Science vs. Practice in the University Culture – the Stockbridge Legacy


From time to time, questions are raised about the value of classes which offer students the opportunity to engage in  “professional practice” within a university curriculum.  Some science faculty recognize the value of experiential emmalearning but question the worth of any experience that is done outside of a science laboratory.

Classes such as Draft Horse Husbandry for example, which is offered at the University of Massachusetts as part of the Sustainable Food and Farming curriculum are questioned as being appropriate for a major research university.

This blog was adapted from some writing I shared with my own university colleagues as part of a discussion regarding the role of “practice” in higher education.

The tension between the perceived value of scientific education (mostly associated with lecture halls and laboratories) vs. professional practice (often associated with the world outside of the academy) goes back to the beginning of my own institution, the University of Massachusetts Amherst.  In fact, right from the beginning concerns were voiced by faculty of the “old college” – the prestigious Amherst College – about the “new college” – Massachusetts Agricultural College (Mass Aggie).  Indeed, the namesake of my own academic department, the Stockbridge School of Agriculture – Levi Stockbridge, and his colleagues were engaged in this debate 150 years ago.


According to William Henry Bowker, a member of the original 1867 entering class of the Massachusetts Agricultural College, “Levi Stockbridge was thirty-seven years of age when he came to this 330px-LeviStockbridgeinstitution, a tall, thin, wiry, untiring farmer…  a contribution from the public schools – a self-educated man…” unlike the other members of the famous “faculty of four” in the early days of what was then referred to as “Mass Aggie.”

Two members of the original “faculty of four”, William S. Clark, professor of botany and horticulture, and Henry Goodell, instructor of literature, were educated at Amherst College. Charles Goessmann, professor of chemistry, was educated at the University of Gottingen, in Germany.  Interestingly, the namesake of the Stockbridge School of Agriculture was educated in the “field of professional practice” as a Hadley farmer and self-educated in science. He never earned a college degree.  Nevertheless, he was one of the most successful and revered professors in the early history of the institution.

Mass_AggieAgricultural (professional) practice was a core value of the “new college,” setting it apart from the “old college” from which many of the early instructors were borrowed.  Bowker writes “…we dug ditches, as instruction in drainage, we cut down and uprooted apple trees, as lessons in forestry, we leveled Virginia fences and graded land, for landscape effect and education, we milked cows and groomed horses, which I suppose would come under the head of veterinary science and practice; we mowed grass and harvested corn, which undoubtedly must be classified among the arts of agriculture.”  While students no longer dig ditches, they are encouraged to engage in “enterprise” projects such as the UMass Student Farm & CSA  described in the video here.

Professional practice has long been a critical component of the educational experience for students in the “new college.”  Members of the “old college” – Amherst College – disparagingly called the new Aggies “bucolics” – and deemed practical education unworthy of the elite members of the more aristocratic neighbor. But  Levi Stockbridge never denied the difference between the two educational approaches, seeing them as complementary and of equal value depending on the career goals of the students.

Notice the early students of Mass aggie were equally comfortable holding books, taking notes, and using long handled implements in this early photo.  They look to be digging potatoes in suits and ties!

Ag students in fieldIts hard to criticize the Dean of the College of Natural Sciences, Dr. Steven Goodwin (picture below) for his rather formal dress while working draft horses at the UMass Undergraduate Agricultural Learning Center….. when you see that the original “aggies”  seemed comfortable in formal dress attire even while working in the field!

?But for all that – “Mass Aggie” was never a narrow, technical training school.  According to Henry Bowker, the college offered “…in the broader sense of teaching all the natural and applied sciences which are related to agriculture, and at the same time, while training men along vocational lines, of giving them as liberal an education as possible in order to fit them to be good citizens and to do their part in society.”  The legacy of Levi Stockbridge and the other members of the “faculty of four” is a balance of science and professional practice, something the Stockbridge School of Agriculture strives for today.

