It’s good to see that The Atlantic, once the literary home of Mark Twain, is publishing satire again. Caitlin Flanagan’s piece on the dangers of school gardens, “Cultivating Failure” (January/February Atlantic), is a brilliant parody of the angry illogic broadcast on Fox News. The idea that Alice Waters is responsible for poor reading scores in California (not the right-wing, anti-tax movement that has decimated the state’s educational system) perfectly captures the sort of thinking that has made Glenn Beck a best-selling author. I also enjoyed her suggestion that nutritional education for Hispanic children is racist (when perhaps half of those kids are expected to develop diabetes). Ms. Flanagan’s articles have always been provocative—but as this one demonstrates, she has learned how to be very funny.
New York, N.Y.
Caitlin Flanagan asks, “What evidence do we have that participation in one of these programs … improves a child’s chances of doing well on the state tests?” We have plenty of evidence. Here at UC Davis, the Center for Nutrition in Schools has documented that healthier children are the outcomes of good gardens. The California School Garden Network’s Web site lays out volumes of research supporting garden-based learning as a contributor to better academic achievement, improved behavior and attitudes, and enhanced nutritional knowledge. Ms. Flanagan’s lack of appreciation for the power of hands-on learning shows how little she understands about how children learn. I was offended by her ridicule of me and the gardens’ many supporters. Teachers are using the gritty earth of classroom gardens to teach English, language arts, math, history, and science. The gardens are living laboratories, and to students, they look a lot more real than a plastic chair, because they are.
Former California Superintendent of Public Instruction
Many subjects can be illustrated through a garden—biology and chemistry through study of soil and plants, as well as business through inventory, transportation, and sales of the produce. In my work at a special-ed school, I see kids who are jaded and unreachable through traditional classroom means come alive when digging in soil and watching seeds grow. It’s unfortunate that Ms. Flanagan doesn’t understand this joy. May her intellectual snobbery be sent to the compost bin.
Los Angeles, Calif.
Caitlin Flanagan replies:
Eric Schlosser should get out a yellow highlighter and mark the passages of my essay that lead him to believe that I hold Alice Waters responsible for anyone’s reading scores, or that I think the school-gardens program is racist. As to his assertion that the “right-wing, anti-tax movement” is to blame for the California achievement gap, he’s just wrong. Of the 15 highest-achieving, high-poverty schools in the state, 12 are charters, which receive far less funding per pupil than do traditional public schools. Why are so many African American and Hispanic students faring poorly academically? Because there are enough people who believe that minority kids’ abilities are so low, and their futures so dim, that the best we can do for them is provide an organic lunch and wish them well. Shameful.
There is not one word, not one syllable, of research, either at the California School Garden Network or at the state’s Department of Education, to suggest that a garden-based curriculum helps students master the state standards, graduate from high school, or become college-ready. It was this complete lack of research, combined with the widespread adoption of the garden curriculum, that prompted me to write the essay. I would urge all readers whose children are enrolled in one of these programs to visit the CSGN and decide on their own if the curriculum will help their students to become college-ready.
Mary White speaks to the essentially vocational nature of garden classes. This may be appropriate in the special-education context, but not in the instruction of kids whose goal is a rigorous academic curriculum that will bring them to college.
James Fallows rightly criticizes the “structural resistance to change” built into our overly checked-and-balanced governing system (“How America Can Rise Again,” January/February Atlantic). We never recommend that developing democracies adopt a Senate like ours. But after 12 years in the U.S. Congress, I believe the larger problem is widespread hostility to government itself. Our traditional, appropriate American skepticism about government has morphed into something deeper and more dangerous. Congress cannot make long-term strategic decisions on education, health-care, economic, tax, and budget policies without a broader consensus about what government is for.
The “muddling through” that Fallows suggests cannot work effectively if one party is determined to weaken the reach of government and the other is unable by itself to revive public confidence that government action can improve the well-being of the people. Fierce opposition to government itself, not just the structure left us by the Founders, is crippling our ability to fund a level of public investment that will maximize the capacity of the private sector to flourish. Our future prospects still depend on a struggle over political ideas.