A Declaration of Values – to guide our work as academics


what-makes-medicine-scientific-15-638How often are those of us at the public university told that science must be “value-free”….. that is objective and impartial?  I disagree…..

Rather, I suggest that we need to clarify the values that drive our work and make them transparent to the public.  In fact, the so-called “value-free” university must be more influenced by values, public values such as; truth over objectivity, public service over selfishness, scholarship over politics, and compassion over competition. This blog presents a set of values and a belief system that guides my work as an academic.

About 15 years ago, I was privileged to participate in a group of activists and scholars who created a so-called Declaration of Interdependence which presents a clear statement of values to guide our work as academics.

Please post your response to this statement below.


The declaration states;

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.”

Thus begins the Declaration of Independence, the first premise of American democracy, signed by the Founding Fathers on July 4, 1776, to establish independence from tyrannical foreign rule. While honoring the wisdom of the founding documents, we recognize that they have fallen short of providing essential protection against a modern form of tyranny not envisioned in the 18th Century: the tyranny of unbridled market competition, combined with rapidly expanding corporate control of production, marketing, and political power. This new form of tyranny often undermines the Right of humans to Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness. Further, conventional economic analysis, being inherently devoid of ethics and compassion, often supports and directs public policy and private actions detrimental to these Rights. Specifically, we hold these truths to be self-evident:

  • that the Earth and all its components (both living and non-living things, including Air, Water, Fire and Earth) and all species have inherent worth apart from their current or anticipated future market value;
  • that humans as an integral part of Earth, and Earth as a living entity, are worthy of respect and protection from exploitative actions motivated by unlimited greed and financial self-interest;
  • that in community relationships based on love, respect for life, and stewardship of Earth rests the primary source of true abundance, beyond short-term material gain;
  • that all things on and in the Earth are interconnected, and that this interdependency is eternal and universal, transcending time and space;
  • that according to universal laws of Nature, the quality and sustainability of human life depends on harmonious, interdependent relationships among people, and between people and their natural and social environments.

Humanity’s struggle for independence and prosperity has not benefited all persons equally. While many have attained freedom and material prosperity, hundreds of millions chronically lack essential freedoms, the bare necessities of survival, and hope of a decent quality of life. Humanity’s struggle has often created dis-harmony with Nature and among people. Where resources essential to future generations are depleted or degraded, and where equitable access is denied, both the current and future quality of life for all humanity is jeopardized and Earth itself is imperiled.

Humanity lacks the wisdom to anticipate which resources will become critically limiting in the future, and which seemingly benign technologies and institutions will later prove to be destructive to the environment, harmful to human health, and contrary to community values and norms. Therefore, we should follow the Precautionary Principle of taking steps to prevent unknown harm, and the Seventh Generation Principle traditionally practiced by many Native Americans, seeking to leave for future generations opportunities better than those we inherited from our ancestors.

Therefore, We Declare Our Interdependence with all things, all peoples and the Earth, of which humanity is an integral part. All decisions must be made wisely, in view of this interdependence.

The dominant economic paradigm, postulating unlimited greed and financial self-interest as the basis for allocating income and wealth, must no longer be allowed to miss-direct public policy or to justify socially, ecologically, and economically harmful behavior of firms and individuals. We challenge the profession of economics to re-invent its paradigm in ways that will become consistent with the first premise of democracy — that all humans have an unalienable Right to Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness. Economics can and should begin to promote sustainable human well-being and long-term stewardship of Earth.

We acknowledge and embrace our responsibility for ourselves, for each other, and for the stewardship of Earth. We invite all people to join us in dedicating our lives and fortunes to the goal of sustaining the ecological integrity of the Earth, and attaining prosperity and quality of life for all.


The Declaration of Interdependence is a call for changing the focus of the questions we address through our research and education to be more inline with service to the public good.  I believe as academics we have a responsibility to clarify our values and make them visible to the public.  The university has never been a “value-free” environment but at times the values that drive our work are not transparent.  We can do better…..


If you want to explore an academic program based on these values, check out our UMass Sustainable Food and Farming Bachelor of Sciences degree program and our Online Certificate Program at the University of Massachusetts.  And see my other World.edu posts, or join my Just Food Now Facebook group, or follow my Twitter posts.

Dialogue Education has come to Academia


dialogueRe-posted from Global Learning Partners with permission of the author

Dr. Daniel S. Gerber, Associate Dean for Academic Affairs, School of Public Health and Health Sciences, University of Massachusetts, Amherst MA

At a recent visit to have dinner with my mentor and friend Dr. Jane Vella I said, “Dialogue Education has come to academia.” In my experience, Adult Learning Theory which includes Dialogue Education, has become the premier pedagogy in Higher Education.  I asked, “Why else would UMass, Amherst recently build a new academic teaching building at the cost of one hundred and ten million dollars with mostly team-based learning classrooms?”  These are classrooms, housed with ten to fifteen round tables and nine chairs at each table, where students work cooperatively – learning the material by problem-solving and participating in other student-centered active learning projects.  At this point Karen Ridout, who came by Jane’s house to meet me, said, “Dan, would you be willing to write a blog about this?”  I said “Sure”, thinking I have never written a blog before and I don’t have a clue as to the format.   But, I am certainly willing to put my thoughts on paper.

