Cultivation of Cultivation: Learning, Farming and Science


by Karen Haydock

Karen Haydock_Learning Farming and Science.pdf (92 KB)

We have been investigating how one family in Rudravali, Maharashtra learns and teaches paddy cultivation (Haydock et al. 2021). We have been doing this by observing and interacting with the family as they learn and teach each other, and as they teach us how to do paddy cultivation.

The main questions we have been asking are: How does the family learn, teach, and confront problems they encounter in the course of their daily labour cultivating paddy? How do they pass on traditions and/or develop new ways of doing cultivation? Do they do science in order to learn and to solve problems they encounter? How and why might their approaches be different from the ways science is taught in schools - and from the ways professional scientists do science?
What implications do our findings have on science education?

Traditional cultivation and dialectical conflict

It has been claimed that traditional farmers have different ways of passing on methods, learning, and developing their ways of knowing than ‘modern western scientists’. Researchers have suggested that they tend to be vague, approximate, pragmatic, and specific, act locally, respect elders and authority figures, use local languages and mainly oral communication, have ‘collective agency’, and have little knowledge of modern agricultural methods (Aikenhead and Ogawa 2007; Barnhardt 2007; Nwaoha, Zugwu, and Osele 2015; Quigley 2009; Snively and Corsiglia 2001).

But in our interactions with the family, we have observed that the situation is much more
complex than this. We have found that their paddy cultivation necessarily involves dialectical conflicts. These are material conflicts between ways of doing, not just conflicts between beliefs. We have seen a number of types of dialectical conflict: between using old and new technologies, between being pragmatic and abstract, between being specific and general, between acting locally and globally, between cooperative collaboration and respect for authority, between literacy and oracy, between doing rituals and hard work, and between availability and non-availability of technologies. These conflicts give rise to and define the sort of paddy cultivation that occurs and develops on this farm.

By studying the historical development of paddy cultivation we saw that even before people domesticated it, rice kept evolving through a non-teleological process of natural selection. This happens because there is always variation between individual rice plants in any field or population of rice, and some of this variation is due to genetic differences interdependently interacting with the environment. Since some variants of plants tend to survive and reproduce more than others, the population of rice evolves. Thus, evolution by natural selection occurs unintentionally, through dialectical conflict. However, since rice began to be cultivated, people have purposely tried to change rice according to their various changing needs and desires. They have used a process of artificial selection, which we saw is still being carried out by the family in Rudravali. The process of cultivation has not been a balanced process in which the same kind of rice keeps getting produced year after year, century after century. There is no balance of nature (Haydock and Srivastava 2019). Even before people existed, fossil evidence shows that nature has always been evolving interdependently with inherent internal conflicts. This is why we say that nature (and nature/society) is historical dialectical materialist (HDM). By ‘historical’ we mean
that it changes over time. ‘Dialectical’ means that it changes through inherent opposing forces. And by ‘materialist’ we mean that the changes are rooted in physical reality rather than in ideas, concepts, or some sort of spirit.

We found that what at first appeared to be a traditional process of paddy cultivation that has existed for hundreds of years, is actually not what it appeared to be. The family’s paddy
cultivation is not an unchanging, harmonious process carried on unaltered from generation to generation.

The process is full of material dialectical conflict. And this conflict gives rise to the learning and the changing of paddy cultivation. Not only the materials and methods used in cultivation, but the paddy itself, as well as the environment, keep changing interdependently through dialectical conflict.

Learning and doing science: in the field vs school

We have observed how small and large problems keep arising during the process of cultivation, and the family engages in cooperative and collective processes of questioning and investigating in order to learn and figure out how to solve these problems. They learn by doing, using both hands and mind interdependently to investigate the problems.

In other words, at least to some extent, they do science: they use variable, complex networks of aspects of science, such as questioning, experimenting, hypothesising, observing, analysing, testing, comparing, categorising, trial and error, reasoning, etc. We see science as a network of these different aspects in various non-linear orders and combinations.

