Op-Ed: Are We Losing Our Minds? The Case of "Bird-Brain" Teaching

Our young people are looking for causes to help them connect. They are replicating the "specialness" they experienced in their families by recreating pools of “specially connected” influencers. ( PORK )

Editor's note: The opinions in the commentary below are those of Karen Kerns, CEO of Kerns and Associates and an Entrepreneur in Residence for Iowa State University's Department of Economics in the College of Agriculture. She also serves as the Chair of Iowa State's Ag-Entrepreneurship Initiative.

I recently sat with a woman, aged 20-something, and had one of the most surreal conversations I’ve had about the ag industry. She is one of about 35 graduate students teaching two to three undergraduate composition courses a year at an agriculturally-oriented university. She told me she and a few of her fellow teachers have distributed an article to their students as an assigned case statement. These graduate assistants required their students to review the article and make their own case statement against the scientific practices being represented. The substance of the case focuses on “corporate” farmers proposing to adopt matrix framing architecture to produce chickens more efficiently and economically.  

What the Article Contained

"Architecture student André Ford has proposed a new system for the mass production of chickens that removes the birds’ cerebral cortex so they don’t experience the horrors of being packed together tightly in vertical farms."

The article, published in Wired and quoted by many others, continues:

"Ford goes a step further and proposes a 'Headless Chicken Solution.' This would involve removing the cerebral cortex of the chicken to inhibit its sensory perceptions so it could be produced in more densely-packed conditions without the associated distress. The brain stem for the chicken would be kept intact so the homeostatic functions continue to operate, allowing it to grow.

"Ford proposes this solution for two reasons: to meet the rising demand for meat, particularly poultry, and to improve the welfare of the chickens by desensitising them to the unpleasant reality of their existence ... After this “desensitisation”, the chickens could then be stacked into huge urban farms with around 1,000 chickens hooked up to each large vertical frame—a little like the network of pods the humans are connected to in The Matrix. The feet of the chickens would also be removed in order to pack more in. There could be dozens of these frames in the vertical farming system, which Ford refers to as the Centre for Unconscious Farming."

Source. Solon, Olivia. “Food project proposes Matrix-style vertical chicken farms.” Wired 15 Feb. 2012

The Case of the "Bird-Brain" Teaching Method

As this teacher passionately and indignantly related the horrors of chicken production and her efforts to promote awareness among young learners, I found myself bewildered. Where would I even begin to break down how misdirected this was on so many levels, including:

  1. The article was published in 2012; The French graduate student published a paper on this in 2008 and the methods were never adopted—anywhere. 
  2. These teachers were teaching logical fallacy but failed to note the fallacious, inflammatory and unsubstantiated assumptions proposed by the article. 
  3. The students earning good grades, those considered successful in their analysis, were those who adopted positions about the horrors and greed characterized by inhumane agricultural practices.
  4. The teachers used their position as influencers with considerable authority to promote a moral/political platform. This was not likely to be a safe environment for students whose grades would have been impacted by having the wrong answer. The composition course is required for graduation, so students can’t opt out.
  5. While graduate teachers are coached on methods and approach, they have complete authority over content covered. 

As a former university teacher myself, I gently suggested we look at the article source together and noted a magazine that partners with sites that adopt, as their tag line, “free from harm,” might be highly biased. As we reviewed the article together, she became agitated and embarrassed. She had thought she was doing something courageous. 

Recently Wes Jamison, professor at Palm Beach Atlantic University, spoke to a pork-production audience of 750 to outline the character and nature of the “millennial” and “snowflake” generations, those “special” and privileged young people who melt when they are under pressure. Jamison suggests the future workforce’s desire to influence, impact and express seems to drive many behaviors and decisions. They are “cause” people seeking to join a tribe that shares moral outrage.  

“Marketing is slow but outrage is fast,” Jamison notes, going on to suggest that engaging in outrageous conversations is the way to connect. 

While the chicken-brain teaching example certainly reflects Jamison’s next generation characterization, I am not certain outrage is the right way to connect. It’s like engaging the devil using his own language. If you’re not fluent in that language, you won’t be effective. What about using the language that we have at our avail—a language that unites us, one that we all have in common: We all come from a family; we all are driven by common human needs for acceptance, recognition, security.  

The young teacher connected with her “tribe” by aligning against a common enemy—people who kill things, mechanize things, dehumanize and desensitize sentient beings.

Is that a bad thing to be about? Not necessarily. But when people are “tribing,” they are in war mode rather than discovery and verification mode. Why would we reinforce warlike behavior when it means someone will have to be the enemy? When someone has to lose? 

I believe there’s a more significant call to action here. Our young people are looking for causes to help them connect. They are replicating the "specialness" they experienced in their families by recreating pools of “specially connected” influencers. They want to grow those families by converting others. 

Here’s what I invite us to consider as business leaders: What are we giving our younger generation to connect with?