The Soil of Learning

by Todd R. Nelson

One summer, just before the start of school, I heard an Ohio Amish farmer quoted on National Public Radio: “A farming community is only as good as its soil,” he said. And a farm makes an apt metaphor for the community of teaching, learning, and parenting we find in schools, though our seasons are backwards: fall is planting time; spring is harvest.

It’s pleasing to imagine a school’s diverse intelligence and abundant resources as a farm. The library serves as the orchard of perennial Macintoshes, Cortlands and Red Delicious. Yonder is the wood lot, our source of both axe handles and heat, and the economy of being twice warmed from each log. The classrooms of rich river-bottom land and meadows support both the whimsy of wild flowers and milkweed beloved of Monarch butterflies, and income-producing barley or wheat. Ours are free-range chickens, but not free-range cattle. The neighbors aren’t too irate when an occasional bull wanders into the rhubarb, as long as we don’t allow it too often. We maintain the fences because ‘Good fences make…”—you know the rest. And there is even aspiration to raise an occasional exotic crop: Perhaps this is the year for shitake mushrooms or raspberries for local restaurants. And we take care to sow cover crops to assure the replenishment of nitrogen in the soil.

But ah, that rich soil of ours, enabling this balance and diversity. To be a successful farm or school, we must nurture that which nurtures us—we’re only as good as our soil, after all. Maintaining the soil is as important as the price we get at market for a bushel of our corn. We are not interested in mere short-term production, but in stewardship of the land, developing both orchard and cash crop. After all, we want to pass the farm down to generation “next.” This is sustainable farming. And, as the Amish farmer knows, the success of the individual farmer cannot be detached from the surrounding community. We gotta share tools, chores, and resources. I’ll plow your north forty ‘cause I have a tractor; you’ll let my cows graze your high meadow.

Stewardship of a learning community requires intimate knowledge of its climate and soil. Schooling, like farming, is an intensely local enterprise. My favorite poet and farmer is Wendell Berry of Eastern Kentucky. “The particular farm,” he writes, “must not be treated as any farm…. Farming by the measure of… the nature of the particular place means that farmers must tend farms that they know and love, farms small enough to know and love, using tools and methods that they know and love, in the company of neighbors that they know and love. . . . The inability to distinguish between a farm and any farm is a condition predisposing to abuse.” When I first read these thoughts I was struck by how parallel they are with the qualities of robust schools. It emphasizes the strength of progressive schooling to substitute the word “school” for “farm” in these sentences.

Then we must wonder, what is the soil of this school community? I know what it is not: mere class size, physical facilities, or technology. These are our distinguishing features, our tools. Nor should soil and crops be confused. We raise up proficiency in a foreign language, literacy, numeracy, artistic and athletic expression; ethical judgment and the grace of collaboration. But I suggest that our soil is something deeper. The achievement of a healthy community is its guidance of children toward maturity and fulfillment, the protection of opportunities for men and women to continue learning in the practice of their craft, the use of equitable systems for self-evaluation, judgment, and evolution.

A true community is self-perpetuating and self-healing because it springs from such vitality as the knowledge and love of the farmer. A faculty should be given an economy of scale that allows for the use of “tools they know and love, in the company of neighbors they know and love.” We village elders have responsibilities towards raising all of the children by passing on the traditional lore and craft that return that good crop-growing nitrogen to the soil of knowledge and love. A school community too is only as good as its soil. This is sustainable learning.

Today’s children inhabit a very different landscape than their parents or teachers. As they begin to anticipate their own manhood or womanhood, they must make sense of some very confusing messages, one of which is the current seemingly benign aspiration to have the authority of adulthood without the critical balance of experience and maturity; to have the behaviors of mature people without the commensurate habits of thought and feeling required to genuinely inhabit an adult life. This makes for shallow roots—rapid growth, for instance, but lacking durability. Currently our media exalts images of unearned power and prestige and corruptions of authentic virtue: luck over blessedness, savvy over wisdom, stoicism over bravery. Which leads me to feel that a community of learning is a wonderful place to spend these chrysalis years, not an escape, but a sturdy structure from which to venture forward. But the privilege of membership incurs a responsibility.

We must teach that it is in the best interest of each individual to live in a way that enriches the communal soil. “If we were lucky enough as children to be surrounded by grown-ups who loved us,” Berry notes, “then our sense of wholeness is not just the sense of completeness-in-ourselves, but is the sense also of belonging to others and to our place; it is an unconscious awareness of community, of having-in-common.” Community is the meeting ground of the past and the future, where one is nourished by the other through a sense of belonging, and a life of learning that is habitual, thus deeply rooted for long-term, abundant productivity. Schools should be producing human beings whose hearts and intellect are integrated with contemporary tools, intelligences, and peoples. Thus we “hitch our wagon to a star.” It takes all of us to make the journey. The soil of learning is the soil of community. One might also say, “Welcome to the barn raising, neighbors.”[1]



[1] “The Soil of Learning,” Teachers.net, September, 2009.

“The Soil of Learning is the Soil of Community,” The Castine Patriot, November 16, 2006.


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