What a pork chop did for an English-lit major at Earlham

Chances are, if your college education was in the liberal arts, you never had a course in agricultural history or science. In fact, you probably learned little, even in history courses, about the importance of food both nationally and globally.

This may change as an exciting program - called Agriculture-in-the-Liberal Arts - moves out of the experimental stage.

Teaching about agriculture as part of a broadly based liberal arts curriculum began four years ago at Earlham College in Indiana. The program was funded by the Kellogg Foundation, legacy of the cerealmaker.

Howard Richards, an instructor in the Earlham ag-in-the-liberal arts program, puts it succintly.

''To learn something about agriculture is to get a glimpse into how the world is put together - much as Americans in the last decade were treated to a shock course in the oil business. For a generation of students seeking relevance, the study of food is it - revelance in the absolute.''

The study of agriculture also instructs in what farmers around the world have known all along, to draw from an anonymous observation in the Earlham ag project newsletter: ''In spite of all man's pretentions, he still depends for his existence on a thin layer of topsoil and the fact that it rains.''

The college and the foundation reasoned that students in the liberal arts are the moral, intellectual, and professional leaders of tomorrow; yet their instruction was virtually silent on agriculture and food production issues. If there was a tangled and urgent concern for tomorrow's leaders, this was it.

Fully one-sixth of Earlham's student body of 2,000 chose the new courses, which range from an introduction to plant science and soil mechanics to the moral issues in commodity export policy.

Some students established a special ''living/learning'' dormitory and ran their own experimental farming plot. They publish a newsletter, the ''Cornstalk, '' and participate in community forums on agricultural issues.

One co-ed this reporter spoke to at Earlham, an urban English major, related her experience of marveling one day at the lowly pork chop on her cafeteria plate. ''I realized - I never knew where it came from before.''

A prosaic moment in the march of scholarship, perhaps, but a moment of potentially crucial importance for the world's 500-750 million malnourished people who may someday benefit from the impact the insight had on her. Now this college woman is considering diverting from English literature into an agricultural career and helped this past summer to organize community gardens in Richmond, Ind., where the college is located.

The English major at Earlham, gazing at her pork chop (grain-to-protein-production ratio 4.25:1), was beginning to grasp the indissoluble connection between the feed corn which grew literally on the Earlham campus and the cost of infant protein supplement in Bolivia.

For her, at least, the connection came with the same mingling of discovery and hard questions which earlier generations might have reserved for J. D. Salinger or Tolkien. If intellectual curiosity is the passage to what matters, then the pork chop - the resources and technology which raised it, who financed it, speculated on it, who got to eat it - mattered.

From Earlham, the ag-in-the-liberal-arts program has quickly spread. Williams College in Massachusetts, Adrian in Michigan, California's Pomona College, Wilmington in Ohio, and Briar Cliff in Iowa, were joined this year by an all-Iowa consortium of Luther, Coe, Grinnell, and Cornell Colleges, all funded by the Kellogg Foundation. The program breached its first larger school, the University of Florida, this fall.

Seven of these ten programs are at corn-embraced schools of the Midwest, where agricultural awareness might be assumed to come with the turf and require no formal instruction.

The assumption hits at some of the revolutionary changes that American agriculture had undergone, not the least of which is that fewer than 3 percent of Americans are now farmers in any sense of the occupation, a much smaller fraction than are actually involved in the bulk of the country's vast food and fiber output. High-production farming today is a speciality like engineering or medicine, and as an industry, nearly as concentrated.

Indeed, the nation's inexorable march from farm to city has been accompanied by an inexorable evacuation of the rudiments of agriculture from the conventional wisdom. The schoolchild who can declaim intricately on outer space may not have the slightest idea where the world's next meal is coming from.

It was not very long ago, after all, when young folks fled rural areas and went off to get educated precisely to have nothing whatsoever to do with farming. A conventional snobbery suggested that the less one knew about agriculture, the more educated one might think oneself to be.

This disdain for all things agrarian was perhaps best formulated by the critic of Willa Cather, who said, roughly, that he didn't care how well-written it was, he just wasn't interested in anything that went on in Nebraska.

Today, the anomaly is apparent: It is far more likely that the literate farmer has dipped into Charles Dickens than it is that the degreed urban professional is acquainted with the works of Jonh Deere. The problem of education is reversed.

It's not how to teach farm children how to read, but how to spread agricultural literacy to the cities and suburbs.

Agriculture - Rousseau's ''highest of the arts,'' and Jefferson's hope for democracy - is coming back into the American classroom. Welcome home.

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