The purpose of higher education has been argued for centuries, and is currently on the hot seat in public discourse for its high costs and debt in the midst of wage stagnation and reduced upward mobility. The response to this hot seat has been for increased attention to the role of higher education in job training to better help increase economic mobility. Jack R. Baker and Jeffery Bilbro in their article “Putting Down Roots: Why Universities Need Gardens” join many other scholars by adding an alternative voice to the conversation, a voice rooted in place homemaking and redemption, rather than mobility, exploitation and self-service by arguing that education’s purpose is to “provide students with a rooted education, one that would form fully developed humans capable of serving their places.”1 In order to achieve the goal of educating students to become caretakers of home, Baker and Bilbro use Wendell Berry to argue that “the practice of gardening as a community might shape students to care more deeply about their connections to their place…”2 In my own words, their essential argument can be pared down to redemption; that through education, humanity should become better developed to participate in redemption, not just of people but also of our places. I believe that, while Baker and Bilbro are correct in their argument that campus gardens can facilitate place making education, I think they are mistaken about the role agricultural education is currently taking within the liberal arts and where it needs to move in order to truly facilitate place making. In my response, I will outline some biblical principles which support their call to develop a redemption of place, and then use current research to articulate why campus gardens need a lot more pedagogical development to achieve their potential. Lastly, I will make an argument that sustainability education as a whole is a more suitable in developing a sense of place.
Baker and Bilbro’s argument about the redemption of place playing an important role in education is important. In the context of Christian higher education, educators are asked to incorporate common values into the classroom based on the Christian belief of redemption. In the evangelical context, redemption is often emphasized in an individual context (people), but the redemption of place is a common theme throughout the Judeo-Christian tradition.
In early texts, the biblical writers understood the importance of place making and its benefit to human prosperity. In Jeremiah 29:5, the prophet implores those in exile to care for the land, cities, economies, and families. He states,
Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce.6 Marry and have sons and daughters; find wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage, so that they too may have sons and daughters. Increase in number there; do not decrease.7 Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper.3
Further, in Ezekiel 36:5, the prophet offers hope to the mountains of Israel by speaking harshly against the Edomites, who with malice plundered and took possession of the land.
Biblical writers talk about the redemption of place as a central theme of the Kingdom of God, respected biblical and theological scholars take a hermeneutical stance that emphasizes place and a proper land ethic4, and modern-day prophets such as Berry emphasize place as needing to play a central role in our vocations and before that, our education. I wholeheartedly agree with Baker and Bilbro that place is a central theme that should permeate the walls of the academy and influence our teaching, programs, and vocational pursuits.
Pedagogically, as argued by Baker and Bilbro, a campus garden is situated to develop an institution’s service to place and “actively root themselves in their places.”5 While the authors do recognize that a campus garden is no panacea, their argument is that campus gardens do indeed develop a responsibility to place by teaching concepts of seasonality, patience, forbearance, and rooting language. Their article leads to a call for more campus gardens that will cultivate this educational ethos. However, when examined closely, the relatively young campus agriculture movement has, first, already become a fairly abundant part of the campus landscape;6 and second, has yet to truly establish any coherent educational objectives and little if any research exists to show that a garden achieves the outcomes espoused by Baker and Bilbro. I agree with a garden’s potential, but we should be very intentional about the specific ways a garden is used to develop a service to place, for whom it is beneficial, and what the educational objective should be. If we cannot truly measure the educational importance of campus agriculture in achieving these ends, then campus real estate may be relegated to a new fitness or science center built to recruit students in a challenging atmosphere instead of a garden.
Current Role of Campus Agriculture
The health of a community relies on the health of the soil. People who work the land and rely upon the land have known that; farmers have known that. Over the last 60 years, the rest of our population has lost the knowledge that human survival and community wellbeing are inextricably tied to the soil. For the last 100 years, agricultural education (soil health, animal husbandry, agriculture science, and so on) has been limited to large land-grant universities and caught up in the disciplinary silos;7 however, grassroots campus agriculture movements growing out of a liberal arts tradition are trying to change education in America through campus gardens, farms, and homemaking.8 Though there has been a resurgence of interest in gardens and their role in education, concerns about campus agriculture’s efficacy and educational objectives remain.
