Caitlin Flanagan Demonstrates What a Deficient Education Will Do to You


3. Immigrants.  Again, finding the very idea of farming distasteful, Flanagan argues that school gardens are an insult to immigrant kids whose parents just escaped the fields in search of a better life.  Well, my aunt was an immigrant who grew up on a less-than-charming pig farm with less-than-charming parents who left the farm to her younger brother, the only male in their brood.  So she left everything behind and came to America, where farmland was comparatively cheap. At the age of 81, in the midst of chemotherapy for a brain tumor, she spent her entire last summer out on her tractor.  Some people come to America not to leave the farm, but to own it.

4.  The diets of American children.   Flanagan scoffs at the notion that school gardens are valuable because a lot of city kids grow up in places where they have little access to fresh produce. Venturing briefly outside her life of extreme wealth to check out the supermarkets in L.A.'s Compton, she finds their produce sections quite passable. She has clearly never visited Detroit, where there are no major supermarkets to serve a sprawling city of 900,000 people, many of them far too poor to afford a car.  Flanagan also makes the highly insulting claim that the poor eat badly because their lives are so bleak, they need the thrills offered by junk food. Well, almost 18% percent of American kids between 12 and 19 are obese, and many of them will go on to develop diabetes and a host of other diet-related diseases.  These are not just poor kids, but middle class and rich kids, too. Our entire culture is hellbent on shoving Coke and chips down our kids' throats, and most American parents, in every economic class, do little to stop it.  Any program that counteracts the insane way we feed our kids is not just worthwhile, but positively important. Oh, and I haven't even mentioned the appalling numbers of American children who suffer from asthma and allergic rhinitis because they never play in the dirt.

5. Chez Panisse. Flanagan reports that she has experienced "oppressively sanctimonious and conversation-busting service" in Alice Waters' famous restaurant. The fact that she can't resist mentioning it, even though it has nothing to do with her argument, makes me fear that this is the real impetus behind the piece: She's decided to draw and quarter Waters for the insult. (Next time, try eating upstairs in the cafe with the hoi polloi. Food's just as good and atmosphere's more relaxed.)

Flanagan accuses Waters of foisting a "let them eat tarte tatin" attitude on hardscrabble public schools. Naturally, this seems entirely inappropriate to the class-obsessed Flanagan, who worries hysterically that the students in these schools, thus cheated of a proper education in favor of a too-gourmet vision of their futures, will become wards of the taxpayers, "a permanent, uneducated underclass. The state…will have to shoulder them in adulthood."

It's pretty impolitic of Flanagan to borrow even a phrase from Marie Antoinette, because if anyone in this picture resembles that privileged pitiless fool, it's Flanagan herself. But I do like the rallying cry Flanagan has coined and will embrace it.

Let the kids eat tarte tatin!  Make sure to let all the kids have a bite!

What's wrong with introducing kids of all classes to beauty and taste in the form of gorgeous plants and wonderful food?  How is it so different from having them read Shakespeare and solve algebra problems?  Unlike, say, a bag of Doritos and a standardized test, these subjects make us civilized. They help us rise above the "desperate daily scrabble" and wrest new meanings from our lives. 

I'd go so far as to say no education is complete without some understanding of plants, soil, food, cooking, the power of the sun, and the cycles of life.  If I could, I would send Caitlin Flanagan right back to school to learn them.


  1. God created man in His own image.

    After He created the heaven’s and the earth, he rested, then He PLANTED a garden (Genesis 2:8).

    God followed that up by creating a man, breathed life into him, and placed him in the garden to tend to it.

    Man has a God given inherent desire to PLANT a garden.

    Of course it needs to be taught in school. It is one of the seeds of life.

    The CF’ of the world need to get their head’s on straight.


  2. She is so blatantly stupid and clueless that responding to her may give her more credibility than she deserves, but then, people like this are like weeds and need to be uprooted before they become established.

  3. Oh yes, because I so often use Shakespear in my career. A good work ethic and being humble enough to do anything will get you farther in life than being able to quote the great poets.

    No to mention having basic skills will help people during the tough times. None of us would be here if all of our great grandparents had studied poetry instead of working in their gardens.

  4. Thank you, Michele! And I am so glad someone pointed out how wretched Flanagan’s article on the Twilight series was! It is unfortunate the The Atlantic continues to give her a platform for her verbal vomiting.

  5. Man I like you – I actually couldn’t make it through the Atlantic piece so thanks for delivering a well-deserved smack-down to a pretentious windbag (and for toughing out the read that I couldn’t stomach).

