Academia’s Dilemma

Important and interesting questions are often difficult for higher education to digest. Michael Pollan raises just such a vital question in his book The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals. The book has reached into America’s public intellectual consciousness in a thoughtful and profound way. It is related, perhaps, to a similarly provocative work, Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation. These sorts of books find their way into homes and student backpacks. They resonate.

Pollan’s book is animated by a brilliantly simple and profound query: “What should we have for dinner?” As omnivores, humans have the power and responsibility of choice. We can, quite literally, eat all manner of things. But what do we want to eat? What should we eat? And why should we eat it? Pollan takes us through the creation of a meal and the various ways in which people have gathered, sown, harvested and hunted food. He uses biology, history, anthropology, sociology, politics and economics to explain the creation of the modern meal. The ultimate question, though, is also philosophical. What we decide to eat says something about who want to be and how we want to live.

Pollan has been duly acclaimed, reviewed, criticized and debated. He is widely recognized as an important thinker and someone whose writing and ideas matter. He is, in a word, relevant.

One would think that contemporary relevant thinkers would have a home in academia, and Pollan has found his as a professor of journalism at University of California, Berkeley. He is a journalist and has written about topics besides food. He teaches courses on environmental journalism and science writing. As for his book, The Omnivore’s Dilemma has not been so neatly disposed in an any one academic department or school.

Googling “Omnivore’s Dilemma” and “syllabus” (and all the various permutations) reveal a myriad of classes and courses in all manner of disciplines requiring Pollan’s book. It is in food related courses in departments of anthropology or psychology or sociology. It is required in environmental science and history courses, as well as in schools of agriculture and human services and public policy. Writing classes, journalism classes, and rhetoric classes all have assigned the book. It has been discussed in first year seminars and in senior seminars. Many colleges and universities require all first year students to have a common reading; The Omnivore’s Dilemma has been selected several times as one of these common texts.

All in all, many faculty in the academy have stretched themselves and their disciplines to incorporate the book into their courses. Assigning the book engages students in both the rigor of the disciplines and the messiness of life, which rarely can be assigned to a particular department. Surfing through the many syllabuses is evidence of the vigor and dynamism of American higher education. It is also evidence of how poorly higher education has explained the liberal arts and itself to the public.

One of the recurring themes in and around higher education today is the demise of the liberal arts and humanities. Many bemoan the perceived devaluation of the liberal arts and decry the rise of business and other pre-professional courses of study. We find ourselves justifying the liberal arts to students and parents, developing convoluted arguments about the “use” of the classics as a tool for lifelong learning.

Instead, consider the The Omnivore’s Dilemma, a fascinating and important work that is both a product of the liberal arts and has a home in the liberal arts. In academia’s fervor to defend itself and its traditional academic structures – a phenomenon repeated every time an institution trims a department or program – the value of ideas that reach across disciplines is often overlooked. And that, interestingly enough, is often where higher education’s greatest strength lies.

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