“Learning with Labor:” The Legacy of Student Labor at MSU

“Learning with Labor:” The Legacy of Student Labor at MSU
Fields and hoop houses at the MSU Student Organic Farm
Fields and hoop houses at the MSU Student Organic Farm

This past November, Dr. Goldstein, Dr. Camp, and several CAP fellows visited the MSU Student Organic Farm for a tour and to discuss a possible partnership. Tucked away in the southern reaches of campus, the farm is a tidy series of fields and greenhouses, the latter of which allow food to be grown year-round. Established in 1999 by students who wanted to learn how to grow food in sustainably, the SOF provides experiential learning opportunities resulting in productive outcomes, such as a successful CSA, the sale of produce to MSU Culinary Services, and products packaged and sold by Land Grant Goods, MSU’s first student-run business.

The Student Organic Farm is part of a long history of experiential learning from agricultural labor at MSU. If you weren’t already aware, Michigan State University was established in 1855 as the Agricultural College of the State of Michigan. It served as a model for the Morrill Acts of 1862 and 1890, which allowed for the establishment of land-grant colleges that were devoted to educating students in agricultural and mechanical arts, as opposed to the typical liberal arts colleges of the day. Therefore, agriculture is inextricably tied to the foundations and history of MSU.

 Agricultural students posing with farm implements on campus,1886

Agricultural students posing with farm implements on campus,1886. Image Source.

One of the central tenets of the early College was the “judicious combination of labor and study”—meaning that labor and hands-on experiential learning was as important as classroom learning (1). The earliest students were expected to labor on campus for three hours every day, “planned with reference to illustrating and applying the instruction in the Lecture Room” (2). The earliest students spent as much time working the agricultural fields as they did clearing the lands surrounding the college for future agricultural endeavors. In his 1858 diary, Edward Granger mentioned “logging” and “chopping wood” as his daily tasks almost as often as “gardening” (3).

Students were compensated for their labor, and this remained one of the major arguments in favor of required labor. It allowed students who may not otherwise be able to afford to attend college to receive higher education. Money earned in the fields went towards the cost of room and board and made education available to poor farm boys from across the state (1).

 Agriculture class in the campus orchards
Agriculture class in the campus orchards. Image source

However, mandatory labor eventually became unpopular with students. An 1882 op-ed in The College Speculum complained about compulsory manual labor, which students felt no longer allowed them learning experiences, and instead labor assignments were made based on existing student knowledge and strengths. Individuals who did not know how to do certain tasks were not assigned to them for the sake of efficiency, which robbed them of opportunities for learning new skills (4). Discontent and resentment among the students was on the rise. By 1884, daily labor requirements were reduced to two-and-a-half hours daily (5), perhaps in response to this discontent.

Three students on a tractor in 1919, zooming into the future and leaving mandatory labor behind
Three students on a tractor in 1919, zooming into the future and leaving mandatory labor behind. Image source.

Mandatory student labor continued at MSU much longer than it did at other land grant institutions. This was made possible by the College’s unique yearly schedule. Classes were held spring through fall, with the long vacation break over the winter months. It was this schedule that allowed student labor to remain a major part of the College’s curriculum for over forty years. However, in 1896, the College moved the long break to the summer months, and without viable labor options over the winter, mandatory labor requirements came to an end (1).

This does not mean there was an end to experiential learning. Students have continued to work on the MSU Farm, Dairy, and Dairy Plant, gaining practical experience everyday. And the establishment of the Student Organic Farm demonstrates student hunger for experiential learning and the productivity such endeavors can result in.

So why did CAP visit the Student Organic Farm to begin with? Why this exploration of student labor? There is a possible collaboration between our two organizations that is on the horizon, but that’s all I can say for now. Stay tuned for more news!

Author: Susan Kooiman


  1. Kuhn, Madison (1955) Michigan State: The First Hundred Years. The Michigan state University Press East, Lansing.
  2. Annual Catalogue of the State Agricultural College of Michigan, 1883-4
  3. Diary of Edward G. Granger, 1859 (MSU Archives UA10.3.56, Folder 1)
  4. The College Speculum, Vol. 2 No. 1, October 2, 1882.
  5. Annual Catalogue of the State Agricultural College of Michigan, 1884-5

2 thoughts on ““Learning with Labor:” The Legacy of Student Labor at MSU”

  • Looking at the picture of the tractor it seems this was a military tractor by the looks of all the camouflage on the front and side.

  • Hi Lanny, I bet you’re right, but I found that picture in the archives and loved it, so I threw it in more for humor than for accuracy!

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