Monday, January 18, 2010

What is a Real Education?

Whoa. I've just read an article in The Atlantic Monthly, and let me tell you, it is a doozy. Entitled Cultivating Failure, the article disses California teachers and administrators who espouse gardening in school in addition to readin', ritin', and 'rithmetic.

It's a rant designed, it seems, to bring progressive educators, anyone who disagrees with author Caitlin Flanagan's near-Puritanical viewpoint about the 3 R's and, one imagines, garden-lovers, to spluttering rage. I must say, it worked on me. If you have a few minutes and feel like you haven't done enough spluttering today, go read it - and then come back, and let me know what you have to say. Go on, I'll wait for you.

So, what'd you think? Were you able to get past the deliberately inflammatory language, like the part where the author calls those who eat at Alice Waters' Chez Panisse restaurant "ACORN-loving, public-option-supporting [men] or [women] of the people"? Or, where she compares time spent by children gardening in school to sharecropping in the Jim Crow south?

The reader certainly gets a sense of what Flanagan feels kids should be doing in school instead of gardening: they should spend their entire schooling - 12,960 hours over twelve years of school, by my count - bent over their books, learning math and reading. Anything else, she seems to believe, is positively criminal, judging by her references to 'precious school hours' that should be spent, for example, 'writing paragraphs on The Crucible.'

But here is my question: isn't the kind of school that Flanagan wants a prison in itself? Isn't it a great way to turn children off to the excitement of learning? I think my head might explode if I spent six hours a day in instructional time, and I'm an adult without the energy level of a typical five-year-old! The author is very Professor Umbridge-y in her viewpoint about school, even as she claims to know how to teach children best.

Repeatedly, the value of a good education is reduced in this article to a score on a test. The question 'why learn?' is answered, both overtly and subtly, with 'to get into college' or 'to score well.' There is absolutely no discussion of creativity, curiosity, the thrill of figuring something out.

I think that this is because the gist of the article is that gardening in school is especially bad for - and a tremendous insult to - poor, minority students whose parents or grandparents picked (or even still pick) food in orchards owned by others. And I'm not saying that the situation for poor minority families in California is a good one - but, once they pass the test and get that all-important piece of paper that says they passed the test, what do the sons and daughters do then? Start working at some crummy job, exchanging mindless button-pushing for tomato-picking?

Maybe that is what they do; while I've always been lucky enough to have food on the table, I've worked some crummy jobs in my time. But when I wasn't cleaning toilets or laundering the skivvies of total strangers, I was still using my brain, reading because I wanted to, or playing board games because I couldn't afford a tv, or going for a walk or even... wait for it... gardening.

Because my curiosity and love of learning was NOT squelched by endless drilling in school. I went on field trips, performed science experiments, had the extreme luxury, by today's standards, of two recesses per day until sixth grade and gym twice a week, and spent plenty of time just playing with classmates. I learned that learning is about more than the times tables and how to tell a subject from a predicate.

I kept thinking about The Alliance for Childhood while I read Flanagan's article about how bad gardening is for children, and how offensive we should all find gardening in school especially if our forbears relied on manual labor (as mine did) for a living.

The Alliance for Childhood is a group of educators including some of my heroes in the field, like Dr. David Elkind, child development specialist and author of The Hurried Child and Miseducation: Preschoolers at Risk, Sue Bredekamp, who co-wrote Developmentally Appropriate Practice, a book I reference even in homeschooling, and Alfie Kohn, who writes so persuasively against standardized testing. Two of them, Joan Almon and Edward Miller, have written a mind-blowing paper,Crisis in the Kindergarten: Why Children Need to Play in School, in which they review several studies about how much time young children spend in teacher-directed activities (like math and reading) versus child-directed ones (like recess and imaginative play). Any guesses about how much time kids spend in each? Here's a hint: mostly teacher-directed and nearly none, or actually none, child-directed.

Miller and Almon also discuss the ramifications, for children and our entire society, of the overwhelmingly teacher-directed world school has become for Kindergarteners, and it's not good:

As one kindergarten teacher put it, “If I give the children time to play, they don’t know what to do. They have no ideas of their own.” This is a tragedy, both for the children themselves and for our nation and world. No human being can achieve his full potential if his creativity is stunted in childhood. And no nation can thrive in the 21st century without a highly creative and innovative workforce. Nor will democracy survive without citizens who can form their own independent thoughts and act on them. (Crisis in the Kindergarten, pg. 8)

But, what is the power of a child's own ideas compared with a great score on a test? I guess that is the real question.


Susan said...

I was howling at the guinea hen (had some last week) and tarte tatin (we make them often) and yet I had to come around towards the end to see Flanagan's point, to some extent.

