What did I learn in high school? My most cynical, knee-jerk response would have to be a laconic “nothing.” But I know that there is something, a little morsel of wisdom or trivia at least, that has followed me into adulthood and made life a bit richer and more evolved. But the harder I think about it, I am still coming up blank.
Wouldn’t it be grand if our memories of high school transcended institutional boredom, bad hair, and clique infighting to include things like a broad world-view, a deep environmental understanding, and a close familiarity with soil and livestock?
At Chicago’s High School for Agricultural Sciences, students attend prototypical high school courses like math, English, and science, as well as tending to an adjacent 72-acre working farm with livestock as well as crops. Opening in 1985, “Ag High” (as it is affectionately known) is one of two definitively agricultural high schools in the country, and was created in effort to rejuvenate and experiment with the fledgling American high school model. The 600 students at “Ag High” work the farm, tend to the corn stalks, and even run a farm stand that features food items which they have made or cultivated. In addition, they learn the particulars of animal husbandry, agricultural enterprise, and a general awareness of farm management and issues; this is in addition to calculus, speech, and athletics. Thus far, the “Ag High” model has been pioneering and enormously successful.
While this working school/working farm model might not be an ideal fit for everyone everywhere, it is a particularly inspiring archetype considering the sorry state of the American farm and our ever-struggling food system. As the always shrewd Michael Pollan argues, in an open letter to the next president that recently ran in the New York Times, that government policy has severely hampered the positive impact of farms, instead funding and rewarding monocultures of soy, wheat and corn that are grossly wasteful and highly inefficient. Pollan makes the point that, “We need to wean the American food system off its heavy 20th-century diet of fossil fuel and put it back on a diet of contemporary sunshine.” This, most assuredly, is one of many pressing issues that will need to be addressed by the student body at “Ag High” and, more importantly, our government.
I could only hope that the proliferation of schools and/or programs like “Ag High” will not only aid in the rethinking and reshaping of present day agricultural policy, but will influence a future generation to take a far more proactive approach to, not just farming, but our relationship with the larger food system, and give themselves something more to remember from their high school days than just bad hair.
Eric Steinman is a freelance writer based in Rhinebeck, N.Y. He regularly writes about food, music, art, architecture and culture and is a regular contributor to Bon Appétit among other publications.