Notes from a Native New Yorker: Studying The Ground, and Ourselves

Michelle Stein—


Notes from the Ground: Science, Soil & Society in the American Countryside, by Benjamin R. Cohen is primarily the story of the merger of agriculture and science in early America, and all the attendant debates and developments in agricultural life. But in the spirit of the season of back to school, I hoped to read Notes From The Ground through the lens of education, a goal easily accomplished; you can’t help but be struck by the many parallels to questions in education.

Throughout the book Cohen shows the variety of ways in which farmers sought to improve their land and soil.  Many farmers looked inwardly towards themselves, their farms, and their own communities for ideas and advice.  Early American agricultural society had much in common with the ideas of farming stemmed in part from Virgil’s Georgics.  Virgil held farming and hard work in high esteem and a foundation for a nation and progress.  The land was regarded as beautiful as well as a place of work and morality.

As the 19th century progressed, chemists began to carefully study the science of the soil.  The use of scientific knowledge even by those working with the soil on a daily basis could and would ultimately redefine how farmers interacted with the land.  Increased understanding of the soil and land derived from scientific study was immensely valuable and foolish to ignore.  But many American farmers were wary of information gathered by those with no direct connection to the land.  At a minimum, many hoped that those pursuing improvement of land morally, with careful consideration to how to use new knowledge while also maintaining the treatment of the land taken by the georgics.

How does this tie to the world of education?  The farmers and scientists in Cohen’s book lived through a time of fast-paced change and development.  This is not much different from the educational experience, and the story of how science and agriculture offers up many of the same questions and practices as today’s educational world.

Notes from the Ground delves into the question of how one approaches new information: it is not to be taken at face value, but considered thoughtfully and incorporated into one’s life and worldview.  The farmers who were faced with new practices all responded in different ways.  The practical, real life experience is also a hallmark of today’s educational system, though not solely in the realm of farming.  At a young age, field trips often tied to the in-school curriculum, and many colleges offer credit for a variety of out-of-classroom experiences.  Cohen also writes the books and presses on farming that emerged in the 19th century, and of course reading and writing are fundamental parts of any educational experience.

The parallels go even beyond these perhaps standard examples.  Cohen writes in his Introduction that “this study of science and agriculture is about the relationships between ideas of and practices in the environment.”  Along those same lines, I would argue that this study of science, agriculture, and environment is about the study of how we change and learn.


Michelle Stein is a former Yale Press intern and a forever book-lover.

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