Category Archives: John M. Gerber

our “backyard”

The land bordered by VanMeter Dr. to the south, East Pleasant St. to the east, Rolling Ridge Rd. to the north, and Ridgecrest Rd. to the west defines an area that comprised much of  the Jerseydale Dairy Farm managed by the Harlow family since 1908 and sold to Walter C. Jones for development in 1952.  Named Grandview Heights by Walter Jones, the area was one of the first housing developments in Amherst.  This short study looks back at the land and it occupants.

Twenty thousand years ago, if you stood roughly in the middle of the property, on the corner of Harlow Dr. and Frost Lane, and looked straight up, you would see an ice sheet two miles high.  Two miles of crushing weight which had moved inch by inch from the north, dragging rocks and boulders and scaring the earth along the way.  The weight of that frozen mass, under which nothing could live, created a tabula rasa upon which a new story of the land would be written. And then the ice melted.  When the glacier had receded, the rift valley that would become the Connecticut River Valley remained and an east-west series of hills south of Hartford created a natural dam, backing up the flow of water running from the north and creating a long lake, later to be named Lake Hitchcock after the Amherst College professor who so loved this region.

The ice started to recede about 18,000 years ago and Lake Hitchcock began to form.  Standing at the corner of Harlow and Frost, 16,000 years ago, you would have been on an island with its western shoreline just a few feet west of Ridge Crest Rd.  The current UMass Agricultural Learning Center and much of the valley beyond were under water.  You could see an island in the lake not too far out that is now Mt. Warner. 

The shoreline of geological Lake Hitchcock was along a line west of the homes between Ridgecrest Rd. and the UMass Agricultural Learning Center (Beachfront properties).

Continue reading our “backyard”

Saving the World – One Clothespin at a Time


NOTE:  A printable version of this blog may be found here.

I start each of my classes by leading the students in a “centering breath.” The purpose of this exercise (which most students appreciate) is to invite our mind, body and spirit into the room. Many of us “do space and time travel” with our minds. We are distracted and rarely available to our present experience. While we bring our bodies into the classroom, Continue reading Saving the World – One Clothespin at a Time

Getting started with your personal Holistic Goal

Some Personal Holistic Goal Resources

The following resources were created for use by students in the Stockbridge School of Agriculture with the permission of Holistic Management International.

The Holistic Goal Workbook for students is linked here.

Additional Resources

  1. John Gerber’s Introduction video: Introduction to the Personal Holistic Goal
  2. Second video: Fine tuning your Quality of Life statement
  3. Some more videos:

4. An old blog with examples is linked here.


Find your True North

Before the Land Grants

Criticizing public universities for their inability to change has become something of a cottage industry these days. While there is a good bit of ill-informed rhetoric in the many books and articles that have appeared, some of the criticism is worthy of consideration and should not be ignored. The Wingspread Group report on higher education for example, reported that “a disturbing and dangerous mismatch exists between what American society needs of higher education and what it is receiving.” We all recognize that American society is changing at a more rapid pace than at any other time in our history. In spite, or perhaps because of this, university fundamentalists claim the institution should remain a source of stability to counter-balance the potential negative affects of “popular fads.”

My own vision for the future of the university is one of radical change (see Communiversities: Land Grants and Beyond). Any responsible transformation of the university, radical or otherwise, will require an understanding of our history as the source of our current traditions. This is my biased view…

The Beginning
While the university as an institution is less than 1000 years old, the ancestors of university faculty go back to 2500 BC. The tablet writers of ancient Mesopotamia were the earliest recorded class of intelligentsia. These court scribes had great political influence as they handled the correspondence, records of taxes, and other affairs of state for the rulers of the day. Although the scribes were not members of the ruling class themselves, they helped those in power make decisions, much like scientists and many academics today. Preparation for the job of scribe was through the study of accounting, geometry, musical notation, law, grammar, poetry, history, and court etiquette. Like faculty today, many years of training were required for admittance into this exclusive guild of literate advisors. While the record is incomplete on these early scholars, there is little doubt they were an elite class of learned men devoted to study, learning and influence.

More is known about higher education in classical Greece beginning around 500 BC. The Greek sophists were the first full-time, paid, teachers. These men gave “sample” lectures in public places to attract students, and then charged large fees to continue with a standard curriculum of prepackaged lessons. Over time, the sophists became known for their superficial and costly teachings. Unlike the sophists, the philosopher Socrates believed that wisdom would not be gained from prepackaged lessons, but had to be earned through critical reflection and intellectual dialogue. This controversy between the value of standardized lessons versus critical reflection was a harbinger of later debates such as that between professional training and personal learning during the early 20th century.

The Early Academy
Neither Socrates nor the sophists carried on their teaching and learning in any particular physical place. Plato, a student of Socrates, was the first to have a school at a preset location, a grove dedicated to the Greek folk hero Academus (the first “academy”). For Plato, the purpose of learning was the development of a class of educated rulers or “philosopher-kings.” Plato’s student Aristotle, on the other hand, believed knowledge should not be pursued to develop society’s leaders, but for its own sake. Thus, the debate between knowledge for social purposes and knowledge for its own sake began 2500 years ago. Other schools emerged at this time. A school at Cynosarges developed a particular mode of thought later known as Cynicism. Another which met among the “stoia” or the colonnades of the Athenian market developed a school of thought later called Stoicism.

Throughout this period schools grew up around individual scholars, but only took root when they became associated with storehouses for scholarly manuscripts, or libraries. The first known library was the museum at Alexandria, the Temple of Muses, on the Egyptian coast. Here, beginning around 250 BC grew a museum library that had more than 500,000 manuscripts. This resource for study attracted the great scholars of the period, like Archimedes and Euclid, who came to do full-time research and learn from each other.

Foundation of the Early University
During the Roman period, schools of lesser quality sprung up as minor businesses. Most of these schools disappeared during the Middle Ages when the only institutes of higher learning were devoted to religious studies. During the 11th century, Europe began to emerge from the dark ages, with education becoming more open and available again. The major cathedral church colleges in Bologna and Salerno in Italy, and Paris and Montpelier in France, added new courses to traditional clerical studies and began to attract larger numbers of students. This marked the beginning of the modern university.

In the medieval university, masters (teachers) and students working in close association organized themselves into guilds with a common disciplinary interest or national background. At the University of Paris for example, four national guilds in the “arts” emerged alongside a faculty of theology, law and medicine. A bureaucracy began to develop as these subdivisions of the faculty needed ways to set standards and accept student fees. By the end of the 14th century an administrative structure had emerged at the University of Paris that continues today with little substantive change. Paris had a university assembly of faculty, a university council of deans, disciplinary-based colleges, and an elected chief executive who served as head of the university.

Medieval university instruction was in Latin and students entered at age fifteen or sixteen. The baccalaureate or “beginners” degree followed about four years of study and acceptance as a “master” took one to three more years. Many of those students working toward masters degrees were also teachers in the lower level courses in the arts, much like graduate students today. Students of the day took time for leisure, often as drunken evenings sometimes growing into riots. One of the most famous was a 2-day brawl in Oxford that began as a tavern fight between students and “townies.” Several scholars were killed, books were destroyed and classrooms were burned.

By the end of the 13th century most of the foundations of the modern university had been established including ornate college structures, competitive recruitment practices, standardized teaching methodologies, entrenched administration, examinations, degrees, and the academic regalia. Little has changed at universities since the 13th century and that which has changed has done so very slowly.

The major social upheavals associated with the Italian Renaissance in the 16th century and the scientific and technical revolution in the 17th century did not affect the traditional universities, at least at first. Florence became the center of Italian humanistic studies under the patronage of the Medici family, and other centers of learning emerged as alternatives to the unexciting studies at the university. The leading families of the day were business and political leaders who preferred to send their children to popular academies or private tutors rather than the major universities.

Exploration of new continents and new areas of scientific and technical study marked the business environment of the 17th century, but had little impact on the universities. Francis Bacon for example, in the early part of the century challenged colleges and universities to look beyond their ancient teachings. Universities largely ignored the growing scientific movement of the era, much as they had ignored the humanistic movement of the previous century. By the 18th century, older European universities were in a serious state of decline. Struggling institutions progressively lowered their standards to attract students, becoming the diploma mills of the era. Edward Gibbon described the impressive buildings that had been built for universities as “masking the dry-rot within.”

Universities in America
By this time colleges had been built in America, mostly under the influence of various church denominations to train clergy and political leaders. Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Columbia, Brown, Rutgers and Dartmouth were supported partially by colonial governments and mostly by student tuition. Enrollment was from a few dozen to a few hundred students, at most. These were elite institutions that offered traditional training in medieval studies such as Greek, Latin, logic, rhetoric, ethics and theology.

