We are apart of – not a part from Mother Nature

Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh says a spiritual revolution is needed if we are going to confront the environmental challenges that face us. Photograph: Plum Village

Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh has been practising meditation and mindfulness for 70 years and radiates an extraordinary sense of calm and peace. This is a man who on a fundamental level walks his talk, and whom Buddhists revere as a Bodhisattva; seeking the highest level of being in order to help others.

Ever since being caught up in the horrors of the Vietnam war, the 86-year-old monk has committed his life to reconciling conflict and in 1967 Martin Luther King nominated him for the Nobel Peace Prize, saying “his ideas for peace, if applied, would build a monument to ecumenism, to world brotherhood, to humanity.” Continue reading We are apart of – not a part from Mother Nature

Who are we and what are we doing here?

The Tree of Life and the Cosmos are One

This morning I prayed….. in fact, I pray every morning.  I pray for the knowledge of God’s will for me and the power to carry it out.  I pray to a God that is beyond my understanding. I pray because doing so has resulted in long periods of serenity, moments of clarity, and the chance to practice using spiritual tools that allow me to get through the difficult times and dark periods.  I pray for peace – and I work for a more sustainable world that will be free from want and fear – for all.

I was born into a religious tradition that taught me to fear that I would be punished (for Continue reading Who are we and what are we doing here?

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 PowerPoint to the PHG – Personal HG Intro

and a video: Introduction to the Personal Holistic Goal

2. John’s Second PowerPoint on the PHG – Personal HG Part II

and a 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

Comments and feedback are welcome. Please send them to; jgerber@umass.edu.






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’s 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.

Select Articles and Contributions

Profile Article
Going Green Article
Permaculture Article
Growing the SFF Major Radio
About the Growth of Sustainable Living Class

Social Media Links

Biographical Resume

John M. Gerber, Professor of Sustainable Food and Farming

Stockbridge School of Agriculture

University of Massachusetts Amherst

Amherst, MA


Mailing Address: 308 Bowditch Hall, University of Massachusetts, Amherst, MA 01003

Office phone: (413)545-5301

E-mail: jgerber@umass.edu

Webpage: https://sustfoodfarm.org/


Born November 22, 1951, New York, USA

Married, 3 children, 3 grandchildren, 1 dog, 6 chickens


Ph.D. Cornell University; 1978

Major: Vegetable Crops Physiology/Ecology

Minors: Agricultural Education & Soil Science

M.S. Cornell University; 1976

Major: Vegetable Crops Physiology

Minor: Soil Science

B.S. University of Rhode Island; 1973

Major: Botany

Minor: Chemistry

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