Academic journal article Honors in Practice

Garden Variety Experiential Education: The "Material Turn" and Environmental Ethics

Academic journal article Honors in Practice

Garden Variety Experiential Education: The "Material Turn" and Environmental Ethics

Article excerpt

In most years, central Arkansas is blessed with a long and lovely autumn. Warm days, cool nights, and alternating periods of sun and rain supply conditions favorable to fall gardening. Cole crops like broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, and Brussels sprouts do well at this time of year, as do lettuce, spinach, carrots, radishes, Swiss chard, kale, and collards, among others. Out of the question are tomatoes, peppers, corn, or melons, but plenty of other possibilities present themselves, enough to give college students the experience of playing productively in the dirt.

"Productive play in the dirt" may be the hook that gets honors students at the University of Central Arkansas to take my junior seminar called Philosophy, Principles, and Practices of Organic Horticulture. They often express considerable enthusiasm for a class that gets them outside and working with their hands for much of the term, but this is not my primary reason for offering the course. With this seminar, I hope students will begin to learn, literally first-hand, the ecological reasons for an ethical relationship to nature. Organic gardening is one of the best courses for conveying such a message, largely because ample evidence exists to suggest that its counterpart--conventional farming and gardening--can wreak significant ecological harm. Peripheral and uninteresting though agriculture (of any kind) may have become to many Americans, it nevertheless remains an excellent subject with which to raise Socrates's age-old question "How shall we live?" Unlike the Sage of Athens, however, we must now pose the question with a twenty-first-century twist: How shall we live such that other life--that which is the source of our daily bread--and its supportive habitats can also flourish?

By no means is mine the only gardening course to be introduced to honors collegiate education. Readers are encouraged to investigate, for example, a similar project initiated at Longwood University by Michael Lund and Geoffrey Orth, whose article "From the White House to Our House: The Story of an Honors College Vegetable Garden" appeared in the 2010 issue of Honors in Practice. Like Lund and Orth, I have found gardening to be a fine pedagogical tool to encourage honors students to think deeply on the subject of manual skill as a means of connecting intellectual endeavor to the material world. A course requiring students to use both their heads and hands in pursuit of a concrete, material outcome (an edible one!) offers an opportunity to explore numerous questions relevant not only to environmental ethics specifically but also to the enactment of thought in the world through human bodies, the translation of ideas into material realities How does theory lend itself to specific principles, and how do these in turn suggest particular courses of action? Or consider the reverse: if a given practice works in the material world to produce a desired result, does it suggest a truth that we should articulate in our principles and philosophy? How do we determine whether a practice yielding short-term success will also make possible an enduring one? Does the natural world present standards for quality, and, if so, what techniques are necessary to discover them and to achieve results that measure up? To what extent is an activity like gardening or farming a cooperative endeavor--more dialogue than monologue, more marriage than ego trip--between the artisan and the prevailing conditions and materials, such as weather, climate, water, soils, and seeds? What are the ethics of human attempts to modify any of these conditions?

Here I will pause to offer nuts-and-bolts information. The honors seminar I teach is always scheduled for late-afternoon, seventy-five-minute periods, twice a week. About a third of our meetings are held indoors for the purpose of focused discussion; the other two-thirds are spent working as a class in our campus garden. Each student must also put in six additional hours of outdoor work, scheduled in an ad hoc fashion throughout the season as the garden itself presents specific demands: the radishes need weeding, for example, or everything needs watering, or frost is on the way and must be guarded against by putting down row cover. …

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