Gaining Ground by "Thinking Little": Gardening as Curricular Reform in the Liberal Arts and Sciences

Perhaps the best advice I have ever taken and applied to college administration came from an unlikely source: the farmer, poet, essayist, novelist, environmental activist, moral torchbearer, and self-identified contrarian Wendell Berry. In an essay titled “Think Little,” Berry prescribes a counternarrative to the ongoing modernist push to use technology, science, and planning or lawmaking to “think big” in order to create social change on a grand scale. Recognizing that “there is no public crisis that is not also private,” Berry suggests that individuals should learn instead to “think little.” There it is. That’s it—two simple words that I return to often as I confront issues that affect my college and my colleagues.

According to Berry, and I tend to agree, “Thinking Big has led us to the two biggest and cheapest political dodges of our time: plan-making and law-making.” These same “dodges” apply to institutions of higher education and how we tend to respond to budget crises, curriculum revisions, and strategic planning. We form committees; we assemble working groups; we plan, review, talk, and plan some more. To be disciplined in our thinking, however, Berry suggests that we must recognize and take on the details. “[T]he citizen who is willing to Think Little, and accepting the discipline of that, to go ahead on his own, is already solving the problem. A man who is trying to live as a neighbor to his neighbors will have a lively and practical understanding of the work of peace and brotherhood, and let there be no mistake about it—he is doing that work.”1

Berry’s point is simply that one must do the work that is required—enact and live out the desired change—in order to solve a problem. He adds the example of a farmer who may be dealing with soil erosion on an acre of land: “[he or she] has a sounder grasp of that problem and cares more about it and is probably doing more to solve it than any bureaucrat who is talking about it in general.”2 This anecdote leads Berry to a more specific example of what it means to “think little”:

I can think of no better form of personal involvement in the cure of the environment than that of gardening. A person who is growing a garden, if he is growing it organically, is improving a piece of the world. He is producing something to eat . . . he is also enlarging, for himself, the meaning of food and the pleasure of eating. The food he grows will be fresher, more nutritious, less contaminated by poisons and preservatives and dyes than what he can buy at a store. He is reducing the trash problem; a garden is not a disposable container, and it will digest and re-use its own wastes. If he enjoys working in his garden, then he is less dependent on an automobile or a merchant for his pleasure. He is involving himself directly in the work of feeding people.3

The cumulative effect of individual work is large-scale change. If you wish to create change on a grand scale, do your part and encourage others to do so as well.

At the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, where we recently updated our general education curriculum with an eye toward the essential learning outcomes identified by the Association of American Colleges and Universities through its Liberal Education and America’s Promise (LEAP) initiative, we have done just that. Our problems were not, and are not, unlike the problems on other campuses across the country. Money is tight, budgets are lean or have been cut, and interdisciplinary connections are sorely needed. Even so, we need to facilitate outstanding teaching, research, scholarship, and creative activity; we need to build, grow, and inspire.

Enter Wendell Berry’s idea, think little. Enter our college’s teaching and learning garden.

A teaching and learning garden

In the summer and fall of 2015, students, staff, faculty, and administrators across the College of Arts and Sciences came together to discuss common interests, particularly interests that revolved around environmental sustainability across our curriculum and opportunities for experiential and engaged learning. In those conversations, the idea of a teaching and learning garden surfaced time and again.

With momentum from student organizations in the form of already-established raised garden beds at strategic locations on campus, coupled with interest from dynamic faculty sponsors, the notion of a teaching and learning garden already had some footing. A core group of individuals approached campus leaders with the idea of a teaching and learning garden. Contextualized as an outdoor learning laboratory and alternative teaching space, the garden garnered administrative support. A plot of land, approximately one acre beyond the outfield wall of a campus ball field, was identified. Thanks to funds from our student “green fee,” as well as support from our graduate school and our office for undergraduate research, we broke ground on Earth Day 2016.