Westward expansion and denominational rivalries contributed to the rapid proliferation of colleges in the later part of the 18th and early 19th centuries. Generally small, these new colleges offered training in geography, languages, law, mathematics, geology, history, ethics, natural philosophy, literature and biology. There was a growing tension between classical training and an emerging scientific and professional training. In response, President Day of Yale University commissioned a study on the academic needs of the students of the era. The resulting 1829 report stated that the criticism of academic institutions of the time “as out of date with the needs of the nation” was overstated. President Day believed that universities should build character among the young men of leading families, not encourage economic development by the masses. Even then, the major academic institutions of the time were out of touch with the needs of the nation. By the mid-19th century there was a public call for a more utilitarian education available to more people. The result was a national investment in the public land grant universities.

Last Thoughts
The publicly funded land grant universities represented a radical departure from earlier American and European colleges. Even so, today many characteristics of universities “before the land grants” endure, for example: the elitism of the faculty much like the tablet writers of Mesopotamia; the continuing debate about education for social purposes (Plato) or for knowledge itself (Aristotle); the “research” library like the one at Alexandria; the bureaucratic administrative structure like that of the University of Paris; the drinking parties such as those at Oxford; and finally the failure of the accepted curriculum to address the needs of society during periods of major social change as in Italy during the Renaissance, most of Europe during the first stage of the scientific revolution, at Yale in the early 1800’s, and perhaps even among public universities today.

This history was influenced by “American Higher Education: A History” by Christopher J. Lucas. St. Martins’s Griffin, NY. 1994. For Part Two of this line of thought, see the essay “Universities: Land Grants and Beyond.”

John M. Gerber, Professor
University of Massachusetts
December 1996

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Transitions – navigating graduation and other life changing events…

change2College students spend 4 years (or more) looking forward to the big day when they graduate – when they finally don’t have to take another exam – or write another term paper – or get up early for an 8:00 am class.   But when that day comes, it often feels kind of anti-climatic.  College life is familiar… and what ever is next feels unknown.  Leaving college is a time of transition. Learning to navigate transitions in life, like graduation, getting married, having children, dealing with illness, changing jobs or careers, retirement etc., is a skill that can be practiced and learned.  You might as well start now!

Around graduation time each year, I share this essay with seniors on transitions.  I also get to thinking about the last day of my own college career.  I took a final exam in the Continue reading Transitions – navigating graduation and other life changing events…

John M. Gerber – Bio Information

Community Service

John is a founding member of the community group, Grow Food Amherst, which encourages people in his local community to live more sustainably and take responsibility for the source of their food. He is a member of the Board of Directors of the North Amherst Community Farm.  He served for 9 years on the Amherst Conservation Commission.  John has been Executive Director of the Consortium for Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education, a national consortium of universities and research institutes, and was a founding Board member of the Loka Institute, a non-profit institute dedicated to the democratization of technology.  He has also served on the Board of Directors of the Hitchcock Center for the Environment in Amherst, Massachusetts and helped establish the local food coop, All Things Local.


John is Program Coordinator for the UMass Sustainable Food and Farming program which has grown from 5 students in 2003 to over 145 today. He was Director of the University of Massachusetts Extension System from 1992 to 2000. He served as leader and manager for this major outreach effort of the University of Massachusetts with programs in agriculture, natural resources, youth and family development, and nutrition education. He has also served as Associate Dean in the College of Food and Natural Resources at the University of Massachusetts. He was Assistant Director in the Illinois Agricultural Experiment Station, and Program Leader for Sustainable Agriculture in the Illinois Cooperative Extension Service (1989-1992). He was responsible for the establishment and administration of the University of Illinois Agro-Ecology Program, and served as a faculty member and Extension Program Leader from 1979 – 1989 at the University of Illinois Urbana.


John currently teaches courses relating to sustainability at the University of Massachusetts where he provides leadership for the undergraduate program in Sustainable Food and Farming. He continues to investigate ways in which students are encouraged to explore personal growth and community responsibility through service, reflection and dialogue. His greatest professional joy is to watch young people find their calling (especially when it relates to local food and farming). He was instrumental in helping to initiate student projects at UMass such as the Permaculture Initiative, the Student Farm, GardenShare, and the Real Food Challenge. He received the highest honor awarded a teacher at UMass in 2008 with the University Distinguished Teacher Award. To see a list of courses he teaches at present, go to: John M. Gerber Classes.

Continue reading John M. Gerber – Bio Information

The Shambhala Worker

There is a prophecy that emerged from Tibetan Buddhism about 12 hundred years ago. The signs it predicted are recognizable today… in our time. There are several interpretations of this prophecy. Some portray the coming of the kingdom of Shambhala as an internal event, a metaphor for one’s inner spiritual journey.  Others present it as a transformation of the human social system that will occur at the just right time.

The Shambhala Prophecy says… there will come a time when all life on Earth is in danger. In this era, great barbarian forces will have arisen which have unfathomable destructive power. New and unforeseen technologies will appear during this time, with the potential to lay waste to the world. In this era, when the future of sentient life seems to hang by the frailest of threads, the kingdom of Shambhala will appear.

The kingdom of Shambhala is not a geopolitical place, but a place that exists in the hearts and minds of the Shambhala worker. These workers wear no special uniform, nor do they have titles or ranks. They have no particular workplace, as their work is everywhere. In fact, they look just like the barbarians on the outside, but they hold the kingdom of Shambhala on the inside.

Now the time comes when great courage, intellectual, moral and spiritual, is required of the Shambhala workers who must go into the very heart of the barbarian power, into the tall buildings, offices, factories and citadels of learning where the weapons of destruction are made – to dismantle them.

The Shambhala workers have the courage to do this because they know that these weapons are “mind-made”. That is, they are created by the human mind, and they can be unmade by the human mind. The barbarian lie that these weapons are the inevitable result of progress must be exposed by the Shambhala workers. Shambhala workers know the dangers that threaten life on Earth are not visited upon us by any extraterrestrial powers, satanic deities, or preordained fate. They arise from our own decisions, our own lifestyles, and our own thinking. They arise from within us all.

The Shambhala workers go into the corridors of power armed with the only tools that the barbarians don’t understand, and for which there is no defense. The tools of the Shambhala workers are compassion for all, and knowledge of the connectedness of all things. Both are necessary. They have to have compassion to do this work, because this is the source of their the power, the passion to act with and for others.  It is said that when you open your own heart to the pain of the world you can move, you can act.  Th

But that tool by itself is not enough. Compassion alone can burn you out, so you need the other tool – you need insight into the radical interdependence of all things. With that wisdom you know that the work is not a battle between good guy and bad guys, because the line between good and bad runs through the landscape of every human heart. With insight into our profound interconnectedness, you know that actions undertaken with pure intent have repercussions throughout the web of life, beyond what you can measure or discern. By itself, that knowledge may be too conceptual to sustain you and keep you moving, so you need the energy that comes of compassion as well.

Within each Shambhala worker these two tools, compassion and insight, can sustain you as agents of  change. They are gifts for you to claim and share now in healing our world.  My wish is that you may  hold the kingdom of Shambhala in your hearts as you face all of the institutions of power and sources of oppression that you will meet in the future.

For those of you who feel paralyzed by the power of the systems of domination that appear so entrenched in our society today, I’d offer you a few words from Arthur Ashe, the great African-American tennis player who spent a lifetime fighting racial discrimination in his sport and in society.   When asked how did he get continue the struggle for social justice when everything seemed to be moving the other direction, Ashe replied:

· You start where you’re at,

· You use what you’ve got,

· And you do what you can…

Joanna Macy tells us that the Great Turning is inevitable.  The only question is how long we will remain asleep to the pain and suffering created by institutions of power before we choose the path of the Shambhala Worker.

The story above was adopted and adapted with permission from author Joanna Macy (see; She writes about the Shambhala Warrior. I decided to change it to the Shambhala Worker. I don’t think the Buddha would mind.


John M. Gerber

Introduction to Dialogue

Dialogue is an overused and much abused term for a very specific means of communication that we rarely employ effectively today.  Dialogue is a communications process that helps individuals to clarify their personal thinking and values within the context of a community.  It may also help communities or teams discover shared meaning, to think coherently, and perhaps to act in concert in ways that serve the common good of the group.  Unlike a discussion or debate, in dialogue there is no attempt to have any particular point of view prevail.  Rather dialogue results in shared understanding without judgment.  It is about building relationships, learning together and exploring personal and community values.



Early in the creation of a dialogue group, a decision should be made regarding its intent.  This is important to avoid creating expectations that will go unmet and subsequent disappointment and criticism of the effort that is sure to follow.  Ask the question, is the primary purpose of this work to make a decision or take some action or, is the intent improved individual and collective exploration and understanding of a situation (which may or may not result in a decision or action).  This is important.  If the primary intent is exploration and learning through inquiry, dialogue is in order.


