical education is required.  In a recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Frank Rhodes former president of Cornell University wrote…..

\”…beyond the complexities of sustainability as such, there lies the larger question of sustainability for what purpose. For sustainability will be best understood within the larger framework of values, meaning, and purpose — just as \’solutions\’ are best considered within the context of the global society. That is why the wisdom that the traditional liberal arts provide is such a vital part of any such new curriculum.\”

Developing wisdom will require the integration of thinking and feeling, mind and body, science and spirit, knowledge and values, head and heart.  Unfortunately, this integration is not a core value of the academic enterprise.  While some faculty try to offer a more holistic educational experience at the university, their work is generally unappreciated by the majority of their colleagues.  Students on the other hand are very supportive of these creative teachers who may be marginalized within the mainstream citadels of learning.

\"\"In spite of the dominant paradigm, teachers of sustainable agriculture recognize the value of a pedagogy founded upon a model of transformative learning that builds students’ capacity to make meaning of their experiences, and reconstruct their notion of self beyond the individual-self to include the family-self, community-self, ecological-self, and cosmic self.

A successful sustainability education program must focus on both the content of learning as well as the context of learning (such as the ability to integrate theory and practice through managed experience).  This ability can’t be acquired by sitting passively in a classroom, listening to a lecture, or reading a textbook.  Most adult learning (after graduation) is unstructured, random, and takes place as a result of living and making meaning out of everyday experience.  However in much of our university education, knowledge is handed over to students in safe, officially approved packages to be handed back to teachers for evaluation and reward.  Power remains in the hands of the teacher.  While efficient in one sense, “normal” classroom teaching does little to nurture the curiosity, inventiveness, or leadership capacity of active adult learners.

Experiential education puts primary responsibility for learning in the hands, hearts, and minds of the learners.  While experiential education must be guided by teachers, it is not controlled by the teacher.  Teachers are responsible for creating an environment where students can explore complex questions and learn by doing –  but power is shared!

Teachers must trust students to make decisions for themselves, and encourage them to either learn from their successes or learn from their mistakes.

Learning “about” sustainable agriculture is not enough.  Most university programs are grounded in a commitment to building instrumental knowledge, that is knowledge about how the world works.  Instrumental knowledge is used to manipulate the environment, and while important, it must be balanced by communicative knowledge of values, ideas, feelings and cultural concepts such as justice, freedom, equality and love.

Communicative learning uses different teaching methods than instrumental learning and may rely on metaphors and analogies in addition to facts and data to unravel complex human and human-natural system relationships.  Learning tools such as decision cases, dialogue, service learning, and story telling are core to communicative learning.

The history of the university is one of continual (if very slow) change.   I am confident that once the urgency expressed in the opening statement in this blog becomes more widely accepted, education for a sustainable agriculture will become more of a priority within the academy.  At least, that is my hope.

As always, your comments are welcome.  And here is a related story.


I’d appreciate it if you would share this post with your friends.  And for more ideas, videos and challenges along these lines, please join my Facebook Group; Just Food Now.   And go here for more of my posts.


One comment

Madeleine Charney #permalink

I would also add that library research is a vital piece of this picture. While I am a huge advocate of self sufficiency, I observe many students needing more support and encouragement from faculty to employ quality, reliable information into their papers and projects. Enter the librarian. Most academic librarians are enthusiastically available to teach about effectively search, finding and evaluating information from the overwhelming stream before all of us. Faculty, get in touch and schedule a session for your students. Students, find out which librarian can best address your topic and make an appointment with him/her. It is a joy when I witness students' empowerment as they get a deeper understanding of how information is organized and accessed. Talk about learning by doing…!


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