    And I like that stepladder comment…

  6. Thank you Michelle for writing out these points.

    Flanigan’s argument is the kind of argument one can only generate in one’s own mind. If tested, out in the world, by visiting and communicating, her argument would falter (as the rant shows). Her argument is the kind of argument that only survives in a bubble. I suppose her bubble is patting her on the back and saying “good job.” She obviously feels threatened by Waters, and I can only assume her apparent “concern” for the laborers is out of distaste for them. After all, they came to “America” to be more like her. And if they don’t, God help them, because she won’t ever see anything but a grubbing, sad laborer in the dirt instead of a human being.

    I think it was this article that taught me the essence of a “conservative”: people who despise labor. Isn’t the deeper worry that if you teach someone to grow things, they’re going to want the land to do so? Creating desire outside of the industrial-consumer system creates problems for the rich who understand that property rightfully belongs to them. Do you think that this could be an underpinning of a conservative lashing of garden education?

  7. You have to give CF points for articulation, and for carrying an argument through. And for not being Ann Coulter. She writes this kind of “hand grenade into the picnic” stuff all the time.

  8. Well, I’m glad CF wrote the piece – glad it was published in Atlantic – because it sparked this conversation, and this particular rant. I’m grateful we can disagree and converse about things that are really important in our lives. Sometimes I wish such conversations focused more on the ideas rather than being so personalized – but I must admit, it’s kind of fun to read the vitriol, too. (Perhaps unfortunately.) Nevertheless, thanks, Michele, for a well-argued piece.

  9. I’m not against teaching kids to garden, but some of you are living in a dreamworld, I think.

    My grandparents and great grandparents were farmers and crofters….they were poor, malnourished, and their very survival depended the whims of the weather and the ebb and flow of pests and disease. Thank god they moved to this country and sent my parents to school to study Shakespeare and learn how to read and write.

    Growing things is a wonderful, life-affirming activity. For most of us it is something that enriches our lives…we are luckier than most of the millions of people in the world who rely on the earth for their very survival. And thank god our kids have the chance to go to school and study Shakespeare and poetry and learn to write and to think so that they can one day get good jobs, buy their own homes, and plant gardens — if they choose to.

  10. Michelle, it is unfortunate that you are preaching to the choir. Most, if not all, of your readers will agree with your opinion about the Ms.Flanagan. This commendable protest needs a wider audience in order to rebut her claims.

  11. I was flabbergasted and rendered speechless when reading Ms. Flanagan’s little essay. I thought Michele might have more to say. It is a shame the Atlantic chose not to have comments on that article that was a lot like some whack job sneaking into a school garden and spraying it with glyphosate.

  12. Gardening is like so many other important pieces in the puzzle of life that everyone should be exposed to when young. Like musical instruments, literature, sports, cuisine, finances, and a myriad of other things, it gives important exposure to a young person trying to learn what their interests are, and makes them well rounded adults.

  13. Thank you thank you thank you for putting into words the rage I experienced when reading Flanagan’s latest piece of garbage. She is always wrong about everything, especially this. Why she gets paid for her idiocy is beyond me. Especially when her sermons appear in magazines I pay for.

  14. Dear Atlantic Monthly,
    Where are you when there is truly talent out there with a keen sense of perspective ?

    Michele, this articulate rebuttal should be printed in the Atlantic.

  15. One of the great mysteries of life – how someone like Flanagan can get paid to write this stuff. Oh, never mind – controversy sells, logic & sense be damned! (Really, though, how did she get the writing gigs in the first place? I’m available, I can write outrageous and nonsensical things too.)

  16. Well, Mr. McGregor’s Daughter, she’s certainly effective in that she never ceases to disgust and amaze me.

    In other words, I read her whenever I run across her. It’s like watching NASCAR, I suppose. I’m just waiting for the crack-up that seems inevitable, given the degree of rage and perversity and sense of cheatedness that animate this woman.

  17. Great post. Part of why human civilization is pillaging our planet rather than being stewards of this remarkable Earth is that humans have become disconnected with nature. Gardening is a great way to reconnect and to appreciate the fragility and wonder of life. I’d rather see a kid getting their hands in the dirt than typing a text any day. A poster elsewhere theorized that the decline in educational standards in our country goes hand-in-hand with the defunding of the arts and sports. We need gardens at our schools to teach these valuable life lessons.

  18. I am a first and second generation American. My father, having pulled himself out of the working class by education, shunned all things that smacked of the working class. His kids, on the other hand, have planted gardens where we read Shakespeare. The two are not mutually exclusive.

  19. My favorite saying: “Don’t be against war, be pro-peace.”

    I mentioned this because I agree with everything you wrote. People like Caitlin Flanagan must ignored. If we continue to educate those who are willing to learn than to debate against those who have closed their minds to our viewpoint, we will rain supreme. Also, it would be quite entertaining to see her squirm. I say the angrier she becomes the better and maybe it will even land her a lawsuit.

