08/27/2013 04:07 pm ET Updated Oct 27, 2013

The Liberal Artisan: Food Studies and Higher Education

Whether a college education in the liberal arts is worth effort, time and, above all, financial investment, has become a pressing question with wide social repercussions. The recent comments by President Obama underlined the urgency of the issue. In an economic environment where student debt is on the rise and the job market seems stuck in low gear, these are legitimate concerns. They also extend, of course, to those engaged in food studies. Why should young people decide to dedicate their time and money to study food and what are their professional perspectives once they graduate?

A recent -- and apparently unrelated -- article in the New York Times offers opportunities to reflect on the topic. In the article, economists David H. Autor and David Dorn discuss the impact of technology on middle-class workers while hypothesizing on the cause behind the increasing disparity in income between high-paying occupations and low-wage jobs.

Autor and Dorn argue that the growing mechanization in many productive sectors increases the demand for workers who can count on "problem solving, intuition, persuasion and creativity," as well as "high levels of education and analytical capability." At the other end of the spectrum, there is a great need for "so-called manual tasks," which require "situational adaptability, visual and language recognition, and in-person interaction," basic skills that most humans can perform in "low-wage, in-person service occupations." Autor and Dorn suggest that middle-class careers will expand in sectors that require manual skills and the capacity of interacting with other humans, together with more abstract aspects of problem solving. They join Harvard economist Lawrence F. Katz in predicting growing numbers of "new artisans," "those who combine the foundational skills of a high school education with specific vocational skills."

I believe that food studies programs in the liberal arts -- rather than in vocational training institutions -- complicate this approach, which assumes that the "new artisans such as medical paraprofessionals, plumbers, automotive technicians, and customer service representatives do not require a college education." A growing number of careers that have the potential to employ food studies graduates challenge the neat separation between intellectual and manual expertise. Some students already have a background as chefs, cheese makers, food stylists, and PR communicators. Others are interested in sectors ranging from policy making and nonprofit to international institutions and NGOs focusing on food system change, rural development, or social justice.

I propose that these young professionals, who often generate new employment opportunities as they develop their own research, projects and startups, fall in a different category -- the "liberal artisan." I thank philosopher Lisa Heldke (also past editor with Ken Albala of Food, Culture, and Society, the journal of the Association for the Study of Food and Society) for this definition inspired by John Dewey, one of the founders of The New School, where I coordinate a Food Studies undergraduate program. Dewey wrote, "The present function of the liberal arts college is to use the resources put at our disposal alike by human literature, by science, by subjects that have a vocational bearing, so as to secure ability to appraise the needs and the issues of the world in which we live" (LW 15,280).

In the seminal book Cooking, Eating, Thinking, which she edited with Deane W. Curtin, Hedlke considers food making as a "thoughtful practice," a "mentally manual activity" or a "theoretically practical activity" that bridges the separation between "inquirer and inquired," between "timeless truths about unchanging reality" and "the transitory, the perishable, the changeable." I would extend the argument to many occupations dealing with food, which challenge the distinction between theoretical and practical knowledge and introduce innovative ways to relate to the world and to society.

In our program, we are going beyond the distinctions that Heldke identifies -- for instance, creating the structure for chefs to come back to school and get their bachelor degrees. They can hone the analytical abilities that Autor and Dorn identify as essential for high-paying jobs without discounting the manual and practical skills they already have. We network with institutions and organizations that offer internships straddling the theory/practice opposition, from communication to activism, from urban agriculture to marketing. The goal of our public events is to create opportunities for practitioners and scholars to come together and exchange ideas and experiences as peers. As John Dewey did, we are confident that a new generation of "liberal artisans" will be able not only to find satisfactory careers, but also to have a positive and creative impact on the environments in which they find themselves operating.