In the media world, the hatchet job has long been a profitable one. It involves finding a major figure, uncovering a supposed flaw and then showing the world how it is a symptom of everything that's wrong with -- fill in the blank -- politics, business, schools, etc.
Caitlin Flanagan's rant about Alice Waters qualifies as a glowing example of the genre. In the piece, she argues that Water's school gardens are doing everything to disenfranchise poor, undereducated kids by making them work outdoors rather than hitting the books. She leads off with a supposed child of a former migrant worker who goes to school -- only to do migrant-like work at the Berkeley middle school garden that Waters organized.
The child is a figment of Flanagan's hyperactive imagination. Did she go to the school, talk to the kids or parents or teachers, ask if any kids felt they were being exploited, or even wasting time -- in a school garden? Why bother because she already knew the answer.
I don't think anyone would dispute that schools are in trouble, especially California's with its famous budget troubles. A piece looking into those schools -- something that Flanagan's colleague Sandra Tsing Loh, for example, has done amusingly well in these same pages - would be welcome. And in fact, in the same Atlantic issue, there is a very worthwhile piece on what really makes students excel (hint: it's the teachers). Flanagan, however, fixates on little seedlings and argues not only that the gardens are misplaced but suggests they are the cause of said educational failures. Blame the arugula for school dropouts.
The purpose of this argument is to skewer a person Flanagan viscerally detests. But finding Alice Waters' precious local foodie proclivities distasteful is one thing. (Even I found the bit where she poached an egg over an open hearth on 60-Minutes a bit much). Pinning the ills of the state's educational system on school gardens is something else again. What's next? Blaming the deep recession on Michelle Obama's White House garden because it takes the president's attention off more weighty problems at hand?
It's long been known that adequate nutrition has a direct relationship on children's achievement in school. Whether gardens would have a bearing on this equation is a question Flanagan chooses to ignore. (Oh wait, she does explore this issue by traveling to a grocery store in Compton to get her answer. She decides poor people can get good food, but they mostly like junk and nothing but upward mobility will change that).
Maybe the gardens can help with the nutrition equation. Perhaps they won't. But you can't get anything to grow without diligence, attention, planning and hard work -- all qualities that can be applied to other endeavors, even farming. (She never considers that a kid really drawn to the garden might end up owning a farm business in the state's $39 billion agriculture industry, rather than being a migrant -- not a far-fetched path in California). Whatever the case, it's clear that the gardens are a minor sideshow in the issues facing the California school system. As she writes:
I have never seen an entire school system as fundamentally broken and rudderless as the California public schools, a system in which one out of five high-school students drops out before graduation, and in which scarcely 60 percent of the African American and Hispanic students leave school with a diploma. These young people are cast adrift in a $50 billion system in which failure is almost a foregone conclusion.
In that universe of problems, she focuses on ... gardens? Frankly, I think her imaginary migrant parents would probably spend more time worrying about Sacramento gutting meager school resources and teachers' positions then about the 1-1/2 hours a week their kid spends tending the arugula. And they should.