As an avid recycler with a scientific background, this latest posting is in response to an article I recently read in; The Atlantic
, by Caitlin Flanagan titled, "Cultivating Failure- How School Gardens are cheating our most vulnerable students"
Basically, the article expounds that by having middle school children (especially immigrant and minority kids) participate in school garden activities or learn from curricula built around such endeavors we are "robbing an increasing number of American schoolchildren of hours they might otherwise have spent reading important books or learning higher math (attaining the cultural achievements, in other words, that have lifted uncounted generations of human beings out of the desperate daily scrabble to wrest sustenance from dirt)."
To top off the insult, Ms. Flanagan even implies that garden loving, home-cooking, and recycling
aficionados caught up in organic food, nutrition and sustainability
are ultimately behind the demise of public education. Please! Sustainability is a major worldwide issue, why shouldn't our children learn something about it?
As a nation, agriculture has played an important role in the development of our country. And while the article may be attacking the Small Is Beautiful approach of a community garden, on a broader sense the author is attacking a viable economic sector that has for generations inspired scientists to discover and entrepreneurs to flourish. Who is not to say that a fifth grade school child learning about photosynthesis while helping tend the school garden could not become inspired to further study biology or chemistry? Is a hands-on approach really demeaning? For anyone who has studied science, the laboratory is an essential part of the scientific journey! And, regarding higher level math, in middle school most children are taking algebra; many algebraic problems (especially word problems) are developed around day to day activities- even gardening and recycling can be sources for context.
You just have to look at the life of one of our country's most notable scientists, George Washington Carver, to see how working with crops (even on a small scale) can benefit society. Mr. Carver, a southern born slave, not only helped poor Southern farmers grow and preserve nutritious foods but established these same crops as valuable ingredients for cosmetics, dyes, paints, plastics, gasoline, and nitroglycerine. While Caitlin Flanagan's article states, if this patronizing agenda (referring to the school garden) were promulgated in the Jim Crow South 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. If he were alive today, I bet Mr. Carver (whose agricultural extension work touched many a poor sharecropper and changed lives) could list hundreds of reasons how a garden can inspire someone to do great things. In his words, "How do I talk to a little flower? Through it I talk to the Infinite....I refer to the unseen Spirit that defies the power of human reproduction, that challenges the power of human expression...When you look into the heart of the rose, there you experience it". Perhaps Ms. Flanagan needs to "stop and smell the roses"!
When Sir Isaac Newton asked himself, Why does the apple fall to the ground? The idea of gravity was formed. He contemplated that perhaps gravity not only affected objects on the earth (like an apple) but celestial bodies (like the moon) as well. His Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy (one of the greatest works of theoretical physics) showed how his principle of universal gravitation explained both the motions of the heavenly bodies and the falling bodies of the earth. All this from an apple? Yes and even more- the mathematical proofs of his scientific inquiries led to the development of differential calculus. Talk about garden inspiration!!
As a science, agriculture has been a founding force for the establishment of some of our most notable institutions of higher education, the land-grant universities. These educational institutions were established by the Morrill Acts (1862) which granted federally controlled land to the states for the development of land grant colleges with the mission to teach agriculture, science and engineering. While the Classics had long been the main inspiration for higher education, the teachings and research of these institutions would help to move our country forward technically. Schools such as Michigan State University, University Texas A & M, Pennsylvania State University, University of California, Rutgers, Clemson University, University of Rhode Island and over 40 others got their starts this way. Today, these institutions offer broad curricula and programs (including the Classics and Agricultural Extensions). Who says that the two must be mutually exclusive? Why can,t one provide inspiration for the other?
Augmenting our middle school curricula with a hands-on approach to subject matter does not rob our students of learning fundamental skills but enhances the experience. While Ms. Flanagan implies that the school garden program is replacing the critical review of classic literature with recipe writing, I think she is exaggerating. And even if some of the programs do entail recipe development, is applied knowledge not a form of learning? For many of American immigrants, taking English as a second language is a vital part of the educational process. What is wrong with using the food cultivated from a garden to introduce useful day to day vocabulary and help teach American culture? Since the dawn of history, man has been breaking cultural barriers and forming relationships through food. We only have to think back to the first Thanksgiving to realize just how important breaking bread can be.
While I admire Ms. Flanagan as a writer, I disagree with her narrow view on education. A great teacher can take any curriculum and make it successfully teach the requirements. Introducing theory with a hands-on approach can teach the necessary skills and help to spark the love of learning. Even the works of Shakespeare can be taught from a garden, as when Cleopatra refers to the inexperience and innocence of youth in Antony and Cleopatra; as, "My salad days, when I was green in judgment,....." If Shakespeare can use garden inspiration to write meaningful dialogue, I think a middle school child can use the inspiration of a garden to write a coherent sentence.
Since the beginning of time, cultivation has not kept us in the dirt but helped us to create great civilizations. For those middle school gardeners who Ms. Flanagan has stuck forever in the urban dirt of a city famous for a university which bears its name, one day attending Berkley may not be such an educational leap. Vitamin E was discovered at Berkley. And, where is Vitamin E found? It is found in the sunflowers, spinach and broccoli of a garden. Need I say more?
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References for this article were obtained from: Cultivating Failure How School Gardens are cheating our most vulnerable students, C. Flanagan, The Atlantic, January/February 2010, p.101- 111, Small is Beautiful, E.F. Schumacher, Harper & Row, 1973, George Washington Carver, wikepedia.org, George Washington Carver, sps.k12.mo.us/historyday/feb/carver.htm, Jim Crow laws, wikipedia.org, Sir Isaac Newton (1642- 1727),bluepete.com, Sir Isaac Newton, inventors.about.com, Land-grant university, wikepedia.org,William Shakespeare, The Complete Works, Dorset Press, 1988.Antony and Cleopatra, Act I, Scene IV, p. 930, berkley.edu, Vitamin Ewww.nih.gov.