What is dialogue?

While the word “dialogue” is often used today as a substitute for polite discussion or conversation, it is used here to signify a specific discipline with a particular meaning and intent.  A dialogue is a group communication process in which participants practice certain techniques to enhance their individual and collective learning.  In dialogue there is a shared commitment to inquiry without necessarily reaching a decision or taking a specific action.  In fact, the expectation or even a hope that a decision will be achieved by consensus or otherwise is enough to derail the dialogue process, especially among beginners.  This question of intent is important and although you cant force a dialogue to happen, you can provide an environment in which people who truly desire to participate in a dialogue can be supported and encouraged.


It may be useful to think about what a dialogue is not.  As stated above it is not a decision-making process, although it can result in relationships among group members that make decision-making much easier.  It is not a tool for planning action, yet it can produce the kind of mutual respect and understanding that improves the likelihood of successful group action.  It is not led by any single individual, however a facilitator is needed to help get it started and guide the process.


The root of the word “dialogue” is from the Greek Adia or through and Alogos or word, or meaning.  Therefore the dialogue process is a stream of meaning that flows through and among the participants.  On the other hand, the word Adiscussion@ has the same root as percussion and concussion.  A useful image of a discussion might be a ping-pong game using words that bounce back and forth. In dialogue, members of the group can explore but go beyond any individual understanding.  New insights may be gained that were not possible through thinking in isolation.  Participants help each other observe the incoherence in each others thought as people learn how to think together, sharing thoughts, emotions,

and feelings while reflecting on their own.



So what is needed to get started?  Participants need a clear understanding and at least initial agreement on the intent of the dialogue.  They should be prepared to make an investment of a specific amount of time to the process of learning and practicing dialogue.  Changes in individuals and groups take place over time, but require a personal commitment to the process.


And what happens in dialogue?  As stated above, the primary purpose is collective learning.  This happens when someone brings up a thought or feeling, another person changes it and then still another connects it with a previous thought or feeling.  The thought/feeling flows in a kind of participatory consciousness that may result in both individual and collective learning over time.  It takes practice.  In addition to the group and individual learning, several other outcomes may result from the process.  Quite often, the dialogue results in improved relationships among the participants as well as a sense of shared meaning and mutual commitment to each other.  But it isn=t always easy going.  When people are involved in a dialogue about something that is important to them they bring their whole bodies into the conversation, their hearts pump faster, adrenalin races, stomachs knot, shoulders tense.  Participants get angry, sad, confused and frustrated.  If members of the group can identify and share their thoughts as well as their feelings, get help in this process from fellow members, and stay with it long enough, a group consciousness may emerge.  While this feeling of connectedness doesn’t last, it can be a time of rapid and marked learning.  While dialogue is a powerful communication practice that can transform individuals and groups, it is not easy.


While the purpose of dialogue is collective exploration and learning, it is not necessary to avoid individual advocacy for a particular idea or position, provided the purpose of the advocacy is to further collective learning.  Advocacy is generally used for the purpose of convincing a group of the Arightness@ of your own position.  Even if this happens in a dialogue, the outcome may be group learning if it is noticed – and the group explores the underlying assumptions of the advocacy position.


The process may begin with a group of diverse people coming together for the purpose of joining in dialogue.  While intent is a necessary ingredient, it is insufficient in itself.  The result of unguided talk may be interesting conversation and perhaps individual learning, but not necessarily dialogue.  If the group stays together without the tools of dialogue and continues to explore differences of opinion, people may find themselves feeling frustrated.  Eventually the group may dissolve in embarrassment or a sense of futility.  Perhaps heated debate will produce smaller groups that cluster around ideas or people with whom they agree, allowing the Aus and them@ blame game to proceed in comfort, but with little positive outcome.  If enough people hang in and begin to search within themselves for the source of their own personal discomfort or anger, a new kind of conversation may begin to happen.  By working through the crisis of collective discomfort, a new sense of trust may be forged by the group.  This is more likely to happen if the group practices one or more of the living techniques of dialogue.


For more on the need for dialogue, see Meg Wheatleys article on Good Listening at:


For details on the process of dialogue see the instructions for Insight Dialogue at;


The Techniques of Dialogue

While there is no cookbook or rulebook on how to conduct effective dialogues, there are several techniques described by Ellinor and Gerard in their book, Dialogue: Rediscover the Transforming Power of Conversation, which may be useful.  These are:


1. Suspension of judgment

2. Identification and suspension of assumptions

3. Whole body listening


The following section expands on each of these components of the dialogue process.  The first rule about dialogue however is there are no rules, no right or wrong way to do dialogue. These are suggestions.  Attempts to judge the quality of the dialogue are not generally useful.


1. Suspension of judgment – Suspension of judgment is not about preventing yourself from making a judgment about a person, statement or situation, but rather it is about noticing your judgment as it affects your mind and body in the moment.  To practice suspension of judgment, say to yourself at the beginning of a dialogue (and perhaps several times during the dialogue if necessary), AI will be aware of my judgments when they arise.  I will not react or do anything other than simply notice my own feelings and thoughts.@  When something is said in a dialogue group that triggers a strong reaction, try to sit quietly in reflection and observe how your body and mind react.  Is your heart racing?  Are your shoulders tense?  Do you have a knot in your stomach?  Where does your mind go?  If you are highly agitated and feel driven to verbally respond, first try taking a deep breathe and count to ten before you begin the examination.  Ask yourself, Awhere does this reaction come from?  Ask yourself, Awhy am I reacting so strongly?  Hold the suspended thought in front of you and examine it until it goes away.  It might be useful to imagine the judgment written on a piece of paper that you hold in front of you between the thumb and forefinger.  Once you have examined it for some time, let it go.  This process allows you to examine your own assumptions without breaking the flow of meaning in the group that may build collective understanding.  When enough members of the group learn to suspend judgment individually, the group is less likely to find itself in periods of rapid-fire give and return, more like a discussion or debate than a dialogue.


If you are not able to let go of a judgment or if it continues to return, share it with the group.  By the time you have thoroughly examined your own judgment, the topic of the conversation may have changed several times.  Simply remind the group of whatever was said that triggered your judgment and then describe your reaction, both thoughts and bodily feelings.  By this time you should be able to share it with less emotion as something of a curiosity to be understood rather than a strongly held opinion.  In any case, sharing the judgment will usually allow you to let it go.  In some cases you will be surprised at how often others have had a similar reaction to your own.  This allows you and the group to examine the judgment as an interesting group reaction, rather than as an absolute truth (which is how the judgment usually seem when it first arises within you). The outcome is a deeper understanding of your individual and collective consciousness.



Judgments close off the flow of meaning within the group.  Even if you say nothing out loud in reaction to a statement made by someone in the group, when you are judging you are not yourself open to the flow of meaning.  Judgments are thoughts that were previously embedded in your memory.  They are Aknee-jerk@ reactions based on past experience that close off your ability to listen and learn in the present moment.  While suspending a judgment and observing your response within your own body and mind, you yourself are open to new learning and are not interfering with group learning.  When the members of a dialogue group have learned to suspend judgment, it is possible for greater group learning as meaning begins to flow among the group.


2. Identification and suspension of assumptions – Assumptions are the underlying and generally subconscious rationale upon we base decisions, actions and opinions.  They are the building blocks we use to create our view of the world.  Groups that are not aware of the assumptions at work are like planes flying on autopilot.  As long as the conditions that prevailed at the beginning of the flight continue, everything is fine.  If something changes however, a higher level of intelligence is required to make appropriate adjustments.  Much as a pilot will reassess the weather conditions, a group must examine the assumptions upon which it bases its understanding so that it may navigate during turbulent times.


Assumptions that take on the status of truth often prevent listening and block learning.  When group members hold widely differing assumptions they often find themselves locked into irreconcilable conflict.  If our intent is to work together with people who hold different perspectives on an issue, it becomes imperative for us all to learn to identify and then to suspend our assumptions much as we learn to suspend our judgments.  Since the intent of dialogue is not to make a decision or to take an action, we are more likely to be willing to experiment with new ways of interacting with people with whom we differ.


To uncover your own assumptions listen to yourself when you speak, especially when you speak with some strong emotion, and reflect on the roots of the thoughts you are expressing.  Be particularly aware that a strongly held assumption is at work when you hear yourself say (either out loud or silently) things like:

Thats just the way it is.

You can=t do. . .

It won=t do any good.

Are you nuts?


