Back to School

August 26, 2012

And so never one to underestimate the value of stating the obvious, I point out that this is the last weekend of “summer”. We will have nice warm weather for a while yet, of course, and the official end of summer doesn’t arrive until 2:49 pm on September 22. But conventionally and colloquially, summer is over when it’s time to go back to school. Some kids in the Lansing area are already back in school, and some won’t go back until after Labor Day (which is next weekend). Lots of people (we can call them adults) aren’t really so much affected by this “back to school” phenomenon at all, though Labor Day being a national holiday in the United States there’s still some remnant of that cycle lying dormant in everyone’s experience. And given the fact that (if the robots are any indication—and they’re not) there’s a big international audience for the Thornapple blog, I should probably note that the school calendar that structures U.S. habits is far from universal. But with all these disclaimers born in mind, it’s the last weekend of summer, in case you hadn’t noticed.

In fact, it’s become traditional to notice the end of summer in the Thornapple Blog. By “traditional” I mean that I’ve done it before. There are exactly thirty-six ways to make a connection between the end of summer and the food and farming ethics theme of The Blog. Some of them involve the connection between agriculture and the solar calendar, but we’ve been there. Others are more specifically tied to the way that eating in season really should be tied to some vague awareness of the change in seasons, but I think we’ve been there, too. Because I teach at Michigan State University, I’m especially conscious of the “back to school” phenomenon. One day, say last Monday, there’s a strange sense of quiet and peace. The road construction barriers all over campus are disappearing, the weather is beautiful, the parking is plentiful, the halls are empty… It’s a great day to take a long walk during the lunch hour. Even the students who were hanging around for the relatively miniscule summer session have vanished.

Then gradually but nonetheless suddenly things change. Pretty soon, say last Friday, the traffic on Grand River is terrible, there are endless parades of international students trooping around campus, and you are overcome by people wandering around with a glazed look in their eye, asking you for directions. The connection to food and agriculture here is pretty indirect, but it has to do with the way that certain recurring events create a sense of rhythm in your life, and then the way that an awareness of these rhythms (or lack of it) is important for ethics. When I talk about “agrarianism”, I’m calling attention to a big, big shift in the way that rhythms structure our lives, and a corresponding problem in ethics that occurs as a result.

The back to school rhythms that structure my life may not be all that important for other adults, but they still may be more familiar to the average factory worker or accountant than the agrarian rhythms that provided the structuring matrix of habit and culture for most of human history. Lots of people have or have had kids who are going back to school, and even if you don’t you might have noticed the large piles of spiral notebooks accumulating in every WalMart or Target. But by being unaware of the way that food and farming structured the lives of people in the past, we mis-read and mis-understand a lot of what people were talking about when they talked about sustainability and ethics. Like, for example, why did people link “moral decay” with “the fall of the Roman Empire”?

If you happen to have been reading Charles-Louis de Secondat, baron de La Brède et de Montesquieu’s 1734 book Considerations on the Causes of the Grandeur and Decadence of the Romans over the summer (and I’m sure that lots of people took this to the beach), you might have noticed that Montesquieu takes pains to discuss how the Roman Republic was based on citizen-soldier-farmers. As the power of the Empire grew, Roman citizens became dependent on payments from their patrons and the army became professionalized. People lost touch with the economic basis of the ancient world, which was, in a word, agriculture. When their habits became structured by a daily handout, they became unable to perceive or understand what was needed to keep things rolling (e.g. keeping the fields tended), and their politics became corrupt.

Now I’m not saying Montesquieu was right about the Romans, and it’s pretty obvious that the economic basis of our society is much more complicated, in any case. I’m saying that when our habits change—when they are more structured by back to school than tending the fields—it’s hard to even get a sense of what Montesquieu was talking about.

And that’s our loss.

Paul B. Thompson is the W.K. Kellogg Professor of Agriculture, Food and Community Ethics at Michigan State University


One thought on “Back to School

  1. Paul

    None of that matters this week. What matters is that the Republicans and a hurricane are invading Tampa, my old stomping grounds and your brother Greg’s current home area.

    I am so worried. Because, as you know, I have a son, two grandchildren, and two great grandchildren squarely in the path of the Republicans.



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