The idea that fruits and vegetables are unavailable in the hood for instance, is pure fiction. When I went to school in South Central LA there was a great Ranch 99 with an astounding variety at great prices. My friend lived nearby and a handy fruit and vegetable truck drove through the neighborhood every evening. All we ever get in our neighborhood is an occasional ice cream truck.

If my kids were at school I'd like them to have a garden. My husband asked what makes a garden good for our kids and not good for California's poor.

And this is what I think it is. Flanagan asks the CEO of a group that runs 15 successful charter schools in South Los Angeles what he thinks about the Edible Schoolyard. He says, "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."

My kids are in a Shakespeare production. They've been to see Midsummer Night's Dream. They read it and laugh in the right places. They're in 4th and 6th grade. Their home life is college prep.

And while we have the luxury to worry about whether they are creative, engaged and fulfilled, the objective for poor kids is simply to get out of the cycle of poverty, get a good job with benefits, so the generation after can eat tarte tatin, read the Atlantic and plant a garden.

jugglingpaynes said...

Aw man! I was going to make the crack about my daughter laughing in the right places when she reads Shakespeare. One summer she carried our copy of the first folio around. Usually while she

It took long enough for the author to get to her agenda. In one of the last paragraphs she mentions she is the mother of elementary school students. She obviously has them on the fast track and is afraid a gardening program in middle school will set them back.

I found her tone condescending and insulting. Just because many of these families are poor and English is their second language does not mean they are clueless about good food. My father grew up dirt poor in Puerto Rico and he still did a good job of instilling ideas of good nutrition in us. If we didn't follow it, it was more the lure of neighborhood candy stores and commercials full of sugary cereals that swayed us. At least these kids are growing their own food and might actually eat it for that reason.

I'd better get off my soapbox now. :o)

Peace and Laughter!

bugsboysandbooboos said...

I was insulted that she started off the article with a reference to a Hispanic man, delving into his life only to have his child working in a garden. There is absolutely nothing wrong with making an honest living. There is nothing wrong with having your children understand what you do for a living, or what you have done. Of course the Latino and African-American students are doing better at a charter school! There are simply more resources there. Charter schools get a signficantly increased amount of financial help than public schools do. Sure, this country is obsessed with making good food choices and teaching our youth such. Shouldn't we be? Hostess, Edy's, super-sized, huge portions and a gigantic innundation of a variety of media can be to blame (partially) for our fast-food-nation. This woman really upset me. I had to force myself to read through her extensively wordy rant about hating gardening in schools. We get it. You did your research on Alice. You obviously do not like her or her ideas. The comment about parents who speak no or very little English coming to volunteer at the school as demeaning is preposterous. A garden is less intimidating than a classroom can be. There is just something calming about gardening. At least I think so. Last year we put in a garden at our new home. It was wonderful. Our children learned that food does not simply and magically appear in the store. My two-year-old would step into the garden to grab some basil to chomp on whenever he felt like it. It was so amazing. A garden is beautiful.

The Stone Age Techie said...

Susan - I see your point about her point (if you get my point:-), I just think that her idea about how to go about breaking the cycle of poverty is not really a good solution because 12,960 hours of book learning crammed into twelve years, especially if it's not stuff you are interested in, puts the student in another kind of hell altogether. It seems like it would just produce rebels who do everything they can to get away from school or anything that has to do with school, know what I mean? Then again, I have never truly wanted for anything, I kind of aspire to guinea hen and tarte tatin, and so maybe I am in no position to say.

I am glad that the whole 'no fresh, healthy food in the hood' thing is a myth, I'll tell you that! We go blueberry picking in summer at this place hidden in the middle of many acres of woods, and English is the least common language you hear while you're there, I think because people who weren't raised on Cocoa Puffs and chicken nuggets find ways to get real food, and they would do that even in the hood.

Cristina - condescending and insulting, that's exactly it! Nearly every line seemed to belittle anyone who disagrees with her, and I think that makes it harder to see any valid points as, well, valid. It makes you want to disagree just on principle.

You and Susan are funny about Shakespeare! We haven't gotten into Shakespeare on any real kind of level yet, other than to talk about how so many sayings and colloquialisms come from his work.
I almost referenced that conversation with the charter school CEO, but I didn't because I DO understand Shakespeare, and I DO laugh in all the right places, and it made me wonder, is knowing that kind of stuff what got me into college? Is that the make-or-break type things that get people ahead and, if so, is it worth teaching even if the students could care less? I felt conflicted about it, so I thought I'd save it for another post.

