Popular Science Monthly/Volume 67/August 1905/The Social Phase of Agricultural Education

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I HAVE been asked to speak in behalf of the study of 'Rural Economics.' This term is, I presume, supposed to cover broadly those subjects which treat of the economic and social questions that concern farming and farmers. The whole range of social science as applied to rural conditions is thus apparently made legitimate territory for discussion. In view of the importance and character of this field of study, it seems wise to approach it if possible through the avenue of its underlying philosophy. Only in this way can the validity of the subject be established and its place in agricultural education be justified. I have, therefore, chosen as a specific title, 'The Social Phase of Agricultural Education.' In the treatment of the topic an endeavor has been made to hold consistently in mind the point of view of the agricultural college.

It is a principle in social science that the method and scope of any social institution depend upon its function. Therefore the organization, the methods and the courses of the agricultural college should be made with reference to the function of the college. What is this function? What is the college designed to accomplish? What is its social purpose? Why does society need the agricultural college? Answers to these questions are of two kinds, those that explain the contemporary and passing functions of the college, and those that illustrate its permanent and abiding service to society and particularly to the rural portion of society. The college of yesterday was obliged to train its own teachers and experimenters; to-day it may add the task of training farm superintendents; to-morrow it may organize an adequate extension department. Courses and methods will change as new contemporary needs arise. But there remains always the abiding, final service of the agricultural college, its permanent function. This function will he defined in different ways by different men, but I venture to define it as follows: The permanent function of the agricultural college is to serve as a social organ or agency of first importance in helping to solve all phases of the rural problem. We shall not attempt at once to argue this proposition. We must, however, try to answer the question, What is the rural problem? And in the answer may be revealed, without need of extended discussion, the mission of the college.

1. The days are going by when agriculture may be classed with the mining industries. Soil culture is supplanting pioneer farming. Skill is taking the place of empiricism. The despotism of the grandfather is passing. Applied science and business practise have been hitched to the plow. Yet the most obvious need of American agriculture is better farming. Improved farm land in the United States gives but nine dollars of gross return per acre; the average yield per acre of corn is 23.5 bushels, whereas a very modest ideal would be double this amount; the wheat yield is 13.5 bushels per acre, in Germany nearly twice as much. These are crude but legitimate illustrations of our inferior farming. We must have greater yields of better products, secured at less cost per unit. The farm problem is, therefore, first of all a problem of increasing the technical skill of our farmers. Science unlocks the cabinet of nature's treasures, but only the artist-farmer can appreciate and use the storehouse thus opened to him.

2. But produce-growing is not the only aspect of the farm problem. Each effective pair of shears needs two blades; in this case produceselling is the other blade. Mere productiveness does not solve the farm question. The farmer cares less for the second spear of grass than he does for a proper return from the first spear. Business skill must be added to better farming methods. The farm problem is also a business question.

3. The moment, however, we begin to discuss price we enter a realm where economic factors dominate. We commonly say demand and supply determine price; but effective demand and effective supply are the resultants of many forces. The supply of a given product is influenced by the cost of growing in various locations, by cost of transportation, by competition of other countries. The demand is influenced by the state of wages, by standards of living, by effectiveness of distribution. The farmer may not always control these conditions, but he must reckon with them. He must know the laws of economics as well as the laws of soil-fertility. The farm problem becomes then an industrial question; for the farmer's prosperity is influenced most profoundly by the economic life of the nation and of the world. And in a still wider sense is the rural question one of economics. The industry as a whole must prosper. It is of no great moment that here and there a farmer succeeds. The farming class must prosper. Of course individual success in the case of a sufficient number of farmers implies the success of the industry. But it is quite possible to have a stagnant industry alongside numerous individual successes. The farmers as a whole must be continually and speedily advancing to better economic conditions.