In each case, ask yourself Awhy?@  Why would a person have to be Anuts@ to believe that (fill in the blank)?  If you believe the answer to why is just obvious, dig deeper.  Why won’t it do any good?  An assumption about how the world is, or how you believe the world is, lies just below your strongly stated emotion.  Here are a few more things to look for.  Be aware when you hear yourself say:


We all know what they think.

It won=t do any good to talk with them.


Ask yourself how do you know?  Generally you are basing your conclusions on some experience or some belief about Athem@.  It may be that conditions have changed and your ‘autopilot’ is taking you in the wrong direction.  In any case, by assuming you know how others think or act gets in the way of learning.  It closes you down to new ideas.  You can be sure assumptions are at work when you get angry, feel discomfort, or judge somebody else’s ideas as “just stupid.”  When this happens, you are on the trail of an assumption.  Take a moment and reflect on the assumption that underlies your reaction.  In dialogue, the others in the group may help you identify and clarify your assumptions.


So what do you do when you find an assumption?  Its neither realistic to give up your own assumptions, nor expect others to give up theirs.  On the other hand, it is possible with practice to suspend the assumption temporarily for purposes of learning.  When you hang an assumption out in front of you for examination, you create just enough distance between you and your assumption that you are able to look at alternative opinions more clearly.  You and others can begin to see not only the differing opinions but the assumptions that underlay those opinions.  When a critical number of a group learn to suspend their own assumptions, the entire group begins to find shared meaning, a collective understanding that is not possible as long as we each hold tightly to the Arightness@ of our own assumptions.  The result may not be agreement, but understanding and more coherence of thought.


3. Whole body listening – Listening is a skill that is critical to the creation of an environment of collaborative learning.  Most discussions among people who differ in opinion (and many of those with those with whom we agree) are more like dueling monologues.  I really don’t have time to listen carefully to what you are saying, because I am too busy preparing my reply.  Of course, you are not listening to me either as you are working on your own reply to my reply, etc. etc. etc.  Most of us listen from the neck up.  Paying attention to your body can help expose your personal assumptions and clarify your values.  In dialogue, we learn to listen to others, to ourselves (both head and body) and to the voice of the group as it creates collective themes and shared meaning.


Listening to others is more effective when we are able to suspend our own judgments and assumptions.  This opens us up to hearing anothers words within the context of the group environment.  While we might like to think that we truly understand anothers viewpoint from their own context, we cant help but interpret meaning based on our own experience.  It might be possible however to learn what is real and important to another within the context of the group.  This begins by learning more about our own ability to listen.  Try this:


Think about a time when you found yourself looking at someone speaking but it seemed like the words were bounding off a glass shield in front of you and they were not going to get through.  Ask yourself, where did the shield come from?

Recall a time when you were listening fairly intently and then stopped as your mind began to wander.  What triggered the change in your ability to listen carefully?

Now recall a time when you were open to another=s message and were really hearing what was being said.  What behaviors were you displaying when you were fully aware of the speaker?


By reflecting on your own behavior, you can begin to understand how your own mind gets in the way of listening to others.  Listening is an active process that can be practiced and improved.  It may be useful to practice listening to another in pairs with first one person speaking and then the other for determined periods of time.  Start with two minutes and work up to 5 or 6 minutes with one person speaking and the other listening and encouraging using only your facial expression and body language.  This is hard work but will help you learn how to listen actively.


It seems almost paradoxical that to learn to listen to others we first have to listen to our own inner voices and understand how they can interfere or aid us hear others.  The inner conversations we have in our own heads often get in the way of hearing what others are saying.  We must learn to silence our own inner voices to be able to listen from a truly open position of detachment.  Much like during meditation practice, stilling the mind depends on letting go of resistence.  Try this:


  • Whenever you notice that you have drifted off from a speaker you are trying to hear, first simply notice that you are not listening intently then take deep breath and return to speaker without judging your failure to pay attention.


  • When you truly want to hear another person, look into their eyes and respond to their words with appropriate body language and facial expressions demonstrating interest in their thoughts.  In this way you can actively engage in a Aconversation@ without actually saying anything out loud.


  • Pay attention to your body feelings.  Notice when you get a knot in your stomach or your shoulders get tight.  What is happening?  What is being said?  What is the source of the tension?  This may help you break away from the conversation in your head.


When a critical number of members of a dialogue group are practicing suspension of judgment, assumptions and actively listening, a collective meaning begins to be created.    Listening for shared meaning can make hidden webs of assumptions more explicit.  It can build new levels of understanding possible.  Listening for collective meaning can inform us about the culture of the group, about Awho we are and who we are becoming – together.   To begin to hear the voice of the group, try this:


When a dialogue group seems to be of greatly divergent opinion on some thought or issue, ask yourself the question what common reality do we all hold?  Ask what assumptions do we share?  Look for a thread of thought that seems to be weaving itself throughout the conversation.  Ask yourself if we were one voice speaking, what would it be saying right at this moment?


It may be difficult to find the common thread if you are actively engaged in the conversation.  In a dialogue group, some people will be actively listening to the speaker; others will be listening to their own inner voice, and still others perhaps listening for collective meaning.   Listening for the collective voice is a process of inquiry and reflection that allows members of the group to rise above the level of the active conversation and takes the group understanding to a new and higher level.  This leap of group perception begins with a question.


Questions that take the group to a new level of understanding are ones that open the field of inquiry rather than either/or questions that limit inquiry to only two lines of thought.  Even when a question is triggered by thoughts expressed by an individual, it should be addressed to the entire group to avoid one-on-one conversations.  Responses should also be addressed to the group, even when one person asked the question.  When a dialogue group appears to be stuck in a closed circle of thought, take a moment to ask yourself what questions have we not asked? or what new thought is trying to take shape here?  This often breaks the group out of the closed circle and begins to make relationships and connections more explicit.  Remember try to ask open-ended questions.


Sometimes the conversation seems to be going too fast or circling repetitiously.  It may be time to move from inquiry to reflection.  Fast paced conversations are common when ideas begin to flow but are not necessarily helpful for group learning.  In dialogue it may be useful to slow down and even to include some periods of silence.  Silence may occur quite naturally among groups well practiced in dialogue.  At first, you may need to agree to silence in a more semi-artificial manner.  Try this:


Begin each dialogue with a moment of silence.  Anyone called to speak may do so at any time but no one, including the facilitator/time keeper should feel compelled to begin the dialogue.

Agree that every half hour a timekeeper will simply state the time.  By agreement, everyone goes silent (without cutting off anyone in mid-thought).  There is no need to specify a length for the silence.  Whenever anyone is ready to speak, they should do so

Agree to take a breath before you speak.  This will mean there will be a short break between one speaker and the next and no one will Awalk on another=s words.@


Values & Dialogue

The ethic, or the framework of values, upon which we base our opinions, decisions and actions may be consciously understood or not.  Generally it is not.  Nevertheless, values are the lens through which we view the world, judge right and wrong, and live our lives.  Any discussion of the current status or future direction of agricultural issues always begins at the level of values, whether we are consciously aware of their influence or not.


The term Avalues@ may be thought of as a set of personal beliefs, particularly beliefs about what is good or bad, right or wrong, virtue or vice.  These beliefs are often hidden within our subconscious, acting as assumptions upon which we form opinions and base our daily decisions and actions.  They are formed through interactions in daily life starting as infants, being reinforced or challenged throughout life.  While some values may be so deeply ingrained as to either appear or to actually to be genetically inherited traits (the need for self-preservation for example), most personal beliefs are rooted in our families, communities, educational experience or culture.


Science in this sense represents a system of values or an ethic which has been codified into a methodology and a reliance on objective observation and analysis.  According to author Hunter Lewis, science is one of the six principle value systems which humans use to view the world.  The framework offered by Lewis in his book A Question of Values provides a way, not necessarily the way of putting the scientific ethic into perspective.  It is more important at this point simply to recognize that Ascience@ is one of several systems of values, than to agree on which systems best describe the full range of types of valuation systems.  Lewis describes six ways in which we choose to value the world:


Authority – This valuing system relies on the word of another human being or institution such as a religion or government figure (a figure of authority).  It is an act of faith that is a common means of determining value.  Quite often we rely on parents, teachers or other experts to help determine our beliefs.


Deductive Logic – This valuing system puts beliefs to a series of consistency tests through a deductive reasoning process that includes clarifying thought or speech, questioning, debating alternatives, deducing conclusions from premises, and eliminating fallacies.  It is a powerful tool but difficult to use and relies on the assumption that the universe is always orderly and consistent.


Sense Experience – This valuing system provides direct experience through the five senses of sight, hearing, smell, taste and touch.  It is a means of providing input into other valuing systems but is not Aperfect@ as individuals sensing the same phenomenon often Asee@ it entirely differently.