I think the first thing I should do is introduce myself.  I am Dr. Dan Gerber, ED.D., MPH, currently the Academic Dean in the School of Public Health and Health Sciences at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.  I have been in Higher Education for the past twenty-six years, joining the ranks after spending the first twelve years of my professional life as an Adult Learning Theory education practitioner mostly overseas in developing countries. Like anyone reading this blog I was affected by Jane’s teachings and even followed her into the same ED.D. program she attended earlier in her career, at the Center for International Education at the University of Massachusetts. My plan was to complete the ED.D. and continue being an Adult Learning Theory practitioner overseas.   But upon completing my doctorate, the University offered me a job as a teaching faculty and my career made a hard right turn.  For additional information about me click here.  (I believe it is important for the reader to know I did not follow the normal road to Higher Education of bachelors, masters, doctorate, post doctorate, faculty, but first was a practitioner who was fortunate enough to encounter Dr. Vella and Dialogue Education in Indonesia where I was Program Director for Save the Children. And, even today as a dean I still teach every semester.  Not because the university wants me to but because I need to teach!  It is as much as who I am as being a husband, father, son, or friend.)

Entering the Academy (which is what Higher Education people call it) in 1996 with an ED.D. in adult learning and as a disciple of Jane Vella, I could not design my courses the usual way. Even my fifty minute, four hundred and sixty student personal health course which is set up for lecturing had to be changed to the best of my ability so that it was based on Dialogue Education.  Using case studies with in-class reflection questions, personal growth reflection exercises, small group discussions, journaling homework, and even community service learning projects, I have always done my best to follow the principles and practices I learned with Jane in Indonesia.  In the 1990s, I was considered an innovative teacher with courses popular with students. That has changed in the last decade. Today if you Google, “How to teach college students,” you will be bombarded with websites of college professors explaining how only lecturing does not work and how good teachers use Adult Learning Theory to help students learn the material they are teaching.  Do all these learner-centered activities follow the guidelines of Adult Learning Theory or Dialogue Education strictly?  No, of course not, but I would make the argument that ninety percent follow the four principles of Adult Learning Theory and Dialogue Educations to the best of their ability. These four principles are (as I learned them in 1987 from Jane):

  1. Respect – the learner must feel heard, and respected for himself/herself.
  2. Immediacy – learners must see how they can use their new knowledge, skills and attitudes immediately, in their context
  3. Experience – people learn best when what they are learning is related to their own life experience.
  4. Adults learn:
  • 20% of what they hear
  • 40% of what they hear and see
  • 80% of what they discover for themselves

For example, in 2004 my profession published a manual called, Demonstrating Excellence in Practiced-Based Teaching in Public Health (published by the Associate Schools of Public Health, which is based on Adult Learning Theory and Dialogue Education. I don’t care if the methodology is team-based learning, problem-based learning, community service learning, labs, small group facilitated discussion, in my experience they all, to some extent, fall under these four principles of Adult Learning Theory and Dialogue Education.  Especially important is principle number four: Adults learn – 80% of what they discover for themselves. Do these teachers know this?  Most likely not.  What they do know is the students are learning better than with the old method of only lecturing. Most might notice a higher level of energy in their classes.  Consequently, I see that we won! The old banking approach to education (strictly lecturing with tests every few weeks) is on its way out and Adult Learning Theory and Dialogue Education is on its way in. As Dean, I celebrate this!

This leads me to three questions:

  1. If this is true than why is lecturing still the predominant way of teaching generally in Higher Education?
  2. Why should pedagogy in Higher Education change at all?
  3. How do we support this process of change?

Lecturing is still the predominant way of teaching in Higher Education for several reasons:  This is how the current Higher Education faculty were themselves taught.  To become a university or college professor one does not need any training in teaching.  You are hired because you are considered an expert in your field of research or in your unique discipline.  And since lecturing is the way you learned, that is the way you teach it. Jane has said: “We teach the way we were taught.”

Lecturing is also easier to learn than doing more active ways of teaching. But it’s more than that.  In lecturing, the teacher has the most control over what happens in their classroom than any other ways of teaching.  Moving towards Adult Learning Theory and Dialogue Education the teacher gives up a good deal of control of what goes on in the classroom. To most teachers this is very scary! It takes a certain amount of security and confidence to trust a process of teaching that gives the control of learning over to the student. I might add at this point that one of Jane mantras that has stayed with me for the last three decades is, “You have to give up the control to have it be given back to you”.  In my experience I have found this saying absolutely true.

Another reason many people believe lecturing is the most effective way to cover a lot of content.  Whether this content ends up being retained or not is not is the issue we must consider.

This final reason was first brought to light by the Brazilian educator Paulo Freire.  Friere wrote in Pedagogy of the Oppressed (1968) that teachers control what information or knowledge is given out and how it is given out so they can maintain their authority as the person with power.  Since they have the knowledge and give it out (lecturing) they are the “expert” and maintain all the perks such expertise comes with: prestige, power, resources, respect. Adult Learning Theory and Dialogue Education is perceived, many times unconsciously, to threaten the status quo.

