Photo by Sean Fraga
I recently returned to Maine Coast Semester, a program for high school juniors run by the Chewonki Foundation. I taught at MCS before coming to Yale, and while my role as a faculty member there was to teach American History and another course in Environmental Issues, it was there that I launched my ongoing covert study of the role of school farms and gardens in educating young people.
The director of MCS had invited me back to talk about the Sustainable Food Project. I talk about the Sustainable Food Project a lot, but this audience had me nervous: 40 wicked smart 16-year-olds. Moreover, these young people had spent a semester doing rigorous academic work coupled with physical work on the ten-acre Chewonki Farm. They had gathered eggs, milked cows, moved sheep fencing, planted spring greens, and split wood. Some of them had cared for Sal, the 1,200-pound work horse.
What was I possibly going to tell them about the pedagogical importance of a school farm?
I decided I had a lot to learn from them. (You might recognize this as an old but honest teacher trick: Ask the students.) I'm pretty adamant that time spent working on a farm or in a garden connects students to the land and that, in doing so, gives them the capacity to care about the environment. They mulled this idea over, but they threw back other answers from their experience thoughtfully and carefully.
The first student, Micah, focused on the first-hand knowledge she now had about where her food comes from and the work it takes to grow that food. The second student, Nathalie, echoed this idea. Nathalie had just finished a research project on carbon sequestration, and while she was interested in the role agriculture had in slowing global warming, the pedagogical role of a school farm was simple to her: You need to know where your veggies come from.
A third hand went up, and Sam offered an answer. He spoke about the ability to choose healthy food. And while our conversation then turned to the increased nutritional value of organic produce, I've been thinking that choice might have been the most important word here. School farms teach that eating food in season is a reasonable choice, with a thousand pleasurable repercussions, that growing food in an environmentally sound and economically efficient way is an option, and that dedicating one's life to the land is an option, even when you are an Ivy League grad.
Then, a young woman named Eliza raised her hand. Her response bowled me over. She pointed out that academic work often prizes competition and individual accomplishment. She said the farm drove her out of this self-absorption, and asked her to think about the land, and the community, and the importance of being generous.
And that's something worth teaching.