Science and Practice – the Stockbridge Legacy

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 330px-LeviStockbridgeinstitution, 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.

Mass_AggieAgricultural (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.

Ag students in fieldBut 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.

RG150-0005740Mass Aggie – 1867 Durfee Greenhouse is in the foreground

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.

3 thoughts on “Science and Practice – the Stockbridge Legacy”

  1. It is CRITICAL for students to receive a balance of classroom instruction and field experience when studying agriculture. I remember one time in 1972 when I was working in the goat and pig barn (long gone) when four men came in with lab bottles and clipboards. They asked where the lactating goats were, and when informed, they paraded down the barn. They gave off an aura of knowledge and professionalism, and I’m afraid I gave off quite a different impression, such as I was, dressed in my overalls and barn coat. About fifteen minutes later, they returned. Their faces were bright red, and they seemed quite uncomfortable in approaching me. One spoke up, and explained that they were here to collect milk samples for their lab work, but they couldn’t get the goats to release their milk. Could I help…

    Well, I went back down the barn, and quickly got their samples for them. They couldn’t wait to get back into their lab! Yes, they had their advanced knowledge, but I knew how to milk a goat! More than forty years later and retired with three degrees and a certificate, I can still milk a goat, shovel out a pen, deliver a kid (when necessary), and share my love of doing with young people. A Stockbridge education should always consist of books, labs, and DOING. To do otherwise is just an education.

  2. Agricultural studies at UMass should most certainly be a blend of science and hands-on experiential learning. Not only does this hold true to the vision of Levi Stockbridge and many of those who founded Mass Aggie but it also makes sense on the common sense level. I would even say that it is a model that could be applied to all of teaching whether the message stems from a person from long ago or from a young teacher: Teach the fundamentals and the scientific models. Then teach about applying those fundamentals and have the students perform those fundamentals in the field. Students will gain knowledge (whether taught or not) from the act of doing and exposure. Hall of Fame coach John Wooden once stated that there are 4 laws of learning: explanation, demonstration, imitation and repetition. Experiential learning helps enforce that crucial last step. The science is most certainly important but it needs to applied in practice just as the athlete hones his skills by the hands-on application of his/her trade.

    As a young farmer, I can attest to the fact that experiential learning and science are complements to one another, not rivals where one largely dominates the other. I have learned how to do something by being educated by the book. However, I have also learned by getting out in the field and doing it. It is crucial to have a feel for the skill that you are learning. That “feel” will educate you in different ways as well as complementary ways as to how your skill/trade is performed. One can think of it as riding a bike. You can learn why a bike moves and read about how to ride a bike. However, in order to hone your balance and develop your body to ride a bike, you need to practice actually riding the bike and applying those skills.

    While it is possible to educate, train and inspire farmers with a non-balanced focus, it seems that it would be beneficial for a well-balanced blend of the art & science of agriculture to be complemented and used with the actual hands-on experience of farming & agriculture. Levi Stockbridge may be long gone. But the lessons that he and others brought to the field of education still resonate.

  3. I teach students about food systems, food policy, equity and food justice. Most already have extensive and valuable experience working in sustainable agriculture – they know how to grow food and are passionate that everyone should be able to afford fresh, seasonal, fairly produced food and to grow it if desired. They are hungry to understand the complexity of our food system, and to grapple with the policy process.

    Over the past several years, students have bolstered vital regional community food projects in the following ways:
    • Teaching food systems and conducting seasonal vegetable tastes tests with elementary students in Williamsburg, Southampton, Holyoke public schools;
    • Designing and completing community based bilingual research with Nuestras Raíces urban gardeners;
    • Conducting a plate waste study in the Holyoke Public Schools with Fertile Ground, the Holyoke Food and Fitness Policy Council, the UMA School of Public Health and Center for Public Policy;
    • Developing an early action plan for the UMASS Real Food Challenge and subsequently building its policy strategy, committee and handbook;
    • Providing farm to school needs assessments at their home town high schools around the state;
    • Creating a student toolkit on how to afford to buy local and cook with fresh produce on and off campus;
    • Providing a template for launching the PV Grows Racial Equity and the Food System Committee;
    • And this fall, planting 24,000 bulbs of garlic at Next Barn Over.

    These real world experiences expose students to the complexity of nonprofit and policy work, while providing opportunities for meaningful exchange. Students have moved on to find significant employment in the regional food system – at Nuestras Raíces, The Food Bank of Western MA, CISA, the MASS Farm to School Project, the Amherst Farmer’s Market, and UMASS, in addition to many regional farms. In addition to the knowledge and skill base cultivated while at UMASS, the relationships that are formed with community food projects and farms strategically place our students to contribute to building a more resilient food system.

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