Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Article on school gardens

This is a rather vitriolic offering from a writer named Caitlin Flanagan. She basically rips apart the movement of incorporating gardening into school curricula. In between her character attacks and her burning of straw men in the form of bourgeois elitist local foodies and gardeners, I discern a few major threads that, when removed from her polemic style, are actually quite interesting to discuss. The author is concerned that by stressing school gardens as an organizing theme for curricula, schools are losing out in other areas. If this is so, it's an important point. Essentially Flanagan argues that schools should focus on essential, tested skills like reading comprehension, mathematics, and civics, and leave anything else for extracurricular activities. She uses the example of two schools in Berkeley, one high-achieving and testing-focused, and the other low-achieving and garden-focused, to condemn the academic merits of the nation's thousands of school garden programs.

It seems to me that there has long been a complex and valid debate between a focus on classical educational content on the one hand, and on the other hand an attempt to tie school content to tangible things, like students' communities or a school garden. I believe that this debate has not been settled, as there is a good case both for a focus on "universal, classical" subject matter, as well as a case that classical subject matter presented in a rigid form becomes irrelevant for many students. Certainly underachievement in US schools is a trend that long precedes the school garden craze, and certainly a good number of today's underperforming schools in fact employ just the back-to-the-basics prescription Flanagan is offering. In any case, her point is valid that it would be interesting to see rigorous studies comparing garden-based curricula to other curricula in terms of student achievement.

Another interesting point Flanagan broaches are the reasons behind the bad diet eaten by so many people in the US, especially the poor. She seems to believe that the idea of "food deserts" is a myth; that the poor simply eat poorly because they want to. Again, this is a thought-provoking thesis, but she neither offers much solid evidence for it (beyond one anecdote), nor does she offer any ideas as to how to address the fact that a huge percentage of our children in the US will be condemned to diabetes and early death by our present way of eating.

Mostly what jumps out of Flanagan's article is a rabid anti-agrarian bias. While her scorn for physical labor is understandable given the oil-fueled, fat and lazy US society in which she lives, she allows her irrational aversion to hard work and gardening to cloud her arguments. First off, comparing school gardens to migrant labor in California's sinful vegetable strip mines is like comparing the act of love with your spouse to anal gang rape. Secondly, Flanagan seems to be implying that the school garden movement is at heart a massive attempt to condemn the poor to a life of agricultural labor. Does she really think that local food advocates are secretly plotting to send black and Latino students to pick tomatoes? If this were so, the plot hasn't been very effective, as the vast majority of agricultural hired labor tends to be immigrants, not US-born poor people.

Flanagan's more serious claim, that by focusing on gardening instead of hard math and science schools are setting their kids back on standardized tests, would have to be equally leveled at arts, music, foreign language, and physical education classes. Her vitriol towards school gardens seems to betray some deep-seated animosity beyond her stated arguments. Again, I understand her belief that in the US the path to a good job and social ascendency has traditionally been academic achievement, but firstly she never demonstrates conclusively that school gardens hinder as opposed to fostering this outcome, and secondly, in the US I have known, good jobs are scarce, the social ladder is broken, and students would probably be best served by learning to be independent, out-of-the-box entrepreneurs, self-sufficient in precisely the ways that gardening teaches one to be!

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