Educational philosophy; and gardens

The Atlantic has published these two articles — one supporting school garden programs, and one criticizing them.

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.


3 thoughts on “Educational philosophy; and gardens

  1. Another reason to teach applications of knowledge and how to make wise choices. I am thankful for my younger experiences in 4H (headhearthandshealth; mind, Spirit, body!)–ForesTry, BreadBaking, WoodWorking, ElectriCity. Thank you, Marcy

  2. Great post. The sad thing now about college now is that it has become the entry-level “ticket” to most any non-blue collar job. We now have millions of college graduates that wouldn’t even be qualified to get into college a centruy ago. And, most of them cannot think for themselves. They simply put in the time and met the requirements. I am astounded at what I see sometimes. One of the stupidest people I have ever met in my life was a Harvard grad who used to work for me. She thought she was “all that” because she was a Harvard grad. But, she couldn’t think and there really wasn’t much she *could* do. Most of all, she couldn’t get along with anyone because she felt herself too superior.

    I have always believed there is a huge difference between knowledge and wisdom. Our goal should be wisdom (which I believe is God-given), and yet our whole educational system is set up for knowledge to be the final and ultimate goal. Knowledge is the foundation for wisdom, but unless you can synthesize that into true wisdom that can be applied you are wasting your time.

    I am excited by some of the things I see in the honors college program at my daughter’s college. They are actually taking knowledge and moving it to the next level. The problem? To me, that is what all college should be. And yet, most people can’t handle it. There is no shame in laborer work, and we need to quit acting like there is. My kids are in college because to pursue what they want to do, that is the only path to go. But, if they want to do something else that would put them in an apprenticeship or a vocation, I’m good with that too. Everyone needs to find their spot.

  3. Exactly — it seems it used to be enough for most people and jobs to have a grammar school education, and then high school, and then college, and now a lot more things seem to need some grad school.

    And to say anything like this makes one sound anti-intellectual, or against giving opportunity to people, and all that.

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