Sunday, January 17, 2010

Thank You, Caitlin Flanagan

For anyone who is passionate about education, I've got to recommend Caitlin Flanagan's piece, Cultivating Failure, from this month's Atlantic.

It's about movements in California to promote in-school gardening time at the expense of more traditional but less 'sexy' subjects like, well, reading, writing, and 'rithmetic.

You can probably imagine where she's going with it -- people just love to foist this type of stuff on other peoples' kids. Flanagan doesn't write the piece with scorn or disdain for gardening programs -- her main point isn't about whether they should exist (they should, she notes) but whether they should come at the expense of the subjects that would better prepare the kids who need it most for a shot at a four-year college degree and a cushier existence than the one they knew growing up.

Well, I can't do the article justice in that one-paragraph summary, but the link is there if you want to check it out.

The part where I laughed out loud the hardest was her debunking of someone's statement that, "There's only 7-11 in the 'hood." That blurky statement, which was made by someone who undoubtedly had the best of intentions but a total ignorance of what fruits or vegetables were accessible to certain people, is emblematic of so many well-to-do folks that are parodied so wonderfully on the site Stuff White People Like.

I put her whole response to this statement in italics below. The reason I got such a kick out of it has a lot to do with my own political evolution, which has come concomitantly with my own broadening of life experiences that tends to happen when people leave the nest, get a job, rent an apartment, and start to separate fact from fiction as they make life decisions of their own. Statements like that, which I might have swallowed up wholesale ten years ago, now don't make it through my BS filter, which I think gets a little less porous by the day. Lowell is a PERFECT example of this, as it contains every possible sliver of the socioeconomic spectrum, all of whom have plentiful access to a wide range of nutritional options. If you live in Lowell, you already knew that, but if you don't, I have a feeling you'll relate to what Flanagan writes below:

As it happens, I live fewer than 20 miles from the most famous American hood, Compton, and on a recent Wednesday morning I drove over there to do a little grocery shopping. The Ralphs was vast, well-lit, bountifully stocked, and possessed of a huge and well-tended produce section. Using my Ralphs card, I bought four ears of corn for a dollar, green grapes and nectarines (both grown in the state, both 49 cents a pound), a pound of fresh tortillas for $1.69, and a half gallon of low-fat milk for $2.19. The staff, California friendly, outnumbered the customers, and the place had the dreamy, lost-in-time feeling that empty American supermarkets often have.

But across Compton Boulevard, it was a different story. Anyone who says that Americans have lost the desire and ability to cook fresh produce has never been to the Superior Super Warehouse in Compton. The produce section—packed with large families, most of them Hispanic—was like a dreamscape of strange and wonderful offerings: tomatillos, giant mangoes, cactus leaves, bunches of beets with their leaves on, chayote squash, red yams, yucca root. An entire string section of chiles: serrano, Anaheim, green, red, yellow. All of it was dirt cheap, as were the bulk beans and rice. Small children stood beside shopping carts with the complacent, slightly dazed look of kids whose mothers are taking care of business.

What we see at Superior Super Warehouse is an example of capitalism doing what it does best: locating a market need (in this case, poor people living in an American inner city who desire a wide variety of fruits and vegetables and who are willing to devote their time and money to acquiring them) and filling it.


kad barma said...

Battambang Market RULES!

C R Krieger said...

I see Kad's point, but I remember going to Ralph's, not in Compton, but in Lakewood and Long Beach.  So, Ralph's has been around for a LONG time.  My take-away is that diversity is not just good, it is great.

Regards  —  Cliff

The New Englander said...

Yes, diversity is great. Because it means anyone can go to Battambang, or any other ethnic supermarket, and find great food at a cheap price. That alone is a huge advantage of living in Lowell as opposed to a more vanilla suburb.

And going inside stores like that makes for an important lesson in Consumer Economics: You can easily feed an entire family of six with food purchased there for an entire day for less than $20. Now, let's compare that to the McDonald's that some people imply poor people in America are "forced" to eat -- a SINGLE meal for a family of six at Mickey D's could easily be $40 or more. Now, I'm no mathematician or economist, but when you multiply that by three, and then by seven days a week, and so on, it becomes a heckuva lot more expensive than Battambang.

I know the statement that Flanagan countered came from a so-called "limousine liberal" but of course "country club conservatives" are just as loathsome if they are purporting to explain "the way it is" but have never actually taken the time to see things firsthand for themselves.

I think the least anyone can do is try to gently explain to whoever makes bold statements on behalf of people "in the hood" is that he or she might want to get some firsthand knowledge before making sweeping, bold pronouncements such as the one that Flanagan deconstructs.

delagar said...

Well, here's the problem with Flanagan's essay, though: her thesis is that teaching to the test is education. Is it? More specifically, does she present one bit of evidence in her essay to support her claim that teaching to the test is education?

Having just read the essay, I'll contend she does not.

Rather, she commits every logical fallacy in the book, including (in the passage you cite) the fallacy of hasty generalization. (Look, I found a store that sells fresh produce in a poor neighborhood! Therefore, obviously poor folk in America have no trouble finding fresh produce to buy!)

Also, did you notice how many hours a week these children spend gardening? 1.5 hours a week. Really. Seriously. Do you think that's the high crime and waste of educational resources she claims it is? Or do you think, just possibly, she hates anything a liberal proposes? (Ad hominem, for the record, as when she goes off on the rant about ACORN-loving, et cetera.)

Read with a more critical eye next time, if you'd like my advice.