Sunday, January 17, 2010

Look out! It's a bird, it's a plane, it's garden!

By now many of you have probably heard of Caitlin Flanagan's Atlantic article about school gardens. If you haven't read it already, please see the preceding link, although I will spoil it a little by telling you that in this article she decries what she believes are the many nefarious impacts a school garden has upon the children tending it.

A number of people have spoken up to refute Flanagan, and I won't attempt to re-hash the many cogent and passionate arguments they have made. A handful of the best are Ed Bruske's blog, Salon, and a rebuttal on the Atlantic's website.

All I would like to say is that the hyperbole in Flanagan's article, and in the cultural/political/internet spheres in general, is annoying because of the wide strokes with which people paint their subjects. Flanagan is all steamed up that students at King Middle School in Berkeley, California, spend an hour and a half each week in their school garden. She is convinced that the gardening-related activities taking place are assuredly and cruelly robbing the students of the means to an education and a better life in general. Really? The garden is doing that?? I'm just going out a limb here but I bet the basically decrepit public education system in California and the (ahem) misguided tax policy that brought it to its knees are the bigger monsters here. I would also wager that the social and economical disadvantages faced by the students Flanagan is supposedly championing are much more pernicious than the 20 minutes a day they might spend weeding or watering some vegetables.

However, I don't think a school garden is an educational panacea. In a defense of Flanagan, Mr. Brown Thumb at Chicago Garden adds, "When I leave the house at night I'm not worried about getting mugged or shot by out of work doctors, lawyers and teachers." Fair enough. There are certainly some schools where the extremely dismal graduation rate probably couldn't be saved or even helped by a garden, and the best remedy would be to "strip away every program and resource that is not essential to the mission of schooling" (Sizer, in Flanagan). And yes, Flanagan's vision of the children of farm-hands studying to become farm-hands themselves is disturbing. But I have to ask, is that really what's happening? In the face of all the other threats and challenges faced by disadvantaged, or heck any, students, is a garden really the worst bogeyman they must contend with?

If I had to choose, I would side against Flanagan, only because I have seen first-hand the curiosity and excitement the garden generates in my own preschooler, and I know that at the bottom of that curiosity is science-related subject matter (biology, chemistry, agronomy, etc.). Flanagan is wrong to pick gardens as the focus of her wrath (which is probably more for effect than any real conviction on her part; look at how much internet chatter this has engendered and you'll get the idea). There are far more insidious foes she should be lambasting for the poor quality of California public schooling. Likewise, school garden supporters should examine each school objectively and not through the lens of "gardening fixes everything." Some things have rotted all the way to the roots and need to be completely pulled out and rejuvenated (there, I made a gardening metaphor for those who would need it to have that point illustrated).

The world is not usually painted in black and white, as much as we would like it to be so easily done so. It's most often in shades of gray, and I for one hope that school gardens can still be a part of that picture.


Rose said...

Thank you so much for alerting me to this article, Rose, and for such a thought-provoking and eloquent rebuttal. I just read the first page of Flanagan's article--I'll go back to read the rest later--and I agree it is full of hyperbole. As an educator for over 34 years, I've seen fads in education come and go, and usually none of them had the kind of impact that educational "experts" proclaimed they would have. As you say, a school garden is not a panacea, but neither were differentiated learning or group learning or all the other trends touted by these experts.

I can see her point about migrant workers' children, but otherwise I think a school garden can provide a great hands-on experience for many students who wouldn't otherwise be exposed to gardening. My own granddaughter loves to help me in the garden, and she astounds me sometimes with her ability to identify species of butterflies and insects. I don't think she'll grow up to be a farmer:)--her parents hope she'll be a doctor, lawyer, or maybe President one day. But her experiences with me are fostering not only a love of nature, but also a curiosity about the world around her. And that's a good thing.

Oh, I could write a whole essay here on what is wrong with our schools, but as you say, there are more serious issues than adding a school garden. It is not going to solve the problems in our schools, but neither is it going to add to them.

Mr. McGregor's Daughter said...

I completely disagree with the theory that a bare-bones education of reading and math and "civic understanding" (whatever that is) is the answer to the educational crisis. Yes, the core subjects are important, but a diet of them devoid of the arts, sciences and history does not produce well-rounded citizens capable of participating in a democracy. I'm more inclined to blame the focus on standardized tests, which Flanagan seems to think is the sole purpose of public education.

Jean said...

I agree with you. Her editors are probably ecstatic that she's created so much controversy. I think what all students need is a well rounded education. I can see many reasons to have a school garden which could be used for many applications (math, science, etc). But let's not forget how the arts and physical education have been increasingly excluded from the schools. Same arguments could be made for and against. People just need to come to their senses.

garden girl said...

It's an interesting controversy Rose, and I enjoyed your thoughtful analysis.

Common sense, balance, and recognizing the gray areas serve us all well in dissecting the polarizing controversies we see playing out in the media every day. Thank you for adding your voice to the discussion!

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