4. Nor may we ignore the political factor in the rural problem. Doubtless the American farmer, like most Americans, places undue reliance upon legislation. But we can not disregard the profound industrial and social effects of either wise or foolish laws. The political efficiency of the farmer will have much to do in determining class progress. Furthermore, the political duties of farmers must be enforced, their influence must continue to be exerted in behalf of the general policies of government. It is of vital consequence to our democratic government that the American farmer shall in no wise lose his political instinct and effectiveness.

5. The consideration of the political phase of the question leads us to the heart of the farm problem. For it is conceivable that the farmers of this country may as a class be skilled growers of produce, successful sellers of what they grow, and indeed that the industry as a whole may be prosperous, and yet the farming class in its general social and intellectual power fail to keep pace with other classes. It is not impossible that a landlord-and-tenant system, or even a peasant system, should yield fairly satisfactory industrial conditions. But who for a moment would expect either system to develop the political and general social efficiency that American democratic ideals demand? Even if there is no immediate danger of either of these systems becoming established in America, we still desire that our farmers as a class shall secure for themselves the highest possible position not only in industry but in the political and social organization of American society. Indeed this is the ultimate American rural problem, to maintain the best possible status of the farming class. No other statement of the problem is satisfactory in theory. None other is explanatory of the struggles and ambitions of farmers themselves. The American farmer will be satisfied with nothing less than securing for his class the highest possible class efficiency and largest class influence, industrially, politically, socially. It is true that industrial success is necessary to political and social power. But it is also true that social agencies are needed in order to develop in our American farmers the requisite technical skill, business method and industrial efficiency. The influence of such social forces as education, developed means of communication, the organization of farmers, and even the church, must be invoked before we can expect the best agricultural advancement. And the end is after all a social one. The maintenance of class status is that end.

This analysis of the rural problem is necessarily brief, almost crude, but I hope that it reveals in some degree the scope and nature of the problem; that it indicates that the farm question is not one merely of technique, fundamental as technical skill must be; that it demonstrates that the problem is also one of profound economic, political and social significance. If this be so, do we need to argue the proposition that the function of the agricultural college is to help solve all phases of the problem? We all recognize the place of the college in assisting our farmers to greater technical skill. By what pleas shall we gainsay the mission of the college in ministering to rural betterment at all points, whether the conditions demand technical skill, business acumen, industrial prosperity, political power or general social elevation? Why shall not the agricultural college be all things to all farmers?

Assuming that this statement of the permanent mission of the agricultural college is an acceptable one, the practical inquiry arises, does the college as now organized adequately fulfil its function, and, if not, by what means can the defect be remedied? The colleges are doubtless serving the industrial and social need to some degree. But I believe that it is not unjust to assert that the existing courses of study in agriculture, the organization of the college and the methods of work are not adequate if the college is to secure and maintain this supreme leadership all along the line of rural endeavor. This is not criticism of existing methods. The colleges are doing good work. But the present effort is partial, because the emphasis is placed upon the technical and especially upon the individual phases of the problem. The industrial, the political and the social factors are not given due consideration. Our present-day agricultural course, on the vocational side, is chiefly concerned with teaching the future individual farmer how to apply the principles of science to the art of farming, and in training specialists who shall make further discoveries either in the realm of science or in the application of the scientific principle to the art. The technical element absolutely dominates the vocational portion of the agricultural course. Very slight attention is given to the discussion of other phases of the farm problem. To meet the needs of the future the whole spirit and method of the agricultural college must be 'socialized'—to use an overworked phrase for want of a better one. We must get away from the idea that the individual and the technical aspects of agricultural research and teaching are the sufficient solution of the farm problem.

When we ask, what are the means for 'socializing' the agricultural college, the expected answer may be, the study of rural social science or 'rural economy.' But I am pleading not merely for the addition of a few subjects to the course of study, but for an educational policy. The answer, therefore, will not be quite so simple. What then are the methods by which the college may more fully assume its function of helping to solve all phases of the farm problem?

1. The indispensable requirement is that the college shall consciously purpose to stand as sponsor for the whole rural problem. It is to assume a place of leadership in the campaign for rural betterment. Whether or not it is to be the commander-in-chief of the armies of rural progress, it should be the inspiration, the guide, the stimulator of all possible endeavors to improve farm and farmer. This attitude of mind is purely a matter of ideals, deliberately formed in the light of the abiding needs of the farming class. It is the intangible but pervasive influence of an object which is perfectly definite even if avowedly spiritual. It is a question of atmosphere. It is a matter of insight. The college must have a vision of the rural problem in its entirety and in its relations. At the college we should find, if anywhere, the capacity to understand the ultimate question in agriculture. We know that this ultimate question in agriculture can not be expressed alone by the terms nitrogen, or balanced ration, or cost per bushel, but must be written also in terms of the human problem, the problem of the men and women of the farm. So we shall see the college consciously endeavoring to make of itself a center where these men and women of the farm shall find light and inspiration and guidance in all the aspects of their struggle for a better livelihood and a broader life. The college must avow its intention of becoming all things to all farmers. Whether this means the study of fertility, of animal nutrition, of soil bacteriology, or whether it means the consideration of markets, of land laws, of transportation, of the country church, of pure government, the college will lead the way to the truth.

2. As the first requisite is that of the conscious ideal or purpose, the second is one of organization. It seems to me that the socialization of the college can not proceed very far until the principle of university extension is pretty fully recognized. The college must be in constant and vital touch with the farmers and their associations. Therefore each agricultural college should as rapidly as possible develop a definite tri-partite organization which reveals the college in its threefold function as an organ of research, as an educator of students, and as a distributor of information to those who can not come to the college. These are really coordinate functions and should be so recognized. The college should unify them into one comprehensive scheme. The principle of such unity is perfectly clear; for we have in research the quest for truth, in the education of students the incarnation of truth, and in extension work the democratization of truth. Until these three lines of effort are somewhat definitely recognized and organized, the college can not work as leader in solving the rural problem.

3. Thirdly, the social sciences, in their relation to the rural problem particularly, must receive a consideration commensurate with the importance of the industrial, the political and the social phases of the farm question. In research, for instance, the colleges should make a study of the history and status of these aspects of agriculture. As a matter of fact, we know very little of these things. There have been but few scientific investigations of the economic features of the industry, and practically nothing has been done in the more purely social questions. Here is a great untilled field. How the various farm industries have developed, a comprehensive study of the agricultural market, the relation of transportation to the industry, the tendencies as to centralization of farms and tenant-farming, the sociological questions of rural illiteracy, pauperism, insanity, health, education, the effects of rural life upon character, religious life in the country—a hundred subjects of importance in the solution of the farm problem are almost virgin soil for the scientific investigator. It is the business of the agricultural colleges to assist, if not to lead, in such work of research. It is work that must be done before the social phases of agricultural education can be fully developed.

When we come to the course of study, we face a question difficult for some colleges because the agricultural curriculum is already overcrowded. I have not time to discuss this practical administrative question. I believe, however, that it can be worked out. What I wish to emphasize is the idea that in every agricultural course the social problems of the farmers shall have due attention. We should not permit a person to graduate in such a course unless he has made a fairly adequate study of the history and status of agriculture, of the governmental problems that have special bearing upon agricultural progress, of such questions in agricultural economics as markets, transportation, business cooperation, and of such phases of rural sociology as farmers' organizations, the country church, rural and agricultural education, and the conditions and movements of the rural population. For the college can not carry out the purpose we have ascribed to it, unless these subjects are given an important place in the course of study. We talk about the work of the college in training leaders, usually meaning by leaders men who are expert specialists or possibly farmers of extraordinary skill. Do we realize that the greatest need of American agriculture to-day is its need of social leadership? Nothing can be more imperative than that the agricultural college shall send out to the farms both men and women who have not only the capacity to win business success, but who also have the social vision, who are moved to be of service to the farm community, and who have the training which will enable them to take intelligent leadership in institute, school, church, grange, and in all movements for rural progress. Upon the college is thrust the responsibility of training men and women to understand the whole rural problem and from the vantage ground of successful farming to be able to lead the way toward a higher status for all farmers.

Possibly the argument for introducing rural social science into the agricultural course is chiefly a sociological one. But there is also involved a pedagogical question of most profound significance. For several decades the educational camp has been sharply divided over the ancient but recurring controversy between the Greek cultural ideal and the Roman utilitarian ideal. I venture the opinion that these two forces of educational idealism will soon reach a compromise which for all practical purposes will take this question out of the pale of serious debate. The classicist will concede that the scope of the term culture may be greatly enlarged, and he may even allow a quite new definition of the cultivated man. It will be generally admitted, to use Professor Bailey's phrase, that 'every subject in which men are interested can be put into pedagogic form and be a means of training the mind.' On the other hand, the technical educator will concede that a college graduate, in whatever course, should be a cultivated man and that there are certain studies with which all cultivated men should have some familiarity. The technical college will, moreover, be compelled to employ instructors who can so teach the technical subject that it shall not only give the knowledge and training desired, but shall also yield sound culture, become truly liberalizing and vision-giving. But a greater question remains. As society becomes more fully self-directive, the demand for social leadership increases. Almost instinctively we look to the college-trained man for such leadership. We expect him to understand and to help. answer the questions that society has to meet. It is not enough that he do his particular work well; he has a public duty. Only thus can he pay all his debt to society for the training he has had. Yet to-day our technical courses are largely engaged in training individuals who, barring some general culture, are highly specialized experts. What preparation, for instance, does the future engineer get in college for facing such a matter as the labor question? He is likely to be brought into close touch with this question. But as a rule he is not especially qualified to handle it. The point of view of the course he has pursued is technique, ever technique. He secures in college little incentive and less training for intelligent performance of his duty as citizen and as member of society. The problems of mathematics are not the problems of industry, and profound study of chemistry gives neither the premises nor the data for sound judgment upon social questions. These public questions can not be left to social experts. A democratic society must insist that all its educated men shall be leaders in solving society's problems. But even the educated men can not lead unless they have first been taught. I believe society has more to fear from technical experts who either neglect their social duty or are ignorant of the social problem than it has from highly trained specialists who have never studied Greek nor mastered Browning. Moreover, under modern conditions, have we a right to call that man cultivated who ignores the great social problems of the age? We face here one of the coming educational questions, how can the industrial course be made to train men for the social leadership the new régime demands? I see no answer except that the course must be made truly and broadly vocational, and consequently that large place must be given to social studies, and particularly to the concrete problems of government, industry and social life.

If we examine our agricultural course from this standpoint, we shall have to admit that it has the flaw common to most industrial courses. It is too technical. It is not truly vocational. It does not present the social view-point. It does not stimulate the student to social activity. It does not give him a foundation for intelligent social service when he shall go to the farm. He should study agricultural economics and rural sociology, both because rural society needs leaders and because, in the arming of the man, the knowledge of society's problems is just as vital as either expert information or personal culture.

4. To carry out the function of the agricultural college we need, finally, a vast enlargement of extension work among farmers. This work will not only be dignified by a standing in the college coordinate with research and the teaching of students, but it will rank as a distinct department, with a faculty of men whose chief business is to teach the people who can not come to the college. This department should manage farmers' institutes, carry on cooperative experiments, give demonstrations in new methods, conduct courses of reading, offer series of extension lectures, assist the schools in developing agricultural instruction, direct the work of rural young people's clubs, edit and distribute such compilations of practical information as now appear under the guise of experiment station bulletins, and eventually relieve the station of the bulk of its correspondence. Such a department will be prepared to incorporate into its work the economic, governmental and social problems of agriculture. It will give the farmers light upon taxation as well as upon tree-pruning. The rural school will have as much attention as corn-breeding. The subject of the market—the 'distributive half of farming,' as John M. Stahl calls it—will be given as much discussion as the subjects bearing upon production. We shall find here a most fertile field for work. The farmers are ready for this step. They have, as a rule, appreciated the real nature of the farm problem more fully than have our agricultural educators. Perhaps at times they have placed undue reliance upon legislation. Perhaps in periods of depression they have overweighed the economic pressure as against the lack of skilled farming. But the great body of farmers has rightly estimated the importance of the economic, political and social questions as related to their ultimate prosperity. In grange meetings, for example, the subjects which arouse greatest interest are such themes as taxation, the rural telephone, the country school, business cooperation. The explanation of all the farmers' movements is that the farmers believe the farm problem to be much more than a question of technique. They want light on the whole problem.

The college, chiefly through its socialized extension department, has a mission also to those professional people whose sphere of work is in the rural community. The rural educator, the country clergyman, the editor of the country paper, and even the lawyer and physician who deal with country people, should have a large share in helping to solve the farm problem. They, too, need to know what the rural problem is. They, too, need the eye that sees the necessary conditions of rural betterment and the heart that desires to help in rural progress. By some of the same methods that reach the farmers themselves can the college instruct and inspire these others.

And, finally, the college will take its place as the 'social organ or agency of first importance in helping to solve the farm problem in all its phases.' The church, the school, the farmers' organization—all these social organs have their work to do. None can do the work of the others. But they should work together. Each should appreciate its own mission and its own limitations; each should recognize the function of the others, and all should intelligently unite their forces in a grand campaign for rural betterment. More properly than perhaps any other agency the socialized extension department of the agricultural college can act as mediator and unifier, serve as the clearinghouse and directing spirit in a genuine federation of rural social forces. Inspired by the conscious purpose of the college to help at all points in the solution of the farm question, informed by the knowledge acquired through research into the economic and social problems of agriculture, aided by a multitude of educated farmers trained in the colleges to know the rural problem and to lend a hand in its settlement, dignified by its status as a coordinate branch of the college activities, the extension department may well act as the chief agency of stimulation and unification in the social movements for rural advancement.

In this discussion the practical details of carrying out the program advocated have not been touched upon. When once it becomes a distinct policy of the college to assume leadership in the movement for rural betterment, such questions as subject-matter for study, text-books, qualified instructors and time in the curriculum will settle themselves. Neither has any attempt been made to give illustrations; and, therefore, this paper may seem dogmatic if not academic, a prophecy rather than an outline of progress, the statement of an idea rather than a practicable program. But I think there is abundant evidence that a current is setting in toward the enlargement of the work of the agricultural college, along the social lines indicated. The rapid development of farmers' institutes, the growth of other phases of extension teaching, the sentiment of those in authority that the experiment station must soon slough off its work of education and confine itself to research, the holding of occasional conferences for rural progress, in which country teachers and pastors join with the farmers, the initiative of the college in federating various state farmers' organizations into one grand committee, the inauguration of several brief courses in agricultural economics and rural sociology, the cooperation of some of the colleges with the Carnegie Institution in an investigation into the history and conditions of agriculture in its economic and social phases, the pride with which a few of our colleges point to the increasing number of young men they are sending to the farms—all these facts seem clearly to indicate that the agricultural college will soon assert its function of leader in the endeavor to solve all phases of the rural problem.

If the analysis thus offered is a correct one, the question of 'rural economics' is far from being merely a matter of adding three or four subjects of study to the agricultural course. It involves the very function and policy of the college itself. It alone gives proportion to the problem of agricultural education, because, while distinctly admitting the need of better farming and the consequently fundamental necessity of the technical training of farmers, it emphasizes the importance of the economic and political and social aspects of rural development. And it thereby indicates that only by a due recognition of these factors, in purpose, in organization, and in course of study, can the American agricultural college fulfil its mission to the American farmer.

  1. Read November 2, at the eighteenth annual convention of the Association of American Agricultural Colleges and Experiment Stations, Des Moines, Iowa.