What else? I would be certainly interested in what other reasons are keeping lecturing the predominant means of teaching?

Next, why is Adult Learning Theory and Dialogue Education having any head-way at all in Higher Education? The biggest reason is students can retain more knowledge through Adult Learning Theory and Dialogue Education, and even better, apply it to their life.  How do we know this?  Because our students have demonstrated this time and time again. The only research I have found that proves this is through the new field of neuroscience.  If anyone knows of other published research that shows that students learn and apply knowledge through Adult Learning Theory and Dialogue Education better than lecturing I would be interested in seeing it.  Meanwhile, in the field of neuroscience it has been proven that students will remember information they learned if the information is processed by Data + meaning + sensory + emotion (Endicott 2004).  This means that students are given an experience that includes:

  • Data – Presentation of data/information/knowledge
  • Meaning – Meaning is given to the data/information/knowledge
  • Sensory – Smell, touch or seeing enhances (props, video, tactile, physical interaction)
  • Emotion – Integrating all of the above plus adding an element that connects with the emotion (i.e. personal meaningful story)

This sounds like Dialogue Education!

Another change in education that forcing us to move away from lecturing to Adult Learning Theory and Dialogue Education is online teaching.  I was recently at large conference of academic deans and everyone said today they would never allow a faculty to develop and teach a course online without first giving them training in active learning methodologies. Why?  Because in the early years of online teaching faculty did just post their lectures online, assign readings, give tests and the students gave them terrible evaluations!  The students did not feel that the professor’s teaching was worthwhile and they were right.  Of course the same deans said where their institutions will gladly pay for training for their faculty to learn to teach online, they still just expect the same faculty to walk into a classroom and be a successful teacher. I asked the deans, “How many faculty that learn to teach online change the way they teach in the classroom?”  The answer I received was unanimous, all of them!

Which leads me to the third reason Higher Education pedagogy is changing : student demand! When I asked one of my university’s administrators why we are building team-based classrooms he said because this is what the students want.  He added that administration cares what the students want today more than ever because the population in the United States for the dominant college age student (18 to 22) is drastically decreasing. Institutions of Higher Education are concerned about filling their classes and dormitories in the future. Hence, administrators today are very concerned about their institution’s reputation and universities that have adapted Adult Learning Theory and Dialogue Education as their main pedagogy have the best teaching reputations.

Another reason why Higher Education is changing is employer’s demands. All the research today shows employers want students that have skills along with knowledge. For instance, today’s graduates that know how to problem-solve and work as a team player have an advantage over graduates who don’t. Again Adult Learning Theory and Dialogue Education are better able to teach these skills than a strict lecturing format.

Finally my last question is how do we support speeding up the process of change? This is actually the question Jane, Paula Berardinelli, Karen Ridout and I struggled with during my visit. One answer I heard the group come up with is to continue demonstrating the success of Dialogue Education by supporting models wherever we can.  Global Learning Partners is doing this in several of their current projects.

I have one idea for Higher Education and I’m interested to hear if readers have others.  Many institutions of Higher Education are in a battle, or maybe an identity crisis is a better way of saying it, between being an institution of liberal education and being an institution that is training the future professional workforce. On one side are mainstream academics who teach the specific content of their discipline because they love and value this knowledge.  On the other side are parents and children who are taking out huge loans to get their children a college education in order to give their children entry into the professional workforce.  I am suggesting a compromise.  Teach content specific knowledge but use Dialogue Education as the pedagogy (i.e. community service learning courses, classroom experiences designed with Dialogue Education methods).  This idea might give both sides what they want.


I don’t generally re-post blogs written by other authors, but this one is special.  First, I think it is thoughtful and timely, and second, the author is my brother.

John M. Gerber, Professor

Ag College Students Contribute to Local Community


studentbannerOne of the most exciting programs at the University of Massachusetts Amherst today is an undergraduate major with a tradition that goes back 150 years and yet still serves the citizens of the local region by growing food, growing community and “growing” new farmers.

As local and regional food production in New England grows, so does enrollment in the Stockbridge School of Agriculture’s Sustainable Food and Farming program.  UMass graduates are engaged in creating ventures to relocalize the food system, build community, and reduce the carbon cost of shipping food long distances.

140926-global-universities-woman-with-badge-design_1UMass began as the Massachusetts Agricultural College in 1863 and recently the former “Mass Aggie” was recognized as having the eighth best global agricultural science program and 3rd best in the U.S.  Levi Stockbridge, Hadley farmer and the first teacher at Mass Aggie, would be proud.

Building on its historic mission of practical research, outreach to the community and hands-on education, today’s Stockbridge School helps educate young women and men in ecological landscape management and sustainable food systems — crucial training in an era threatened by the impact of radical climate change.