Right from the beginning, the early professors put value on scientific research.  Here is Bowker quoting the first president, Henry Flagg French, “let us pursue our study beyond the mere instruction of classes in their prescribed courses, and endeavor, by careful experiment in the field and careful investigation in the study and laboratory, to make discoveries in science and to enlarge the boundaries of existing knowledge….” The legacy of Mass Aggie is education in both science education and professional practice.

studentsThe Massachusetts Agricultural College and its “offspring” the Stockbridge School of Agriculture were created with a specific intent “to make agriculture its leading subject” and further to “include, manual training in its curriculum.” The legacy of the early days of Mass Aggie, and particularly of Levi Stockbridge, who was described by Bowker as “no doubt the peer, if not the superior, in native wit and capacity” of the other members of the faculty, was to establish the value of practical education built upon a solid foundation of science.

The legacy of science and professional practice lives on in the laboratories, fields, and particularly the students of the recently expanded  Stockbridge School of Agriculture.  Students in the four B.S. degrees, the 6 A.S. degrees, as well as those working toward graduate degrees under the supervision of Stockbridge faculty remain proud of the legacy of science and practice established by the founding faculty of the University of Massachusetts.

paigeIndeed, the first president of Mass Aggie, Henry Flagg French, set the tone for the future with his strongly held egalitarian principles.  While here for only a few years, french2“Judge” French had a lasting impact on the policies and core values of the new college.  The following was taken from a report he wrote:  “Our college is to be established as part of the great scheme of public education…., not as a rival to our other excellent colleges, but as a co-worker with them in a common cause.” 

Remember that prior to the Morrill Act of 1862, signed by President Lincoln, all of the colleges in the U.S. were private institutions offering education only to the wealthy.  Stockbridge himself, was frustrated because his father could only afford to send one of his son’s to Amherst College, and his older brother Henry was chosen.  Nevertheless, Levi attended classes with his brother, and was mentored by Amherst College President Edward Hitchcock in chemistry.  Public institutions, such as Mass Aggie which offered a free college education for many years to anyone qualified, was a radical departure from the elite colleges of the day.

Judge French had strongly held democratic tendencies and claimed that Mass Aggie should “… differ essentially from any college existing in the country controlled by an aristocracy.”   Further, he wrote in one of the first reports  ever coming from the nascent University of Massachusetts Amherst that “wealth and education, monopolized by any class in any country, will draw to that class the political control of the country.”   Sounds like Judge French would have camped out with the protesters at the Occupy Wall Street site!

frenchquoteOne of my favorite quotes from French is above.  He believed that we must “recast society into a system of equality.”   Indeed he fully understood the purpose of the Morrill Land Grant Act of 1862, which was passed “to promote the liberal and practical education of the industrial classes…”  (meaning the 99%)!

These are principles we should try hold true today…..


Quotes in this essay were taken from an address by Henry H. Bowker, trustee of the college, at the 40th anniversary of the Massachusetts Agricultural College, titled “The Old Guard; the Famous ‘Faculty of Four’ – the Mission and Future of the College – its Debt to Amherst College, Harvard College and other Institutions” presented on October 2, 1907.

Climate Change News from New York


The big news coming out of the United Nations Climate Summit in N.Y. City –  following the largest climate change march in history is…

….what WILL NOT happen.


This is from a news story from the Associated Press – flash!

  • The United States WILL NOT join 73 other countries to support a price on carbon.
  • Brazil WILL NOT sign a pledge to halt deforestation by 2030.
  • China WILL NOT agree to President Obama’s declaration that “nobody gets a pass” and insists that developing nations be treated differently

The rhetoric coming out of the historic meeting of nations following massive rallies by climate supporters in NY and around the world was indeed inspiring.

“Today we must set the world on a new course” according to United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon.

President Obama proclaimed “Today I call on all countries to join us, not next year or the year after that, but right now.  Because no nation can meet this global threat alone.

Nice words…..

In spite of continued progress on the use of renewable energy and plans to cut greenhouse gasses approved by the European Union, major carbon polluters – the U.S. and China – are more influenced by economic than environmental drivers.

I was struck by a Facebook Post by former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich, who when  asked “what shall we do?” wrote:

“The biggest challenge we face is getting big money out of politics. We must reverse the shameful ‘Citizen’s United’ decision, if necessary by constitutional amendment. Also push Congress to pass a law requiring full disclosure of the sources of all donations aimed at affecting the outcome of political campaigns, make the SEC require publicly-held corporations do the same, and get public financing for general election campaigns with matching funds — $1 of public funding for every $2 raised from small donors. How do we do this? Mobilize, organize, energize, and make a ruckus. So stop complaining and get to work. Now.”

