Ending Agenda Education

The wonderful chef, restaurateur, and leader o...
Alice Waters of Chez Panisse (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Cultivating Failure – Magazine – The Atlantic

In this excellent review of Thomas McNamee’s biography of legendary chef Alice Waters (of Berkeley’s Chez Panisse,) The Atlantic’s Caitlin Flanagan tears into Waters’ effort to turn her celebrity into influence over the curriculum of California schools.

Waters is a major proponent of the importance of school gardens as a teaching tool, the Edible Schoolyard Program, offering students an opportunity to achieve some very high-minded goals, but that does nothing to help them pass math or english exams or get into the university of their choice.

The article debunks, often with brutal statistics and scathing logic, the high-minded movement that has put gardens in 2,000 of 9,000 of California’s cash-strapped elementary and secondary schools. Flanagan then takes a step back, surveys the history of fads in California education, and notes:

With the Edible Schoolyard, and the thousands of similar programs, the idea of a school as a venue in which to advance a social agenda has reached rock bottom. This kind of misuse of instructional time began in the Progressive Era, and it has been employed to cheat kids out of thousands of crucial learning hours over the years, so that they might be indoctrinated in whatever the fashionable idea of the moment or the school district might be. One year it’s hygiene and another it’s anti-Communism; in one city it’s safe-sex “outer-course,” and in another it’s abstinence-only education. (Sixth-graders at King spend an hour and a half each week in the garden or the kitchen—and that doesn’t include the time they spend in the classroom, in efforts effective or not, to apply the experiences of planting and cooking to learning the skills and subjects that the state of California mandates must be mastered.) But with these gardens—and their implication that one of the few important things we as a culture have to teach the next generation is what and how to eat—we’re mocking one of our most ennobling American ideals. Our children don’t get an education because they’re lucky, or because we’ve generously decided to give them one as a special gift. Our children get an education—or should get an education—because they have a right to one. At the very least, shouldn’t we ensure that the person who makes her mark on the curricula we teach be someone other than an extremely talented cook with a highly political agenda?

It is time to pull all of our political agendas, left and right, out of the classroom, save one: the goal to ensure our children are academically prepared for life. Leave the enrichment to extra-curricular activities.

4 thoughts on “Ending Agenda Education

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  1. I couldn’t disagree more. What you are advocating is a school that is nothing more than occupational training, and a shallow one at that. Students must learn English, math, and science, of course, but many other things make up a complete education. Further, since when is learning about nutrition and how things grow a political agenda? Are hygiene, physical education, etc. unimportant? Ms Flanagan seems to want students chained to their desks to study the REAL subjects all day, every day, filling the thousands of hours she says they wasted in learning the many things that the garden can teach about real life with endless work that will turn them into shallow drudges for the rest of their lives.

  2. John, I read Flanagan a bit differently, perhaps I bring to this discussion my biases as a parent of an elementary school-age child who is about to become a California resident.

    I don’t think Flanagan is advocating a sawdust-dry educational system as much as she is saying that a) we owe it to our children to craft an educational system that at least ensures bare competence in English, math, science, social studies, and foreign languages, and b) once we have done that, and ONLY after we have done that, can we allocate school time and resources to other pursuits during the school day.

    I cannot speak for the rest of the country, but when it comes to California schools, I think the numbers suggest that there are too many children who leave school unequipped to fend for themselves either in a university or in life. Hygene, physical education, nutrition, fine arts, and performing arts are all important, but they are secondary to the core. Until we get the core right, I say bounce everything else to home, after-school programs, and enrichment activities like athletics and scouting.

    I DO think it’s time to rip into the pedagogy of our schools, oriented as it is toward turning out industrial workers and supervisors. I think our pedagogy is outdated. At the same time, if we turn out graduates who are incapable of providing for themselves in an urban environment, we are setting them up for failure, and we are setting up the country for failure. I read recently about one company in Michigan that wanted to expand in the US, but for the life of them they COULD NOT FIND trained industrial machinists. Hmm.

    1. You are certainly right that competence in essentials is crucial, and students are not getting it. However, we can’t simply toss everything else out of the schools until we get it right. And by demolishing the educational budget, as we have, we have retarded getting it right by the number of years it takes to obtain competent teachers AFTER we restore a decent budget, because the hundreds of thousands of teachers we lost in the current economic mess are not widgets we can simply replace.

      The last thing we need is politicians telling teachers how to teach. There are several excellent programs–in New Haven, and Maryland, at least–that have been very effective at helping new teachers establish good techniques, and at getting bad teachers out of the system when they don’t develop competency, all with the active assistance of the teachers union. Most of the country, however, pits administrators against teachers and unions, and has no way to demand competence.

      My personal belief is that student attitudes toward education are one of the biggest problems, and much of the negativity we see comes from perceived lack of opportunity, and, thus, reason for school.

      At any rate, I don’t believe it would be fruitful or practical to simply ban non-core subjects until, somehow, students attain competence in core subjects.

      1. We definitely don’t need politicians to tell teachers how to teach, but I would also argue that we don’t need well-intentioned dilettantes doing so, either, and that was the core thrust of my post.

        Your comments, though, reveal a larger point: we must all agree on what we expect our schools to do for our children before we start crafting curricula. To me, the basic purposes of a formal education are to prepare people to be productive members of society, to equip them to be competent citizens, and to provide them with the skills required to operate in life. Anything more at this point is overburdening our system.

        I also think we need to break up the admin vs. classroom dynamic that plagues our school systems. When I look at the LA Unified School District, for example, it is obvious to me that the problem is as much incompetent administration as it is inconsistent teaching. For that reason alone I don’t think money alone will fix the problem, or even money first. We must restore funding to our schools at once, but we must simultaneously embark on a reconstruction of the entire edifice of public K-12 education. The debate we should be having is how to do that, instead of allowing ourselves to believe that the battle between districts and unions is the true issue.

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