As I’ve gone on my journey of exploring the idea of Midwestern intellectual and cultural history, I’ve come to see the land grant university as central to my study. In the late 19th century when the research university was rising to prominence over the liberal arts university, the Midwest was rising to prominence as an agricultural and industrial center. Especially as it relates to agriculture, the land grant university was central to shaping the way Midwesterners adapted to the new world that industrialization wrought. First it helped Midwestern farmers increase productivity in order to feed growing urban populations. These public universities democratized higher education and helped to supply the increasingly complex economy with an educated workforce.
Universities are breeding grounds for ideas and the land grant mission meant that these ideas would be spread far beyond the walls of the campus. The scientific innovations of agriculture changed far more than just the way farmers grew food. They changed the very fabric of rural culture. By emphasizing the importance of empirical research for successful farming, the stature of the expert rose while the lived experience of the farmer became less important. The land grant university and the agricultural extension service was an important way by which modern values came to the farm.
One of the difficulties for Midwestern Studies is the seeming lack of distinctiveness of the region. The South has a very clear regional identity defined by the Civil War and a common economic and cultural history. The Midwest lacks any unifying historical events, and the region is often seen as simply the “average” of the country. One way in which we can begin to discover the distinctive traits of the Midwest is by comparing it to other regions. The realm of agriculture, I think, provides a particularly fruitful case study.
What I am suggesting is that the influence of the land grant university college of agriculture is an essential part of Midwestern identity and culture. When compared with the South, the impact of the land grant university becomes clearer. The rise of the land grant university is inexorably tied to industrialization and modernity. In the South however, there is a longer tradition (both real and imagined) of agriculture. When New South reformers were advocating industrialization as a path to Southern revitalization in the 1920s, adherents to this tradition pushed back against the imposition of industrial values. Twelve Southern writers contributed essays to I’ll Take My Stand: The South and the Agrarian Tradition. These essays warned of the dangers of industrialization and longed for the pre-Civil War economy.
My interest in Midwestern pastoral-agrarian-agricultural thought is directly related to my interest in contemporary food issues. I would like to define and promote the Midwestern tradition as an alternative to the dominant discourse which I believe to be inherently Southern.
Wendell Berry is the grandfather of the contemporary food movement. In the 1970s, he was one of the major figures in the first wave organic movement. The reigning guru, Michael Pollan, constantly reminds his readers of his indebtedness to Berry. The commonality that runs from the Southern Agrarians, to Berry, to Pollan, is a rejection of industrialization. The Midwestern tradition with its more pragmatic and progressive stance towards industrialization, offers an alternative to this tradition.
Conservatives have been said to stand athwart history yelling stop. The Southern Agrarians were, broadly speaking, conservatives. They wanted things to stay the way they were. They didn’t want to the changes that industrialization threatened to bring to their South. Berry and Pollan, though, are asking for much more than history to stop. They are asking for it to reverse. Pollan even goes so far as to advise people to only eat what their great-grandmother would recognize as food.
One thing that Berry and Pollan are right about is the failure of our current food system. They have made great strides to raise awareness about this, but it is rather a banal observation. The problems are clear enough, but the solutions rather more difficult. By following in Berry and Pollan’s footsteps, the food movement continues their reactionary tradition.