B&B&B - welcome! I love your blog's name, I am off to check it out in more detail shortly :-)

I too, like you and Susan and Cristina, can't imagine anything wrong with spending time gardening, with learning about how food grows and proudly making pizza with your own tomatoes or popping your own soybeans like they are popcorn. Gardening is not demeaning, on the contrary it's how humans have survived for so long, it seems more like ownership is the issue here. I think growing your own food is good for you, body and soul, and it's a worthwhile thing for every child to do - but sharecropping, or picking apples for pennies a barrel without access to shade or water, obviously that is bad. And there's quite a large difference between them!
It also seems like the author takes issue with such basics as physical education, she never even mentions imaginative or child-directed play, and again I'm left to wonder what she envisions kids in school doing all day?

Thanks for sharing your thoughts on such a big issue!

Jena said...

Awesome post. I can understand wanting kids to do well on tests to get into college and escape whatever poverty they might be stick in, but HOW you get there is up for debate. To think that institutionalizing kids and drilling them with facts and requiring time-filling busy work is the way to do it is very narrow-minded. Intelligence is so much for than knowing facts, and most HS grads can't remember basic things they spent HOURS on in school anyway. You're so right--creativity, the excitement of figuring out things on your own, just knowing HOW to figure some things out--that's a higher level of intelligence that government institutions have a hard time "teaching." But gardening? Now there's a learning environment rich with opportunities. :)

The Stone Age Techie said...

Jena - yes! Harder to 'teach,' but so much more important than the ability to regurgitate facts when prompted. The education system is totally backwards, and eliminating gardening isn't going to fix it.

Magic and Mayhem said...

I can't bear to read that sort of stuff often. I suppose I ought to and then leave thought provoking comments and try to change the world, but sometimes I prefer to just stay in my cozy little world of sensible, nice people. :)

The Stone Age Techie said...

Alicia - I know just how you feel. It's funny, but this is just something I can't let alone. I hate the idea that my kids can learn in the way that's best for them, and your kids can, but the vast majority of kids cannot, they have somebody standing over them saying, 'learn this!' 'No, learn this!' 'They are all wrong, learn this!' - and, while everyone stands around debating, the kids are learning to hate learning.

I hate that more than I hate reading, and discussing, stuff like this.

Sparklee said...

Wow. Wow. I don't even know what to say. Thanks for the link and the great post. I haven't finished my coffee yet, but I'm revved up for my day now!


Fun Mama - Deanna said...

I haven't read the original article in the Atlantic yet but I've read several rebuttals (at Salon, mostly). I just wanted to add that LA is not the only city with an inner city. Not all inner cities have access to the fresh produce that earlier commenters mentioned. The lack of fresh, healthy food is unfortunately not a myth everywhere. I think it's important for ALL our children to be aware of where our food comes from and to appreciate the process. As living beings, there are not many things more important to our survival than food. I found your blog through your comment on The Snail's Trail.

The Stone Age Techie said...

Sparklee - Sorry to have you spluttering before breakfast :-)
I read this fairly early on in the day, which I think was better than later. I had it all (well, mostly) out of my system by about four in the afternoon, and I just know that I wouldn't have been able to sleep if I'd read this in the evening!

Fun Mama - thanks for stopping by! I agree with you totally, and am going off right now to read some of the rebuttals at Salon. Wasn't that the site where the dad whose twins are homeschooled wrote that great, funny, and moving article about how homeschooling is viewed by the general, non-hsing population? I think so.


Jena said...

Karen, when you said, "I hate the idea that my kids can learn in the way that's best for them, and your kids can, but the vast majority of kids cannot" I about cried. I feel the same way. A friend of my daughter told us about a time in 4th grade or so when he was forced to sit alone in a room for three days when he was accused of cheating. My blood boils at that sort of thing, and to think it happened in our sleepy little town! Some of the stuff I hear borders on child abuse, not to mention the subtle mind-numbing that leads to our apathetic college freshman class! (my hubby is a college professor, and his life if full of them). Thanks for reminding us all why we're so glad we can homeschool our kids.

Todd Taylor said...

this one is truly crazy! i mean, i'm a tree-hugging, local farm supporting, plant-loving type as you've ever known! but i've also read on my own ALL the classics and have 11 years of undegree'd scholatics, simply because i love learning! my dear son's seizures have springboarded me into over 3000 hours of research, for goodness sakes!

yet, as much as i disagree with the author's view of classical learning v. natural learning/gardening, i hafta agree with her positive intent. it's how i'm now bent. (whoa! that's a rhyme! isn't that so sublime?!? and again!!!...) love, your friend...

~mister dad

Fanny Harville said...

I think Flanagan's piece is wrongheaded on just about every level, and that's how I almost always react to her writing. For me the worst was her book "To Hell With All That," in which she smugly poses as a stay-at-home-mom (and castigates working moms) even though she worked from home with the help of nannies providing her children's care! See a great review here:

I appreciated your thoughtful response to her essay here.

Fanny Harville said...

I meant to say in my previous comment: thanks for the link to the Alliance for Childhood. That pdf advocating for play in kindergarten is great!