The critical article raises a few good points.
First, we need to be aware of the influence of even moderate affluence and the choices it affords. While I agree with the food movement that cheap food is artificially cheap as well as artificially food, and that good real food is worth a good price, it’s also true that it can be difficult to afford to eat well, especially when the cheap food is so readily available, when we’re used to eating a lot of certain things, and when our palate can’t tell the difference between the real thing and its cheaper alternative, or prefers the agribusiness stuff we’ve grown up with. (I’m dismayed, for example, at how much I disliked my first taste of raw milk and butter.)
The food movement people can indeed seem too strident in their zeal; stridency is nearly always off-putting, even from organizations or people one agrees with.
Second, it’s a good idea to make sure that any school program does not — intentionally or unintentionally — perpetuate or worsen problems for struggling groups. The critic asks us to consider whether a migrant worker would prefer his child to “labor” in the school garden or to learn the skills and knowledge necessary for college. (I have no experience with migrant workers; I can imagine one furious with the school about the garden program, and I can imagine one appreciating the school putting value on such work…)
And yet, there’s something off about the critical article, for me. And I think it comes down to educational philosophy.
The critic seems to be of the “core knowledge” school of thought. That academic learning trumps all other learning, that college is the pinnacle we want all students to reach for, and that when students are struggling with academics, the answer is pounding and pounding more academics.
1) What would happen if everyone went to college, and graduated with a good degree? Who would make your sneakers? Who would grow your grapes? How much unemployment would there be, with so many overqualified people, so few “higher” jobs? Not everyone can be at “the top.”
I’m not advocating a Brave New World approach of fitting people for jobs from childhood or discouraging anyone from college or whatever career they so desire. I’m just saying that perhaps part of the problem is how much we have devalued almost everything but academic success. Maybe part of the answer is making grape-growing and sneaker-making safer, more lucrative, more artisanal / less sweat-shoppy, and most of all, more highly valued. Make “the top” a lot broader and more inclusive.
2) To me it seems patently obvious that brute force or willpower does not overcome an academic problem. When I find that I’m working ineffectively, the worst response is to try harder to be more effective. The best response is to take a break, do something relaxing, something completely different. When I come back to the original task, I’m often fresh and start making good progress again.
In the same way, cutting out “extra” programs such as physical education, the arts, field trips, or gardening, and replacing them with yet more worksheets and lectures and study, is not likely to succeed. Work smarter, not harder — don’t do the same thing over and over and expect different results.
3) I used to see a fair bit of merit in the core knowledge educational philosophy. I find that I’ve moved farther and farther from it since I first studied such things in grad school. (It shouldn’t surprise me that I find unschooling and other less-structured, more student-led homeschooling approaches more appealing than core knowledge / classical / school-at-home approaches.) I was fiercely pro-liberal arts in college, and still am. I am not employed in the fields of linguistics, English, mathematics, or high school teaching, nor any of the electives I also studied in college and grad school, and yet I don’t regret a minute of my studies. (There, again, we have the influence of affluence; would I say the same if I’d paid for college myself?)
4) Education is not the panacea some folks think it is. It’s true that when people don’t know something, teaching them gives them a new tool for their toolbox. But teaching them won’t automatically result in them using that tool, or for the desired purpose.