Wednesday, January 13, 2010

A farm student's perspective on education

Photo from

This last week, the Atlantic published a disappointing article by Caitlin Flanagan criticizing school gardens, in particular Alice Water's famous Berkeley garden. Her argument is essentially that education in the garden is useless; or worse, it inhibits children from moving up in cultural and economic class.

Of course the article triggered an enraged retort from all different sectors of the food movement. Chefs, food writers, teachers, gardeners, and others raised their collective pitchforks and challenged Flanagan's arguments in a cyber-slam of rather entertaining zingers such as this one, "I'd put them [the Atlantic pages] in the bottom of my bird cage, but one parrot with those ideas already is more than we need" (Prairie Fyre, Comfood).

After reading the article, I got pretty riled up too, especially when she subtly devalued physical labor. Criticizing Waters' philosophy of encouraging children to enjoy physical labor, Flanagan writes, "Does the immigrant farm worker dream that his child will learn to enjoy manual labor, or that his child will be freed from it? What is the goal of an education, of what we once called “book learning”? These are questions best left unasked when it comes to the gardens."

No, Ms. Flanagan, let's not leave these questions unasked. Really, what is the goal of an education? I found myself asking that question this last year as I neared graduation from a liberal arts college with a B.A. degree in anthropology. I stepped off the stage with a diploma in my hand and a heart full of questions and vacancies that my "book learning" could never answer. It is here, on a farm where I am doing manual labor, that I feel my deeper education actually beginning.

Farm work teaches skills that complement my degree, such as business management, research methods, nutrition education, public speaking, teamwork, and familiarity with farm worker justice issues. Yet those "marketable skills" are not why I joined a farm rather than a firm. I am a farm worker because this work is filling some of the gaps left after 16 years of book learning. It teaches me how to live in connection with the land and with a local community. This education finally acknowledges that I'm a body (not just a brain) that was not built to sit behind a desk all day, whether in the classroom or in the office. I'm becoming increasingly literate in the language of ripening vegetables, and the slow signs of change that correspond to a specific place. Finally, this work teaches me that my hands can be involved in the awe-inspiring work of creation, nurture and growth, lessons necessary for children and adults of any age and all social classes. Try creating a standardized test for those values. If these lessons and others like them are not the valid goals of an education, then the educational system needs some serious re-evaluation.

Our ATFP community is connected with a family of immigrants. The parents are farmworkers who do the manual labor of picking the fruits and vegetables upon which we all (if you don't pick your own, that is) depend. On several of their days off, our farmworker friends have brought their children out to our farm to weed and harvest with us. They say they want their children to better understand what their parents do, and to learn from that work. Their educational goals for their children extend beyond "book learning" and ladder climbing. Ms. Flanagan would do well to learn from them, for they know the value of physical labor.

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