Booker T. Washington on School Gardens and the Pleasure of Work | Civil Eats

Booker T. Washington on School Gardens and the Pleasure of Work

With the publishing of her article in the latest issue of The Atlantic, Caitlin Flanagan became a lonely detractor of the school garden movement. There has been much refuted about the piece, but I wanted to focus here on her obvious detestation for physical labor. Flanagan seemingly didn’t speak to any immigrants with children attending the King School, home of the country’s well-known Edible Schoolyard, but chose to imagine the immigrant experience all the same, taking us through a hypothetical situation in which a farm laborer’s child there is taken out into the “hot sun” of the school garden and made to pick lettuce. She asked, “Does the immigrant farm worker dream that his child will learn to enjoy manual labor, or that his child will be freed from it?”

Having experienced the satisfaction of my own labor, I do not accept that physical work has no benefits for adults or kids. Furthermore, labor will never be eliminated completely from human affairs. Perhaps hearing about the experience of labor from the point of view of a former slave, then, could be instructive. One commenter on Kurt Michael Friese’s thoughtful rebuttal (“Not “enjoy,” Ms. Flanagan, respect.”) suggested that Flanagan should read Booker T. Washington’s 1904 book, Working With the Hands. Washington was born into slavery, of an African American mother and a white father he never knew. He argued that physical work brings us closer to nature, empowers us and fulfills us in ways that working with the mind alone cannot. He described his own experience in the introduction:

Soon after I was made free by the proclamation of Abraham Lincoln there came the new opportunity to attend a public school at my home town in West Virginia. When the teacher said that the chief purpose of education was to enable one to speak and write the English language correctly the statement found lodgment in my mind and stayed there. While at the time I could not put my thoughts into words clearly enough to express instinctive disagreement with my teacher this definition did not seem adequate, it grated harshly upon my young ears and I had reasons for feeling that education ought to do more for a boy than merely to teach him to read and write.

While this scheme of education was being held up before me my mother was living in abject poverty lacking the commonest necessaries of life and working day and night to give me a chance to go to school for two or three months of the year. And my foremost aim in going to school was to learn ways and means by which I might make life more endurable and if possible even attractive for my mother. There were several boys of our neighbourhood who had superior school advantages and who in more than one instance had reached the point where they were called ‘educated,’ which meant that they could write and talk correctly. But their parents were not far removed from the conditions in which my mother was living and I could not help wondering whether this kind of education alone was fitted to help me in the immediate needs of relieving the hard times at home. This idea however ran counter to the current of widespread opinion among my people. Young as I was, I had come to have the feeling that to be a free boy meant to a considerable extent freedom from work with the hands and that this new status applied especially to the educated boy.

He goes on to describe his first job, as a gardener for a wealthy woman. She respected his hard work, and encouraged his schooling. And he developed a satisfaction with the results of his labor:

Above all else I had acquired a new confidence in my ability actually to do things and to do them well. And more than this I found myself through this experience getting rid of the idea which had gradually become a part of me, that the head meant everything and the hands little in working endeavour and that only to labour with the mind was honourable while to toil with the hands was unworthy and even disgraceful.

…While I have never wished to underestimate the awakening power of purely mental training I believe that this visible tangible contact with nature gave me inspirations and ambitions which could not have come in any other way. I favour the most thorough mental training and the highest development of mind but I want to see these linked with the common things of the universal life about our doors.

Later on in the book he writes specifically about gardens, and their role in education:

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My own experience in outdoor life leads me to hope that the time will soon come when there be a revolution in our methods of educating children, especially in the schools of the smaller towns rural districts. I consider it almost a sin to take number of children whose homes are on farms, whose parents earn their living by farming, cage them up as if they were so many wild beasts for six or seven hours during the day in a room where the air is often impure.

I have known teachers to go so far as to frost the windows in a school room or have them made high up in the wall or keep the window curtains down so that the children could not even see the wonderful world without. For six hours the life of these children is an artificial one. The apparatus which they use is as a rule artificial and they are taught in an artificial manner about artificial things. Even to whisper about the song of a mocking bird or the chirp of a squirrel in a near by tree or to point to a stalk of corn or a wild flower or to speak about a cow and her calf or a little colt and its mother grazing in an adjoining field are sins for which they must be speedily and often severely punished. I have seen teachers keep children caged up on a beautiful bright day in June –when all Nature was at her best making them learn or try to learn a lesson about hills or mountains or lakes or islands by means of a map or globe when the land surrounding the school house was alive.

