National Collegiate Honors Council


Date of this Version



Honors in Practice 12 (2016), pp 139-146


© Copyright 2016 by the National Collegiate Honors Council


“Productive play in the dirt” may be the hook that gets honors students at the University of Central Arkansas to take my junior seminar called Philosophy, Principles, and Practices of Organic Horticulture. They often express considerable enthusiasm for a class that gets them outside and working with their hands for much of the term, but this is not my primary reason for offering the course. With this seminar, I hope students will begin to learn, literally first-hand, the ecological reasons for an ethical relationship to nature. Organic gardening is one of the best courses for conveying such a message, largely because ample evidence exists to suggest that its counterpart—conventional farming and gardening—can wreak significant ecological harm. Peripheral and uninteresting though agriculture (of any kind) may have become to many Americans, it nevertheless remains an excellent subject with which to raise Socrates’s age-old question “How shall we live?” Unlike the Sage of Athens, however, we must now pose the question with a twenty-first-century twist: How shall we live such that other life—that which is the source of our daily bread—and its supportive habitats can also flourish?

The writers we study in my seminar offer insights into human engagement with matter that may help answer a question that many in honors education will raise: how is gardening an appropriate subject for high-ability college students? To the extent that efforts to raise plants by relatively nonviolent means teaches and disciplines students in an ethical way to be in the world, I feel no need to apologize for a seminar in organic horticulture. To the extent that honing gardening skills and sharing the fruits of a season’s labor contribute to the development of self-confident yet paradoxically humble adults who are inclined to greater thoughtfulness about the material enactment of their intellectual and ethical commitments, I am proud to be the creator and teacher of such a course and am grateful to my university for giving it a place in the honors curriculum.