Caitlin Flanagan Doubts Alice Waters

Is this not working?
Is this not working? Photo: iStockphoto

Joining Anthony Bourdain in bashing Alice Waters, Atlantic provocateur Caitlin Flanagan takes dead aim at the Mother of Slow Food in the magazine’s January issue. Flanagan is unhappy with what she perceives as an unchallenged, national embrace of Waters’s Edible Schoolyard, a public school program widely adopted in California that aims to raise students’ grades while they’re raising crops. Flanagan worries that the program doesn’t work as advertised; there’s not enough evidence that the garden-based curriculum improves a student’s likelihood of passing California’s high school exit exams. “That no one is calling foul on this is only one manifestation of the way the new Food Hysteria has come to dominate and diminish our shared cultural life,” she writes, adding that Waters’ “brilliant cookery and laudable goals may not be the best qualifications for designing academic curricula for the public schools.”

Beyond academic concerns, Flanagan also picks up on an unpleasant undercurrent of social agenda. The Edible Schoolyard, and much of Waters’ ethos, is based on the notion that “Gardens help students to learn the pleasure of physical work.” Flanagan finds a fundamental absurdity in that idea: “Why not make them build the buses that will take them to and from school, or rotate in shifts through the boiler room?”

Flanagan also bristles at the implied notion that the students in question are unfamiliar with manual labor. The program’s participants are mostly black and Latino students enrolled at California’s poorest-performing schools, who are likely closer to farming and manual labor than the program’s vocal supporters. According to Flanagan, this is nothing less than a “cruel trick”: “It’s rare for an immigrant experience to go the whole 360 in a single generation—one imagines the novel of assimilation, The White Man Calls It Romaine.” She later notes:

If this patronizing agenda were promulgated in the Jim Crow South by a white man who was espousing a sharecropping curriculum for African American students, we would see it for what it is: a way of bestowing field work and low expectations on a giant population of students who might become troublesome if they actually got an education.

Whether Flanagan’s teardown (oddly positioned in the magazine as a critical essay on Thomas McNamee’s three-year-old biography Alice Waters and Chez Panisse) will effect the change she calls for is an open question — Flanagan is, after all, known for taking polarizing, often contrarian positions. (Though it’s hard to argue against fresh vegetables.) But given the crisis state of California’s public schools, perhaps such a large proportion of California’s schools (by Flanagan’s count, 3,849 of 9,000, and growing) relying on an unproven system bears closer scrutiny.

Until then, Flanagan calls on the students subjected to classroom gardening to recognize themselves as unpaid, experimental farm workers, and respond accordingly: “And so I would say this to our state’s new child farm laborers: ¡Huelga! Strike!”

Cultivating Failure [The Atlantic]

Caitlin Flanagan Doubts Alice Waters