Politicians are followers, not leaders

Politicians in office can’t afford to lead.  They are spending much of their time running for the next election and for that they need money.  Politicians need to be pushed and pulled and embarrassed into doing the right thing.  Protest marches are necessary but not sufficient today – thanks to the power of corporate money.

So, what do we do….. we get active, and stay active.  Write letters, march, and turn down the heat in your own home.  Nobody will listen to a hypocrite.  And we pray….

And don’t quit just because there was a big rally in NY!  The struggle ain’t over….

Does anyone remember An Inconvenient Truth?

Right, former-Vice-President Al Gore’s documentary won an Academy Award in 2006 –  eight years ago!  Amazing!  What have we been doing since that moment when we were thrilled by Melissa Etheridge’s great song, I Need to Wake Up (NOW) at the end of the movie?  Lets go back to that moment…..  I love this song….

Here is something you can do!

One of the problems with rallys is that they bring attention to issues without asking for anything specific.  Here is something specific:

Write a letter or send and email to EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy like this one:

SUBJECT: Docket ID:  EPA-HQ-OAR-2013-0602 – Support Carbon Pollution Standards for Power Plants

Dear Administrator McCarthy:

As someone who takes climate change seriously, I have committed myself to advocate on behalf of the poor, the vulnerable, and all of Creation.  

Unfolding climate change caused primarily by our consumption of fossil fuels threatens both the planet and poor people. In light this,I believe that the Environmental Protection Agency’s proposed rule to regulate carbon pollution from existing power plants (Clean Power Plan Proposed Rule) can help limit damaging greenhouse gas emissions, uphold human life and dignity and demonstrate a greater respect for the planet.

At the same time, I urge the EPA to offer clear guidance to states on how to protect low-income individuals and families from undue suffering under potential energy rate hikes.  Additionally, I encourage the EPA to work with policymakers to help workers impacted by the Plan transition to other employment.

If such steps to protect poor and vulnerable populations are taken seriously, then I support the Clean Power Plan Proposed Rule, Docket ID: EPA-HQ-OAR-2013-0602.


Send the email to:

Send the letter to:

USEPA Headquarters
William Jefferson Clinton Building
1200 Pennsylvania Avenue, N. W.
Mail Code: 1101A
Washington, DC 2046

Why Wait?

When we discuss the problem of climate change in my classes at UMass, some of the students are surprised to learn that I had heard about “global warming” when I was in college 40 years ago!   One student told me that I be wrong because “he heard” that scientists became aware that climate change was a problem only recently.  So I took a look at the history of global climate change and found:

  • In 1896 a Swedish scientist published the idea that as humanity burned fossil fuels, carbon dioxide gas released to the Earth’s atmosphere would raise the planet’s average temperature.
  • In the 1930s, people realized that the United States had warmed significantly during the previous half-century.
  • In the 1950s, a few scientists began to look into the question with improved technology.
  • In the early 1970s, the rise of environmentalism raised awareness about climate change and more scientists took it seriously.

We have known about this treat for a long time.  One of the questions I get from students is; “if you knew this might be a problem, why didn’t your generation do something about it?”

Good Question!

If an intelligent human living in 1970 learned that their behavior might be causing harm to the planet, why would this person not change their behavior?

An article in The Economist speculates on the belief systems that explain why Americans seem unwilling to change our behavior.  They write:

  • “Psychological: The consequences of climate change are too awful to contemplate. Therefore, we’re denying the issue, as we used to deny monsters in the room by hiding under the blanket.
  • “Economic: The costs of a large-scale effort to fight global warming are too steep to bear. Therefore, we’re trying to ignore the issue, or pretending it doesn’t exist, or we believe that the economy (including development) is more important.
  • “Political: The fact that Democrats are always hammering on about climate change and Republicans aren’t suggests that this is a political issue, not a scientific one. This creates a feedback loop: if climate change were real, why is it so polarizing? Because it’s so polarizing, it must be slightly suspicious.
  • “Epistemological: Why should we believe in climate change? Where’s the evidence? All we know is what scientists say, and scientists are sometimes wrong.
  • “Metaphysical: God isn’t going to let millions of people die in an epic drought.”

