In Wes Jackson’s remarkable book Becoming Native to This Place, he notes that most colleges and universities now offer variations of only one major, upward mobility. In part to justify the explosive costs of higher education, students are directed toward ever greater specialization and expertise to enable them to move out and to move up. Jackson continues, “Little attention is paid to educating the young to return home, or to go to some other place and dig in. There is no such thing as a ‘homecoming’ major.”1

Many might dismiss Jackson’s suggestion as nostalgic fantasy. Why should one pay $50,000 a year merely to go home and “dig in”? Of course, one should not. But the day is coming when students and their families may not be willing or able to continue to pay (or borrow for) these ever-increasing and outrageous fees, especially when so often they get a view of the world which is deeply misleading and, sometimes, manifestly false. Many of us in academic departments continue to indulge ourselves in the belief that our “disciplines” are autonomous kingdoms of segregated knowledge, the mastery of which will justify the fees and guarantee the upward mobility our students and their parents so ardently desire. We specialize in the credentialing and certification of this mastery.

Of course, most of us are not lying. We actually believe in the disciplinary fragmentation of knowledge and in the superiority of our methodologies and procedures. In recent decades, most of us have also become devotees of a high-powered technological messianism in which a new app, method, or machine will solve all, or most, of our problems. And our students are willing disciples. Their expectations are exceeded only by their confidence that their college degrees will insure them against poverty and want. Unfortunately, it’s not true. Many of our students lack the wisdom, knowledge, and skills to flourish as they might, and we will not get better by merely fine-tuning our instruments of assessment.

What if colleges and universities were to recognize and begin to enable our students to flourish in a world of coming scarcity? Is it possible that we might direct some of our energies toward equipping students with not only the skills but also the rationale for curbing expectations and adapting one’s life to meet what is available in a given place, at a given time? What Jackson calls a “homecoming” major is really a retrieval of a series of transformative practices, most notably of sustainable agriculture, cottage farming, community development, home economics, moral philosophy, and the flourishing of the life of the mind and the cultures of civilization.

One of the great ironies of contemporary higher education is that STEM and the humanities have their intersection at a place that both claim to have “outgrown,” namely their agrarian heritage. Colleges and universities must reclaim this agrarian past as the key to an uncertain future.

Colleges and universities must reclaim this agrarian past as the key to an uncertain future.

How might we do this? At the most radical level, it would require rethinking the entire enterprise of higher education. Most of us and our institutions simply cannot do this. However, we can begin to take steps which will place our institutions and our students on “more fertile ground.” I am not proposing a new “major,” nor am I suggesting that merely by adding one more healthy option to the already bloated curriculum buffet we can solve all our woes. But I believe that we must take steps to reorganize our cultural and curricular focus in a way which privileges the development of sustainable agriculture. We are simply going to have to learn not only to feed ourselves but to work with our neighbors on recreating communities of mutual dependence that make human flourishing possible.

There are numerous ways we might do this, but as it stands right now, too few of us have turned our attention in this direction. It might be through creating interdisciplinary programs or establishing new schools and initiatives which will equip existing departments to pool their resources. We must figure out ways to bring university costs down while equipping students with both integrated knowledge and skill sets. I know of no place where this can be more beautifully and effectively achieved than on a farm, be it a small plot of acreage in a rural setting or a collection of greenhouses and raised beds on a Manhattan roof-top. And as Aristotle taught us long ago, the integration of knowledge and practice will lead to wisdom.

The Benefits of an Agrarian Education

At the curricular level, one of the most important benefits of retrieving an agrarian orientation is avoiding the fragmentation of knowledge into disciplines. Life on the farm teaches the unity of knowledge. Economics can only be divorced from biology at our gravest peril. Every barn, building, and breed is lived history, part of the stories of longing, failure, and occasional success that constitute our lives. These failures and successes are often determined by how well we’ve learned our lessons and how closely we’ve paid attention. There is art and beauty at every turn. And composting is merely the purposeful redirection of the material excesses of sociology toward the production, preservation, and conservation of top soil. There is no disciplinary fragmentation on the farm.

A remarkable catalogue of benefits follows. The most obvious, of course, are the benefits to the sciences. Students and faculty who are working and studying in an agrarian context will naturally have substantial engagements with biology, geology, zoology, physics, mathematics, chemistry, environmental science, ecology, botany, animal husbandry, entomology, soil science, ornithology, landscape design, mechanics, astronomy, and meteorology, to name only a few. And this is to say nothing of the interaction between the natural and the social sciences. The politics and the economics of the cottage farm bring one into sharp disagreement with the conventional “wisdom” of modern industrial agriculture. The agrarian context also offers excellent resources for an informed evaluation of the proper uses of technology. Students will not study any of these fields or disciplines in isolation, let alone in competition with one another.

But it is not just a benefit to the sciences. What distinguishes the farm from the science laboratory is that here there is no charade of objectivity. The farm is the place where all that science is put to use by and for human beings, amidst their loves and losses, their trials and their triumphs. It is entirely fitting that some of the greatest literature in human history has as its setting and its focus the life lived amidst the cultivation of the fields. This theme runs throughout Western intellectual history and literature, from Virgil’s Georgics to Willa Cather’s beloved Nebraska, from the lyrical ballads of Wordsworth’s Lake District to the unforgiving realism of Thomas Hardy’s Wessex, from the cultural politics of the Southern Agrarians to the hilarity of Stella Gibson’s Cold Comfort Farm. Every language and culture has its expressions of this universal experience – its poems, songs, art, and music that celebrate the diversity of the natural world.