50by60Many Stockbridge students and grads believe that global trends and the need for enhanced food security will make the Food Solutions New England vision of producing at least 50% of New England’s food by 2060 a realistic objective.  Students and graduates both contribute to this goal by working toward careers in local food and farming, urban agriculture, permaculture, herbal medicine, community education and advocacy for a more sustainable and just world.  Most “Stockies” choose to complement their classroom work with real world experience, often in the local community, earning academic credit for this work as part of their undergraduate studies.

atl2An example of a local business providing students with valuable real world experience is the All Things Local Cooperative Market in downtown Amherst, started by area people committed to the relocalization vision. Stockbridge students and graduates volunteer at this year-round farmers’ market, some selling products they produced themselves, such as organic eggs, milk, artisan tea, blueberries, fermented kombucha, mushrooms and other vegetables.

gfaOther Stockbridge students volunteer with Grow Food Amherst, a network of neighbors and students uniting town and gown.  The vibrant local food economy of the Pioneer Valley provides a supportive environment for food entrepreneurs, and this project  engages over 450 local residents helping to move the region towards greater food-resiliency through education and action.

Building on Levi Stockbridge’s commitment to experiential learning, students in the Sustainable Food and Farming major are actively engaged in hands-on learning projects that contribute both to their own education as well as the local community. For example:

  • The UMass Student Farm is a year-round class where students manage a small organic farm and sell their produce through food service and retail markets — including a popular on-campus farmers’ market.

  • The UMass Permaculture Initiative has converted underused grass lawns on campus into edible, low-maintenance food gardens, winning the White House Champions of Change competition in 2012.
  • The Student Food Advocacy group and the UMass Chancellor signed the Real Food Commitment, which ensures that by 2020, at least 20 percent of the food purchased for the dining halls will be local, organic, fair trade and/or animal-friendly.
  • The Massachusetts Renaissance Center Garden is a demonstration garden open to the public, featuring the herbs and vegetables grown during Shakespeare’s time.

  • The School Garden Project helps K-6 teachers at nearby elementary schools create vegetable and herb gardens as living classrooms.
  • The Food for All Garden at the new Undergraduate Agricultural Learning Center is a student-led project that grows food with the help of Amherst community members, and distributes the food through Not Bread Alone and the Amherst Survival Center.

Stockbridge students and alums are committed to building a more sustainable food system focused on environmental quality, social justice and economic vitality. These young visionaries imagine a world where the bulk of one’s food comes from local and regional farms, and production and marketing costs don’t exploit either people or the land. Stockies and thousands like them around the world need help from consumers who are committed to creating a more vibrant, peaceful and sustainable world.  Americans on average spend less than 10% of our income on food.  Many of us can afford to invest in our children’s future by spending a little more on local and regional food, and by doing so improve our personal heath, community health and the long term health of earth.

SSA Logo -- blue on white with UMASS

Dr. John M. Gerber is a professor in the University of Massachusetts Stockbridge School of Agriculture and founding member of Grow Food Amherst.  You may find more essays and commentaries on his regular blog at World.edu.  This article was adapted from the original which appeared in the In Close Proximity column of the Amherst Bulletin and was sponsored by the Pioneer Valley Relocalization Project.

Adapted from the Original: http://www.amherstbulletin.com/commentary/15821972-95/john-gerber-new-life-for-an-old-school-the-stockbridge-school-of-agriculture

Western Massachusetts colleges focus on clean energy and sustainable agriculture


energyagThe National Science Foundation has awarded 3 western Massachusetts higher education institutions a grant to create a collaborative program combining clean energy studies with sustainable agriculture.  This project will help introduce students to new technologies and sustainable practices at Holyoke Community College (HCC), Hampshire College, and the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

The application of clean energy technology to sustainable agriculture is “a natural” for the Pioneer Valley of western Massachusetts, where several colleges and organizations are available to assist residents grow healthy food and promote a culture less dependent on fossil fuels. Concern about climate change and food security are driving these changes nationwide, but western Mass is a “hotspot” for this sort of work.

One of the unique features of this project is the collaboration among three higher education institutions.  Holyoke Community College offers a unique 2-year Sustainability Studies program and maintains the highest transfer rate of community colleges in Massachusetts. Hampshire College was established to focus on interdisciplinary and self-directed learning, and is particularly strong in agriculture and the life sciences. And the University of Massachusetts Amherst is the state’s flagship land grant university, originally founded as Massachusetts Agricultural College.  It is the home for the Stockbridge School of Agriculture Sustainable Food and Farming program.

threelogosIn addition to three educational institutions, the project has a wide array of industry partners to draw upon, both in clean energy and agriculture. The local, sustainable food movement has taken solid root in the Pioneer Valley. Those involved in this movement are predisposed to know how important it is to reduce our reliance on fossil fuels. Over 220 farms are members of our regional Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture (CISA) organization (which was initiated by a collaboration among Hampshire College, UMass, and several local non-profit organizations).  Many of the CISA members are already utilizing clean energy in their agricultural enterprises and hire college graduates.  Of these, 27 of local business have already joined the Advisory Board for the project.

sustagThe culture of agriculture is changing across the nation from large industrialized corporate farms to smaller, more ecologically friendly farms. Farming is developing as one of the most interesting career paths in New England, offering opportunities for young people to start their own business.  Many of these new more sustainable farms are utilizing clean energy technologies in their farming practice. Their desire to be more sustainable includes using less fossil fuel, chemical fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides. Training future employees in the use of new clean energy technologies will create a viable workforce for these farm enterprises.