In addition to these, I will add my own:

  • the belief that the “world was made for us to use”
  • the worldview that “humans are not part of Mother Nature”
  • the hope that “government will protect us”
  • the “joke” that whomever dies with the most stuff wins

Do we really have the political will to continue the struggle?

Former Vice-president Gore claimed in An Inconvenient Truth that political will was a renewable resource.

Frankly, I”m not so sure if that’s true today, given the power of campaign contributions from the fossil fuel industry.


But can you really blame the politicians?  We know that anyone in government is caught in a systemic social structure that requires them to run for election every 2, 4, or 6 years.  They cannot afford to think about the long term.  And for corporate business leaders it is much worse.  They must show increased profitability to shareholders every quarter (3 months) or their job may be in jeopardy.

So who can think about the 7th generation?   Who can be concerned about our children and grandchildren?  Who can we look to for leadership?  Well, perhaps a mature and informed adult?  Perhaps you?

Lets ask ourselves, so how do I contribute to the problem?  And then take an action….

So, lets march….. and continue to write letters and send emails AND turn down the heat in your own home.  A few degrees of heat at home (wear a sweater like Jimmy “Cardigan Carter”) won’t save the planet but it will show the political and corporate leaders that you are serious.  And what else?

Just pick one!

  • Turn off lights and unplug appliances when you leave the room
  • Unplug your cell phone as soon as it is charged.
  • Replace incandescent light bulbs with energy-efficient bulbs.
  • Turn off water when shaving, brushing your teeth and take shorter showering.
  • Ride a bike, walk, carpool, or use public transportation whenever possible.
  • Use biodegradable soap, shampoos.
  • Reduce use of disposable products by using reusable containers; if you must buy disposable, buy paper or glass products instead of plastic.
  • Bring reusable cloth bags when shopping instead of disposable plastic bags.
  • Buy local and purchase recycled products whenever possible.
  • Organize an environmental awareness day at your parish or school.
  • Plant a garden and start a compost pile.
  • Eat less meat: the UN concludes that “the livestock sector emerges as one of the top two or three most significant contributors to the most serious environmental problems,” including climate change
  • Dry your clothes outdoors when possible and use the dryer less.
  • Write to your lawmakers and elected officials and urge them to act with urgency and put care for Creation, the poor, and the common good ahead of short-term special interests.
  • Encourage your community to support mass transit and other alternatives to the automobile for commuting.
  • Consider the footprint of products before you buy them: from resource extraction, to production, distribution,consumption, and disposal.
  • Consider the social and environmental cost of goods and service: Who is making this product? How and where is this made? Using what resources? How long will it last?
  • Reflect on ways to simplify your life: What are my needs vs. wants? How might I reduce the amount of resources I consume.


  • for all: that we might see Creation as a gift to be cherished, protected and shared with all rather than a commodity to be consumed by a few;
  • for the poor: that our hearts be opened to their plight, that their dignity be upheld, and that we advocate on their behalf so they, and we, can pursue authentic human development;
  • for elected officials and those in positions of power: that they act prudently and place care for Creation, the poor, and the common good ahead of short-term interests.
  • Take the St. Francis Pledge to Care for Creation and the Poor.

Yes…. prayer matters.  It helps us to find the strength to do all that we can reasonably do.  And the rest, well….. that we need to leave to others and whatever divine presence we might believe in….


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.



Why Agricultural Systems Thinking?


I’m gearing up to teach my favorite class again this fall at UMass, Agricultural Systems Thinking, in which we learn how to think about the many problems created by modern industrial agriculture. This post is written for the 25 students who will join me in what I consider to be an exciting exploration into a toolbox for thinkers that might just “save the world.”

Let me explain….

First, the class is called “agricultural” systems thinking simply because I get paid to think about food and farming stuff by the UMass Stockbridge School of Agriculture.  The systems thinking tools I teach can be used to better understand any complex system.  Although it is critical to advancing our sustainability agenda, classes in systems thinking are missing from most university programs today.  As I wrote in “Learn to Think Like a Continue reading