Are Colleges and Universities the New Version of the Family Farm?

In the post that I made yesterday to this blog, “Why Is the Future of the University Never a University?,” I included the following observation: “All realms of human endeavor can borrow profitably from other endeavors. The ways in which one industry has responded to an opportunity or an issue can often inspire parallel innovations and solutions in another industry—in even a very different industry. I am very resistant to the idea of calling higher education an industry, simply because doing so reinforces the worst corporate conceptualizations of what higher education actually is or ought to be, but I do accept that, as the most innovative and volatile sector of our economy, the tech industry can be the source of fresh thinking in higher education about both what we might attempt and what we might best avoid.”

I was writing in that post in response to an article that appeared in The Atlantic in August 2014 about tech entrepreneurs “remaking” higher education.

Highlighted in today’s newsletter from the website of The Atlantic is an article by the novelist, essayist, and environmentalist Wendell Berry. Its title is “Farmland Without Farmers,” and these are the opening paragraphs:

“The landscapes of our country are now virtually deserted. In the vast, relatively flat acreage of the Midwest now given over exclusively to the production of corn and soybeans, the number of farmers is lower than it has ever been. I don’t know what the average number of acres per farmer now is, but I do know that you often can drive for hours through those corn-and-bean deserts without seeing a human being beyond the road ditches, or any green plant other than corn and soybeans. Any people you may see at work, if you see any at work anywhere, almost certainly will be inside the temperature-controlled cabs of large tractors, the connection between the human organism and the soil organism perfectly interrupted by the machine. Thus we have transposed our culture, our culturalgoal, of sedentary, indoor work to the fields. Some of the “field work,” unsurprisingly, is now done by airplanes.

“This contact, such as it is, between land and people is now brief and infrequent, occurring mainly at the times of planting and harvest. The speed and scale of this work have increased until it is impossible to give close attention to anything beyond the performance of the equipment. The condition of the crop of course is of concern and is observed, but not the condition of the land. And so the technological focus of industrial agriculture by which species diversity has been reduced to one or two crops is reducing human participation ever nearer to zero. Under the preponderant rule of “labor-saving,” the worker’s attention to the work place has been effectively nullified even when the worker is present. The “farming” of corn-and-bean farmers—and of others as fully industrialized—has been brought down from the complex arts of tending or husbanding the land to the application of purchased inputs according to the instructions conveyed by labels and operators’ manuals.”

The entire article can be found at: http://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2015/03/farmland-without-farmers/388282/

What Berry is saying in a much more articulate and persuasive way about the consequences of the disconnection between those who farm and the soil, a disconnection caused by industrialized agriculture, is analogous to what I was attempting to say about the notion that you can educate without educators, that you can provide a university education without universities in any meaningful sense—the notion that the deprofessionalization of the faculty will not undermine completely the value of higher education as a sustainable, public good. Like the soil, our colleges and universities are not being degraded in a single cycle—growing season or academic year– or even over ten cycles. But they are very clearly being degraded by corporate “innovation” that has no purpose but maximizing immediate profits, and just as clearly, in both cases, that rate of degradation is not sustainable in any long-term sense.

 

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