In this month’s issue of The Atlantic, Caitlin Flanagan has written a devastating and mean-spirited polemic on educational programs and the influence of Alice Waters and the Chez Panisse Foundation on schools (hat tip to Katy Murphy of the Oakland Tribune for bringing the article to my attention). The always sharp-tongued Flanagan writes:
It’s the state’s Department of Education that is to blame for allowing these gardens to hijack the curricula of so many schools. But although garden-based curricula are advanced as a means of redressing a wide spectrum of poverty’s ills, the animating spirit behind them is impossible to separate from the haute-bourgeois predilections of the Alice Waters fan club, as best expressed in one of her most oft-repeated philosophies: “Gardens help students to learn the pleasure of physical work.” Does the immigrant farm worker dream that his child will learn to enjoy manual labor, or that his child will be freed from it? What is the goal of an education, of what we once called “book learning”? These are questions best left unasked when it comes to the gardens.
Oh my. Are school gardens really the reason why so many of California’s students are failing the exit exam? I would sincerely doubt it, but Flanagan is certain that the lost hours of ” book learning” now being spent in the school garden have led to mediocrity in our educational system. It’s quite a piece of logic to be able to use rising grades at Berkeley’s Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School (my alma mater and the site of the first Edible Schoolyard) to prove that point — “it makes sense given that a recipe is much easier to write than a coherent paragraph on The Crucible.”
Berkeley parent Andrew Leonard has written an equally sharp rejoinder to Flanagan on Salon. I think he pretty much sums it up, so he gets the last word:
Her problem with public school gardens is not their effect on test scores, which she can’t measure anyway, but her cultural animosity against the Alice Waters of the world, the foodies, the organic gardeners and locavores and crusaders against factory farms and monoculture agribusinesses.
The bigger blind spot in Flanagan’s screed is that it endorses the same old “the beatings will continue until learning improves” rhetoric that are destroying California education.
Does Flanagan have any data or peer-reviewed research that shows how locking children inside decaying classrooms will transform them into model learners of the 21st century?
For my part, I can’t understand why she has any credibility left.
Both Mr. Leonard and Ms. Flanagan ignore some of the other issues around school gardens, particularly those in poor neighborhoods: access. Options for fresh fruits and vegetables in the neighborhood surrounding my school are very limited; options for chips, candy and soda are many. A school garden can be a place to start a conversation about equity and advocating for one’s community. (And since students who can successfully advocate for themselves will need to master content standards to be heard, social justice will also require rigorous instruction.)
Still, I’m personally grateful to Ms. Flanagan because I’m fairly certain that pique towards her opinions were critical to having a grant request for a equipment to preserve crops from our school garden filled in less than a week.
I don’t think Leonard’s take is correct. Flanagan has made a career of being obnoxiously provocative — what did someone call her, that rich lady who blasts moms and dads who have to work for being bad parents? It’s her shtick.