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Caitlin Flanagan vs. Alice Waters, Part II

January 16, 2010

A guest post by YSFP alumna Zan Romanoff ’09 on the recent Atlantic piece on edible schoolyards. Agree? Disagree? Comment and tell us about it!

Organic agriculture is a subject on which people often have Opinions; I have spent the better part of the last couple years learning to politely ignore them in favor of trying to get on with productive work. Caitlin Flanagan’s recently published piece in The Atlantic, however, is too fascinatingly awful not to address. It is a vitriolic screed founded on seemingly nothing but the author’s self-regard and immense irritation at the (admittedly sometimes irritating) grandstanding of Alice Waters. At least it takes a sort of novel premise, reversing the usual claim that slow food is primarily interested in making everyone into a white yuppie. Instead, Flanagan insists that we are condescending to the underprivileged and people of color by imagining that they might want to be educated about and involved with the production of their food. She misses the entire point even as she quotes it: per Alice Waters, “gardens help students to learn the pleasure of physical work.”

Flanagan somehow manages to do slow food one better, taking an even more embarrassingly upper-class white position than it is usually accused of by claiming that the only lessons worth learning are those that will make immigrants just like her. There will be time enough for their health when they can succeed as she sees it. Flanagan’s solution “lies in an education that will propel students into a higher economic class, where they will live better and therefore eat better.” This nakedly classist assessment of the situation reveals Flanagan for the stridently prejudiced thinker she is: she honestly believes that we ought to just ignore the plight of the poor until they’ve proven they can work up to her level. Indeed, attitudes like Flanagan’s could well be seen as part of the justification for migrant laborers’ current woes: as long as we believe that physical labor is drudgery with no redeeming value, we will continue to treat those who do it poorly, undervaluing those jobs instead of trying to find ways to make them safe, humane, and perhaps even desirable.

I’m not saying that these students wouldn’t be well served by learning to read and write English; if I thought that school garden programs were adversely affecting their chances to do so (and if Flanagan had ANY evidence to suggest that this was the case), I might be willing to reconsider. But the sad truth is that schools are failing impoverished minority students across the country and that precious few of them have school gardens. The issues plaguing our educational system are myriad and deeply-rooted and not likely to be solved before today’s kindergarteners make it out of high school. So isn’t it worth it to improve what we can in the mean time, offering these students something more than rote memorization and the skills to pass arbitrary tests? Is she actually trying to claim that there is no value in forging a connection to your food, knowing how it was grown and prepared, taking an active and thoughtful role in caring for your body, your land and your community?

Further, there are connections to be made between garden and classroom beyond the recipe-writing Flanagan dismissively mentions as the probable reason for an improvement in the grades of children at King Elementary. Natural science is obvious but then there’s American history, economics, health class, and maybe even parts of English, too. The first farm I worked on was run by a man with a degree in philosophy.

There’s more to say but it honestly isn’t worth it; the article is basically nasty, interested only in tearing down rather than suggesting substantive, positive change. Perhaps Caitlin Flanagan would benefit from visiting a school garden herself and spending an afternoon getting her hands dirty, seeing how actual children respond to the experience of the outdoors. I’d be happy to buy her a plane ticket to McAllen, Texas, where a close friend from college is struggling mightily to teach English as a Second Language to high school students in a town that has no agriculture, sustainable, organic or otherwise. Maybe she’d come to see that almost no one has yet found a good solution to the problem of getting non-fluent teenagers up to speed with peers born into affluent, educated English speaking homes. Until she’s put in the time, however, until she’s ready to offer something other than they can eat well when they read well, I suggest we carry on as before: ignore her, and get back to work.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. January 19, 2010 8:12 pm

    Hear hear! Well said. I hope this will be sent to the editors at Atlantic. Maybe they’ll have the integrity to publish it.

  2. Don Phillipson permalink
    February 9, 2010 7:29 pm

    Both parties (Romanoff as well as Flanagan) write as if unaware that
    school gardens were part of the formal primary school curriculum for
    at least 50 years around the turn of the 20th century in in such influential
    jurisdictions as Massachusetts and Ontario, and for that reason copied
    in many other states. John Dewey’s emphasis on “education by doing”
    probably prolonged American school gardens long after American
    demography had visibly changed, but chool gardens continued in some
    European countries after the Second World War (e.g. in The Hague,
    Netherlands, in the 1950s.)

  3. March 16, 2010 7:56 am

    Thank you for making people aware of the flaws in Flanagan’s piece. The new Atlantic issue includes critical letters to the editor by Eric Schlosser and others. Sadly, when Flanagan was given a chance to respond, she evaded and even went so far as to misrepresent the letters printed right there on the very same page. Details here …

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