a history of agricultural education in the United States

Agriculture has been the backbone of communities throughout the United States since the birth of the nation. While the field has been wrought with controversy, it can also be considered innovative in many respects. Agricultural education is one of these areas…

Until the mid-1800s, universities in the United States were mostly private organizations that focused on religious education. However, with the Morrill Act of 1862, the concept of the “Land-grant Ideal” was introduced. The “Land-Grant Ideal” aimed to make higher education available to everyone (i.e., white males) at a reasonable cost: “The land-grant university and colleges of agriculture (LGCA) system stands out as a unique contributor to public education in the United States because of its mandate to bring higher education of a practical nature to citizens of ordinary means (PARR et al. 2007, p. 525)”.

Benefits from the gained knowledge were expected to contribute to the betterment of society, both regarding better citizens and academic advancements. Education in this respect was designed to include many facets of learning, including science, classical teachings, technology, and most importantly agricultural sciences to ‘solidify American economic infrastructure’ and “democratize American education” (O’DONNELL 2008). This shift is the point at which liberal education became mainstream in America, primarily due to the inexpensive land provided to the colleges. 

The goals mentioned above were achieved, especially with the introduction of the G.I. Bill and the large-scale investment of federal research funds into the university system following World War II. However, PARR et al. (2005) expound that since earmarked funds were used in the science and health departments of the universities following the economic demands of widespread industrialization, the expansion of intra-disciplinary specialization ensued.

These specializations accordingly resulted in remarkable advancements, particularly in the military, medical, industrial, and agricultural sectors with the 1950s and 1960s still being considered the ‘Golden Age’ of the universities, mainly because of contributions to agriculture (MCDOWELL 2001). However, this led to favoritism and privilege for the technoscience knowledge, which caused specialized approaches to become dominant within society, particularly in educational institutions (PARR et al. 2007). Moreover, the program objectives and research agendas laid the groundwork for the corporatization and technologization of agriculture in the United States through the use of the public university system (MCDOWELL 2001). 

The shift towards technoscience intensified in the 1980s when scientific research, most notably at universities or with other public institutions, began to reorganize to align even more closely with industry needs and contribute to global competitiveness (REYNOLDS and SZERSZYNSKI 2012). In 1980, when the Supreme Court ruled that life could be patented to serve as an extension of the ‘appropriation of science as intellectual property’ with its ruling in Diamond v. Chakrabarty. The passing of the Bayh-Dole Act allowed universities to become intellectual property right owners, a “university-industrial complex” spurred novel couplings between public and private entities (PELLIZZO and YLӦNEN 2012). In doing so, each became more like the other. 

Parallelly, funding for programs that support traditional approaches to farming as well as more liberal approaches to learning has been cut (FALVEY and BARDSLEY 1997). HESS (2012) explains that of the two hands of science, the left (business, engineering, applied sciences) and the right (social work, public health, community development, etc.), the left is more profitable as it is valuable to corporate interests, universities are more likely to “dismember” their left hand by shutting down departments not devoted to “high technology”. In instances where funding gaps exist, corporations are quick to fill the gap.

Their intentions for doing this are not necessarily academically motivated and come at the price of fulfilling certain expectations, giving corporations a stronger say in academic discourse (MCDOWELL, 2001). A dramatic shift towards the corporatization of education has ensued, which has, in turn, shifted the focus of learning from the cultivation of knowledge to a task exclusively aimed at enabling individuals to engage in activities that focus on profit and the bottom line (MARCUS 2013). The outcome of which is education that is inaccessible to working-class individuals, which is contrary to the initial purposes of public land-grant universities and arguably a contributor of a society that lacks a humanistic perspective, i.e., a loss of the understanding of ‘self’ and the ‘human experience’ of existing within society. Likewise, (REYNOLDS and SZERSZYNSKI 2012) explain that despite knowledge generation being the accumulated effect of 1) networks of cooperation, 2) collective efforts by public institutions that grow through public flows, and 3) a “non-rival good” whereby multiple users do not fully consume the knowledge produced but actually generate more knowledge, knowledge has become a commodity harvested for specific interests and not for general use and societal improvement. 

A loss of public appreciation for the services provided, specifically the extension services historically offered by land-grant universities, cripples the opportunity for funding alternatives (MCDOWELL 2001). Without this appreciation for the services rendered, the rationale for public investment is further weakened causing a great deal of debate, particularly as budget stresses increase and the value of the services provided by universities comes into question. FALVEY and BARDSLEY (1997) attribute this to a failure to produce relevant outputs that are visible, and audience-appropriate, i.e., the ‘bigger picture’ is not highlighted as a result of the increased focus on specialist, rather than generalist, science and technology. There is also an increase in the prevalence of bottom-line perspectives. In turn, society values the outputs less because the application to everyday life is limited, which renews the progressive criticism of excessive specialization as it has a number of unexpected negative consequences (PARR et al. 2007). 

If the history and root causes of the current state of affairs in agricultural education are understood as a reflection of the general shift in society towards neoliberalism, it is understandable that educational approaches have become primarily positivistic and technoscientific. However, education is fundamentally based on the social sciences (WARDLOW 1989). When agricultural education focuses only on the positivistic mode of inquiry, information is ascertained only by separating and quantifying data. While this provides data that is interpretable in some fashion, it is deeply ingrained in the hard sciences and fails to account for the myriad of other influencing factors. While research in this respect is assertedly value-free, there is minimal regard for how the knowledge will be used. In a sense, this can be quite dangerous if the consequences of scientific inquiry are not a part of the decision-making process (WARDLOW 1989).

Because of this approach, there is a general frustration with the lack of integrated approaches and the narrow focus of studies. Even more frustrating is the organizational structure of universities that are already specialized by design with independent departments that concentrate almost exclusively on production. This narrow focus does not provide students with the opportunity to understand, interact, or make practical and theoretical connections with the real-world food system (SALOMONSSON et al. 2009). Likewise, there is a “gross imbalance” of research and teaching responsibilities (overemphasis on research), over-reliance on passive approaches to learning coupled with didactic teaching methods and excessive specialization, all of which limits interdisciplinary collaboration (PARR et al. 2007). 

Since agricultural extensions are actual extensions of universities, the standard approaches to agriculture are encouraged and promoted. Parallel to these changes, the number of intergenerational farms have dropped, leaving only universities and extensions to train new farmers. The products of this teaching methodology are again, in-line with industrialized agricultural practices. Such an emphasis is further entrenched by the growing number of partnerships between the academic and corporate sectors. 

In contrast, a great deal of discrepancy among those practicing alternative agriculture exists due to variances in values and practices. These differences of opinion, at the very minimum, inhibit collaborative effort and, in the worse case scenario, cause conflict among alternative practitioners (MARTIN 2016). Moreover, agricultural studies are, in and of itself, contradictory in that, on the one hand, they require a great deal of specialization in response to the changing nature of the field and, on the other hand, the importance of understanding the interconnectedness of the various systems influenced by agricultural production (HOFFMANN 1996).

see also:

what is agricultural extension? why is agricultural extension important?


image credit:


One Reply to “a history of agricultural education in the United States”

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: