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Popular Science Monthly/Volume 63/July 1903/An Untilled Field in American Agricultural Education


AGRICULTURAL education in this country has thus far been an attempt to apply a knowledge of the laws of the so-called 'natural' sciences to the practical operations of the farm. Comparatively little attention has been paid to the application of the principles of the 'social' sciences to the life of the farmer. AU this is partly explained by the fact that the natural sciences were fairly well developed when the needs of the farmer called the scientist to work with and for the man behind the plow—when a vanishing soil fertility summoned the chemist to the service of the grain grower, when the improvement of breeds of stock and races of plants began to appeal to the biologist. Moreover, these practical applications of the physical and biological sciences are, and always will be, a fundamental necessity in the agricultural question.

But in the farm problem we cannot afford to ignore the economic and sociological phases. While it may be true that the practical success of the individual farmer depends largely upon his business sense and his technical education, it is folly to hope that the success of agriculture as an industry and the influence of farmers as a class can be based solely upon the ability of each farmer to raise a big crop and to sell it to advantage. General intelligence, appreciation of the trend of economic and social forces, capacity to cooperate, ability to voice his needs and his rights, are just as vital acquirements for the farmer as knowing how to make two blades of grass grow where but one grew before. It finally comes to this, that the American farmer is obliged to study the questions that confront him as a member of the industrial order and as a factor in the social and political life of the nation, with as much zeal and understanding as he is expected to show in the study of those natural laws governing the soil and the crops and the animals that he owns.

In this connection it is significant to note that farmers themselves are already quite as interested in the social problems of their particular calling and in the general economic and political questions of the day, as they are in science applied to their business of tilling the soil. Not necessarily that they minimize the latter, but they seem instinctively to recognize that social forces may work them ill or work them good according to the direction and power of those forces. This statement is illustrated by the fact that the aims, purposes, labors and discussions of the great farmers' organizations like the Grange are social in character, having to do with questions that are political, economic, sociological.

When, however, we turn to those public educational agencies that are intended to assist in the solution of the farm problem, we discover that they are giving slight attention to the social side of the question. An examination of the catalogues of the agricultural colleges, whether separate institutions or colleges of state universities, reveals the fact that, beyond elementary work in economics, in civics, and occasionally in sociology, little opportunity is given students to study the farm question from its social standpoint. With a few exceptions, these institutions offer no courses whatever in rural social problems, and even in these exceptional cases the work offered is hardly commensurate with the importance of the subject. Nearly all our other colleges and universities are subject to the same comment. The average student of problems in economics and sociology and education gains no conception whatever of the importance and character of the rural phases of our industrial and social life.

It may be urged in explanation of this state of affairs that the liberal study of the social sciences, and especially any large attention to the practical problems of economics and sociology, in our colleges and universities is a comparatively recent thing. This is true and is a good excuse. But it does not offer a reason why the social phases of agriculture should be longer neglected. The purpose of this article is less to criticize than to describe a situation and to urge the timeliness of the large development, in the near future, of rural social science.

At the outset the queries may arise. What is meant by rural social science? And, What is there to be investigated and taught under such a head? The answer to the first query has already been intimated. Rural social science is the application of the principles of the social sciences, especially of economics and sociology, to the problems that confront the American farmer. The reply to the second query is not designed as an outline of all the courses that may be offered, but merely as a concrete illustration of work that could be followed by investigators and teachers, and by them indefinitely expanded.

Taking first those subjects that have an economic bearing, we may suggest agricultural geography: the relation of soil and climate to agriculture, agricultural resources, the natural and actual distribution of crop-growing, relation of science to agriculture, etc.—The farmer's market: including, besides a general discussion of the subject, a consideration of the special features of the local market, the domestic market and the foreign market. Also, a brief discussion of special influences affecting the farmer's market, such as the tariff, export duties, bounties, dealings in 'futures,' crises, the development of manufacturing, etc.—Questions like the relation of transportation, of industrial concentration, and of taxation, to agriculture.—Business cooperation among farmers.—Exchange facilities in rural districts.—Tenant farming.—Large vs. small farming.—Machinery and agriculture.—History of the farming industry.

Considering now themes that are more purely sociological, we may name rural education, including first, the rural schools proper and second, agricultural education especially. Under the latter head could be discussed nature-study teaching in rural schools, agricultural schools and colleges, experiment station work, agricultural fairs, farmers' institutes.—Rural religious institutions.—Farmers' organizations: the Grange, farmers' clubs, farmers' alliances.—Rural communication; wagon roads, trolley lines, telephones, rural mail delivery.—Degeneracy, pauperism, intemperance, crime, in rural life.—Social life in the country.—Arts and crafts in rural communities.—Rural social psychology.—Social history of agriculture.

These lists are purely suggestive and by no means complete. There are also subjects that have a political bearing, such as local government in the country, and primary reform in rural communities, which perhaps ought not to be omitted. So too, various phases of home life and of art might be touched upon. The subjects suggested and others like them could be conveniently grouped into from two to a dozen courses, as circumstances might require.

