From time to time, questions are raised about the value of classes which provide students with opportunities to engage in “professional practice” within a university curriculum. Some faculty recognize the value of experiential learning but question the worth of any experience that is not done in the context of research – particularly laboratory research.
The tension between the perceived value of science (mostly associated with classrooms and laboratories) and professional practice (often associated with the world outside of academia) goes back to the early days of UMass, when the same question was raised by faculty of the “old college” – Amherst College – about the “new college” – Massachusetts Agricultural College (Mass Aggie). Indeed, the namesake of the Stockbridge School of Agriculture and his colleagues were engaged in this debate 150 years ago.
According to William Henry Bowker, a member of the original 1867 entering class of the Massachusetts Agricultural College, “Levi Stockbridge was thirty-seven years of age when he came to this institution, a tall, thin, wiry, untiring farmer… a contribution from the public schools – a self-educated man…” unlike the other members of the famous “faculty of four” in the early days of the College.
Two members of the “big four”, William S. Clark, professor of botany and horticulture, and Henry Goodell, instructor of literature, were educated at Amherst College. Charles Goessmann, professor of chemistry, was educated at the University of Gottingen, in Germany. Interestingly, the namesake of the Stockbridge School of Agriculture was educated in the “field of professional practice” as a Hadley farmer and self-educated in science. Nevertheless, he was one of the most successful and revered professors in the early history of the institution.
Agricultural (professional) practice was a core value of the “new college,” setting it apart from the “old college” from which many of the early instructors were borrowed. Bowker writes “…we dug ditches, as instruction in drainage, we cut down and uprooted apple trees, as lessons in forestry, we leveled Virginia fences and graded land, for landscape effect and education, we milked cows and groomed horses, which I suppose would come under the head of veterinary science and practice; we mowed grass and harvested corn, which undoubtedly must be classified among the arts of agriculture.” While students no longer dig ditches, they are encouraged to engage in “enterprise” projects such as the UMass Student Farm & CSA described in the video here.
Professional practice has long been a critical component of the educational experience for students in the “new college.” Members of the “old college” – Amherst College – disparagingly called the new Aggies “bucolics” – and deemed practical education unworthy of the elite members of the more aristocratic neighbor. But Levi Stockbridge never denied the difference between the two educational approaches, seeing them as complementary and of equal value depending on the career goals of the students.
But for all that – “Mass Aggie” was never a narrow, technical training school. According to Henry Bowker, Mass Aggie offered “…in the broader sense of teaching all the natural and applied sciences which are related to agriculture, and at the same time, while training men along vocational lines, of giving them as liberal an education as possible in order to fit them to be good citizens and to do their part in society.” The legacy of Levi Stockbridge and the other members of the “big four” is a balance of science and professional practice, something the Stockbridge School of Agriculture strives for still today.
Right from the beginning, the early professors put value on scientific research. Here is Bowker quoting the first president, Henry Flagg French, “let us pursue our study beyond the mere instruction of classes in their prescribed courses, and endeavor, by careful experiment in the field and careful investigation in the study and laboratory, to make discoveries in science and to enlarge the boundaries of existing knowledge….” The legacy of Mass Aggie is education in both science and practice.
The Massachusetts Agricultural College and its “offspring” the Stockbridge School of Agriculture were established with a specific intent “to make agriculture its leading subject” and further to “include, also, manual training in its curriculum.” The legacy of the early days of Mass Aggie, and particularly of Levi Stockbridge, who was described by Bowker as “no doubt the peer, if not the superior, in native wit and capacity” of the other members of the faculty, was to establish the value of practical education built upon a solid foundation of science.
The legacy of science and professional practice lives on in the laboratories, fields, and particularly the students of the recently expanded Stockbridge School of Agriculture. Students in the four B.S. degrees, the 6 A.S. degrees, as well as those working toward graduate degrees under the supervision of Stockbridge faculty remain proud of the legacy of science and practice established by the founding faculty of the University of Massachusetts Amherst.
Quotes in this essay were taken from an address by Henry H. Bowker, trustee of the college, at the 40th anniversary of the Massachusetts Agricultural College, titled “The Old Guard; the Famous ‘Faculty of Four’ – the Mission and Future of the College – its Debt to Amherst College, Harvard College and other Institutions” presented on October 2, 1907.