As new initiatives go, the project got off the ground—or, rather, in the ground—with relative ease. Our campus had the land, and we had the people in place to support the project both now and in the future. When the time came to explain to skeptics the value of such a teaching and learning space, we emphasized two main points. First, we emphasized the garden’s potential as a site for engaged learning and interdisciplinary connection—as, indeed, an embodiment of the arts and sciences. Second, we argued that a garden can be an ideal environment in which to enact the LEAP Essential Learning Outcomes.4

Engaged learning and the garden as locus of the arts and sciences

The natural tendency when one imagines the place of a garden in a university curriculum, especially one in which we are actually growing produce, is to think of courses in the natural sciences. In our biology and environmental sciences curricula, for example, we offer courses that include Introduction to Environmental Sciences, Principles of Biology, Conservation of Biodiversity, Ecology, and Plant Ecology. And we have, since the launch of the teaching and learning garden, added Urban Gardening at the first-year level. Such courses focus on the health and well-being of our water, soil, and air—our natural environment—as they emphasize scientific observation, lab exercises that utilize the scientific method, the collection of field data, evaluation of experimental data, and collaboration to solve environmental problems. It takes no great effort to imagine ways in which a college-wide teaching and learning garden can be used throughout such a curriculum. So let us consider the less obvious.

In the humanities, we are introducing the garden into programs and courses that range from English (Environmental Literature) to history (World History to 1400, which includes a focus on the role of agriculture and food production in ancient civilizations). If the thrust of the humanities is, as E. O. Wilson notes, to communicate and study “the natural history of culture,”5 then what better place than a garden? In gardens, we find reflections of our cultural values and community stories. The fact that our teaching and learning garden is on a campus that is situated in a metropolitan area, particularly one that meets the federal classification of a “food desert,” is itself a story that includes narratives about affordable housing, economic development, and access to whole or real food.

Resembling to some extent the one-acre garden at Yale University and the mission of Yale’s Sustainable Food Project, which Troy Duster and Alice Waters described in this very publication in 2006, our garden likewise provides “a launching site for accredited academic courses, informal workshops, and campus events highlighting food and agriculture. Through such activities, the project supports both hands-on knowledge of plant biology and careful long-term thinking about the relationship between economics and ethics.”6 In the garden, therefore, we find fertile ground for a variety of conversations and academic disciplines. And like Duster and Waters, we find that a garden offers opportunities for engaged learning across a variety of disciplines.

In my own class (Environmental Literature), for example, the students and I read and discuss Carolyn Merchant’s Reinventing Eden, a work in which Merchant traces the Judeo-Christian story of the Garden of Eden, specifically the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden, as she likewise demonstrates how the Genesis story, with its prescription for both stewardship and dominion, has determined relationships between humans and nature over time.7 Specifically, Merchant maps “recovery narratives” in the form of either “progressive narratives” or “declensionist narratives.” For millennia, Western civilization has used the metaphor of the garden to situate human beings in relation to the natural environment. What better place to discuss Merchant’s work and such concepts than in the garden, in the object of study itself?

In the fine arts, we are considering ways to incorporate the garden into instruction in art, theatre, and music courses. For example, our sculpture and design students are investigating outdoor spaces and the aesthetics of natural forms. Our theatre and music students are excited to see the musical group Squonk Opera’s Pneumatica, “an outdoor event about air, made of air, and powered by air.”8 The group will perform its concert at the garden site, an event that is being coordinated with our campus’s performing arts series.

In the social sciences, we are offering a course that addresses issues related to socioeconomics and access to quality whole food, urban gardening, and social networking. Students in this environmental sociology course will learn to explain how society and the environment affect each other; identify social trends that shape today’s environmental problems; analyze and evaluate environmental data and information (i.e., basic scientific literacy skills) as well as societal interpretations of these data; critically evaluate and assess the practicality of various ecological solutions aimed at bringing about a more sustainable and just society; and become more environmentally aware and engaged citizens.

Imagine now a student’s academic schedule that includes any number of courses that integrate the teaching and learning garden and related concepts. There is endless potential for learning transfer, for “glocalizing” the curriculum,9 for problem-based learning, for engaged learning, for experiential learning, for community outreach and goodwill. Likewise, and to the benefit of the college, such a teaching and learning space intersects with, and provides a catalyst for, conversations across departments and academic disciplines. Indeed, other campuses in our region have already discovered such benefits and have been working in and with such teaching and learning spaces now for years. The garden as a site for interdisciplinary connections, indeed as the embodiment of the arts and sciences, has very real and realized potential.