Surveys of campus agriculture across the country reveal diverse program models and organizational structures, but most glaring is the lack of curricular connections. Kerri LaCharite9, in her 2015 article, has a myriad of data showing the trends of campus agriculture. The lack of curricular engagement in campus agriculture is front and center. For example, less than 10 percent of survey respondents identified the use of the campus garden as a curricular requirement. Furthermore, the educational objectives for campus agriculture have very little to do with actual agricultural skills. LaCharite’s research shows that there is a much lower emphasis on objectives such as farm management, agricultural his- tory, or vegetable crop management.”10 This corresponds with my own research which shows that over 60% of campus agriculture programs say classes “never or rarely” use the campus garden.11 Additionally, the agricultural skills necessary to grow food and develop a sense of place (such as integrated pest management, biodiversity training, or animal husbandry) ranked as lower educational priorities compared to civic engagement, community development, or work ethic.12
I want to be clear: I am an advocate for using campus agriculture as an educational tool. I have run two separate campus farms, one of which I am overseeing now, and have worked in urban gardening afterschool programs before my career in the university. My response to Baker and Bilbro is not to deemphasize a campus garden, but rather, to think less romantically and more intentionally about how a garden should be used to educate students. David Orr and others argue that we have lost a sense of place because we have relegated farming and agricultural education to the land-grant scientific community.13 If the goal is to educate students in becoming place makers, we must think about educating them with the tools and knowledge to redeem a broken food system. We must consider the possibility of our Christian liberal arts students becoming farmers, but not just farmers; food policy makers, processors, marketers, and justice-oriented activists. Almost one third of survey respondents in my research indicated that none of their students pursued further work or graduate study in the larger food system.14 This number needs to grow and expand beyond a broken and placeless food system to include other broken places and systems in need of redemption.
Sustainability Education as Place Making
I believe a campus garden should be part of a larger institutional emphasis on place making through sustainability education. A multidisciplinary sustainability approach emphasizes the triple bottom line of economic, environmental, and social wellbeing, and develops a sense of place by emphasizing systems thinking and connections through an array of disciplines across the humanities, social sciences, and natural sciences. I believe that to create an institutional ethos of place, we must educate our students to consider their responsibility as both social and ecological citizens. An institutional emphasis on sustainability would encourage students to develop a sense of place through multifaceted lenses and learning opportunities. Examples of areas and topics (in addition to gardens) that can develop a sense of place might be the study of energy systems, waste manage- ment, local waterways, regional transportation networks, green infrastructure, urban design, pollination habitat, or local sustainability policy. All of these can be supported by existing campus infrastructure or local partnerships. For example, studying existing and potential local energy systems is a pertinent topic with the EPA’s new Clean Power Plan which emphasizes localized and more renewable energy production. Another example is in my home state of Pennsylvania, where the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources has launched a Think Outside program to encourage the use of state parks and forests by faculty and students for classroom learning or research.15 Baker and Bilbro are correct: we are people of place, and as such we need to educate students to be redeemers of the places they are called. Campus agriculture has a lot to contribute, but it is important that its practices have clear connections with educational objectives. Let us all think strategically about how we can participate in the redemption of both people and places, and focus our attention on educating young adults to do the same with well-developed learning objectives so that involvement in the community, for which Baker and Bilbro argue, is done with strong knowledge of interwoven ecological, social, and economic systems.
Cite this article
- Jack R. Baker and Jeffrey Bilbro, “Putting Down Roots: Why Universities Need Gardens,” Christian Scholar’s Review 45.2 (2016):125.
- Ibid., 140.
- Jer. 29:5, NIV.
- For more scholarship on a Christian development of land ethic, see Norman Wirzba, The Paradise of God: Renewing Religion in an Ecological Age (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2003); Wendell Berry, “Christianity and the Survival of Creation,” Association of Religion and Intellectual Life (1993); Ellen Davis, Scripture Culture and Agriculture: An Agrarian Reading of the Bible (New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 2010); and Steven Bouma- Prediger, For the Beauty of the Earth: A Christian Vision of Creation Care (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2010).
- Baker and Bilbro, 141.
- In 2009, the Sustainable Endowments Institute showed that 29% of campuses had a farm or garden. A recent survey conducted by a colleague estimated that 34% of campuses in the Northeastern U.S. have a campus farm or garden.
- Laura Sayre, ed. Fields of Learning: The Student Farm Movement in North America (Lexington, KY: University Press of Kentucky, 2011).
- For more information on the role of campus agriculture outside of land-grant colleges and universities see the two news articles: Sarah Harris, “Farmers Under 40: Liberal Arts Students Try their Hand at Farming,” North Country Public Radio, 2011 (https://www. northcountrypublicradio.org/news/story/18013/20110714/farmers-under-40-liberal- arts-students-try-their-hand-at-farming); and Jennifer Mitchel, 201“A Young Genera- tion seeks Greener Pastures in Agriculture,” All Things Considered, (http://www.npr. org/2015/01/03/374629580/a-young-generation-sees-greener-pastures-in-agriculture).
- Kerri LaCharite, “Re-visioning Agriculture in Higher Education: The Role of Campus Agriculture Initiatives in Sustainability Education,” Agriculture and Human Values (2015): 1-15.
- Brandon Hoover, “Campus Agriculture Networking Session: Identifying the future of Campus Grown Food,” Presentation at the Annual Conference of the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (Minneapolis, MN: October 25-28, 2015).
- David Orr, “Biological Diversity, Agriculture, and the Liberal Arts,” Conservation Biology 5.3 (1991): 268-270.
- Brandon Hoover, 2015.
- Think Outside is a program from the PA Department of Conservation and Natural Resources that launched Fall 2016.