The family’s way of doing science is, in many ways, historical dialectical materialist science (HDM science). By this we mean that their collaborative questioning and investigating arises in a process of dialectical contradiction, and also, in this process they investigate the dialectical nature of nature/society. Rather than just finding answers that they pass on as ‘facts’ or ‘the ways things are’, they keep confronting new contradictions as they arise, and keep trying to figure out new ways of doing things.

In the paddy field, we saw that questions and investigations arise by necessity, through the
process of working with hands / minds. Maybe this is what DD Kosambi meant when he said, “science is the cognition of necessity” (DD Kosambi 1952).

HDM science is done because it has to be done. It arises due to the recognition of dialectical
conflict, and it may not have a clear-cut beginning and end, or result in a very well-defined
answer. We saw this, for example, in the question of when to harvest the paddy. In the paddy field we learn that if we wait a few more days before harvesting a crop of paddy, it may be drier, and be less likely to be attacked by fungus, but it may rain in the meantime, and then the entire crop may be lost - or if left standing in the field too long, the grains may fall and be lost. These sorts of conflicts and questions are crucial, and learning to cultivate means recognising the conflicts between being too wet and being too dry, being too immature and being too mature, as well as learning to ask questions that arise from the recognition of these conflicts. Learning cultivation does not mean knowing exactly when to harvest. It is actually not possible to know exactly when to harvest, and each year new factors will complicate the decision. It is not possible to ‘know the right answer’. But through the process of questioning and investigating, we get experience and may get closer to better answers and become better at cultivating.

Doing HDM science in the paddy field is in conflict with an idealist approach of passing on
tradition through authoritarianism, indoctrination, faith, doing rituals and passing on mystical, irrational beliefs. Cultivation cannot rely too heavily on an idealist approach - if it does, there is a greater probability that it will fail to produce useful physical results. Just performing a ritual does not work. Just relying on some unexamined ‘inner belief’ or intuition does not work.

The farming family does also engage in some practices that are not very scientific. For example, they do various rituals, such as attaching a few mango leaves to the plough. However, they say that these rituals do not determine the outcome of their crops. The outcome of paddy production, they say, is determined by their hard work. They explained that their rituals are for their social well-being and self-respect.

Comparing the family’s science to profession western science

The science that the family does is different in several significant ways from the way capitalist science is done. There is emphasis on different aspects of the scientific method. The type and amount of communication is different from what is involved in capitalist science. It includes more oral communication and less access to reading and writing and communicating over long distances. They also do less experimentation that involves isolating variables and using controlled variables. In their way of doing science, the social and the natural are interconnected, unlike the more reductionist approach that is taken by many capitalist scientists. And on the farm there was a more intimate connection between work with the hands and work with the mind, with the doing of science directly connected to their immediate needs.

Another important difference is that most of the science on the farm is done for its use value. We observed the family doing science because they need to do it in order to solve their own problems, and produce food for their own use.

This contrasts with the way science is often done by professional scientists, who may be either working on rather abstract, basic questions that do not have obvious or direct bearing on their everyday lives, and/or whose science may be restricted by capitalist compulsions to keep profit as the bottom line.

However, the family also does another kind of science: as they told us, it is what they do in order to discover how to progress and surmount their economic problems. Rather than just being concerned with use value, this kind of science is concerned with exchange value. They produce a different kind of paddy as a cash crop, just for its exchange value. They have also opened a small road-side shack in the hopes of surviving the agrarian crisis by engaging in petty trade on the side.

The family’s science is constrained

Due to the nature of the dialectical conflicts, and due to sopoec (social, economic, political)
constraints, the family is stifled in doing and developing paddy cultivation (Table 1).

It is clear that they are tremendously over-worked and they are not getting the true value of their labour. This is what we saw and also what they have explicitly told us many times. These dynamics are based in dialectical class conflict.

The family is actually very skilled at cultivation. A lack of skill or a lack of formal education or certification is not the reason that they are not getting the true value of their labour. That is not why they are trapped in poverty. That is not why the materials and methods they use in paddy cultivation have not changed more than they have. The problems are systemic, and are the causes of the present agricultural crisis.

