It was with automatic hostility that I came to Caitlin Flanagan’s essay in the Atlantic Monthly in which she rips Alice Waters and the state of Calfornia’s educational establishment for its school gardening program, Edible Schoolyard. What is wrong with working gardening and food consciousness into a public school curriculum? Flanagan starts out asking a rhetorical question: how do you think it feels to an uneducated immigrant Mexican field worker who has labored intensely picking lettuce to get his kid into school so the kid can learn to … pick lettuce?
Put that way, you see her point — though one can reasonably ask whether Flanagan is wrong to assume that progress in America requires casting aside agrarian knowledge and sensibilities. This is what chafed me initially about her essay.
But as I read on, the more sympathetic I became to the general thrust of her argument. She says that California public schools (49 percent Hispanic) are awful at providing a basic education to students. These kids don’t even get the basics down; what on earth is the state doing tacking on extras like this? I found this to be a pretty effective punch:

If this patronizing agenda were promulgated in the Jim Crow South by a white man who was espousing a sharecropping curriculum for African American students, we would see it for what it is: a way of bestowing field work and low expectations on a giant population of students who might become troublesome if they actually got an education.

Surely, though, Flanagan doesn’t believe that the Edible Schoolyard people have an agenda to disempower the poor as a form of political control. I don’t think she believes that, but I do think that she believes the well-meaning people foisting this stuff onto the California public schools are doing something that really does disempower the poor — something they would recognize if it were being done in a different historical and geographical context. Here’s Flanagan again:

I started to ask Michael Piscal, founder and CEO of the Inner City Education Foundation Public Schools, which runs 15 successful charter schools in South Los Angeles, what he thought about the Edible Schoolyard and school gardens in general, but he cut me off. “I ignore all those e-mails,” he told me bluntly. “Look,” he said, when pressed, “there’s nothing wrong with kids getting together after school and working on a garden; that’s very nice. But when it becomes the center of everything–as it usually does–it’s absurd. The only question in education reform that’s worth anything is this: What are you doing to prepare these kids for college? If I can get a kid to read Shakespeare and laugh at the right places, I can get him to college. That’s all that matters to me.”
With the Edible Schoolyard, and the thousands of similar programs, the idea of a school as a venue in which to advance a social agenda has reached rock bottom. This kind of misuse of instructional time began in the Progressive Era, and it has been employed to cheat kids out of thousands of crucial learning hours over the years, so that they might be indoctrinated in whatever the fashionable idea of the moment or the school district might be. One year it’s hygiene and another it’s anti-Communism; in one city it’s safe-sex “outer-course,” and in another it’s abstinence-only education. (Sixth-graders at King spend an hour and a half each week in the garden or the kitchen–and that doesn’t include the time they spend in the classroom, in efforts effective or not, to apply the experiences of planting and cooking to learning the skills and subjects that the state of California mandates must be mastered.) But with these gardens–and their implication that one of the few important things we as a culture have to teach the next generation is what and how to eat–we’re mocking one of our most ennobling American ideals. Our children don’t get an education because they’re lucky, or because we’ve generously decided to give them one as a special gift. Our children get an education–or should get an education–because they have a right to one. At the very least, shouldn’t we ensure that the person who makes her mark on the curricula we teach be someone other than an extremely talented cook with a highly political agenda?

I think she’s mostly right here, though I don’t see that spending 90 minutes in a garden is any big deal, and I disagree with her assumption that learning to grow and to appreciate good food is a cultural luxury. Still, from her description of the Edible Schoolyards program, it does sound like obnoxious SWPL faddishness, and if I were a poor Hispanic parent with a kid in a struggling public school, I suspect I would be far less willing to have patience with this kind of thing than if I were the parent of a child in a prosperous suburban public school. Still, I can’t affirm Flanagan entirely, because I think food consciousness is a lot more important to living a good, responsible and meaningful life than she does — and that it ought not be something rich people care about in their leisure. Whether my kids are going to be lawyers or lettuce pickers — and they have a far greater chance of being the former than the latter — I want them to know something about how food is grown, and what it’s like to grow it. This is not the kind of knowledge that’s going to get them into grad school, and put them on the fast track to Success in America. But it’s important to building their souls and their character. I’m not saying Edible Schoolyards is the way to go about this, but I do question Flanagan’s judgment on the relative unimportance of this kind of knowledge and experience.

It seems to me you could use her logic to argue against any field of study that didn’t directly help students acquire the skills and knowledge necessary to getting into college and getting ahead. Isn’t time spent in theater class time that could be better spent mastering basic academic skills? For that matter, why not cancel the football schedule and have the players cramming for their NCLB exams. You see what I’m getting at. If gardening were an after-school activity, I doubt Flanagan would be very upset by it. It’s the working it into the curriculum that has her irritated, as well as the unproved conclusion that this kind of thing helps kids learn.
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