Emotion – This valuing system is based on internal feelings that something is right or wrong.  They are often based on belonging to a group (I=m an American) with a particular way of organizing (I prefer democracy) and are heightened by a common perceived enemy (I’d rather be dead than red).


Intuition – This valuing system is an unconscious and very powerful way of synthesizing large amounts of facts and theories with extraordinary speed.  It is particularly useful when trying to understand complex situations but can be easily biased by emotion.


Science – This is a valuing system that relies on sense experience to gather facts from a world external to the observer, intuition to create a testable hypothesis, logic to create a test, sense experience again to observe the facts, and logic again to draw conclusions.  It is a particularly powerful way to understand simple, measurable systems that do not involve humans.


While one system of valuation may be more effective than another depending on the situation, it is not necessary to choose one over another for the purposes of dialogue.  In fact, it will likely reduce the chance of real communication among people with diverse experiences.  It is necessary however, to recognize that all humans use more than one system for determining value at different times and that generally the valuation system upon which we base our decisions is working at a subconscious rather than a conscious level of awareness.  Further, even when we do reflect on the value roots of our beliefs, we are likely to come to inaccurate conclusions if we do so in isolation.  For example, the preference for the process of science is often confused with the preference for the authority of the scientist.  When this preference is shared and discussed in a dialogue forum, it is possible to come to a deeper level of awareness than when reflecting alone.


Maturana and Varela in their groundbreaking book, AThe Tree of Knowledge: The Biological Roots of Human Understanding contend that whenever we are in disagreement with someone with whom we want to remain in coexistence, we must let go of certainty or absolute truth.  The environment which we create in dialogue allows individuals with diverse interests and different value systems to bring forth a new world where coexistence may thrive. They write; Every human act takes place in language.That is, every social interaction is an act of language whether or not words are exchanged.  In fact, much communication occurs without using words. They continue; Every act in language brings forth a world created with others in the act of coexistence which gives rise to what is human.All social interchange among humans is based on an ethical framework (which is generally hidden but made more explicit in dialogue).


Dialogue is a form of communication that not only improves understanding but transforms those who engage in it as participants bring forth a new world based on shared meaning.  In dialogue we examine our individual and collective thinking, exploring assumptions and moving us Aupstream@ to where our belief systems dwell.




Lewis, H. A Question of Values: Six Ways We Make the Personal Choices that Shape our Lives. Harper & Row Publishers; San Francisco. 1990.


Ellinor & Gerard.  Dialogue: Rediscover the Transforming Power of Conversation.


Maturana, H.R. and F. Varela. The Tree of Knowledge: The Biological Roots of Human Understanding.  (Shambhala Publications, Inc. 1987).




Dialogue Guidelines Summary

Adapted from;


The following are the teaching and practice lessons from Greg Kramer, the Metta Foundation.

  1. Commit to process:  Bring your full energy to this process and to each moment.
  2. Pause-Relax-Open (PRO):  Before you speak, stop and breathe, and then open yourself to wonder and awe.
  3. Trust Emergence:  Allow whatever is supposed to happen, to happen.  Expect surprise.
  4. Speak the truth:  Listen deeply and speak with confidence, but discernment and presence.
  5. Release roles:  With humility, move beyond the surface personality, titles and roles.
  6. Surface assumptions:  With creativity, see beyond the presuppositions and tangles of mind.
  7. Observe judgments:  Recognize the endless flow of judgments that come to mind.
  8. Share parallel thinking:  Become aware of the constantly arising stream of thoughts and feelings and have the courage to share them.


From; Meditating Together, Speaking from Silence Experiencing the Dharma in Dialouge.  Published by the Metta Foundation.  Author – Gregory Kramer; 310 NW Brynwood Lane, Portland OR 97229, (503)292-8550;



Dialogue Process Checklist
1. Commit to process Did I show up on time?  Did I do the reading?
2. Pause – Relax Open Did I stop before I spoke?  Did I examine my thoughts and body feelings?
3. Trust emergence Do I have expectations of what people should say or how this dialogue should be?
4. Speak the Truth. Listen Deeply. Have I shared that which I want to share?  Have I listened clearly to what others have said?
5. Release roles Do I have expectations of who other people are in the dialogue?  Am I playing a role myself?
6. Seek out assumptions Have I examined the assumptions that are under my statements?
7. Observe judgements Have I noticed when I am judging others?
8. Share parallel thinking Am I willing to report on my parallel thoughts with compassion?


\Some Quotes On Dialogue


FROM David Bohm&

Now if we think together, then maybe we can solve our common problems.


FROM: Krishnamurti&.

I do not know if you have ever examined how you listen,

 it doesnt matter to what,

whether to a bird, to the wind in the leaves, to the rushing waters,

or how you listen in a dialogue with yourself,

to your conversation in various relationships

with your intimate friends, your wife or husband&

If we try to listen we find it extraordinarily difficult,

 because we are always projecting our opinions and ideas,

our prejudices, our background, our inclinations, our impulses;

when they dominate we hardly listen at all to what is being said&

In that state there is no value at all.

One listens and therefore learns,

only in a state of attention, a state of silence,

 in which this whole background is in abeyance, is quiet;

 then, it seems to me, it ie possible to communicate.

Real communication can only take place where there is silence.



FROM Rilke

I believe in all that has never yet been spoken.

I want to free what waits within me

so that what no one has dared to wish for

may for once spring clear

without my contriving.


Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing

There is a field.

I will meet you there.

Some Resources on Dialogue

Best direct references

· Bohm, D. On Dialogue. Routledge: London. 1996.

· Ellinor, L. and G. Gerard. Dialogue: Rediscover the Transforming Power of Conversation. John Wiley & Sons. 1998.

· Kramer, G. Meditating Together, Speaking from Silence: Experiencing the Dharma in Dialogue. Metta Foundation, Portland OR. ( 1999.

· Senge, P.M. The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of The Learning Organization. Currency/Doubleday. 1990.

· Wheatley, M.J. Turning to One Another: Simple Conversations to Restore Hope to the Future. Berrett-Koehler. 2002.

· Web Page – . This web page provides detailed instructions on practicing Insight Dialogue.

· Web Links – . A list of links to other pages including Bohm, Krishnamurti, Patrick de Mare, and others.

Best related references

· Bohm, D. Thought as a System. Routledge: London. 1992.

· Bohm, D. and F. D. Peat. Science, Order, and Creativity: A Dramatic New Look at the Creative Roots of Science and Life. Bantam Books. 1987.

· Krishnamurti. The Awakening of Intelligence. Harper/Collins. 1973.

· Krishnamurti and D. Bohm. The Ending of Time. Harper/Collins. 1985.

· Peat, D.F. Infinite Potential: The Life and Times of David Bohm. Addison-Wesley Publishing Co. Reading, MA. 1997

· Schon, D. A. The Reflective Practitioner: How Professionals Think in Action. Harper/Collins. 1983.

· Varela, F.J., E. Thompson and E. Rosch. The Embodied Mind: Cognitive Science and Human Experience. MIT Press. 1996.


Quercus Questions

A small, gray squirrel stopped his running about one day to say hello to his friend and provider, the great oak tree in the wood. Scampering up the rough, whitish trunk, he sat among the many branches, sighed and said “you are so strong – so tall – so old – you have seen much in your many years here in the wood – but don’t you ever want to run about like me, to play, to jump, to climb?”

After a moment, while the wind played softly among the leaves of the old tree, the oak replied, “I am oak.”

The small, gray squirrel nodded knowingly (or at least as knowingly as the small brained rodent could nod). He said to the oak, yes, yes, yes you are oak, but really aren’t you even curious to see what is over the next hill, beyond the woods, where I can go whenever I want? Oh yes, I remember you telling me how your roots intermingle with the other trees in the forest and you do know what lies around you for many hills – but come on, wouldn’t you just like to get up and go see it for yourself?”

After a moment, while the wind played softly among the leaves of the old tree, the oak replied, “I am oak.”

Slightly exasperated the small, gray squirrel said, yes, yes, yes I know you are oak, but aren’t you at all sad when you drop all your acorns and most of them are eaten by my brother squirrels, and those ridiculous little white-footed mice, the rabbits and even the very hungry bears? Most of your seed never sprout and grow into oaks like you – oh, well except for once in a while when I forget where I’ve stored my winter supply, and they sprout in the spring. But, but even then those small sprouts of oaks rarely grow up – most are eaten by deer or mice before they see one winter. Oh yes, I remember you telling me how you feel complete when you can be of service to others, giving of yourself that they might grow and live. But come on really, wouldn’t you like to see more baby oaks around here? Wouldn’t you? Wouldn’t you?”

After a moment, while the wind played softly among the leaves of the old tree, the oak replied, “I am oak.”