What classes of people may be expected to welcome and profit by instruction of this character? (1) The farmers themselves. Assuming that our agricultural colleges are designed, among other functions, to train men and women to become influential farmers, no argument is necessary to show how studies in rural social science may help qualify these students for genuine leadership of their class of toilers. On the other hand, it may be remarked that no subjects will better lend themselves to college extension work than those named above. Lectures and lecture courses for granges, farmers' clubs, farmers' institutes, etc., on such themes would arouse the greatest interest. Correspondence and home study courses along these lines would be fully as popular as those treating of soils and crops. (2) Agricultural educators. The soil physicist or the agricultural chemist will not be a less valuable specialist in his own line, and he certainly will be a more useful member of the faculty of an agricultural college, if he has an appreciative knowledge of the farmer's social and economic status. This is even more true of men called to administer agricultural education in any of its phases. (3) Rural school administrators and the more progressive rural teachers. The country school can never become truly a social and intellectual center of the community until the rural educators understand the social environment of the farmer. (4) Country clergymen. The vision of a social service church in the country will remain but a dream unless, added to the possession of a heart for such work, the clergyman knows the farm problem sufficiently to appreciate the broader phases of the industrial and social life of his people. (5) Editors of farm papers, and of the so-called 'country' papers. Probably the editors of the better class of agricultural papers are less in need of instruction such as that suggested than is almost any one else. Yet the same arguments that now lead many young men aspiring to this class of journalism to regard a course in scientific agriculture as a vestibule to their work, may well be used in urging a study of rural social science, especially at a time when social and economic problems are pressing upon the farmer. As for the country papers, the work of purveying local gossip and stirring the party kettle too often obscures the tremendous possibilities for a high class service to the rural community which such papers may render. No men, in the agricultural states at least, have more real influence in their community than the trained, clean, manly, country editors—and there is a multitude of such men. If as a class they possessed also a wider appreciation of the farmer's industrial difficulties and needs, hardly any one could give better service to the solution of the farm problem than could they. (6) Everybody else! That is to say, the agricultural question is big enough and important enough to be understood by educated people. The farmers are half our people. Farming is the largest single industrial interest in the country. The capital invested in agriculture is four fifths the capital invested in manufacturing and railway transportation combined. Whether an individual has a special interest in business, in economics, in education, or in religious institutions, he ought to know the place of the farm and the farmer in that question. No one can have a full appreciation of the social and industrial life of the American people who is ignorant of the agricultural status.

The natural place to begin work in rural social science is the agricultural college. Future farmers and teachers of farmers are supposed to be there. The subjects embraced are as important in solving the farm problem as are biology, physics or chemistry. No skilled farmer or leader of farmers should be without some reasonably correct notions of the principles that determine the position of agriculture in the industrial world. A brief study of the elements of political economy, of sociology, of civics, is not enough; no more than the study of the elements of botany, of chemistry and of zoology is enough. The specific problems of the farmer that are economic need elucidation alongside the study of soils and crops, of plant- and stock-breeding. And these economic topics should be thoroughly treated by men trained in social science, and not incidentally by men whose chief interest is technical agriculture.

The normal schools may well discuss the propriety of adding one or two courses which bear on the social and economic situation of the rural classes. While these schools do not now send out many teachers into rural schools, they may do so under the system of centralized schools; and in any event they furnish rural school administrators, as well as instructors of rural teachers. There seems to be a growing sentiment which demands of the school and of the teacher a closer touch with life as it is actually lived. How can rural teachers learn to appreciate the social function of the rural school, except they be taught?

Nor is there any reason why the theological seminaries, or at least the institutions that prepare the men who become country clergymen, should not cover some of the subjects suggested. If the ambition of some people to see the country church a social and intellectual center is to be realized, the minister must know the rural problem broadly. The same arguments that impel the city pastor to become somewhat familiar with the economic, social and civic questions of the day hold with equal force when applied to the necessary preparation for the rural ministry.

The universities may be called upon to train teachers and investigators in rural social science for service in agricultural colleges, normal schools and theological seminaries. Moreover, there is no good reason why any college or university graduate should not know more than he does about the farm problem. There can be little doubt that the interest in the farm question is very rapidly growing, and that the universities will be but meeting a demand if they begin very soon to offer courses in rural social science.

The arguments for rural social science rest, let us observe, not only upon its direct value to the farmers themselves, but upon its necessity as a basis for that intelligent social service which preacher, teacher and editor may render the farming class. It is an essential underlying condition for the successful federation of rural social forces. Indeed it should in some degree be a part of the equipment of every educated person.

It may not be out of place to add, in conclusion, that instruction in rural social problems should be placed in the hands of men who are thoroughly trained in social science as well as accurate, experienced and sympathetic observers of rural conditions. It would be mischievous indeed if in the desire to be progressive any educational institution should offer courses in rural social science which gave superficial or erroneous ideas about the scientific principles involved, or which encouraged in any degree whatever the notion that the farmer 's business and welfare are not vitally and forever bound up with the business and welfare of all other classes.