A Rotten Orchard and the Drowning Child

About 5 years ago I began to spend my summers showing dairy cows at a Vermont farm. About twice a summer, I travel with my friends to Vermont  fairs to show our Brown Swiss dairy calves. This experience is an integral part of my year: waking up before the break of dawn to feed the calves, falling asleep with our freshly bathed calves’ heads in our laps, and laughing with my friends in the show ring. But, it wasn’t until 3 years into showing cows that I really became aware of issues in the dairy industry. Two years ago, one of the cows that my friend had previously shown, gave birth to a male calf, and we soon learned about the dairy industry’s relationship to the veal industry. All of the sudden, this part of my life became problematic, and if it wasn’t for my experience with What’s the Story? I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to better understand this industry that I was a part of, the stakeholders involved, and what it means to create change.

What’s the Story? delves into developing the skills and new ways of learning that will last a life time, a teaching method that differentiates it from a traditional classroom setting in a significant way. I’ve been hearing the term “individualized learning” a fair amount recently. In a conventional classroom, learning revolves around your own individual betterment, with the incentive of learning in order to achieve a certain grade or standard. In What’s the Story?, each individual student has an opportunity to chose what they learn and how they (as individuals), learn it, but instead of learning for your own self-improvement, the impetus for our learning is much more complicated. Instead of learning for ourselves, we learn for a group, an issue, stakeholders, a community, which I think is much more valuable.

Throughout this course, some of the skills that WTS students always, inevitably gain are Self Direction, Responsible and Involved Citizenship, Informed and Integrative Thinking, and Clear and Effective Thinking. Between researching an issue that’s important to us, engaging with the stakeholders involved in this issue, and working with a group to actively seek a solution and create a documentary, there are many parts to this course that effectively challenge its students. Since this is my second year of being a student in What’s the Story?, it is really interesting to reflect on these skills over a two year time frame. But, the really interesting thing about this course is that each and every student is provided with the tools necessary to continue learning in this fashion for the rest of our lives. So even though this is my second and last year taking the course, I am certain this new methods of knowledge acquisition will continue for a lifetime.

Since I worked on my own last year, working with a group was a new experience for me this year, and I learned a lot about Self-Direction within a group dynamic. Last year, I became very invested in the issue that I had researched, the veal and dairy industries in Vermont. During the I-Search blogs section of this year’s course, I began delving into various parts of the dairy industry that I was completely unaware of during the previous year. By digging further into an issue that I had originally felt well-informed on, my interest in this issue was rekindled, and instead of feeling like I needed to do work, I was enabled to explore something that I was really engrossed in. One of the most important things that this course facilitates, is the discovery of what you are most interested in. Whether it had to do with the issue you were researching, or the more technical parts of the project (such as film making), I’ve really realized the importance of doing work that you enjoy. A few weeks ago Bill Rich asked a few of us which parts of What’s the Story? we disliked the most. Through this question, another important part of individualized learning was highlighted. Since this course enables its students to really embrace the things that we find enjoyable, when we encounter things that we don’t enjoy, we really have an opportunity to learn a lot about ourselves as learners and as people. It’s been fantastic to see students leave this course with a great understanding of what they’re interested in, and how they plan to learn more about it.

Last year, I really struggled with my involvement in the dairy industry, as well as my work with What’s the Story?. To be frank, I was supporting an industry which I was simultaneously advocating against. When I was first researching this issue, I had tried to simplify the stakeholders into “good” guys and “bad” guys. But I soon learned that by creating a whole argument based on that superficial layer of the issue, I was both lacking understanding of the problem, and I was demonizing the same farmers that I have spent my summers with for the past five years. This is when I realized that I had really needed to get out into my community, and tackle this “conflict of interest” instead of denying it. I think that this is really when I began practicing the Responsible and Involved Citizenship skill that What’s the Story? presented. 