An ideal (and natural) environment to enact essential learning outcomes

The LEAP Essential Learning Outcomes articulate the goals of a quality undergraduate liberal education for the twenty-first century, calling for students to demonstrate achievement at successively higher levels in four broad outcome categories.

1. Knowledge of human cultures and the physical and natural world. The acquisition of knowledge is not accomplished in just one course or even one academic discipline. But the opportunity for engaged learning—both engagement with the learning process itself and engagement with the object of study itself (the physical and natural world)—is ideally set outdoors in, say, a garden space.

2. Intellectual and practical skills. During the summer months of 2016, students who had internships or courses that included work in the garden learned firsthand about how low yield and low productivity result from extreme drought. They also learned how to mitigate such problems by watering and by insulating the soil with mulch, which helps both to control weeds and to retain moisture or a microclimate near the base of the plant and around the root system. In their Urban Gardening course, during an especially dry period, students learned how different plants either tolerate drought conditions, resist drought conditions, or escape drought conditions by dying off and dispersing seed. All these responses to drought, of course, have an impact on productivity and yield, so one problem creates yet another problem. In short, the students have come to see firsthand connections between the land and human well-being.

3. Personal and social responsibility. In the case of our teaching and learning garden, at least one-third of the harvest is committed to an area community kitchen. The students had a tremendous sense of satisfaction, for example, when they delivered over a hundred pounds of butternut squash, among other produce, to the community kitchen in late July of 2016. What’s more, they learned about the need for whole foods in that area of our city. They learned about real problems, like the need for food in the middle of a metropolitan city, from the very people who are working to address such need by preparing, cooking, and serving food to others.

4. Integrative and applied learning. As Troy Duster and Alice Waters show us, a one-acre garden such as the one at Yale can be an ideal space for engaged learning. The same is true in our garden. Indeed, students who are involved in the cultivation of food, to say nothing of preparing and eating food, are applying knowledge in the very context and the very subject matter of their academic lives. Gardening is not, after all, simply a scholastic exercise. One must actually do it.


It is important to note that Wendell Berry’s advice to “think little” requires an existing problem that needs to be addressed. In our case, we needed to offer more engaged and experiential learning opportunities for our students. We needed to meet our students where their interests lie. We needed to break down disciplinary divisions and silos. But we were—and still are—working within the constraints of limited resources and reduced budgets. We discovered that a teaching and learning garden could help us address these needs in the form of gardening across the arts and sciences curriculum, and that we could implement this new project on a relatively small budget. We were thinking little, but we were making significant change.

I am mindful of the fact that other campuses have different needs as well as limitations of space and support. Nonetheless, we can all gain ground when we “think little” and begin to do the work that is needed to engage our students and one another where it counts—in a garden, in the seminar room, in the auditorium. We may continue to grow—literally—and we may find ourselves invigorated by the call to meet desired educational outcomes in new teaching spaces, new learning spaces, new research spaces. In doing so, we may find that it is indeed a great joy to get our hands dirty.


1. Wendell Berry, A Continuous Harmony: Essays Cultural and Agricultural (Berkeley, CA: Counterpoint, 2012), 77.

2. Ibid., 78.

3. Ibid., 79.

4. See “Essential Learning Outcomes,” Association of American Colleges and Universities, accessed October 10, 2016,

5. Edward O. Wilson, The Meaning of Human Existence (New York: W. W. Norton, 2014), 57.

6. Troy Duster and Alice Waters, “Engaged Learning across the Curriculum: The Vertical Integration of Food for Thought,” Liberal Education 92, no. 2 (2006): 46.

7. Carolyn Merchant, Reinventing Eden: The Fate of Nature in Western Culture (New York: Routledge, 2003).

8. See

9. See Karla L. Davis-Salazar, “‘Glocalizing’ the Campus to Advance Global Learning,” Liberal Education 102, no. 2 (2016): 42–49.

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Joe Wilferth is associate dean of the College of Arts and Sciences and University of Chattanooga Foundation Professor of English at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga.

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