Science and Practice: the Stockbridge Legacy

Students who choose to major in Sustainable Food and Farming at UMass Amherst are encouraged to seek practical experience in the form of internships, either during the summer or school year.  The value of these experiences are acknowledged by awarding academic credit of up to 9 credits during the summer or 12 credits during the regular semester.  While any faculty member may sponsor an internship, one member of the faculty is specifically assigned the responsibility to insure the experience is indeed educational and appropriate to receive academic credit.

Nevertheless, some faculty and administrators have questioned the value of professional practice, claiming this experience should be valued as an elective or perhaps not receive credit at all.   The tension between the perceived value of classroom education and professional practice 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).

cropped-lefi.jpgIndeed, Levi Stockbridge and his colleagues were engaged in this debate 150 years ago. Professor Stockbridge wrote in his report to the Massachusetts Board of Agriculture in 1867, about the first class accepted into Mass Aggie….  “the plan was adopted, I say, that every young man who came there should work upon the land six hours in a week ; that the·whole class should work, upon  the  land, as a part of their regular school education,…”

In fact, practical field work was a requirement for all students as it was deemed a critical “part of their regular school education.”  Those students who elected to work more than 6 hours a week were paid for their extra hours.

According to William Henry Bowker, a member of the original 1867 entering class of the Massachusetts Agricultural College, 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 off-campus internships or on-campus experiential learning 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. 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.  For those interested in careers relating to agriculture, practical experience was a core part of the learning at Mass Aggie.

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 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.

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