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Jan 12, 2010 10:19 AM

Caitlin Flanagan takes on the Edible Schoolyard movement in The Atlantic

I'm surprised no one has commented yet on Catlin Flanagan's "Cultivating Failure: How school gardens are cheating our most vulnerable students." in the current issue of The Atlantic (


The author pulled no punches, and has drawn some sharp retorts, like Jill Richardson's in La Vida Locavore ( and Kurt Michael Friese in Civil Eats (


It's certainly a topic worthy of discussion. Any thoughts?

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  1. The author of the article is definitely not a scientific-minded writer. In fact, she makes many leaps of logic and tenuous stretches to support her thesis... which is ironic since she accuses Alice Waters of making leaps in logic.

    1 Reply
    1. re: dave_c

      That's pretty much Caitlin Flanagan's style: snarky, dumb, narcissistic, and dishonest. If you haven't read her before this, you're lucky.

    2. This was a terrible article because the author's points, which deserve discussion, were buried in a confrontational heap of insults and opinions that detracted from her basic thesis that school gardens may do a disservice to underachieving students if they are the center of the curriculum.
      Unfortunately, the food-centric people attacking her article rose to that bait instead of focusing on what is probably an excellent point. Do these gardens or any other similar non-academic programs really enrich or strengthen academic performance?

      Look at the "money quotes:"

      "I have spent many hours poring over the endless research on the positive effects of garden curricula, and in all that time, I have yet to find a single study that suggests classroom gardens help students meet the state standards for English and math. Our kids are working in these gardens with the promise of a better chance at getting an education and a high-school diploma but without one bit of proof that their hard work will result in either."

      This could be said of many of the untold number of educational experiments that have been added to schools over the years in an effort to increase student performance.

      Then the quote from Sizer:
      "If students have yet to meet the fundamental standards of literacy, numeracy and civic understanding, programs should focus exclusively on these. Some critics will argue that the school must go beyond these subjects to hold the interest of the pupils … but a fourteen year old who is semi-literate is an adolescent in need of intensive, focused attention."

      If a student is not learning, is a non-academic enhancement going to help or will it further fragment his attention? A specific program might spark the interest of ONE child but is a one-size-fits-all program going to have equal effect for all learners? There will be kids who loathe arts, music, gardening, etc., and never see the link or utility. They won't learn.

      Kids who learn to read, write, and think well enjoy learning. They are more inclined to become involved in other pursuits because they WANT to, and these then enhance their academic achievements. The school garden (band, athletics, arts, etc) as a reward for progress provide a well-rounded and fulfilling adulthood - if they have a solid education.
      But if they don't learn the basics, they will ultimately fail, because we failed them.

      2 Replies
      1. re: MakingSense

        "...her basic thesis that school gardens may do a disservice to underachieving students if they are the center of the curriculum."

        Are there any public schools with gardening at the center of the curriculum? According to Andrew Leonard, whose kids went to elementary and middle school in Berkeley, the kids spent about an hour and a half a week in the garden. That's less than 20 minutes a day. Hardly excessive, and certainly not "the center of the curriculum."

        1. re: jlafler

          The author described the gardens being woven into other subjects: math, history, reading, etc., not simply the actual time spent in the garden. This can be a useful reinforcement to learning, but not if it distracts from the basic curriculum.
          If a child can't read, write, or do basic math, carrots won't help him get through life.

          Your friend's experience may or may not be the norm. He may also not be considering the time spent using of the garden as a teaching tool in other subjects or may agree with that. His kids may not be at-risk students.

          My problem with the article was that the author's point was made irrelevant because she never substantiated it, and wasted her efforts with senseless attacks on issues that had nothing to do with education.
          It was a crappy article.

      2. The continued presence of Caitlin Flanagan is the one thing that makes me ponder each year whether I want to renew my Atlantic subscription. There is something seriously impaired about the way that woman thinks. She makes Jill Stewart look like Barbara Ehrenreich.

        1. Ugh, this article was awful. Many Americans have this ridiculous idea that instructional time is the end all and be all of education. I read an article recently (sorry, I can't remember where) that studied the amount of instructional time worldwide and we were at the top. Many countries have longer school years where more time is devoted to activities like these. When I worked in Japan, students had a long lunch period that gave them time to play, spent 15-20 minutes every day cleaning the school, and they took part in activities like hiking day, a half marathon, sports day, and cultural day. The school schedule was flexible enough to allow time for these activities.

          Non-academic enhancements can help. Many of the problems I saw in American classrooms were just due to a sheer excess of energy because the kids had no time to get outside and be active. Going outside and working in a garden is a great way for kids to use up some of that excess energy so when it comes time to sit still in class, they're able to do so.

          1 Reply
          1. re: queencru

            You're exactly right that "non-academic enhancements can help." They DO make a major difference.
            But they're not one-size-fits-all. While the garden might appeal to some students, others would prefer and even need to run and do something much more active. Some might want to play in the band, or work with tools in the woodworking or mechanics shop.

            Different people learn in different ways. Some have no interest in gardening and never will. They'll hate it just as much as they hate algebra, and never care about the connection of either to their lives.

          2. I didn't expect to read a piece with that much high drama in the Atlantic.

            What a heart-rending image; the child of the agricultural worker ending up full-circle back on his knees picking lettuce.

            Now, what about the 15 year old who, during a cooking class at our restaurant, revealed that he thought potatoes grew on "bushes." (He wouldn't eat mushrooms because someone had told him they grow in manure. Further, he said he'd never eat anything like a beet "because it's grown in dirt." So I asked him if he knew how potatoes grow.

            In her article, Flanagan asserts that "kids are fatter and sicker than ever..." If kids know *where* their food comes from, they become better, more informed eaters. Perhaps having a garden in the school as part of a well-rounded educational program will teach some lessons that can be applied immediately, with immediate results.

            1 Reply
            1. re: shaogo

              Flanagan may have some valid points about the need for schools to help students master basic skills, but she lost me early on with the - yes, best described above as - snarky tone and completely off topic swipes at women who volunteer ( wait, doesn't she volunteer? ) and her pegging of Chez Panisse diners as "ACORN-loving, public-option supporting man or woman of the people". Oh please.

              I have no idea if entire curricula are created around the gardens - that seems far-fetched and she doesn't go into the details to support her claim that they are, but just as you start to worry for the poor students being forced into serfdom on Alice's farm she brings up the hour and a half the students spend in the garden each week. That hardly sounds oppressive, and yes, in a day when many schools have eliminated gym classes, not a bad outlet for the kids.

              My favorite part was where she uses the Jim Crow south parallel to illustrate that the schools are using "field work" on the minority population to keep them under control and uneducated. Sheesh.