Gardens Vs. Blackboards
Is a fad robbing students of their right to an education? According to Caitlin Flanagan, the answer is “yes,” and school gardens are the culprit. Flanagan denounces school gardens in an essay in the Atlantic, arguing that for disadvantaged children, every minute spent in school can potentially be used to gain knowledge that will help them escape poverty, but some of that time is instead being wasted on manual labor (i.e., gardening) for the sake of politicians’ whims.
I agree that gardening should not be a top priority for most schools, but I think Flanagan overstates her case. For one thing, students don’t spend that much time in gardens. Flanagan gives the example of a school where students spend an hour and a half per week on gardening and food preparation; that translates into less than 20 minutes per school day. Supposing students spend twice as long on the cross-curricular activities Flanagan condemns so bitterly, there still remain several hours in the day for all the sound academics she believes students miss out on when they’re working with plants.
Second, gardening needn’t be as demeaning and stultifying as it is in Flanagan’s portrayal. Flanagan likens a gardening curriculum for immigrants’ children in California to a sharecropping curriculum for African-American children in the South. This is an unduly harsh analogy. I’m sure schools don’t send children out to the gardens when weather conditions would make the work difficult. And tending to a variety of plants is a small plot can be far more interesting and rewarding than picking a single crop in a vast field. Also, in the event that students don’t like the gardening, they’re free to slack off without fear of retribution from a taskmaster, or of losing their livelihood.
Flanagan is right that some students would gain more from books in the library than from plants in the garden. The problem is not gardening but the monolithic public school system, which mandates that if an activity is beneficial for some children, everyone has to spend time on it. For children who want to work in botany or landscaping when they grow up, or whose parents value gardening experience, offering gardening in school would be worthwhile. (So the garden at Clyde C. Miller Career Academy is entirely appropriate, because some students there study biotechnology and plant science.) Everyone else should be free to opt out. Whenever a public school incorporates gardening, or any task besides basic academics, parents should be able to choose whether their children participate.