logo-NSF-CMYKThe NSF grant will help support a new multi-campus 6-week summer class that combines the strengths of existing programs at each of the three schools: clean energy at HCC;  efficient heating and cooling technologies at the Hampshire College Farm Center focused on sustainable practices; and sustainable agriculture at UMass. This class will run from May 26 through July 2, 2015.  Tuition is free for qualified students from the three colleges.  This class is expected to create a pathway for those students who want to continue their studies in clean energy and sustainable agriculture to transfer easily from HCC to Hampshire College and UMass.

inStoreAnother large portion of the grant will pay for new clean energy and agriculture equipment that will be used by students from all three schools, including a micro-farm greenhouse demonstration and training facility at the UMass Agricultural Learning Center.  The micro-farm greenhouse demonstration and training facility will be managed by the UMass Student Farming Project, which grows vegetables for sale throughout the fall and winter.  The new facility will give students an opportunity to practice and learn energy-efficient technologies while producing fresh, local vegetables for the campus community.

Other funds from the grant will be used by Hampshire College to construct a moveable greenhouse and mobile refrigeration unit, both of which will be solar-powered. Students will build the greenhouses and also convert an old diesel tractor to be powered by solar energy.  HCC will be getting a solar-powered electric fence, composting and irrigation equipment for its sustainability and permaculture gardens and a small wind turbine.

Money from the grant will also be used to pay stipends to students who want to do summer internships with clean energy businesses or local farms.  This project will allow students to gain practical experience while earning college credit and preparing for work in the emerging field of clean energy and sustainable agriculture.


A Class will be offered during the summer:

Clean Energy & Sustainable Agriculture

Holyoke Community College SUS 220 – 6 credits

May 26 – July 2, 2015

Monday to Wednesday from 9:00am – 1:00pm and Thursdays from 9:00am – 3:00pm

Clean energy is becoming a priority as our global community faces the challenge of climate change. At the same time agriculture is changing to meet the needs of a more environmentally aware consuming public. In this intercollegiate and collaborative course students will learn how to apply clean energy technologies to sustainable agriculture practices. This class brings together students at Holyoke Community College, Hampshire College and the University of Massachusetts Amherst to learn a variety of emerging technologies. Topics will include solar, wind and geothermal technologies, ecological farming, greenhouse management, rainwater collection, root zone heating and considerations of social justice.

Tuition is free for qualified students from:

  1. Holyoke Community College
  2. Hampshire College, Amherst MA
  3. University of Massachusetts Amherst
  4. Greenfield Community College

For more information contact one of the project leaders: [email protected], [email protected], or [email protected].

This course is funded by a grant from the National Science Foundation


This article was co-authored by Kathleen Maiolatesi (HCC), Beth Hooker (Hampshire College) and John Gerber (UMass).


Continue reading

Where will the agricultural college graduates work?


My most popular blog pogotjobsst by far at World.edu is called “Sustainable agriculture jobs after college?”  In this essay, I try to tell the truth about the jobs situation in sustainable agriculture based on my experience working with young women and men graduating college.  My conclusion is that while there is much work that needs to be done, well-paying, meaningful jobs that offer a sense of security are hard to find.  It may be that “getting hired” for a lifetime job is an unrealistic expectation in our emerging “on-demand” economy.  But that might actually be a real opportunity for small, diverse and sustainable farms and markets!

A recent national news story about Sustainable Food Jobs provides an outline of the many emerging opportunities in this area.  Among the areas highlighted were:

  • Local and regional farming and marketing
  • Restaurants and food services
  • Media and marketing
  • Law and public policy
  • Public health and nutrition
  • Technology and entrepreneurship
  • Advocacy and community development
  • Teaching – especially community-based education

The experience of those students who have graduated from the UMass Bachelor of Sciences program in Sustainable Food and Farming and are doing well have often created their own new work, rather than “landed a job” in the traditional sense.  I encourage graduating seniors to search the job boards online, but more as a way of creating a vision or coming up photodune-862826-lamp-head-businessman-xs-e1348694056144with a new idea for a business or service that nobody has ever thought of before!  A brainstorming session in one of my classes  came up with a serious, lighthearted, earnest, and ingenious list of future jobs that included; permaculture consultants, rickshaw drivers, herbal landscapers, wood mill operators, biodiesel processors, vermiculturists, urban rooftop gardeners, microlenders, witch doctors, AAA bicycle workers, compost toilet janitors, alternate transport specialists, population controllers, seed bank managers, urban wildcrafters…

I try to be honest with students when they first arrive at UMass to study Sustainable Continue reading

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 Continue reading

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

Pondering the future of work and the role of higher education


My spring classes have begun at the University of Massachusetts and I’ve been thinking a lot about my responsibility as an educator to help the graduating students in our program find good work.

Our Sustainable Food and Farming major in the UMass Stockbridge School of Agriculture has grown significantly over the past 10 years (from just 5 students in 2003 to almost 100 today).  While this doesn’t make it a large program at UMass, it makes it one of the largest sustainable agriculture programs in the U.S.

This dramatic increase in interest in sustainable food and farming education is being driven by “external” forces like the a growing local food culture coupled with a depressed national economy, as well as “internal” forces like the passion and commitment young people have to find real and meaningful work.

