The Future of American Colleges May Lie, Literally, in Students’ Hands
The Chronicle of Higher Education
By Scott Carlson
February 5, 2012
A friend of mine who works at Saint John’s University and the College of Saint Benedict, in Minnesota, recently told me a story: Her book group read Anna Lappé’s Diet for a Hot Planet, one of many recent books to focus on the vulnerabilities of the industrial food system and the threats posed by climate change. The book’s treatment of the topic held few surprises, and the solutions offered were equally well-worn and deceptively simple: Buy fruits, vegetables, and meats locally, and cook them at home.
My friend’s big surprise came when the students in the group started talking about the solutions—and found themselves stuck: “Almost all the students said they didn’t know how to cook,” she told me, “and even the young, single adult employees in the group admitted they lacked both the know-how and motivation.”
What makes this story even more poignant is its setting: at sibling colleges founded by monasteries, where self-sufficiency and sustainability were once a central ethic, as outlined in the Rule of St. Benedict. The Benedictine women and men here, along with many of the older alumni, can still remember when they milked cows, plucked chickens, and picked potatoes grown on the monasteries’ surrounding land. Bread, furniture, preserved food, ceramics, and other daily necessities were produced by monks, sisters, and students on the campuses. While some remnants of that life still exist, much of it is gone.
I can’t help being reminded of that story when in my daily work as a Chronicle writer I hear the chorus of complaints about the state of higher education. You’ve heard them, too: Higher education is broken; it needs reinvigoration and reinvention to get students out the door and on their own as soon as possible. Lawmakers say colleges need to make students employable and to create jobs. Some critics say colleges should use technology to scale up; others go so far as to bemoan the physical campus as an unnecessary, expensive burden in an online world. In that cultural and economic climate, liberal-arts colleges have been at pains to articulate their usefulness. They have emphasized that they teach students how to think, how to be engaged, world citizens—not merely how to do a job.
I agree that a liberal-arts education provides those intangibles. But maybe it’s time that instruction—at least at some colleges—included more hands-on, traditional skills. Both the professional sphere and civic life are going to need people who have a sophisticated understanding of the world and its challenges, but also the practical, even old-fashioned know-how to come up with sustainable solutions.
The problems that today’s college-going generation will face in the future are enormous—and the stagnant economy is just the beginning. Climate change, fossil-fuel constraints, rotting infrastructure, collapsing ecosystems, and resource scarcities all loom large. Meeting those challenges will require both abstract and practical knowledge. For example, some scientists have fretted over the world’s limited supplies of rock phosphate, which is used in agriculture. Because we live in a country that has more people in prison than in farming, most people could not tell you that phosphorus is one of the three vital nutrients needed to grow food crops, nor could they name the other two, potassium and nitrogen (the latter of which is produced mostly by burning finite fossil fuels). Even if students never work in agriculture, such knowledge could help them as aspiring businessmen, future policy makers, or mere citizens.
Certain colleges, specifically “work colleges” like Warren Wilson College, Deep Springs College, and the College of the Ozarks, have long-established curricula that blend manual skills with a liberal-arts education. But there may be room for more—especially at a time when some people question the practical value of a college degree. These days a number of colleges, particularly those in rural settings, are financially troubled and need new, marketable niches that separate them from the pack. Instead of viewing the physical campus as a burden, why not see it as an asset, even beyond the aesthetic attractions of the quad? With some imagination, couldn’t these colleges use their campuses and rural settings to train students in valuable hands-on skills?
It’s already happening at some institutions, particularly those oriented toward sustainability. In the green dorm at the University of Vermont, students can teach other students in “guilds” devoted to sewing, canning, composting, beekeeping, and other skills. L. Pearson King, a junior environmental-studies major, taught his peers how to carve spoons in a woodworking guild last year. “It’s kind of trivial, but it’s also cathartic and kind of fun,” he says of the project, and the students in his group were immensely proud of their work. “To be active in the creation of an item forms a completely different relationship with that item.”
At Dickinson College, students like Claire Fox, who just graduated with a double major in international studies and environmental studies, can get a practical education on the college’s 180-acre working farm. “It truly enhanced my education,” says Fox, who had never had contact with agriculture before leaving suburban New Jersey to go to Dickinson. “I walk away from college as a different person compared with some of my peers who didn’t have that experience.” And she walks away employed: She landed an internship in sustainable-development work in Costa Rica with the School for Field Studies. SFS told her that her work on the farm was the critical component of her application.
At Unity College, in Maine, students have had a hand in constructing some of the college’s buildings, tending its garden, and working on renewable-energy projects out in the field with Michael “Mick” Womersley, an associate professor of human ecology. A former maintenance engineer in the British Royal Air Force, Womersley tells his students that a lot of relatively simple projects, like installing a $42 programmable thermostat in a home, can make a big difference in energy use, yet few people bother. Why?
More about Dickinson Farm Graduate Interns