  20. From an educational point of view, CF errs by assuming we all learn only by hearing, or looking at a blackboard. I once brought some seeds, seedlings, and herb plants to my son’s 5th grade class, for a little history/biology show-and-tell. I learned a lot that day.

    It seemed as though the stuff in books isn’t quite real to a lot of kids. They were amazed to see that plants have underground parts–even though a poster in front of the classroom showed “roots.” Some plants have smells. You can even *eat* some plants!!!
    Bare-rooting the basil seedlings was exciting to them. And touching/smelling the plants.

    It takes some effort on the teachers’ part, but there’s plenty a garden can teach or reinforce. Tactile, experience-based learning definitely does have a legitimate place in a curriculum. Biology, botany, math, history. Even throw a little music and visual art in there. You might get dirt under your nails, though.

  21. Shakespeare did not feed me growing up when my family poor … our garden did.

    Monets are not feeding my nephew while his parents are out of work … their garden is.

    Knowing where food comes from and how to grow it can only help people.

  22. My mother was a secretary (back when they called them that), so should I not learn to type? Same for my father, should I have said “no Dad, I’d rather not learn about electricity, lest I be stuck being an electrician.”

    The conceit that she is speaking on behalf of the farm laborers and their children is so patently ludicrous, I can only laugh. Besides, they’re smart enough to know the difference between a home garden and a farm. A home garden is where the owner is you, and a farm is where the owner is your boss. These kids aren’t learning how to stoop and pick rows of strawberries for 10 hours a day, they’re learning how to invest in their bit of earth, should they be so lucky to own a piece of it one day.

    Like what Michele says, the perversity of her sense of cheatedness!
    It is important, though that this voice have a place to expunge its steam, because no doubt the article speaks for many more than just her. Only through the course of publishing these thoughts can we debate and argue and understand. So three cheers for CF!CF!CF!

  23. Well Done Michele, As someone who grew up in the country “in the fields” I ran to the city. I now have come back to my roots as I grow as much as humanly possible on my little city lot, LOL. My 3 sons enjoy it as much as I do, ask lots of questions about plants, soil, composting, etc. and are excelling in science because of it. Now imagine that Ms. Flanagan………

  24. Gee, one must pick between Shakespeare *OR* gardening? Why can’t we have both? I fail to see how this is an either/or situation. Or does she think the sciences (biology, geology, chemistry), which can be demonstrated in a practical lab like a school garden, will keep children “down?” Science is bad for under privileged kids? Boy, she’s more ignorant that her articles imply…

  25. CF’s position is entirely predictable; its not like the Irish could grow anything anyway… Now let’s talk about the family values crowd’s propensity to divorce as an expression of material desire. How dainty; an executive infatuated with wrong kind of toys!

  26. For anybody who wants to see how the state of California has tied their gardening curriculum to the state standards, here is where you can download the document called A Child’s Garden of Standards:

    I’ll probably be pelted with tomatoes for saying this, but California’s schools are abyssmal, and maybe dozens of garden related lessons shouldn’t be their top priority.

    For example, under 5th grade Language Arts, in “Listening and Speaking Strategies” it says:

    “Using facts about the Dust Bowl, students analyze and evaluate information on the history of the Natural Resource Conservation Service and develop
    a plan for local soil conservation.”

    Now maybe that’s a worthy activity but the reality is that schools absolutely must make choices about how classroom time is spent, contrary to what some posters seem to think. Great programs are cut all the time because there simply isnt’ the money. And the state of California is nearly bankrupt…

  27. oops, what I meant to add is that Cal. is bankrupt and has a huge population of ESOL kids, and is coming up with a soil conservation plan really the best way to teach new English speakers listening and speaking skills?

    Once a week for a lesson in the garden, fine. A whole curriculum based on the garden and I see other motives at play besides what’s best for the kids.

  28. Mary nothing you have presented looks bad as a teaching method or like it is some how eliminating a better or less costly approach. I checked your links. It makes it clear the garden is a tool to be used to achieve results on the No Child Left Untested directives.

    Is coming up with a soil conservation plan really the wrong way to teach new English speakers listening and speaking skills? It might actually be better than rote drills with no attachment to the real world they are living in. See Jane run. Go Spot go. Watch Spot hop. Look it’s Dick.

    Next tomato.

  29. Christopher, I’m an English teacher with many ESOL kids. Do you realize that many students who immigrate to this country are illiterate in their first language, too? If I’m a teacher in California, faced with a classroom of 32 kids (Cal. has the highest pupil/teacher ratio in the country) who cannot read, I’d certainly reach for a Dick and Jane reading primer before a soil conservation plan.

