In times of change, learners inherit the Earth, while the learned find themselves beautifully equipped to deal with a world that no longer exists.
These are times of change. The economic turmoil of the last 18 months has shaken global confidence, and many wonder what the future will bring. It has also been a challenging time for the food industry. Numerous food recalls and scandals in this country and other parts of the world have led people to question things that were once unassailable, such as the quality and safety of their food.
Times like these lead people to question what they know and to search for new ways of dealing with a changed reality. Times like these lead people to determine whether they are among the learners or the learned, as described in the above quote from American philosopher Eric Hoffer. As his brief reflection implies, learners are more flexible, more adept at moving through a shifting landscape than the learned, who are navigating with a roadmap hopelessly out of date.
To ensure that the next generation of food scientists and food industry leaders are learners and not just the learned, education is key. Although this statement may seem contradictory, it makes sense if you accept the fact that education is not the rote ingestion of information, but a process of learning to think critically that leads to self education. As the Irish poet William Butler Yeats wrote, “Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.”
As our cover story on the state of food science education makes clear, educators are working to ensure that students exiting their programs are not simply the learned, but are also learners driven by the fire to constantly improve. Commodity-driven food science programs, which focused on fruits and vegetables, post-harvest physiology, meats, or dairy products, have served us well. But programs are now driven more by science, particularly by four major areas: food chemistry, food microbiology, processing, and engineering and nutrition. Most importantly, the focus is not just on acquiring information but on knowing how to put that information into action.
“We still have lab classes, we still teach hands-on food processing,” said Kathryn Boor, PhD, chair of Cornell University’s food science department, “but what we have done very mindfully is shift toward ensuring our students are prepared for problem-solving, for thinking through questions, for critical interpretation of information.”
That focus on putting information into action and into context is shared by students as well. “Food science allows me to understand the bigger picture,” said Crystal Goshorn, a PhD student in the food science program at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. “You get that in all sciences of course, but the food science program that we have allows me to draw from other departments and put all that knowledge into practice.”
Improving education to ensure that the next generation is made up of learners and not only the learned is, of course, not enough. If we want to improve food quality and safety and if we want to regain the public trust, we need stronger legislation and enforcement, as well as new tools and technologies. It will take a new generation of learners to draw up the legislation, to enact the laws, to develop the new tools that will assist us in this task. In the meantime, we in the industry need to become learners, to rid ourselves of the rigid mindsets that we all too often apply to our problems and to seek new ways of improving our industry.
Be a learner.