From the Innovation Unit Vaults: "'Laughing at Shakespeare in the right places' - intellectual impoverishment in California" (February 10,2010)

This summer, I'm re-posting some of the blog posts I wrote while I was working at the Innovation Unit in London, which disappeared when the Innovation Unit discontinued its blog: 

I’ve just finished reading Caitlin Flanagan’s deeply misguided article, ‘Cultivating Failure’, in the Atlantic. The article is one long warning against the evils of ‘The Edible Schoolyard’, a California project spearheaded by the chef and gardener Alice Waters’s Chez Panisse Foundation, which supports schools in developing gardens and connecting them to the curriculum. According to Flanagan, this is what happened in the pilot school: ‘In English class students composed recipes, in math they measured the garden beds, and in history they ground corn as a way of studying pre-Columbian civilizations.’ The result of this nefarious scheme was, Flanagan explains, that ‘students’ grades quickly improved.’

Those trying to grasp what, exactly, Flanagan’s problem with ‘The Edible Schoolyard’ is will grasp in vain. Her evidence amounts to this: in California, there is a huge achievement gap between Black and Latino students and their white peers. And she reasons that if students spend 1.5 hours per week in a garden (yes, that’s the amount of time we’re talking about here), that’s 1.5 hours that the Black and Latino students are spending doing the sort of manual labour that their forbears have been trying to escape. There’s a deep vein of snobbery here, thinly disguised as concern for the underprivileged. Contrary to what Flanagan seems to think, agriculture is a complex, multidisciplinary business. It requires careful planning, complex calculation, precise implementation, and continuing observation. If she thinks working in a garden is a waste of time because she doesn’t see how it will help performance on standardised tests (which she regards as the only educational outcome worth anyone’s attention), she might as well demand to know why chemistry students are larking about with test tubes when their laboratory experience will never be reflected in their performance on paper-based exams. But Flanagan won’t ask this question, because mixing chemicals in a lab is ‘real’ learning, while measuring the PH of a soil sample in order to grow food is what farmers do. It’s tempting to laugh at an association this facile, and I recommend you do so. It’s utterly preposterous. The subject of laughter brings me to Flanagan’s vision for education – or rather, the vision that she hears when she speaks to Michael Piscal, founder and CEO of the Inner City Education Foundation Public Schools, the White Knight that she sets against the ‘dowager queen’ (her phrase) Alice Waters:

“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.”

This is as intellectually impoverished a vision for education as I have ever encountered. It’s straight out of My Fair Lady: 'let’s not teach kids to engage critically with literature, just make sure they can blend in with high society by laughing at the right spots.' The idea that we must choose between a generation of graduates who can grow food and a generation who can recognise an Elizabethan double-entendre is a false dichotomy – but if I had to choose, I know which skill I'd want them to have.

This post received one comment, posted by my brother, Andrew:

Excellent analysis. Looking at it from an outside perspective, I am amazed that Flanagan could interview Piscal, get that quote ("laughing at Shakespeare in the right places"), and not have the critical capacity to give more than a cursory glance to his '25 words or less' vision of what pre-collegiate education should be. Did she just hear the name 'Shakespeare' and figure that's what learning really should be? I can barely begin to express my frustration with Flanagan's thesis. And it's hard to know where to begin in breaking it down. When the foundation is built of paint, bread sticks, and shellac (Fat Tony's construction material of choice for Springfield Elementary), is their any point in trying to look at what was piled on top? It all topples down regardless. Even so, let me just point to one example of her rhetorical slight of hand. She puts the "Edible Schoolyard" educational program into perspective thusly: "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." Maintaining a garden of your own, then, is roughly equivalent to sharecropping in the Jim Crow South (i.e., "an economic arrangement that largely maintained the status quo between black and white through legal means" following emancipation, according to Wikipedia). Is that a fair comparison? Because it is, in fact, the basis of her entire thesis. Namely, that engaging in all of the activities involved in maintaining a small food garden at school (including 1.5 hours of manual labor a week) is roughly equivalent to working as a low-paid immigrant picking fruits on an industrial farm. If anything, that assertion trivializes the back- breaking labour illegal immigrants are forced to engage in to survive. Mostly, however, it is simply a false analogy. Flanagan's lack of self-awareness is breathtaking. She purports to be attacking those who would patronize, while simultaneously taking this view on what comprises proper education: "hours...spent reading important books or learning higher math" are hours spent "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." We must 'lift' these immigrants (though of course 'lifting' them in a totally non-patronizing way) out of the desperate struggle of agriculture, because obviously everyone knows that the only worthwhile life is one of reading and letters or math and science. This is the goal we should all be striving for. Flanagan clearly knows what is best for you, but that is not because she is being patronizing or condescending. I am happy to see that the "Edible Schoolyard" program is still alive and strong, and delighted to think that the children at those schools, aside from the many educational benefits of that kind of a program often enumerated in this blog, are getting at least an extra hour or two a week outdoors, working with the earth, getting exercise, being in nature. I just hope Flanagan's attack doesn't threaten that.