American Agrarians: Ideas of Land, Labor, and Food

Course Description

Historically, agrarian thought and practice has elevated rural life, simplicity, self-sufficiency, and cooperation. As a philosophy, agrarianism offers alluring principles that contradict the high-speed, digitally-engaged, consumerist demands of modern life. This course will examine the roots, pitfalls, and promises of agrarian thought and practice especially as it relates to community, food, and the environment.

Agrarianism calls to mind a lush landscape dotted by red barns and pastured sheep. Such imagined landscapes are often unpeopled and pristine. Yet, agriculture is heavily populated and one of the most polluting forces on our planet. Ideas of agriculture, though, have cast a veil of innocence around a messy practice. Chattel slavery, migrant farm labor, pesticide use, and over fertilization are said to be the costs of feeding the world. These and other social injustices were (and are) justified, in part, under an ideology of agrarianism. Yet, agrarian thought, too, animates local food and environmental movements that purport to fight against exploitation of land and people. How is it that one ideology can be traced to the root of these social problems and also the efforts to abandon them? The thinkers on our syllabus will offer us some clues for discussion.

Together, we’ll walk through the complex landscape of agriculture in the United States with special attention to both agrarian thought and practice as well as environmental and racial justice. Our agriculture, landscape, and food ways did not emerge in a vacuum. They connect integrally to philosophical, economic, and theological convictions – some explicit and some implicit—about what it means to live a good life and who is included or excluded in our notion of community. These are questions that have intellectual urgency but also personal relevance. Together, we’ll consider: What does it mean to live a good life in a connected world? And, what might agrarian thinking teach us about doing so in diverse community?

To these (and other unanticipated) ends, we will engage together on a journey of reading, thinking, discussing, and working together. We will read agrarian thought from the 18th century to the present. Special consideration will be given to modern agrarian movements that are both rural and urban, especially highlighting the diversity and energy that drive contemporary American agrarians. We will think and discuss together, often meeting with a “sister” course at Princeton Theological Seminar. We will visit farms, talk with farmers, and meet real-life agrarians living in New Jersey. And, we’ll cook together, work the land, and share meals on occasion, as we’re able.

Format and Structure

A good agrarian knows that we can’t count on any two days ever being the same, even though many of them are. Flexibility, though, is key for all agrarians. As a class, we will take our cue from this principle. Some course meetings will fall into a pattern but the course itself will require a certain amount of flexibility from students.

Collaboration with Princeton Theological Seminary

This course will be meeting with a “sister” course from the Princeton Theological Seminary for many of our sessions. Some of these meetings will be at Princeton University and some of them will be at the PTS Farminary.

Scheduling

This course is scheduled for TWO three-hour sessions each week on both Tuesdays and Fridays from 1:30-4:20 p.m. However, we will not meet every Friday.

The course will have both seminar and lab components. Sometimes these components will be easily differentiated. Typically, Tuesdays will be seminar-style discussions and Fridays will be field trips/lab-learning sessions. But, there will be some weeks when the class time will be more hybrid. For five Tuesday sessions, we will meet at the Farminary, a part of Princeton Theological Seminary’s campus. At the Farminary, we’ll have both seminar and lab in the same day: we’ll meet in the barn for seminar discussion but we’ll also get out in the fresh air with our hands in the dirt.

Students will be expected to conduct an oral history interview. Some of our lab sessions will be dedicated to intensive training for that project. Other lab sessions will be on-site conducting interviews.

Application

Enrollment for this course is limited. Interested students should email the instructor at tdesmond@princeton.edu to set a time to meet and discuss the course and related interests. Students who contact the instructor prior to December 5 will be giving priority for enrollment. If necessary, the instructor will maintain a waitlist for the course.