While most of my colleagues have celebrated this rapid growth in our program, a few have raise the concern that this many students may not be able to find well-paying jobs upon graduation.  As their adviser, I take this concern seriously and try to point students  toward good opportunities in the working world.  Perhaps just as important however, I encourage them to reflect upon the difference between “finding a job” and pursing their “calling.”

Good Work

As Matthew Fox points out in his book “The Reinvention of Work“, there is a big difference between a  “job” and “good work.”  The great British economist, E.F. Schumacher (most famous for his 1973 landmark book Small is Beautiful), wrote a less-known book called Good Work about this topic. According to Schumacher, good work should...

  1.     …provide the worker with a living (food, clothing, housing)
  2.     …enable the worker to perfect their natural gifts & abilities
  3.     …allow the worker to serve and work with other people

A “job” can “provide a living (food, clothing, housing)” but good work is needed for us to be fully human.  In an interview, Matthew Fox stated “a job is something we do to get a paycheck and pay our bills. Jobs are legitimate, at times, but work is why we are here in the universe. Work is something we feel called to do, it is that which speaks to our hearts in terms of joy and commitment.

Those of us for whom our job is also our calling might celebrate Robert Frost’s words in Two Tramps in Mudtime:

My object in living is to unite
My avocation and my vocation
As my two eyes make one in sight.

How many us can claim that our avocation (that which we love) and our vocation (that which “pays the bills”) are truly as two eyes made one in sight?

Asking the Right Questions about Work

As important as finding a job is after college, it also seems to me that the emphasis on preparing students for a job results in an impoverished understanding of a college education.  At a recent “majors fair” I was saddened by the number of students whose first question to me was “so how much money will I make when I graduate from this major?”  Wrong question!  While a job and salary are obviously important it should not be the first question a student asks about a potential career.

Matthew Fox reminds us that everyone of us has a calling and he explores several questions that may help us discover the reason we are here on this earth at this time.  He asks us to consider these questions:

What are our talents? What is the pain in the world that speaks to us that we want to respond to? What gifts do we have, whether material goods or power to influence? What gifts do we have to make a difference? We are all living under this sword of the collapse of the ecosystem and what are we doing about it? Are we planting trees, are we working in the media to awaken consciousness, are we working to preserve the species that are disappearing or the soil or the forests? Are we cutting back on our addiction to meat, changing our eating habits, using less land, water and grain for our eating habits? Are we being responsible, and how does it come through in our work and in our job?

Of course, I can see some of my colleagues roll their eyes as they recite their job-focused mantra “yes, but it won’t matter if they can’t find a job! 

Okay, so lets think about the jobs of the future?  What will they look like?  And what can we do to help prepare students for a job?

The Future of Work

The “smart” people tell us that the world is changing fast in response to advances in technology and continuing commoditization of work, resulting in an ever growing gulf between the “haves and the have-nots.”  Futurist Ross Dawson reminds us that …unless your skills are world-class, you are a commodity.”  And the trend for the price of a commodity (including labor) is inexorably downward. Salaries of the highest wage earners continue to rise while those of the lowest continue to fall.

Among the industrial nations, the disparity between the salaries of upper management and workers is particularly onerous in the U.S.  Even a college education may not be enough to provide a graduate with financial security in a society of growing inequity.  Preparing students for an entry level job, without helping them also discover their calling and learn how to adjust and adapt to a rapidly changing world, simply prepares young people for being a commodity.  We owe it to our students to do more than prepare them for being “cogs in a corporate machine.”

As depressing as this may sound, Dawson and other futurists project even more challenging times ahead.  We need to ask ourselves, in these tenuous times how do university educators help prepare students to be successful in a new and largely unpredictable world?

A Few Suggestions

1. Well the first thing we need to do is to define success in more than financial terms.  Living simply, being useful to others, being part of a healthy family and community MUST be valued as legitimate forms of success.

2. Next, students (and others) need clarify their personal calling (the confluence of a vocation and an avocation).  If jobs are not secure, preparing for a job (even a well-paying job) that may exist today and be gone tomorrow is a bad plan.

3. Developing practical skills (like being able to fix a small engine, grow food, build a bike-carrier, graft a fruit tree, find relevant information on a smart phone or tablet, build a solar oven, or make a cup from clay), community-building skills (like knowing how to build coalitions of people who hold common values to work together), and system thinking skills (like knowing how to uncover root causes and shift the structure of complex systems), might be the most useful prerequisites for success in a rapidly changing world.

4. Finally, everyone must learn to learn how to learn so they are ready to adapt to rapidly changing conditions. Too much of higher education is about remembering facts.  Students graduate college with the dual skills of knowing how to take tests and how to write term papers, skills that are valued no where outside the university.  Demonstrating they are “smart” (by getting good grades) is less important when many of the facts they have memorized for their exams are easily accessible on their smart phones. Blooms hierarchy of learning (below_ reminds us that “remembering” is the low end of learning.

Education for the future

The Sustainable Food and Farming major in the UMass Stockbridge School of Agriculture encourages students to explore experiential learning opportunities on farms, in markets and cooperative stores, non-profit advocacy organizations, and teaching situations while in college.