…I believe that the time is not far distant every school in the rural districts and in the small towns will be surrounded by a garden and one of the objects of the course of study will be teach the child something about real country life and about country occupations.

On this day honoring Martin Luther King, Jr., let us not forget our civil right to eat good food, and thereby keep our bodies strong and healthy. One way to overcome the inequalities which keep the poor eating the processed foods that are making us sick is by re-valuing labor, and rekindling a respect for the farmers that cultivate our food. Only then will we have enough farmers to produce the fruits and vegetables needed to improve our nation’s diet at an affordable price.

h/t to Mitzi

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Paula Crossfield is a founder and the Editor-at-large of Civil Eats. She is also a co-founder of the Food & Environment Reporting Network. Her reporting has been featured in The Nation, Gastronomica, Index Magazine, The New York Times and more, and she has been a contributing producer at The Leonard Lopate Show on New York Public Radio. An avid cook and gardener, she currently lives in Oakland. Read more >

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  1. Another nice response to Flanagan.

    Last night my 14-year-old daughter made the unsolicited statement that no matter what academic course she pursued, she wanted to balance her adult work life with "meaningful physical labor" as she thought that would lead to greater satisfaction.

    Flanagan's frame of reference was so very limited - her world view so narrow.
  2. cybercita
    as a pediatric occupational therapist, i love the garden for so many reasons. first, because developing children need to move much, much more than they have an opportunity to do when living in cities, gym classes are going by the wayside, and city kids spend way too much time indoors, divorced from nature. how can they learn to appreciate the earth and want to protect it when it's only an abstraction? second, because gardening can be very calming, organizing, and regulating for the body, which helps the child maintain the correct mental alertness needed for learning. third, because our children have such poor nutrition. it is a well known fact that children are much more likely to try new things, even vegetables! if they have invested the time in preparing them.

    i read ms. flanagan's piece in slack jawed amazement and wondered if she was harboring some secret mental illness.
  3. I read Ms. Flanagan's article, and while I do not at all agree, she illuminates some of the resistance that I see in my own community. When you have a kid struggling in school or have difficulty meeting the rent or getting services, a garden can, at first, seem like a luxury that will offer little help. I'm for school gardens, we are building one at the school where my kids attend. But when people don't understand the resistance, I think that can be even more polarizing.

    Nice to see Booker T. Washington quoted, but I'm reminded that he stood in contrast to WEB Dubois on the issue of education for recently freed slaves. He believed that a good way out of slavery was manual labor and starting on lower rungs if you will. Not necessarily bad advice at all, unless you had aspirations to be a doctor, a lawyer, or say, WEB Dubois. Or unless that rhetoric was embraced by those who merely wanted to continue oppression and exploitation.

    There is no black and white in anything, school gardens included.
  4. This is lovely.

    I don't think training to become a doctor is at odds with Mr. Washington's words -- rather, there is much to be learned about society through the natural world. The most valuable and far-reaching lessons I learned in elementary school were on camping trips and play rehearsals in the park next door. Regular old public school, even. Those days are long gone for most kids -- 150 years ago, and today.
  5. Starting a garden is relatively easy, but making it a meaningful part of a curriculum and a successful part of a child's life is much more challenging that many proponents recognize. I favor and support garden based learning, but I do think care needs to be taken to avoid over-hyping its potential. At the root of Ms Flanagan's piece (wildly overstated and oddly angry though it was) is a concern that educators will be pressured into offering a program that they don't really understand that diverts time and resources from existing program mandates. A "Check the box" school garden will not achieve much. Educators and parents and the community all have to be involved to make a school garden work. To be frank, we should recognize that this is not the case everywhere.

    I'll also add that despite growing up on a farm, and having fresh eggs, fruits, and veggies readily available, my oldest son didn't really care about it much. But you should have seen how quickly his attitude changed once he got a vegetarian girlfriend!
  6. Hello,

    I returned earlier this month from an environmental conference in Kansas City, KS, where I was the keynote speaker as the great-granddaugher of Booker T. Washington. With all of the information I have, this was something I missed. Very inspiring. Thank you!

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