Since attending the Hawaii Island School Garden conference in July, I’ve had education on the brain. I wrote about the value of school gardens, and the need to help children see the connection between their education and their daily life. Since I’ve been reading more about school gardens and real world learning, I’ve encountered mostly positive reports.

However, there are a few people who are critical of school gardens, and, it seems, of farming in general.  

I recently read a book on modern farming in which the author described harvesting combines as incredible inventions that “liberated millions of Americans from backbreaking physical labor.” Now, I’ll grant you, anyone who’s had to clear two acres of lava rock by hand will know that farming is hard work. It takes lots of sweat, and sometimes blood, and more than a few tears. But is it something we need to be liberated from?

It’s always been clear to me that our day-to-day interaction with the earth forms a foundation for all other human activity, and farming is at the heart of that interaction. So why do some people seem to regard farming the same way I regard making invoices for shoes? Why do some people see it as a burden to be overcome?

Caitlin Flanagan elaborates on this disdain for farming in an article for The Atlantic. In making her case against school gardens, she says that traditional education has “lifted uncounted generations of human beings out of the desperate daily scrabble to wrest sustenance from dirt.” …“Desperate daily scrabble?” “Wrest sustenance from dirt?” I want to ask her, “Where else did you plan to get your sustenance? And what have you got against dirt?”

In my experience, when properly cared for, dirt has a delightful tendency to yield sustenance with surprising ease and grace. Any farmer knows that the earth responds generously when given half a chance. Problems arise when we try to stretch the resources of the soil past what the earth can bear. There’s an equilibrium in nature upon which all of our wellbeing depends. If we find ourselves in a desperate daily scrabble for existence, it’s because we’ve ignored the reciprocal relationship between human beings and the other life forms on this planet.

Flanagan believes that the purpose of education should be to prepare children for college, and that anything else is a detrimental distraction. Obviously, for any education to be effective, children need to learn to read, express themselves in writing and understand basic math. This lays the groundwork for critical and abstract thinking. However, we can’t teach these subjects in a vacuum. If, as Flanagan suggests, you teach a child to pass Algebra 1 just so he can graduate from high school, just so he can get in to college, just so he can avoid doing manual labor, then you’ve lost the plot in a major way. By giving children a superficial knowledge of the world, we’re allowing them to float on the surface of a deeply dysfunctional society.

At the height of her outrage against the inculcation of these “child farm laborers,” Flanagan asks, rhetorically, “Why not make them build the buses that will take them to and from school, or rotate in shifts through the boiler room?” Indeed, why not? Someone is doing it, day in and day out. If building buses and tending boiler rooms is such a noxious occupation, maybe we should examine why we need these things. Maybe we should teach children about where buses come from: about strip mining for metal, and starting wars for oil, and bulldozing orchards for highways. Maybe we should teach them to actually think critically about their situation and how to improve it, rather than using the heads of their school janitors and bus drivers as a stepladder to a  “better life.” 

I understand where Flanagan is coming from. She is motivated, at least in part, by the well-intentioned desire to lift people out of poverty. But a person can be sincere, and sincerely wrong. Her vision of education is shortsighted and it will ultimately lead to the total collapse of an unjust, unbalanced system of industrial agriculture and corporate industry. Rather than propel children into a broken world, we should give them the tools to start fixing it. Rather than holding our breath for the inevitable collapse, we should begin to slowly and gently dismantle what isn’t working.

Flanagan sees education as a means to give children a head start in the rat race. But Lily Tomlin, I believe, said it best, “The trouble with the rat race is that even if you win, you’re still a rat.”