Sky Full of Bacon

Alice Waters, Neocon Stooge

The spat between Atlantic writer Caitlin Flanagan and the Empress of Organic Food, legendary chef Alice Waters, came to an end pretty quickly with all sorts of people running to the defense of Waters and declaring Flanagan anathema.  Not since Christopher Hitchens attacked Mother Teresa has the civilized literary world reacted with such a unanimous cry of “Oooh, who farted?”

I think Flanagan raises, snarkily (it’s undoubtedly a fun read), some issues worth thinking about apart from the near-universal adulation that Waters enjoys, and I think Corby Kummer and others refute them to a considerable extent.  But I think there’s an issue beyond that that no one has quite touched on— which, in the end, puts Waters in some very surprising company for an old Berkeley lefty.

Flanagan’s argument basically comes down to a single incredulous observation: So a rich white lady is telling Mexican kids they need to spend less time in the classroom and more time harvesting crops?  And people think this is progress for them? She portrays Waters’ Edible Schoolyards project as a crackpot idea out of Rousseau, an anti-intellectual Cultural Revolution which is cutting into the class time they really need and wasting it on hippie notions of getting back to nature:

What evidence do we have that participation in one of these programs—so enthusiastically supported, so uncritically championed—improves a child’s chances of doing well on the state tests that will determine his or her future (especially the all-important high-school exit exam) and passing Algebra I, which is becoming the make-or-break class for California high-school students?

Now, as it happens my kids go to a so-called “hippie school” (Chicago Waldorf School), which indeed has a garden.  And where they also learn things like knitting, painting, music, all that non-book stuff that there’s no room for in modern public schools.  Do I send my kids there because I want them to be macrame-making airheads who don’t know which century the Civil War took place in?  No, I send them there because despite spending a good portion of the day on non-academic subjects, I see that these kids, my own and their classmates, are far more engaged with the world, interested in history and politics, passionate about reading, curious about science and math, than the typical Chicago public school student.  In a very real sense, they get more out of four hours of that a day than most kids get out of seven in a public school.  (Kummer points out how the whole program comes out of Waters’ long-ago experience as a Montessori teacher; Montessori and Waldorf are, if not twins, certainly cousins.)

Knitting, what the school calls handwork, is the one that’s inevitably the hardest sell for parents considering Waldorf.  It seems like the school day is being wasted on occupational therapy.  But as the teachers patiently explain, it has all kinds of value for the rest of the curriculum, developing hand-eye coordination, inculcating self-discipline, nurturing a sense of accomplishment (people are blown away when they tell a second-grader “Nice hat” and the kid nonchalantly replies “Yeah, I made it”), even teaching math (you have to count rows and so on).

Likewise, gardening isn’t taking time from science class, it is biology.  And so on.  The focus and ability to concentrate and think things through and follow through till they’re done— all these things are crucial to academic subjects, and they’re developed in these non-academic pursuits.  The unchallenged assumptions in Flanagan’s piece are that more and more class time in algebra would get everybody through the tests on algebra— and that the tests on algebra have real meaning in terms of future achievement, indeed, they’re the only way you’ll get there.  Only if you think that the only place learning happens is a lecture hall, can you believe that it’s that simple.

Flanagan’s argument comes down attempting to paint Waters’ solution as run-amok 60s big government liberalism, what you might expect from a Berkeley free-speech lefty type:

Waters calls for a new federal program based on an old one [the Presidents’ Council on Physical Fitness], but the new one is necessary only because the old one has obviously failed: American kids are fatter and sicker than ever…

The suicidal dietary choices of so many poor people are the result of a problem, not the problem itself. The solution lies in an education that will propel students into a higher economic class, where they will live better and therefore eat better.

But if Waters is applying the Wahington-money-fits-all-problems approach, Flanagan is hardly a Hayekian herself; she simply wants a different federal program with different classroom priorities to make good middle class taxpayers out of all those kids.  And is there any evidence her kinds of government programs are working in inner city schools at a notably higher rate of success than gardening is?

At the same time I was reading this, I read a piece on minority Chicago schools by Heather MacDonald in City Journal, which is published by a conservative think tank; okay, I know many people checked out right there, but there’s some solid, if grim, reporting in the piece that will leave you better informed about how something like the Derrion Albert beating death happened.  (There’s also, admittedly, quite a lot of use of it to bludgeon the record of the area’s most famous ex-community organizer.)  The argument here is that Chicago social programs are very much focused on defeating social pathologies by raising the kids economically to the middle class with government spending.  Their (decidedly conservative) argument is that this has it backwards— middle-class responsibility will be achieved not when it’s handed to those unprepared for it, but when they have it inside themselves and raise themselves to the middle class:

Now, perhaps if [school superintendant Ron] Huberman’s proposed youth “advocates” provided their charges with opportunities to learn self-discipline and perseverance, fired their imaginations with manly virtues, and spoke to them about honesty, courtesy, and right and wrong—if they functioned, in other words, like Scoutmasters—they might make some progress in reversing the South Side’s social breakdown. But the outfit that Huberman has picked to provide “advocacy” to the teens, at a reported cost of $5 million a year, couldn’t be more mired in the assiduously nonjudgmental ethic of contemporary social work.

Talking about Boy Scouts in the context of schools run by gangs may seem like a joke— but it’s no moreso than talking about gardening, surely.  Gad!  Does this mean Alice Waters is a closet conservative, using gardening to infiltrate her sneaky rightwing ideas (like honesty and perseverance) into the school system?

Well, no, not exactly.  But it might mean that Waters’ idea of liberalism is a broader and more thoughtful thing than Flanagan’s big-government-by-experts version.  The hippie left of the 60s is usually portrayed as impractical and druggy, but it also had powerful strains of libertarian self-reliance within it— certainly within Waters’ world, it meant back-to-the-land types who ate or starved based on their own willingness to work, and who became her suppliers by assiduously seeking to produce the best possible produce for her restaurant.

And that’s what Flanagan just doesn’t get— gardening isn’t menial labor to Waters, it’s the pursuit of excellence.  Waters wants kids to learn the self-reliance and discipline that farming teaches— and if that’s conservative, well then so is my kids’ hippie school and so are Thoreau and Jefferson, and liberalism has just given up some very important home ground for bad reasons, it seems to me.  Flanagan is ultimately on the side of tests and credentialism and knowledge being dispensed from on high; Waters is ultimately on the side of developing the individual so they can achieve, and will want to.  And that’s why Waters is more right than Flanagan about the value of getting the kids out of the classroom for an hour a day and cultivating their own gardens.

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