Then there is philosophy. There are no two vocations so mutually edifying and re-enforcing as that of the philosopher and the farmer. Aristotle said that philosophy begins in wonder, and the farm is nothing if not a school for wonder.

The farm is nothing if not a school for wonder.

It should go without saying that there are also many benefits to society, not the least of which are fresh vegetables. Students schooled in this way will bring habits, insights, and skills for sustainable living in a coming period of scarcity. We live in an era of unrestrained consumption, and students who have lived and worked in this way will appreciate the value of frugality and will understand the essential values of conservation and enhanced ecological consciousness. They will understand that convenience is not a right, and that those goods which will sustain human communities will require modesty, mutual cooperation, and perseverance.

Of course, I think that the greatest benefit comes to the students themselves. The interplay of productive work and meaningful leisure found in this agrarian context will provide them with human flourishing and happiness. Such happiness is of course the natural goal of human beings and it is only possible through the cultivation of the moral and intellectual virtues. If they are ever truly to be happy, if they are ever to find and build and sustain a home of their own, they will have to cultivate these virtues. It is, of course, no accident, that virtues–like vegetables–require cultivation.

Can Colleges Accomplish This?

Yes, I believe that they can. Angus Wright has argued that the modern agricultural dilemma began when “agricultural sciences were isolated in research institutions and from there evolved into technical disciplines whose purpose was to do one thing: increase production. Consequently they were not rooted in any coherent and sustainable social, philosophical, political or ecological context … [and furthermore] a great many assumptions about nature, technology, farming, rural life, and the consequences of applying industrial techniques to complex biological and cultural systems went unchallenged.”2

The goal of liberal education is “to teach the student to see the land, to understand what he sees, and enjoy what he understands.”

According to David Orr, it might have been very different if agriculture had evolved within liberal arts colleges instead. “In the context of liberal arts colleges, agriculturalists might have learned to see farming not as production problem to be fixed, but as a more complex activity, at once cultural, ethical, ecological, and political.”3 Orr quotes Aldo Leopold, author of the magnificent Sand County Almanac, as believing that the goal of liberal education is “not merely a dilute dosage of technical education” but rather “to teach the student to see the land, to understand what he sees, and enjoy what he understands.”4

Most colleges and universities are better-equipped to address this need than they realize. Despite the fact that research and teaching in agriculture is now almost the exclusive province of land grant universities, which are often deeply beholden to industrial agriculture and the agribusiness conglomerates that fund the research and pay for the facilities, there is no reason why smaller schools could not turn some of their natural and social science resources toward the development of cottage and urban farming initiatives. Many small state universities and some liberal arts colleges already work vigorously to serve the rural communities that surround them. And while small liberal arts or religious colleges do not usually have the resources for cutting-edge STEM research, they do have fine programs in the sciences, complemented by a serious and vigorous commitment to the humanities and liberal arts. These are precisely the sorts of places where students can learn to see, understand, and enjoy the land.

This is especially the case for Christian colleges and universities, which can appeal to a doctrine of creation and stewardship that transcends a merely utilitarian account of conservation. As Joel Salatin has recently argued in his wonderful The Marvelous Pigness of Pigs, it is a great tragedy that so many Christians and so many environmentalists think that they ought to be opposed to one another when in reality they share so very many foundational commitments.5

At one time, most colleges maintained a college farm. Many smaller, regional state universities still do, and schools as diverse as Dickinson College in Pennsylvania and Southern Arkansas University show some of the possibilities that can be achieved. David Orr lists seven benefits to the establishment of a college farm.6 (1) It offers a unique experience which is no longer available to most students, the majority of whom have not grown up in rural environments. (2) It is to be an interdisciplinary laboratory for the study of the numerous fields discussed above. (3) College farms can “become catalysts in the larger effort to revitalize rural areas.” (4) They can preserve that biological diversity which is jeopardized by both industrial agriculture and urban sprawl. (5) They can reduce carbon emissions involved in the long distance transport of food. (6) They can “close waste loops by composting all campus organic wastes.” (7) By participating in the design and maintenance of the college farm, students learn to take responsibility for local problem solving and decision making.

I would add to these reasons that the college farm can become not only a teaching laboratory for credit classes, but also the source of work-study aid to students. It’s a fellowship, of sorts. There can be individual research projects as well as the regular cultivation of a significant source for the institution’s own food needs. This would also allow for sustained interaction with area farmers and rural residents, further enhancing the relationships between town and gown, or rather in this case, between the undergrads and overalls. “Farm to table” is all the rage these days. Why not “farm to dining hall” or a Student-Farmers’ Market?

With a thriving program in sustainable agriculture, environmental science, and agrarian literature, philosophy, and history unifying and integrating fragmented knowledge and reducing tuition and costs in the process, the future of higher education may not be so bleak. And armed with such insights and skills, some of our students might just make it home after all.


  1. Wes Jackson, Becoming Native to This Place (Berkeley: Counterpoint, 1996), 3.
  2. Angus Wright, The Death of Ramon Gonzalez: The Modern Agricultural Dilemma (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1990). Cited in Orr, 119.
  3. David W. Orr, Earth in Mind: On Education, Environment, and the Human Prospect (Washington: Island Press, 2004), 119-20.
  4. Aldo Leopold, The River of the Mother of God and Other Essays by Aldo Leopold, eds. S. Flader and J.B. Callicott (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1991), 302. Cited in Orr, 120.
  5. Joel Salatin, The Marvelous Pigness of Pigs (New York: FaithWords, 2016).
  6. Orr, 120.