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Critiquing Educational Initiatives Instead of Exploring Fundamental Questions About the Purpose of Schooling

Posted Feb 22 2010 12:00am

boygardeningEditor’s Note: We are honored to publish the following guest post by Zoe Weil.   Zoe is the President of the Institute for Humane Education (IHE), and author of Above All, Be Kind: Raising a Humane Child in Challenging Times and Most Good, Least Harm: A Simple Principle for a Better World and Meaningful Life.

In her recent Atlantic Monthly article, “Cultivating Failure”, Caitlin Flanagan critiques the current educational movement to bring the cultivation of gardens into schools and curriculum. Because Flanagan makes her argument so well, I don’t want to try to paraphrase her, except to summarize her position: Taking time away from book-learning for gardening, especially for Hispanic children whose families have worked to escape poverty and to provide their children with an education that will enable them to do things with their lives other than farming, limits precious studying time, thereby reducing the acquisition of essential knowledge. As with many well-thought-out critiques, the criticism is compelling, but suggestions for solutions are weak, if non-existent.

To me, the problem with debating specific curricula or initiatives in education whether school gardens or another program is that the big picture is often lost. That big picture requires that we explore and seek to answer the question “What is schooling for?”

We will answer this question differently in different settings and situations. Some of the Hispanic families that Flanagan writes about might say that the goal of their children’s education should be to provide them with the core competencies and tools to enable them to have healthy, positive, and economically successful career choices. The girls in Pakistan and Afghanistan educated in the schools built by Greg Mortenson’s Central Asia Institute might answer that the purpose of schooling should be to teach them to be verbally and mathematically literate in order to escape crushing poverty through skills that make them employable in life-sustaining jobs.

These are important and noble purposes for schooling. Yet, at this point in history they are not good enough. They may be good enough in certain situations, but not as the overarching educational purpose of a wealthy, powerful nation such as the U.S., whose work force and citizenry have enormous influence on everyone and everything across the globe.

Instead of focusing on specific educational initiatives such as school gardens, we need educational leaders, teachers, and parents to ask and answer the question “What is education for?” in a visionary way that assesses the world we live in, all those we are impacting, and the future we are influencing. In a world that is quickly warming, rapidly desertifying, overpopulating, losing species at an alarming rate, drying up ancient aquifers, running out of relied-upon energy sources, escalating its reliance on slave and sweatshop labor and thereby fomenting inequity and rage, and so on, the narrow focus on educating for white-collar jobs through ensuring specific core competencies just isn’t enough. It’s foundational but inadequate education. And this is why either extolling the virtues of school gardens or critiquing them isn’t enough either.

Flanagan quotes the late Theordore Sizer’s compelling statement from his 1984 book, Horace’s Compromise:

“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.”

Who can argue with this? Of course teenagers need to meet such fundamental standards, but these should not be hard to meet. It only takes a couple of hours a day at most to meet such standards if we organize our schools efficiently, reduce class size, and hire excellent teachers. To argue against school gardens because we’re failing at these very minimal and basic standards is to give up on the great potential and power of education. And to focus on school gardens as some awesome or awful use of time just leads us away from the essential goals we must embrace. The core competencies every child must have must be directed toward a greater and worthy purpose, and that, in my opinion, is the development of healthy, just, sustainable, and humane systems so that we solve the grave challenges we face and build a world in which we can all live and thrive.

Until we begin having a discussion about the core question “What is schooling for?,” we will continue to argue about specific educational initiatives and fads and lose sight of the great promise that schooling holds and the great danger if we fail to achieve that promise.

Image courtesy of spacecadet via Creative Commons.

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