Written by Jacob Grace on Friday, March 04, 2016 at 2:01 PM
My friend Dale came up to visit me last week. He’d heard I was starting graduate school and he said he wanted to come up and see what it was all about. “I’ve always thought it might be kind of nice to go to grad school someday,” he told me over the phone. Dale runs a farm back in Missouri, a corn-soybean rotation with a small feedlot of beef cattle.
Dale showed up a little bit late, as I expected him to.
“Thought I’d never get here!” he exclaimed, as soon as he’d found me in my office. “Driving through this city is harder than walking through a field full of cow pies!”
“It sure can be a mess,” I laughed. “Did you manage alright?”
“I suppose,” Dale shrugged, hitching his thumbs in the pockets of his overalls. “I was havin’ so much trouble with them big roads… then there’s so many doggone kids out walking around, and people on bicycles, and scooters, and buses going every which way! I didn’t know where to turn. Finally I figured I’d just turn off on a nice little side street and find a good place to park near your building. I got turned off on one, but then I seen the darn thing had a yellow striped line down the middle of it, and I’ll be dogged if I couldn’t fit my old farm truck on both sides of that line put together!”
“Hmm,” I said. “And did you see a lot of cyclists on that…street?”
“Tons of ‘em!” Dale nodded. “All wavin’ their arms at me, giving me dirty looks… Not too polite about sharing the road, are they?”
“Mm,” I replied. “Well, you made it here, anyway. Are you ready for a tour of campus?”
Dale hadn’t brought the right footwear, as I had expected. I loaned him my nicest pair of Birkenstocks. “Can you take a picture of me wearing these?” Dale laughed. “I look like a real grad student now!”
After snapping a few photos, I ushered Dale downstairs and out of the building. It was a bright sunny day, and campus was bustling with people: students on their cell phones, professors on their bicycles, grounds crews and construction teams hard at work.
“Sure is impressive,” Dale sighed as we climbed a hill overlooking the lake. “Sometimes I just wonder about this whole ‘conventional’ education thing though.”
“Yea?” I said. “What do you mean?”
“Oh, I don’t know.” Dale stared at his shoes. “Sure uses a lot of resources, don’t it?”
“Yea,” I said. “I suppose.”
I told Dale a little bit about my research, which I thought he would appreciate. I was looking into whether letting cattle graze on grasslands with lots of shrubs could help prevent the shrubs from taking over the grassland. Dale seemed interested.
“I had a neighbor that did that for a while,” he said. “He said the cattle could kind of keep up with the brush, but never could quite get ahead of it. I think eventually he went ahead and nuked ‘em all with chemical and that took care of ‘em. Wait until old Floyd hears he was doing research!”
“Interesting,” I said. “Well, we’ll see what our study shows. The more information the better as far as I’m concerned!”
Dale’s smile faded. “Maybe you’re right,” he said slowly, “but do you ever get the feeling that maybe there’s too MUCH information out there?”
“Too much information?” I said in surprise. “I don’t know if you can ever have too much information.”
“Well…” Dale seemed reluctant to continue, but he did. “Take your research, for example,” he said. “Someone’s already looked into that. We got a surplus of information. We got so much that it’s going to waste! We can’t get what we have to the people that need it, but we keep paying people to produce more of it!”
“But…” I was a bit taken aback. “This is your first time on a college campus, Dale,” I said. “You’d probably see things differently if you’d been here a while.”
“I expect,” Dale said.
“Besides,” I added, “with the challenges our world is facing today, we’re gonna need as much information as we can get. There are seven billion people out there who want an education, and even more on the way. We’ve gotta be able to educate the world!”
Dale frowned, but didn’t argue with me. He asked me a bit more about my research and about life in Madison as we wandered around campus, enjoying the sights.
“Hey Dale,” I said, struck by an idea, “you wanna go sit in on a class with me? We could go hear a lecture and you could see what it’s all about!”
Dale was shaking his head.
“C’mon Dale, it’ll be fun!”
“No, I don’t think so.”
“Why not?” I asked.
“To tell you the truth,” Dale said, “those classrooms make me uncomfortable.”
“Don’t worry,” I smiled, “you’re won’t have to take a test or anything!”
“It ain’t that,” Dale said, walking a little faster. “Those classes just don’t feel right to me. All those young people, in the prime of their life, stuck inside in some little bitty desk where they barely got room to move… They can’t talk to each other, can’t go outside…why, they don’t even have room to turn around in those things!”
“Dale, it’s the most efficient way to educate—” I began.
“You think that’s the best way to do it, do you?” Dale asked loudly, walking faster. “With these…confinement operations?”
“They’re not confinement operations,” I sighed. “Those students want to be there.”
“Yea, that’s the worst of it,” Dale said, walking even faster and frowning down at the sidewalk. “Those kids just keep trying to make conventional education work for them. They’re going into debt that they’ll never get out of, and the only way they can pay off their debt is to try getting more degrees, and and then they get in over their heads, they’re producing things we already got a surplus of, and the banks keep loaning to them and sooner or later they’re gonna lose the farm! I’ve seen it happen over and over, and I wish I could just tell those kids to get out while they can!”
“They’re not in over their heads,” I said sharply. “We all know that tuition costs are getting ridiculous, but you have to make sacrifices for a good education. If you want to be the best in your field, sometimes you have to go big or get out!”
I took a deep breath. I was letting Dale get under my skin. I had to remember that he was just trying to make sense of a world he knew nothing about.
Dale’s pace slowed, and we walked in silence for a while. Finally, he spoke.
“Have you ever looked into some of this alternative education?” he asked quietly. “Folks call it alternative, but really it’s been going on for thousands of years. People have been doing it all over the world.”
I squeezed my eyes shut, willing myself to stay calm. “Is that so?” I asked, opening them again.
“I think you’d be interested in it,” Dale nodded. “Everybody does it a little bit different, but it always seems to work pretty well. It’s all about being holistic. You don’t need to worry about grading systems, or standards, or market demands, or none of that, because it all happens right there in the local community and everybody can see whether it’s working. And it’s all based on relationships, so in the end all the benefits go right back into the community.”
I was walking faster. Dale had to hurry to catch up.
“Seems like a lot more natural system to me,” he continued.
“Does it?” I asked through clenched teeth.
“I reckon so. An’ it used to be what everyone did, back in the old days. It’s just our modern industrial system that’s created this expensive and inefficient educational—”
“Listen, Dale,” I said, finally losing my temper, “you don’t know a thing about what it’s like to be in grad school! You don’t even know how to drive on a college campus! I took time out of my day to show you around, and this is how you repay me, by telling me that everything I’m doing is a mistake?”
Dale had stopped walking, and was looking uncomfortable.
“Do you know how that feels?” I asked him in exasperation.
Dale shrugged his shoulders. “I might,” he said.
“What do you mean?” I asked, glaring at him.
Dale started walking again, slower this time. I followed.
“I had a group of college kids come out for a tour of my farm last week,” he said. “They were all dressed wrong, scared of stepping in mud, checking their phones all the time...” He glanced at me. “Half of them couldn’t’ve told a bull from a steer, and yet they’re asking me why I use antibiotics on my cattle. Telling me why I oughtta be organic. Do you know how hard it is to have some ignorant son-of-a-gun telling you about something you’ve been doing for your whole life?”
“Well, I—” I began. I wasn’t sure what to say. “I guess, now that you’ve told me, I…maybe I do.”
“Good,” Dale said with a chuckle. “You sound pretty well educated to me!”