Do step out of the controversy involved in the dairy industry, our group decided to look at some of these issues through a more neutral lens, philosophy. To reflect on some of the challenges my group faced while researching our issue, I’m going to pose a philosophical thought experiment: 

Imagine you decide to take a walk. Your favorite walk, near a pond in the woods. As you are passing the pond, you notice some commotion in the shallow water. As you get closer, you notice that it is a young boy, who has fallen into the pond and is drowning. Do you save the drowning child? As I mentioned above, I’ve been showing dairy cows at a farm in Vermont for around 5 years now, and little did I know that every time I walked past one of the newborn, bull calves in the calf barn, I was, in fact, passing a drowning boy. Now, let’s imagine you run over to help the drowning boy, and a thought occurs to you. You just bought a new pair of shoes, which are worth around 100 dollars. Do you still save the boy, and sacrifice your 100 dollar shoes? Peter Singer, a famous Australian philosopher and very influential animal rights advocate, makes the argument that we stand in just this relationship to many situations around the world. For a very small price, we could save the lives of people, adults, and children, who would otherwise die. Throughout my research of the dairy industry in Vermont, and its connection to the veal industry, I have ascertained many surprisingly interconnected layers in the food industries that we are all hugely dependent on and yet one that we actually know very little about. My Informed & Integrative Thinking has really improved this year, from last year through analyzing the ways in which the dairy industry is connected to many other aspects of our society (production of milk leads to the slaughter of veal calves while simultaneously the drop in milk prices leads to an overproduction of milk leading to the dumping of milk and a significant increase in the suicide of dairy farmers). Where does our responsibility as informed consumers and citizens begin or end?  When do we finally reach in to help a drowning industry? 

I went through a mental shift in my perception of the veal and dairy industries in Vermont this year while attending a What’s the Story? retreat where Dr. Ruha Benjamin, a professor at Princeton University, provided the keynote address at the Rowland Foundation last October. Dr. Benjamin spoke about race and education across the country, and in her Rowland Foundation speech, she discussed an issue that she noticed concerning young people. She found that many youth feel like they need to ration their empathy, or choose who is deserving of their empathy, and who is not. I found that I had this similar problem while trying to create an argument about the veal and dairy industries. I had felt like I needed to choose one of the stakeholders within this issue, who I could give my limited supply of empathy to, instead of feeling compassion for everyone who is impacted. Dr. Benjamin also explained in her keynote address, that many of the isolated incidents that we observe in society are like rotten apples, which can provide insight into the rotten orchard that is producing them. It had not occurred to me that there could be an issue greater than dairy farmers producing veal calves, and I had to step back from what seemed to be an issue as basic as farmers are “bad”, and look at what was poisoning the orchard that was creating higher suicide rates, and producing a substantial veal industry, and overproducing milk. This reflection provided significantly new insight for me, and I continually reference Dr. Benjamin’s observations, as a tool to reflect on the different issues we hear about across the world, as well as understand what it means to be a Responsible and Involved citizen. 

Finally, I’ve experienced a new side of learning, working with a team for the duration of the year, which, by the end of the year, really revealed some of the difficulties of teamwork, as well as Clear & Effective communication. To be completely honest, I was concerned about starting a new year of What’s the Story? planning on researching the same issue as last year, while also being part of a collaborative group. I lost most of this concern as our group began to get to work, and instead found myself immersed in a very nicely blended work environment, in which we were able discuss the issues we were interested in. Towards the middle and the end of the year, our group had some difficulty collaborating. Something that seems consistent through almost every group, and through every year of WtS is the challenge of maintaining a balanced group dynamic. Each group member has a different schedule, different availability, and different commitment, and being able to communicate these differences is particularly difficult. The beginning of the year, a pivotal time in asserting roles in a group, seems to be a very cautious, and sensitive time of the year as well. Instead of being blunt with each other about our individual goals, we instead are very careful about what we say, which can lead to poor communication, and obstacles down the road. Something else I’ve learned through this year’s project is the importance of self-assertion in communication. A lot of the issues that my group faced could have been solved much earlier in the year, by being blunt about each of our goals, our commitment, and our skills.

Finally, one of the most striking, and unexpected things that I have learned through this course goes back to the basic goal of What’s the Story?, to learn how to be a change maker. Going back to Peter Singer’s drowning child thought experiment, one of the most significant things about Peter Singer’s written work, is his passionate encouragement for taking action. Having an enriched understanding of the issue you’re researching is definitely important. Every influential leader has an in-depth comprehension of the movement that they represent. But, as Singer says in his drowning child thought experiment, if we were to see a child drowning, or in need of our help, we would immediately help the boy, not sit back, and ponder the situation. Throughout this course, I’ve learned that creating effective, positive change, is hard; but change doesn’t happen unless we all do something to create it.

Thank you What’s the Story? and the Bread Loaf Teacher’s Network for all your work in creating such an incredible learning opportunity. This experience will affect me, as well as every other What’s the Story? student for a lifetime.

Lena Ashooh

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