A tribute to Jan Douwe van der Ploeg – The walking teacher

jd-wandelleraar-coverToday, January 26 2017 at 16.00 p.m. Jan Douwe van der Ploeg gave his farewell address ‘The importance of peasant agriculture: a neglected truth‘. It was lived broadcasted at WURTV and can watched again here. As a tribute to his standing career the Rural Sociology Group has offered him a magazine with contributions by a selection of all those he encountered on his enduring journey as a ‘wandelleraar‘ (walking teacher) and were inspired with his plea for a peasant style of farming (or ‘boerenlandbouw‘ in Dutch) and, in turn, inspired him to continue. A struggle he will without doubt continue after his official retirement. Below a part of the introduction. The magazine can be downloaded here. Most contributions are in Dutch, but quite some in English as well.

Those interested in his vast body of work can view his list of publications or visit his personal website.

Jan Douwe has characterised himself as ‘wandelleraar’ (walking teacher). This is a concept that dates back to the 1870-1920 period. Walking teachers were, based on a German example, primarily employed by farmers’ unions. They were experts who travelled through the countryside to give lectures to farmers. Some of the walking teachers were veterinarians, others were teachers at agricultural schools and some were farmers with a specific field of expertise. Hundreds of thousands of farmers were reached by these walking teachers and their impact on farming is acclaimed to have been high. They have, for instance, contributed to the development of the first agricultural cooperatives.

Walking teachers partially gained their knowledge from farmers: farmer’s observations and interpretations of on-farm experiments were an important source of knowledge, that found its way to other farmers via the trail of the walking teacher. Hence, while moving from one place to the other the walking teacher both taught to and learned from farmers. In addition to being a teacher the walking teacher was also a researcher. In fact, the walking teacher embodied the perfect combination of teacher, empirical researcher and agricultural extensionist. Why JD – as many of his colleagues at the Rural Sociology Group often called him – described himself as a walking teacher is quite obvious and, if not, it will become clear when reading this magazine.

Jan Douwe has consistently continued to walk. Although he often travelled by car or plane to visit places all over the world, the principle of walking has remained. Time and again the practices and stories of male and female farmers constituted and shaped his scientific thinking. Many of his key publications originate from and are inspired by what many others perceive to be marginal and irrelevant. And many of the larger EU-funded research projects have their origin in small, and usually poorly funded, research activities in remote rural places. In the world of scientific research quite often a distinction is made between fundamental and applied research. JD has shown that good fundamental questions begin with a sincere interest in and proper analysis of seemingly trivial and futile practices. Only by walking along small and narrow paths does one discover new paths and seeds of change and innovation. This is in stark contrast with the “reordering of contemporary society on the basis of institutionalized future images created by the expert system”, as JD would phrase it.

One thought on “A tribute to Jan Douwe van der Ploeg – The walking teacher

  1. Dear Dirk
    Thank you for your words, your simples but very true words to express Jan Douwe’s world contribution to critical rural sociology, to agrarian and peasant studies…walking along among peasants and farmers, students and teachers…walking along..

    Abraço
    Eric

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