The family members told us that they need more money in order to eat and live adequately. They are no longer able to survive through subsistence farming, as was possible as recently as 30 years ago. Paddy cultivation is not what it used to be. Therefore the family keeps trying to find ways to earn outside of agriculture. They are doing whatever they can so that their children get an education, in the hope that they will get jobs outside of agriculture and escape a life like their parents. However, education is no guarantee of this. There is a huge shortage of jobs and high unemployment and underemployment throughout the country for people with all levels of education. These are systemic problems, not individual failures.

We suggest that these constraints need to be explicitly addressed in formal and informal
education. Learners need to question, discuss and investigate these constraints.

Table 1: How and why is doing science on the farm inhibited?

We found that the family is hindered from doing more science, and a more HDM kind of science. How and why are they hindered? We list the following ways, most of which are rooted in systemic oppression due to class and caste.
• They are being robbed of the true value of what they produce as commodities.
• Because of this, food insecurity and poverty are constant worries.
• Their work is too hard and physically exhausting, and they do not have enough free time.
• Their production for use value is decreasing, while production for exchange value increases,
and thus the doing of science decreases.
• They are subjected to too many risks, and experimentation would add more risks.
• They have inadequate access to widespread written and oral communication, which is
important for doing science.
• They have a lack of access to education that encourages questioning and investigating.
• They have some access to schooling that teaches students to stop questioning and doing
• The hegemony of capitalist industrial science interferes with people’s science.

Note that there are several things that are not on this list. They are not being hindered by a lack of knowledge of cultivation, a lack of knowledge of how to do science, a lack of skill, a lack of intellectual ability, or by a lack of motivation or need to do science.

Formal education is alienated from cultivation

When we asked how they learned cultivation, family members said that they did not ‘learn’ - they just picked it up by growing up on the farm. This indicates they had the common understanding of ‘learning’ as memorising the ‘body of knowledge’ that is written in books. But as we saw, in farming, the family actually learns by doing, questioning, investigating, and trial and error. In some ways, the ways they learn and do science are similar to the ways scientists do science. But in schools, this is not what science is taught to be. And it is not the way students learn science. School science typically teaches students to be quiet and unquestioning, providing memorised answers to the ‘questions’ that are asked by teachers, textbooks, and examinations. It concentrates on work with the mind, divorced from work with the hands. This is not really science.

We started our study thinking it would lead us to develop modules to be used to teach school students about how to do cultivation. The family changed our objectives.

The family says that school education is not particularly useful to them in their farming. And
neither do they think it should be. They envision education as a way of escaping agriculture by helping people get jobs that allow them to eat adequate food and live better lives.

However, the present formal education system actually functions to decertify most students rather than leading them to good jobs. By definition, there are only a few toppers. And there are not enough jobs. Capitalism requires maintaining a fairly high level of unemployment in order to decrease salaries low and increase profits. Formal education functions to teach people that they have individually failed because they did not work hard enough or are not smart enough.

Thus, schools - and the capitalist system itself - deskills farmers and alienates them from science. It succeeds only in making them unquestioning and servile, as required by the (almost non- existent) jobs outside of agriculture.

Rather than preserving ‘indigenous knowledge’ (or romanticising an imagined past village life), our concern is to figure out how to allow the family to do more of the science they need to do in order to collectively solve the present agricultural crisis by investigating and confronting its systemic causes. Rather than treating science as if it is a ‘body of knowledge’, students in schools should cooperatively learn and continue to do science by questioning and investigating with their own hands and minds, in much the same way that we have seen on the farm.

Meaningful education is very difficult under the present inequitable economic system. It can only be attained through considerable struggle by students and teachers - or as subversive activities carried on at the peripheries and in the cracks. We are optimistic that it is possible and will help people to ask the sorts of questions they need to ask in order to recognise and understand the problems they face and cooperate to work collectively towards systemic solutions.


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