Caitlin Flanagan recently created a stir with her article in The Atlantic criticizing school gardens.  The angle she took was nothing new really, but represented a kind of back-to-basics philosophy of education that the best way to help poor students achieve is to emphasize the three Rs in a disciplined and structured setting focused on “student achievement” and metrics.

School Gardens: a wealth of learning and knowledge

School Gardens: a wealth of learning and knowledge (image by Jason Fowler)

In this context a school garden is just some unfounded, idealist fluff.  There have been some excellent rebuttals to Flanagan, but as I read the article I kept hearing Wendell Berry’s poetic character, “The Mad Farmer,” in dialogue with Flanagan.  Here’s a bit of what I heard:

The Mad Farmer:

Why keep students indoors and out of the sunlight?  Why keep them locked in little desks on linoleum?  Why have bells and hallways, like hospitals or psych wards, or metal detectors like prisons?  Why keep the young and curious in the same sort of structure as the sick and deranged and wayward?

Flanagan:

Because they must learn to meet state standards—to read and write and work problems; to pass tests and meet benchmarks.  They must be able to go to college and get jobs and pursue the American dream of middle management and a mortgage.  They must learn cubical discipline—to follow mindless routines and do what they are told.

The Mad Farmer:

Math and science, reading and writing—I love them all and live them all.  I hear a rumor that the soil beneath my feet is teaming with microbes and I want to know all about them.  I see symmetry everywhere in nature and I want to understand it with geometry.  I want to know what makes a square a square and why a column is so sturdy.  I want to know why a compost pile becomes hot and why plants love nitrogen.

Flanagan:

We have students failing, the poor are falling behind—we must make sure that they know what they need to move out of their situations, to graduate and move to the suburbs and eat magazine approved food.  How else are we to raise the standard of living of poor students than by metrics and class time, serious work on serious things?

The Mad Farmer:

A child’s mind is alive to learning, curious and ready to engage.  But we exhaust the soil of that mind through too many facts without context, too much rote memorization of abstract ideas.  The soil of the mind becomes dry and sandy so that nothing will grow there but Television weeds.

Flanagan:

So how do you propose to teach students what they need to know?

The Mad Farmer:

First we must encourage the desire to know.  We must encourage wonder and explore the world.  We must cherish anything that is truly good and we must show students that sometimes the achievement of what is good takes self-denial and discipline—that the bounty of a harvest takes long hard work.  But we must always keep the magic alive.  We must place wonder in its context.  Teach spelling and grammar, but also wonder at the strange ways that language works and the wonder of communication through writing and reading and speaking.  We must explore the high math of calculus, but not in the contexts of abstract formulas.  We must start as Newton did with wonder at the movement of comets.  None of the things that we learn in school were birthed out desks situated under florescent lights, no Shakespeare or Pascal learned and created or explored or thought in that way.  Perhaps only the stories of wars taught in history were imagined in bureaucratic halls by men in suits concerned with metrics.

Flanagan:

With that sort of education you will never produce good citizens.

The Mad Farmer:

And may we never, if “good citizen” means a good consumer who will do whatever is needed to keep the “economy” going even if it means allowing our leaders to make war in far off places or against our own soil.  A student is not a product that can be produced with a “Made in America” label.  What we hope to do is not to produce, but to encourage the flourishing of people to be fully what they were created to be and in doing that they will be more than citizens, they will be members of a place and community, encouraging the growth of others while growing themselves.

Now, if you will excuse me, I have soil to work and a garden to tend.

Ragan Sutterfield

Ragan Sutterfield (M.Div. Virginia Theological Seminary) is ordained in the Episcopal Church and serves a parish in his native Arkansas. is the author of 'This is My Body: From Obesity to Ironman, My Journey into the True Meaning of Flesh, Spirit and Deeper Faith', 'Cultivating Reality: How the Soil Might Save Us',and the small collection of essays 'Farming as a Spiritual Discipline'. Ragan works to live the good life in partnership with his wife Emily and daughters Lillian and Lucia.

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