    I do realize this is a gardening blog and not an education blog, but California’s schools are in crisis, and it’s not because they’ve cut back on the arts. They have plunged from first in the nation (in the 60’s) to LAST, and that’s largely due to the fact that local control of education has been taken away in that state. By their very nature, statewide curricula bother me, and don’t even get me started on NCLB.

    Okay, so I’ve said my piece. Thanks Michele, for the thought provoking post.

  30. Thank you for writing this….I’ve been anxiously waiting to hear one of you tell her how you really feel….and I just have to laugh, as you’ve so perfectly penned what many of us have been thinking.

    As my 14 year old daughter would say…”Stick THAT in your juice box, Flanagan, and SUCK IT”….

  31. A year or two out of high school I was unexpectedly and miraculously hit over the head with a completely random passion for gardening. I knew nothing about it at the time and learned by reading books, asking questions at the local nursery, and a painful process of trial and error.

    We studied Thoreau in school but I never understood his love of nature until I became a gardener. I never cared about dead presidents until I found out that Thomas Jefferson was an avid gardener, and now I read his farm journals looking for advice. The year I planted a bag of daffodil bulbs and watched them come up the next spring was the year I started to love Wordsworth.

    I never did well in biology, but now I now understand how freezing temperatures and sugar content effect the cell structure of a plant. I care about the way cold air moves over a fence or through a hedge or settles in a low spot, and where warm air gathers under glass or near a brick wall. I pay attention to the weather, soil structure, the types of birds and insects in my area.

    I exercise in my garden and have found that physical stress is more relaxing than the mental stress I experience at work all week. I understand that everything I eat comes from a farmer somewhere and without them I would starve. I find myself wishing that I was a a farmer myself. You know, one of those poor, miserable uneducated people.

    My hope is that heaven will be a big garden I’ll get to work in forever (there is a lot of evidence to back this theory up). When I meet kids who don’t know when tulips bloom, think that tomatoes grow on trees like apples, or don’t even realize that the days are shorter in winter than they are in the summer because they are never outside, I pity them for all that they’re missing.

  32. It’s kind of hard to believe such a shallow person gets to write for The Atlantic. She was wrong on so many points I was kind of speechless myself, but it has been great reading all the rebuttals! The whole article sounded to me like a personal attack on Alice Waters. I printed the article, ripped it up, and fed it to the worms.

  33. Mary’s comments got me thinking about the true role education SHOULD have. Here in VA, we have the standardized tests that all schools have to pass (let’s be honest, it ain’t about the kids). The tests are aptly named the SOL, which I find frickin’ hilarious. Anyhow, today’s educational system seems 100% aimed at teaching to these tests, and bugger creativity or critical thinking. As someone growing a business, I’m terrified at what my future employees are going to be like. Landscape design is about identifying problems, solving them, and then making it beautiful. If we’re graduating a bunch of parrots who can’t think for themselves, we’re kind of screwed. Gardens in the schools are dangerous for people like the twit you reference because it’s a step towards teaching real-world thinking skills outside the walls of a $50K per year whitebread boarding school. The horror!

  34. There are so many responses here that I agree with: [email protected] hit the nail right on the head, as did Heather. Matt summed it up perfectly, and Dave is (as always) correct.

    But I also get the distinct feeling from the Telegraph’s article that she really doesn’t love her husband, but only the huge salary he brings in? The problem starts with that and quickly escalates from there.

    Her latest article that you mention Michele, just smacks of racism. It’s just enraging!

    But your comment – “Sorry, I think it’s far healthier for girls to exhaust their bodies working with a shovel than to waste their minds fantasizing about vampire dudes.” is why I think you are AWESOME Michele, you really are! I really hate Twilight because Bella is so damn subservient it’s nauseating! No wonder Ms. Flanagan likes it so much.

  35. A garden does not serve to keep children in the dirt, but to inspire them. I am glad to know that others feel Caitlan’s perspective regarding the garden is lacking. She fails to recognize the value of a garden as a hand-ons on laboratory for learning and inspiration. My blog:: comments on her article from the historical and scientific perspective. I invite you to read it and to share your thoughts. Kudos for your work; your blog is simply wonderful! Recygal

  36. The hit piece “Cultivating Failure” by Caitlin Flanagan is exactly the kind of “reporting” that drove me away from The Atlantic. It is that sort of propaganda that caused me not to renew my subscription several years ago. Flanagan’s Fair and Balanced screed wrapped in melodrama is way over the top. I got her message (and the magazine’s) in the first hundred words and skipped the rest.

  37. Michelle, you bottom-lined it perfectly. Dietitions like myself would have far less work if more people would take one step to get healthier by growing food wherever they could. Gardening is excellent exercise, and eating all that one can grow handily displaces piles of junk food and turns the entire dietary scene around.

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