Conversations on Values

In this section, Professor McLaughlin shares that values are a natural part of classroom discussions about land, water, food, and climate.

We can't avoid talking about values in this course, because you really can't talk about smallholder farming and the economics of agriculture unless you talk about poverty.

You can ask questions, like why are smallholder farmers so poor? Why do smallholders’ children want to want to go to the city rather than stay on the farm? What do they do in the city? Are there jobs there? What about the role of women in farming and the role of cultural differences in how women are viewed? You could just spend a whole semester talking about this stuff.

This is a science- and engineering-oriented course, although I do get students from other fields, like urban studies. And we're in a school where we don't have a whole lot of philosophy majors who can come in and talk about the ethical situation. The students are generally well-read and knowledgeable, but it's a challenge to decide how much effort and discussion to spend on learning about scientific issues, scientific controversies—more or less agreed-on facts—and how much to spend on things like values.

And also, economics and policy. When people say, “We shouldn't waste so much food,” I say, “OK, so what do you want to do about that? Exactly what should society do?” So not only do we talk about values, we talk about regulation and government policy. You can't get away from it. The students in the class are not just science and engineering students, they're also citizens, and they have to come up with a position on these issues. This class makes them think about it.