The XX Factor

Random Nonsense Is a Treasured Part of Every American Education

Emily , KJ : For all the amusing swipes Flanagan takes at “ACORN-loving, public-option-supporting” local-food freaks in her latest Atlantic piece , her position is a liberal one: Decent public schools are something a community owes to whichever kids happen to reside therein, and when you start screwing around with the curriculum to flatter your own pieties, you risk failing to meet that obligation. This is a solid point. On the other hand, there is no way to avoid the fact that students are always going to be held hostage to the superstitions and social anxieties of their parents. When I was in public school I learned that pot could kill you and that the landfills would soon be so full we’d have to rocket garbage to the moon. In private school I recall coloring in some truly disturbing images of a pleasant-looking man being nailed to a piece of wood. (In this same school I was also subjected to random bouts of abstinence education, which seemed especially weird in the context of the virgin birth. Apparently, abstinence doesn’t always work.) None of this, I am sure, did much to augment my store of knowledge about the world, except perhaps as a study in anthropological observation. (Why does this off-duty police officer want to teach me precisely how to obtain crack cocaine? Why is this health teacher trying to get me to put a condom on this banana, which in no way resembles any of the penises with which I am familiar?)

I’m not the first to notice that we live in an age in which religious impulses are increasingly channeled into the production and mediation of food. The “edible schoolyard” program was as inevitable as this anti-syphilis recital . Flanagan is probably right to argue that struggling schools can least afford to spend time on the finer points of cultivating Romaine. But I do wonder: If time were spent so valuably in these schools that spending a few minutes in the garden counted as “theft,” wouldn’t the schools be doing better in the first place? Is the crime that time is being wasted on gardening, or that most of what’s happening outside of the garden can only be called babysitting?