I make a conscious effort not to talk politics in my classes. One of my best undergraduate teachers was a master at hiding her personal views on politics, religion, and philosophy, insisting that we students make up our own minds. Because of the lingering influence of that open-minded approach, I’ve always made a conscious effort not to proselytize my students in any way.
In New Hampshire during an election year, my students are already inundated with political propaganda. They’ve had numerous chances to meet the candidates, the candidates’ spouses, and other campaigners, and if my students live off campus, they’ve had local and out-of-state canvassers pounding down their doors trying to sway their vote. In class on Tuesday, I’ll remind my students to vote, and I’ll give them information on how to register at the polls if they’re New Hampshire residents and unregistered. But although I’ll remind them this is a historic election they’ll want to be a part of, I won’t tell them how to vote or even who I’m voting for: making up their minds is their job, not mine.
Last Thursday, however, I made a slight exception to my policy of “no politics in the classroom.” My Expository Writing class has been reading Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals, so since Pollan has been speaking out about the politics of food during this election year–and since my students have been wonderfully engaged with his book–I shared some recent Pollan-related resources. First, I shared the three blog entries (and photos) Fred First shared from his recent trip to Joel Salatin’s Polyface Farm, a self-described “family owned, multi-generational, pasture-based, beyond organic, local-market farm” that figures prominently in Pollan’s book. Second, I encouraged students to read an article by Tom Philpott titled “Politics and the Dinner Table: Weighing Obama’s and McCain’s Stances on Food and Farm Policy,” which Pollan had recommended via his email list. And third, I encouraged students to read Pollan’s open letter to the next president, published in the New York Times and focusing on the issues of food policy that will necessarily preoccupy our next “Farmer in Chief.”
At the Google Zeitgeist Conference, Pollan gave a talk on “Serious Sustainability” in which he offered a 20-minute reprise of this New York Times article. In class last week, I showed my students a YouTube video of Pollan’s talk because I thought it was a great example of the kind of expository prose they’re trying to produce themselves in my class. Because Pollan as a journalist has so thoroughly steeped himself in food policy issues, he can offer a clear and concise summary of the “big idea” he explores in The Omnivore’s Dilemma, as well as its timely relevance in this election year. Regardless of what (or whether) my students have decided about the election, I wanted them to hear one thinker’s stance on how the food on our plates connects with Washington politics. Whether or not my students agree with Pollan’s perspective, I want them to see how a book they’ve read and discussed in class can apply to the “real world” with its political debates and complex controversies.
Imagine, then, how happy I was to discover this morning that Barack Obama not only read Pollan’s piece in the New York Times, he referred to Pollan’s argument in an interview with Time magazine’s political columnist Joe Klein (full transcript here):
There is no better potential driver that pervades all aspects of our economy than a new energy economy. I was just reading an article in the New York Times by Michael Pollen [sic] about food and the fact that our entire agricultural system is built on cheap oil. As a consequence, our agriculture sector actually is contributing more greenhouse gases than our transportation sector. And in the mean time, it’s creating monocultures that are vulnerable to national security threats, are now vulnerable to sky-high food prices or crashes in food prices, huge swings in commodity prices, and are partly responsible for the explosion in our healthcare costs because they’re contributing to type 2 diabetes, stroke and heart disease, obesity, all the things that are driving our huge explosion in healthcare costs. That’s just one sector of the economy. You think about the same thing is true on transportation. The same thing is true on how we construct our buildings. The same is true across the board.
Tomorrow in class, I’m going to point my students to Obama’s remarks not because I want to sway their vote but because I want them to see that the ideas they encounter in their classes can indeed have relevance in the larger political picture. Regardless of which candidate my students vote for, who wins, or how deeply Pollan’s remarks resonate in Washington, I want my students to know that they’ve read, thought about, and discussed a book whose ideas at least one Presidential candidate has grappled with as well. It’s heartening to think that the “food for thought” we’ve discussed this semester has influence far beyond our classroom walls.