After a long slightly angry pause, the excited little gray squirrel thought of something that would surely elicit a more satisfying reply than “I am oak” – from the oak. With a scheming glint in his eye, the little gray squirrel said to the oak, “so what about those humans, huh?” He thought he felt a slight shudder in the trunk of the great tree, but it may just have been the wind. What do you think of their saws and bulldozers and trucks? What do you think you would do if you saw a human approaching, measuring (as they always do), looking you over with the eye of the hunter, desirous, greedy, murderous, what then? Would you be so generous then? You who love to give of yourself then – what would you say to that? What about those humans…. huh? huh?”

After a much longer moment, while the wind played softly among the leaves of the old tree, the oak replied, “I am oak.”

With that, the little gray squirrel decided this game was no longer fun, he jumped to a lower limb and back to the ground, and just ran off without even saying goodbye. The oak took a deep breath and seemed to smile.

As time passed, the oak did as the oak always did and was content in his place – breathing the clean air, taking nourishment and water from the soil, dropping acorns in the fall for the many animals that lived at his feet. Dropping leaves in the winter to replenish the soil – in thanks. Occasionally the oak noticed a small sprout from one of the acorns the silly squirrels had planted and forgot, but always a deer ate it before it saw one winter. The oak didn’t mind, he was oak and that was his place. Once in a while he thought about the question of the human, but not having seen one for a long time he chose not to wonder, but just to breath, to grow slowly in place, to be oak.

One day as it happened, he heard a strange sound. Yes, it was a vehicle of some sort – which meant one thing – a human. He heard, well really he felt the on-coming presence of the human, measuring (as they always do), looking about with the eye of the hunter, desirous, greedy, murderous (you see, he did remember the words of the excited little, gray squirrel). As the human approached, the oak became curious. This man had no saw, no bulldozer, no truck. In fact, he looked fairly harmless, all in all.

The man approached the mighty oak, stopped, looked up, breathed deeply – and seemed to smile. Yes, it was a smile, but he was not measuring, he didn’t quite have the eye of the hunter, he didn’t appear desirous, greedy or those other things the squirrel had talked about. The man simply stood quietly before the oak – breathing the same air as the great tree, the small animals, the earth.

Slowly, with a voice full of quiet gratitude and much love the man spoke. “Spirit of the oak, I honor you you have lived long and seen much. You have felt the wind and the rain, the warmth of summer, the cold of winter. You have fed the earth with your leaves and the animals with your acorns for many, many years. My people honor you and all you have given. You are indeed oak.”

The oak wondered, how could this human – understand?

The human continued slowly “I come from a tribe that wishes to build a new home for a young family in our village. We come here to ask your permission and forgiveness. We wish to take your mighty trunk for timbers for a new dwelling that will stand for many years. We wish to make furniture of your limbs, to be used and admired in this home for many generations. We wish to take your many branches for the fire, to warm this home. We have come to thank you for your gifts to the soil, to the little animals, and to ask your permission to allow us the greatest gift you have – your self – for our needs.”

The oak breathed deeply. The man breathed deeply. The earth breathed deeply.

The man then said, I will return when you have dropped your leaves to feed the soil and your acorns to feed the many animals. At that time, I will seek your reply. The man left.

The oak signed.

As time passed, the oak did as the oak always did and was content in his place – breathing the clean air, taking nourishment and water from the soil, dropping acorns for the many animals that lived at his feet. Dropping leaves to replenish the soil – in thanks. He noticed one small sprout from one of his acorns had grown in a place that seemed to have more light and had not yet been eaten by a deer. Perhaps this one would grow? Perhaps this one would be the one?

And the man returned, as the oak knew he would. Once again the man stood before the great oak, smiling in appreciation – breathing the same air as the oak, and the animals, and the earth. After a time he said with a quite, grateful, loving voice “will you become part of a home for a young family in our village, part of the furnishings in this home, part of our lives, to be admired and appreciated for many years? Will you heat our homes so that our children can be warm? Will you give us permission and forgiveness for ending your time in this wood?”

The oak breathed deeply. The man breathed deeply. The earth breathed deeply.

And the oak replied with acceptance and love “I am oak.”





My Truths….

A while back I sent a simple survey to a group of people who do research and education in support of long-term agricultural sustainability testing the degree of agreement or disagreement with five ‘truth statements’.  The truth statements were taken from a short essay I had written about sustainable agriculture and the need for change among public universities (1).  The response to the survey was reassuring, not only because these people I respect agreed with ‘my truths’ – but also because of the rapid response.  Within 48 hours, I had 50 survey responses by email and within a few days, 73 scientists, educators and activists dedicated to working for a research and education system that supports a more sustainable agriculture had participated in the survey.  This essay offers further reflections on those five truths, based partially on feedback from survey participants, partially on my own thinking and experience, and partially on some lines of poetry that I greatly admire.

Some of my friends have reminded me that these five truths have all been said before.  A friendly critic told me that my truth essay had lots of ‘fire’, but no real ‘heat.’  I was told it has ‘all been said before.’ Well, maybe so.  No less than T. S. Eliot seems to assure me that some things are worth repeating.  In one of his poems from the Four Quartets, he writes;

You say I am repeating

Something I have said before.  I shall say it again.

Shall I say it again? (2)

Well yes, I’m saying it again. 

‘Why bother?’  Why say it again?  Why survey agricultural researchers, educators and advocates about what they think?  I mean, who really cares what the sustainable agriculture research and education community thinks?  We all know that economic power and political control remains in the hands of organizations and people who would largely disagree with the ‘five truths.’  An answer came from Donella Meadows, who wrote that the first step in changing deeply rooted paradigms was:

In a nutshell, you keep pointing at the anomalies and failures in the old paradigm, you keep speaking louder. . . . (3)

Finding justification for my impulsive inclination to continue to speak my truth (louder) by ‘pointing at the anomalies and failures in the old paradigm’, I decided to share these ‘further reflections’ with colleagues.   So thanks friends, and here is more of the story.


My Truth One:. . .  the form of agriculture currently practiced in the U.S. is not sustainable, as it continues to leak toxins and other pollutants from their point of application, use natural resources at rates greater than replacement, and put farmers and ranchers off the land.

‘Yes, we know all that.’  This was the most common response among survey participants.  On a scale from 1 to 5, with 1 indicating ‘don’t agree’ and 5 signifying ‘full agreement’, 90% choose either 4 or 5 (with 72% indicating full agreement).  One of the respondents summed it up by writing:

‘Most political organizations, institutions and commodity agricultural organizations are aware of the social/natural resource problems, however, they lack the knowledge and understanding that would enable them to take constructive steps towards sustainable systems.  Instead they are locked into old patterns and keep trying the same old things.’ (4)

This is so true.  We are all locked into old patterns and keep trying the same things, or making small changes ‘around the edges’.  Indications that something is amiss in the world go unnoticed (or noticed only by a minority of activists).   Taco shells being withdrawn from shelves because of ‘non-approved genetic material’ doesn’t get much attention in the national press.  A ‘dead zone’ where oxygen breathers don’t survive in the Gulf of Mexico and reports of concern from respectable sources about projected global water shortages are mostly ignored.  Potato production increases to satisfy our desire for French fries, while more potato farmers go out of business.   We know what is happening; yet we stay on the same path.  Another participant wrote:

‘If you keep on doing what you have been doing, you will keep getting what you have been getting.  If you don’t like what you are currently getting, then you need to try something different.  The industrial model of agriculture is not sustainable.’

While there are some people who honestly support the industrial model of agriculture (that is the source of ‘the anomalies and failures in the old paradigm‘) many researchers and educators know something is wrong but can’t see an alternative.  Their response to this first truth is usually something like ‘. . .  but aren’t we doing better?’  And the answer is surely, yes.  Or they might say ‘so what choice do we have?  We have to feed the ever increasing human population, don’t’ we?’  And of course the answer is yes again.  In the absence of a clear alternative path, we fall back on that which we know best ‘ industrial agriculture with its quick fixes and addiction to growth at all costs.  We have a vague idea there is a better way (which many of us call an ecological model of agriculture – or agroecology) but the ecological path seems treacherous, full of unknowns.  Eliot assures us this is the right path when he writes;

‘. . . In order to arrive at what you do not know. 

You must go by a way which is the way of ignorance.’

Right, and isn’t research ‘the way of ignorance.’  When we admit what we do not know, we are then able to begin the search for a better way.  Eliot continues;

‘. . . And what you do not know is the only thing you know.’

Today, we must admit that we do not clearly know the path to an ecological agriculture.  Experiments in tillage practices, integrated pest management, multiple cropping, cycling of nutrients and the like surely point us in the right direction.  But when challenged by proponents of the industrial way, we must admit ignorance.  That is the beginning of the search for a better way that we intuitively know is based on principles of ecology.

