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Every College a Farm, Every College a Manufactory

— I hold an unusual opinion, unusual only because the rest of the world has not yet caught up to it. I believe every residential college should be a farm and a manufactory. Every residential college within a university should grow something that its members can consume or that it can provide to its alumni or the local community. And every residential college should manufacture some practical thing that its members can use, wear, or otherwise put into service.

I don’t mean that every university should do this as a matter of economic or ecologic sustainability. I mean every small residential college within a university should do it, because it is in the up-close and personal setting of a residential college that such activities will have the greatest educational benefit.

One of the principal educational functions of a residential college should be to counter what has been called the extinction of the experience. This should not be done through some special residential college curriculum: should be done by means of a consciously structured pattern of life, both social and material, that maximizes each student’s chances of encountering an opportunity for learning, every day, every week, every month, every year. By providing a wide range of small-scale opportunities for learning through observation and participation, and by making them almost unavoidable—not because they are mandated but because they are always within our daily field of action—a small residential college can become an educational environment without equal.

A sustainable university farm a couple of miles off campus that grows food for the central dining hall is of no more educational value to (say) an on-campus English major—with no prior interest in agriculture or the environment—than a university astronomical observatory on another continent. Yes, students with specialized interests in these facilities will make the effort to spend time at them, just as the English major may make the effort to spend time in the university’s controlled rare book room with a leaf from the First Folio (which the science major will never see). But it is the small college telescope in the junior common room, the micro-farm on the front lawn, and the letterpress shop in the basement that will bring these two cultures together. Oxygen doesn’t pass from the trachea to the pulmonary artery; it passes from the alveoli to the capillaries.

But why a farm and a manufactory in every college? Because they will vitally link students to a vast range of human experience. It is only within the last century or two that people in industrialized countries have become disconnected from the material foundations of their survival. And yet much of the literature we study in the classroom, the political constitutions we live under, the philosophical frameworks that we move within, the religious traditions that many of us follow—all these things arose in times and places where people’s connections with the living and producing world around them were much more immediate.

How can a student who has never picked apples understand Robert Frost’s “After Apple-picking”? How can a student who has never seen a forge in operation understand viscerally what it means to go after something hammer and tongs. How can a student who has never tried to weave even an inch of cloth by hand understand the disturbing profligacy of Clytemnestra as she spreads yards of the finest purple across the floor for Agamemnon to walk upon with his bloody feet? How can a student who has never tried to control a chisel on a piece of marble or slate appreciate the skill that went into the making of a temple frieze or a New England gravestone. The hands teach the brain. Materiality matters.

So, what might a modern residential college make or grow? With respect to gardening and farming there are an endless variety of practical and ornamental options. Vegetables, fruit trees, and grains; bushes for berries to serve at tea; flax for spinning; bayberries for candles (one of my favorites). For ornament you can grow roses, lilacs, and lilies of the field (Solomon in his glory was not arrayed like one of those)—your choices are almost unlimited and will be constrained only by your local conditions. And you can always enrich the choices a bit for greater educational effect: not just tomatoes, but scarce early varieties of tomatoes, known as heirloom vegetables in the trade; not just roses, but heritage roses; not just flowers for the dinner table, but a special butterfly garden that will be an ecological lesson all unto itself.

Old collegiate precedents for this are easier to find than moderns ones, although the independent institutions of the Work Colleges Consortium, headed by well-known Berea College in Kentucky, provide many present-day examples from degree-granting liberal arts colleges that are worthy of emulation. Within the sphere of university residential colleges, the ancient collegiate societies of Oxford and Cambridge were necessarily more self-sufficient than any of us are today. Kitchen gardens and fruit trees on the grounds were common and they provided food for the college members in hall. Many of the Oxford and Cambridge colleges still maintain vibrant gardens that can serve as fine examples for us.

And what of manufacture—of making-by-hand? Here the choices are endless as well. The crafting of wooden toys for local children, the weaving of cloth on a loom, the shaping of pots on a wheel (the only way to understand Aristotle’s theory of causality), the setting of type, the grinding of lenses—all of these things will allow students to share in the experiences of generations upon generations of their fellow human beings, experiences that have been lost to most of us in the comfortable, industrial, factory-furnished (as opposed to manufactory-furnished) world.

If you manufacture the right things, things that endure and function materially in the life of your college—furniture, ornaments, instruments, and tools—your present members will thereby make a claim on the lives of those who come after them. “It is well to have, not only what men have thought and felt,” John Ruskin reminded us, but also “what their hands have handled, and their strength wrought, and their eyes beheld, all the days of their life.” Let the things we make “be such work as our descendants will thank us for.”

And what a perfect opportunity this presents for the creation of small endowed scholarships. Can you imagine a student being appointed “Lens-maker to the College” for a few hundred dollars a year? I certainly can. Printer to the College? College Pomologist? Can you imagine the four student officers in charge of the endowed college art studio being given the titles Material Cause, Formal Cause, Efficient Cause, and Final Cause? Ooooh, I can. (“Hi, I’m Emily, the Formal Cause.”) If your residential college is not a place of clever laughter, why would anyone want to belong to it?

People take pride in and learn best from things they make and grow themselves. The experience of making and growing should be part of the daily life of every residential college. What does your college make and grow?

Update · 21 March 2008: Talk about Zeitgeist.

Update · 9 December 2008: Historian William Turkel has just published a wonderful list of recommended readings on craftsmanship and fabrication that intersects neatly with many of the ideas outlined above.

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© Robert J. O’Hara 2000–2014