In addition, there are many opportunities such as the UMass Real Food Challenge to earn college credit by working with other students to gain real-world experience while earning a Bachelor of Sciences degree in our program.

Education for the future needs to be less focused on memorizing facts and more on applying those facts to solve problems.  Information is relevant but if necessary facts can be looked up on a smart phone, it is not worthy of higher education.

Education for the future needs to be more experiential, giving students the opportunity to “create, evaluate, and analyze” in real world situations.  A university education should be a practice field where it is safe to “fail.”  Students should be put into situations where they can learn how to learn how to learn so they are ready to adapt to a rapidly world.

Anything less is a failure of imagination.

ENDNOTE:  I”m curious to learn about your own experience of higher education.  Have you had the opportunity to “practice” in a real world situation while in college?  Please share your stories in the comments box below.


See “Sustainability and Higher Education” for more essays on related topics.  See the  Sustainable Food and Farming program at the University of Massachusetts for information on our Bachelor of Sciences degree.


Food, Sustainability and Higher Education – 2013


A year ago, I compiled a review of my 2012 blog posts, which focused on sustainability and higher education, as well as localization of food.  As I review my 2013 posts at World.edu, I find similar themes.  Here is a review of my posts for the past year starting with the discovery of a source of hope in a complex and distressing world.

Food Stories

Last spring I introduced the topic of finding a source of hope in a world gone crazy in “hope springs eternal from growing food“.  Inspired by this vision, I helped establish a new local organization, Grow Food Amherst, which encourages folks to get dirty and grow food.  Of course, most of my neighbors know I have a big garden, raise chickens, and harvest greens throughout the winter in an unheated greenhouse.  So I often get the question why do you want to do all that work?

My first thought often goes to the reality of our current global situation, which in my mind includes the “perfect storm” of climate change, peak oil and economic distress.  It is not a very hopeful perspective.  But then I remember all of the positives of growing my own food and the pleasure I get from giving it away to my neighbors – and hope returns – as sure as the darkness of winter is followed by the warmth of spring!

I continued the theme of local food throughout the year and in October, my blog post celebrated Food Day.  This is a nationwide celebration of healthy, affordable, and sustainably produced food and a grassroots campaign for better food policies. It builds all year long and culminates on October 24.  Locally, Grow Food Amherst organized a community potluck to celebrate.   It was a hopeful evening.

In September I celebrated our new UMass Renaissance garden.  In 2013, visitors to the Massachusetts Center for Interdisciplinary Renaissance Studies in Amherst, MA enjoyed the sense of traveling back in time to experience sights, smells and tastes of an authentic 16th-century kitchen garden.  UMass Stockbridge School of Agriculture Sustainable Food and Farming students grew  herb and vegetables to create the full-scale replica on the Center’s grounds.  Earlier related posts described the research done by students to develop the plan for the garden and some of the plants that would be included.

In June, I wrote about another new project in my hometown called All Things Local.  Imagine a collaborative community of residents and visitors where people work together to create a resilient local economy and a vibrant cultural vision.  Imagine a cooperative marketplace that offers lots of locally grown and locally made products, owned by producers and consumers.  Well, we did and All Things Local opened in December!

In my “is industrial food safe to eat” blog I wrote that while speaking about the number of incidents of food borne illnesses in the U.S., President Barak Obama reported on“…a troubling trend that’s seen the average number of outbreaks from contaminated produce and other foods grow to nearly 350 a year (up from 100 in the early 1990′s).”  President Obama announced new FDA appointments and “tougher food safety measures.”  Since his speech however, the problem has gotten worse!

Wonder why?  Well, it is all about industrial agriculture.  No amount of testing or safety measures will be enough until we understand the root cause of the problem.  In this post I took a look at the problems caused by misuse of antibiotics in an exploration of factory farming.

A headline in a medical magazine that read “Antibiotic Resistance at Factory Farms Scares the Hell Out of Scientists” caught my attention.  In this story, Johns Hopkins University Scientists declared that antibiotics should be banned from animal feed.  If we didn’t take action, they warned we are likely to see an explosion of human deaths from previously preventable bacterial diseases as antibiotics become less effective.  Fortunately, the F.D.A. has acted to make it  more difficult for factory farms to use antibiotics!  While not illegal this common practice will surely become less common.

Nevertheless, industrialization of agriculture (and all of life) is a worldview that dominates our thinking.  To give us food at the least cost corporations exploit both the environment and people.  Universities contribute to this way of thinking by the way we teach agriculture.  I explore why that is the case below and in a set of posts here.

Sustainability and Higher Education

One of my great loves is the “ideal” of the land grant mission, yet I continue to wonder if people really understand the legacy we have been given.  In “do public land grant universities serve the public good” I explored this question.  I wondered how many faculty, students and administrators are truly committed (or even understand) our land grant heritage.  This post explored our heritage and the commitment of the public land grant university to serve its public mission (or not).

I explored why so many university administrators seem to fail as leaders in “on leadership.”  Many organizations are over-managed and under-led. Daily routines are handled, but no one questions whether the routine should be done at all. Over time, the organization find itself humming along efficiently, but not terribly effectively.  Outsiders and insiders begin to question the need for the organization – and a crisis in leadership ensues.  At this time of rapid social and economic change, leadership will help determine which organizations prove sustainable.  I believe universities are in jeopardy.

Around graduation day at UMass last spring, I pondered the big “graduation day question“.   May is the time of year at universities when faculty have the privilege of meeting the families of students we have known for four years.  It’s a time of celebration, transition, and that “dreaded” question from family members….. “so now that you have a college degree, what are you planning to do with it?”   The implication of course, is that the primary purpose of a college degree is for “job preparation.”  This post explores this confusing problem and offers a holistic perspective.

Bringing together two of my favorite themes, food systems and higher education, I celebrated the decision by the Chancellor of the University of Massachusetts to sign the Real Food Challenge.  The Chancellor of the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, MA agreed to sign the Real Food Challenge.  This decision made UMass the largest university in America (serving about 40,000 meals per day) willing to commit to 20% of our food budget to socially responsible farms and food businesses – what we call ‘real food.’  Our students can take credit for making this happen!  Nothing really creative happens at most universities unless it is pushed by students!

Continuing the theme of food and higher education, I announced the establishment of a new major at UMass last year.  The university that began as “Mass Aggie” announced a new Bachelor of Sciences major in Sustainable Food and Farming.  Interest in this area of study has been growing steadily over the past 10 years.  Originally a concentration within the Plant and Soil Sciences major, Sustainable Food and Farming grew from just five students in 2003 to nearly one hundred in 2013.  The rapid growth in student interest provided impetus creation of the new major 2013.  This is another source of hope, driven by students.

In “your life is a story within a larger story”, I got kind of philosophical.  I was preparing to teach my Agricultural Systems Thinking class, and started thinking (again) about hierarchy.  I explored this topic a while back in “Systems Thinking Tools: Understanding Hierarchy“, in which I wrote about the power relationships in a human constructed hierarchy (like a university) as compared with a natural systems hierarchy (like an ecosystem).

Systems thinking helps us understand why universities and other hierarchies can be so destructive to the human spirit.  It also helps us realize that there is a source of hope that these institutions can change.


Please check out my Just Food Now Resource Page and see our Sustainable Food and Farming Bachelor of Sciences program at the University of Massachusetts.

Winter Online Classes in Sustaianble Food and Farming at UMass


The University of Massachusetts Stockbridge School of Agriculture online Certificate Program in Sustainable Food and Farming continues to expand its offerings.  This is the only fully online program in the rapidly growing subject matter area of sustainable agriculture that results in a university credential.  While it is not for everyone, many people have found the convenience of online learning works into their busy lives.

You are welcome to take individual courses or sign up to receive the 15-credit Certificate upon completion of 5 classes. If you are interested in learning more, please contact Dr. John M. Gerber, Program Coordinator at [email protected].


Enrollment for the classes being offered during the winter term (December 16 – January 18) begins on October 16, 2013.  This winter we are offering:

STOCKSCH 100 – Botany for Gardeners – GenEd (BS) (4 cr)

This is a class on the science of plant growth, using world food production, our favorite foods, and backyard gardening as the framework for study whenever possible.  We will look at what plants are made of, how they work, how they interact with the environment, and where they came from.  Most important perhaps, we will think together about our relationship with plants in order to better understand our place in the world. (This class was formerly PLSOILIN 100).


STOCKSCH 197A – Backyard Homesteading (3 cr)

This course explores home-scale food production systems with a focus on permaculture, intensive mini-farming and urban homesteading. The course integrates both research and practical applications to create home-scale food systems that have the resiliency of natural ecosystems. The essential components of diverse garden systems will be discussed in detail, including edible ecosystem gardens, soil fertility, mini orchards, water management, tools and techniques and planting strategies.


STOCKSCH 397C – Community Food Systems (3cr) 

This course examines the movement of food from seed to table. Participants in the course explore local and global food systems, and specific food related issues that impact health of communities. Among the topics we’ll cover are: examining the economic and political decisions that frame our food chain, direct marketing, commercial agriculture, processing, food justice, hunger, health, food security, peak oil, school food systems and school gardens, Community Supported Agriculture, farmers’ markets, small scale farming and homesteading. At the center of this course is the examination of the opportunities and challenges required in making community food projects that create real lasting systems change.


And here are the classes that will be offered over the 14 week spring semester!

Spring 2014 – Scheduled Online Courses

STOCKSCH 197G – Introduction to Permaculture (3)

STOCKSCH 265 – Sustainable Agriculture (3)

STOCKSCH 390 U – Sustainable Site Planning and Design (3cr)

STOCKSCH 305 – Small Fruit Production (3cr)

For more information on the program, see Certificate in Sustainable Food and Farming or contact Dr. John M. Gerber, Program Coordinator at [email protected]. Enrollment for the winter session, begins on October 16, 2013.


I’d appreciate it if you would share this post with your friends.  And for more ideas, videos and challenges, please join my Facebook Group; Just Food Now.   Go here for more of my World.edu posts.  To get a college degree see: UMass Sustainable Food and Farming.