And who will lead us in this path of discovery?  Surely those farmers and non-profit research and educational organizations devoted to agricultural sustainability are key.  And what of the universities?   It seems that the public university is a place where this work SHOULD be happening to a significant extent.  A survey participant wrote:

‘This undertaking is beyond the resources or capability of any single institution (public or private) and therefore can only be achieved through the re-establishment of some form of commons.”

It was both funny and sad that this survey participant didn’t recognize the publicly funded land grant university as a ‘commons.’   It was once upon a time.

My Truth Two:  . . . the land grant university has lost its way; claiming to serve a public good while being driven by the political agenda of those currently in power, those corporations and large commodity organizations with enough money to get our attention, and the disciplinary based science societies that limit what is considered acceptable research.

The extent of agreement with this truth statement among all participants was strong, with 90% choosing 4 or 5 (with half of the respondents indicating full agreement with the statement).  One of the participants bluntly stated ‘. . . scientists are among the most selfish of all creatures on the earth.’  Well, this may be true.  At the same time, I know many agricultural scientists who continue to demonstrate acts of service and selflessness.  In fact, many, many agricultural researchers and educators began their university careers full of idealism and hope that they might contribute to feeding the world’s hungry and preserving the natural environment.  Something happened along the way to redirect their work, but I believe ‘just below the surface’ of many academics is a hopeful visionary, still dreaming of making a difference in the world.  There is yet potential for changing the current university system, but the constraints on faculty are significant. One participant wrote;

‘The social and cultural environment in graduate school and in ladder rank positions pushes people to work alone using reductionist methods which limits the ability to research real world problems that exist today.’

Academic faculty and extension staff working in agriculture respond to their environment much like others in any organizational environment.  Rewards and evaluation criteria controlled by disciplinary bound societies encourage scientists to work within the ‘silos’ of their own special discipline.  Another participant wrote:

‘If researchers from different disciplines don’t figure out how to work together, we will not be able to solve the problems that confront us.’ 

But it will likely take more than individuals from different disciplines working together.   This is necessary but not sufficient.  Public policy drives research funding and evaluation criteria to measure success in terms of short-term economic efficiency, in support of the industrial model.  Interdisciplinary teams of agricultural scientists working together to support the industrial model may do more harm in the long run than good.  As long as university research questions and methodologies are based on an industrial view of the world, there will be little progress on the path toward an ecological agricultural system and long-term sustainability.   It seems unreasonable to hope for much change when the primary goal of research seems to be short-term economic benefit for those social groups holding financial and political power.  A participant wrote:

‘Economics, i.e., dollars and cents, has become the dominant, if not only, criteria by which we measure the value of everything — including impacts of publicly funded research and education.’

While I agree that economic efficiency is one important goal for research and education, it is insufficient alone and may actually be harmful when other goals such as environmental quality and social justice are neglected.  This narrow understanding of the public mission of the land grant university allows much of the energy of agricultural science to be directed toward development of new technologies that improve short-term economic returns at all costs.  One participant suggested an alternative role for the university;

‘Another truth is that the US does not have a clear policy on the role of agriculture and the future of rural America. This is in contrast to other regions, such as Europe, where a food policy and societal goals about the rural landscape are played out in everyday life.  A major failure of land grants in my opinion is their lack of leadership in helping the nation develop such goals. The only goals articulated are the next technical fix.’

Lacking a grand vision, technical solutions dominate the thinking of agricultural scientists.   But technical solutions to the complex problems created by industrial agriculture (such as environmental degradation and social upheaval) will only create more problems.  While this approach may keep the disciplinary bound research machinery of the university going, it does little to solve complex social problems.   In addition, administrative leaders (who seem to think their chief responsibility is keeping the university research machinery well funded) encourage scientists to pursue only those goals held in favor by the organizations currently holding economic and political power.   Under these conditions the industrial model becomes inviolate.

Funding and therefore economic and political power greatly influence research agendas.  Public universities are caught in a reinforcing feedback loop, in which they find their budgets being squeezed by a public that doesn’t entirely trust the university (or any large institution for that matter).  University leaders look to their friends in industry and among the big agricultural commodity groups for political and financial help – and what happens?  Public distrust is confirmed and the budgets get squeezed more.  University leaders then turn back to their private partners and ask for more help ‘ at a price, of course.  It is a vicious cycle, spinning public universities in a direction away from their primary mission of serving the public good.

The many university scientists who intuitively know something is wrong with both industrial agriculture and the university system that helps support it continue to act in ways that belie this knowledge.  To know something is wrong and not to take action is place of despair.  And when our daily behaviors violate our own deepest values, we become discontent.  Some would say, we become insane.  Despair and discontent is increasing within the public university.  As an administrator and faculty member, I observed the pervasiveness of this underlying discontent among many of my own colleagues.  Unfortunately it seems to be not discussed in ‘official circles’  of leadership.  One participant notes:

‘The top administrators in the land grant systems are out-of-touch with the rank and file.’

Where are the courageous leaders we read about in novels and see in the cinema who speak the truth regardless of personal consequences?  Where are the elders, wise with experience and old enough to know the truth?  Eliot asks;

                                          Had they deceived us

Or deceived themselves, the quiet-voiced elders,

Bequeathing us merely a receipt for deceit?

Can’t we expect more than a ‘receipt for deceit’ from our leaders?  Have we not learned from the past that ‘power corrupts’ and leadership becomes disconnected from ‘membership’ over time.   This seems to be a basic flaw in all large organizations today.  Universities are not unique in this regard.   One participant claimed:

leadership from commodity groups who have much political power, do not represent the vast majority of farmers’ 

It seems the disconnect between leaders and members or followers is just as great among farm organizations as it is at the university.

My Truth Three:. . . the leadership of the farming community has come to rule farm policy, often at the expense of small and mid-sized farmers, farm workers and rural communities.  

There was slightly less agreement with this statement among survey respondents.  Only 76% choose 4 or 5, with 53% indicating full agreement.  One participant noted the complexity of the situation:

‘I can’t lump all farm leadership into the “bad” column because I know and work with some extraordinary farm leaders who are regularly overlooked by the sustainable ag community . . . For instance, Farmers Union has not veered from working on behalf of small farmers, farm workers, and outside the conventional system, but rarely gets recognition for it.’

Another participant disagreed for a different reason.

‘I don’t consider the folks in charge to be “leaders” of any kind of “community”— but that is contingent on my definitions of leadership and community. Community requires love and generosity of spirit, and these qualities are notably absent from farming policy.’

Still another sees this as part of a larger pattern.

‘. . .the leadership of the farming community has come to rule farm policy, but it is only fronting for the interests of powerfully concentrated private capital.  The fronting is only a ploy to convince farmers that farm policy must be OK since the farm leadership is involved.’

These are pretty strong statements and seem to carry a fair amount of anger.  If we can get past the anger, we might begin to notice how all large organizations seem to allow their leaders to become disconnected from the vast majority of their membership.  Most organizations have promotion and reward policies that support individuals who conform to the dominant paradigm.  Talented conformists are the people chosen for positions of power and higher rank.  Talented ‘trouble makers’ rarely find themselves in positions of authority, and when they do they generally lose some of their ‘fire’ as they learn to compromise to get along.  Why is that?  What happens to people when they get into positions of power?  It seems they get disconnected from the ‘rank and file’ and more important perhaps, they seem to lose track of the mission of the organization.  Of course this is not always true.

I know many farm organization leaders and university administrators alike who have dedicated their talents and passion to serving their organization with integrity.  At the same time, I’ve seen many more begin a leadership career with strong ideals of service only to get beaten down by power and politics.  Unfortunately, there seems to be more in the latter category.   I don’t think we should blame the individuals.   In today’s organizational environment of power-over relationships and competition for resources, many are led to sacrifice values they care for deeply, just to survive.  This seems as true for individuals as organizations.  Even the sustainable agriculture organizations are susceptible to this ‘disease.’  One survey participant wrote;

‘Sustainable agriculture organizations have succumbed to the same treadmill, competing for grants, members, and other resources, the goal becoming the survival of the organization rather than the vision that created the organization.’

Leaders get ‘set up’ under these conditions for burn out, whether they are from sustainable agriculture organizations, traditional farm groups, or universities.  Replacing old leadership with new voices rarely changes systems based on hierarchical power-and-control relationships.   All of our mental models of how organizations work (especially with respect to the relationship between leaders and followers) carry this fatal flaw.

Leaders and followers (members or employees) act in collusion, expecting leaders somehow to know what is wrong with complex systems and how to ‘fix it.’  This is a form of dependency that is not healthy in a living organization or community.  We need to understand how organizations create an environment in which leaders and members alike have internalized power-over ways of thinking and accepted one role or another.  Power-over thinking leads to behavior in which domination and control is normal and acceptable (except in the extreme).  Eliot warned;

. . . we shall

Die of the absolute paternal care

That will not leave us, but prevents us everywhere.

