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Back to School

Living on the Earth, August 29, 1997:  Back to School 

It's time to go back to school.  What will we learn today?

Based on one fifth-grade science text, covering a subject with which I'm
somewhat familiar, we'll be indoctrinated in the myth of progress and
technological advance by books which demonstrate ignorance.  Perhaps this is
inevitable with a large committee of authors and experts producing a module
that's designed to exactly fit a complex pattern of scope and sequence. 

This science text, given to Suzanne last year, is a great example of confusion
and disconnection in education.  It was published just three years ago in 1994.

Called <I>Living Off the Land,</I> it seemed at first like a great resource for
her school garden.  It included lessons on compost, and about growing food.
There are pictures of some children working in a community garden, and of others
cultivating larger fields.  The kids look as if they're having fun. There's no
question that lots of science can be learned by growing vegetables.  I know that
many fifth-grade students are fascinated by plants; they want to know which
weeds are edible, how to grow all kinds of food as well as other, very practical

However, a closer look at this book reveals some serious problems.  Lots of
plastic things (especially goggles) are needed to work with plants according to
this book.  There is almost no mention of eating the food that is grown.  The
book advocates the chemical industry's outdated philosophy about fertilizers and
pesticides, even after it has given several powerful examples of the failures
and problems with these toxic substances.  There is no evidence of an
understanding of organic agriculture, although there is good information about
beneficial insects.   

One photograph in the "Kids Did It" section exhibits a disturbing error, which
makes the increasing loss of real basic knowledge in our society painfully
evident.  It shows an urban community garden with several kids next to a row of
sickly bean plants.  However someone in the publisher's art department pasted
two small, red tomatoes on top of a bean plants' leaf. 

This is a science text.  Tomatoes and beans are two of our most common plant
foods, and yet no one in the publishing process knew or cared enough about
accuracy to remove the fake tomatoes, or for that matter, to take a picture of a
healthier urban garden in the first place.

<I>Living Off the Land</I> unquestioningly praises technologies like genetic
engineering and so-called "precision farming" even though it recounts the story
of DDT's similar great promises, ultimate ineffectiveness and environmental

Then it proposes a future in which we will be able to bypass the farm
altogether.  A two-page spread shows trees being ground up and conveyed into a
hopper which supplies three factories.  There tissue culture is used to produce
canned tomato juice, boxed orange juice and bagged flour from the wood chips.  

Although this seems a little more palatable than other proposals that use
garbage as the basic feedstock for high-tech food production, there are lots of
problems with this scenario.  Firstly, having enough trees for our current needs
is a real concern.  And, an orange tree, for example, produces fruit year after
year using sunlight, air, water and just a few nutrients from the soil.  Using
the tree just once for tissue culture is like killing the goose that laid the
golden eggs.
The illustration also completely ignores the fact that growing food isn't the
real problem today.  Distributing food now consumes about 80 percent of the
resources used in the food system.  Inequitable distribution is the real cause
of world hunger.

This fifth-grade text concludes with farming in space.  The full-page picture
shows enormous monocultures in a nearly sterile space station where simplified
rectangular growing modules dwarf tiny people. The text proposes that in 2060,
we'll be using genetic engineering in space to produce corn that will grow all
year - in summer and in winter.  It glorifies space farming and mentions nothing
about the costs or risks involved.

The discordance between the relevance and joy of gardening and the abstract
notions of expensive large-scale food production using tissue culture or in
space is startling.  

For a sustainable future, we may need to replace this kind of "pie-in-the-sky"
technological propaganda with "down-to-earth," authentic learning in the garden.

This is Bill Duesing, Living on the Earth

(C) 1997. Bill Duesing, Solar Farm Education, Box 135, Stevenson, CT 06491

Bill and Suzanne Duesing operate the Old Solar Farm (raising NOFA/CT certified
organic vegetables) and Solar Farm Education (working on urban agriculture
projects in New Haven, Bridgeport, Hartford and Norwalk, CT). Their collection
of essays  Living on the Earth: Eclectic Essays for a Sustainable and Joyful
Future is available from Bill Duesing, Box 135, Stevenson, CT 06491 for $14
postpaid.  These essays first appeared on WSHU, public radio from Fairfield, CT.
New essays are posted weekly at http://www.wshu.org/duesing and those since
November 1995 are available there.