As long as our mental models of organizational behavior assume that leaders are to provide ‘paternal care’ the power relationship between leaders and followers will be sustained.  Even the most well meaning people and the most service-oriented organizations seem to evolve cultures of competition, disconnectedness and oppression based on power-over thinking, all seemingly for a good cause (well mostly).   But the result is always the same.

My Truth Four:. . .  many of us are running ever faster to stay even on a treadmill where farmers pursue technologies that don’t offer long-term hope, researchers pursue the next grant, the next research paper or the next academic award, and extension educators run ever faster to be at the next meeting, answer the next phone call, or file the next report for an anxiety ridden administrator who runs from crisis to crisis without end.  There is nothing sustainable about the way we live, the way we work, the way we farm, or the way we treat the earth.

Everyone seems to be running faster to stay even.  At least 96% of the survey respondents thought so, choosing 4 or 5 (with 74% indicating full agreement).  Farmers adopting the latest technology are particularly vulnerable.  Each new technology that enhances yield or improves efficiency makes the technology treadmill run faster.   An increase in raw product yield does little today to affect retail price, since raw product is an ever smaller portion of the cost of getting food to market.  The economic benefit to individual farmers from increased productivity is quickly lost as competitors adopt the new technology and total production increases keep commodity prices flat.  The technology treadmill turns.  If you don’t get on, you get lost.  If you do get on, you have to run faster to stay even.  The greatest beneficiaries are generally the manufacturers of the new technologies.  As a society, we feel little is gained but much is lost.  Food is cheap, but there are other problems.  One participant wrote:

‘The loss of community, the ungluing of stable human relationships, and the substitution of material things for substance have played a major role in the injustice and despair that have plagued agriculture and society’ and have caused untold unconscious damage to our planet and ourselves.’


I was particularly moved by the recognition that we are substituting material things for ‘substance’.   Some of the substantive things lost are; honest relationships, personal serenity, ecological integrity, and intergenerational responsibility.  What we have gained seems to be cheap fast food and fast lifestyles to support the fast food habit.  There is no end in sight, yet it doesn’t seem possible to keep up with the accelerating speed of the treadmill.  Many research scientists, extension educators and administrators caught in their own personal treadmills know they need to get off, but don’t.  We each must take responsibility for our own contribution to making the treadmill run.  One of the respondents offered this quote attributed to Gandhi:

‘We each must be the change that we want to see in the world.’

Many of us don’t even realize the treadmill exists, until we fall off.  Actually stepping off before the inevitable fall is even more difficult, but is itself an act of honesty and courage.  It also requires a faith that there is another way to live.  Spiritual leaders often tell us that we need to slow down and discover a way of being that is offers more ‘stillness’ in our lives.  Eliot helps us envision a ‘still point of the turning world’ around which there is constant movement, turning, ever turning. . . ;

Where past and future are gathered.  Neither movement from nor towards,

Neither ascent nor decline.  Except for the point, the still point

There would be no dance, and there is only the dance.

The dance of life (including work) would not exist without the still point, any more than a wheel could turn without a hub.  This is the center, where all is in balance.  I imagine the farther we get from this still point, the faster we turn ‘ like a wheel.  In our normal workday lives all too many of us wear. . .

      . . .  strained time-ridden faces

Distracted from distraction by distraction

Filled with fancies and empty of meaning

We search for meaning in ‘distractions’ and find our days filled with emptiness.  Some of us deaden this feeling with addictions, pursing something indefinable but not achievable.  And the treadmill keeps moving, turning, ever turning.  Eliot writes. . .

Desire itself is movement

Not in itself desirable;

Love itself is unmoving,

Only the cause and end of movement,

Timeless, and undesiring

Eliot tells us something about the still point.  It is love, unmoving itself but the ’cause and end of movement’.  Love is creation, timeless and undesiring itself – the beginning and the end – that place where we are always ‘in the now’.  Or as Eliot says. . .

        . . .  say that the end precedes the beginning,

And the end and the beginning were always there

Before the beginning and after the end.

And all is always now.

This still point, the now, is a difficult place reach.  Eliot suggests that

. . . the enchainment of past and future

Woven in the weakness of the changing body,

Protects mankind. . .

Our own belief in the reality of time, past and future, act as ‘chains’ protecting our weak and ever-changing bodies (that live in time past and time future) from the still point.  We remain only partially conscious since. . .

Time past and time future

Allow but a little consciousness.

To be conscious is not to be in time. . .      

I seem to get closest to this still point in meditation.  Perhaps at the end of each breath and before the beginning of the next, we approach the still point where there is no movement, no running after insatiable desires, no treadmill and no runner where ‘all is always now.’

The path to the still point may be as long as the journey of a life time and as short as the distance from head to heart.  The journey begins with telling your own truth and acting according to a clear set of personal values.  When I am clear on my personal values and my actions are consistent with those values, I know that I am not only more effective in my work but I find more satisfaction in my life.  Many of us who came to work in agriculture because we deeply cared about people, hunger, or the environment found ourselves working for the economic self-interests of those who hold money and power.  Our current industrial agricultural system and the public research university it supports drive us in this direction.  If we are to save ourselves, we must be true to our core values.  We must step off the treadmill before we fall off, and in doing so perhaps save the earth.

My Truth Five:. . .  the quest for sustainability of the earth, including human and non-human communities may be our best hope for land grant universities, the farming communities we love, and perhaps for ourselves

This truth had much support in the survey as well.  About 87% of the respondents choose either 4 or 5 (with 76% in full agreement).  We badly need a bold idea to focus our energy and rebuild hope.  The public universities that should be part of the solution seem to be more of a problem.  The American public has questioned the credibility of land grant universities because of the seemingly close relationship they maintain with corporations.  The response of many universities to this criticism has been that they are contributing to economic growth.  And this appears true, at least in the short term.  But universities should be obligated to look beyond the short-term economy and the generation of monetary wealth for those corporations willing and able to donate to university research.  One respondent wrote:

‘A country’s strength and standing in the world community should be measured by the health of its ecosystems. . .

A public research university devoted to ecosystem health (rather than corporate wealth) would certainly be a shift from the situation today where universities have created special offices designed to attract corporate funding of research.  Have a look at any university web page and you can find a section that basically states, ‘we are for rent ‘ just call us.’  This is a far cry from the university of the people created over a century ago.

Imagine what the response might be if a courageous university president were to publicly state that the state university was no longer willing to accept grants and contracts from privately owned corporations.  In some states, this would make little real impact in the total funding picture, since most grant funding comes from the state and federal governments (large corporate gifts are another story of course).  I sometimes wonder if the payoff in public credibility and support might not outweigh the money actually provided by corporate grants.

I also wonder what would happen if universities declared their primary role was to support research and educational programs that worked for planetary sustainability?  Now, that would be a big idea.  It might also be one that helped serve the farming communities we love, and maybe save our souls in the doing.   I believe ‘getting off the treadmill’ may begin by reconnecting to a passion for service to something bigger than ourselves, like sustainability of the earth.

I wonder if we will have the wisdom to make the needed changes before it is too late.   Knowledge alone, will surely not be enough since it is knowledge (or perhaps cleverness) that brought us to where we are today.  Eliot writes;

There is, it seems to us,

At best, only a limited value

In the knowledge derived from experience.

In the end, we may need more than knowledge.  We will need wisdom – but a particular type of wisdom that derives from humility.  T.S. Eliot wrote;

The only wisdom we can hope to acquire

Is the wisdom of humility: humility is endless.

Maybe Eliot meant that only the ‘wisdom of humility’ is truly sustainable.


1 The essay titled ‘My Truths Today ‘ It’s Still All About Sustainability’ was submitted (upon request) to a sustainable agriculture newsletter of a major land grant university.  It was developed from a speech given by the author in Manhattan, Kansas in February 2001.   Upon receipt, the essay was deemed too controversial to print by the university administration.  It has not been submitted for publication elsewhere but was shared with friends and colleagues.  Comments are welcomed.’ Contact John Gerber at:

2The T.S. Eliot quotes from ‘Four Quartets’ were brought to my attention at a workshop given by Margaret Wheatley and published later in an article by her titled Consumed by Fire or Fire: Journeying with T.S. Eliot.  IONS Noetic Science Review, April-July 1999.

3 From Donella Meadows in Leverage Points: Places to Intervene in a System. Sustainability Institute. December 1999.  See (

.4 The quotes from ‘survey participants’ were collected from the email survey.   Since they were anonymous, these are included without individual attribution.