Jan Wong: how the rise of horticultural training at Toronto schools is bad for students

Jan Wong: how the rise of horticultural training at Toronto schools is bad for students

While we’re busy teaching our kids to tend school gardens, they’re failing provincial tests in reading, writing and math. The folly of the new enviro-propaganda

The Horticultural Revolution
(Illustration: Tavis Coburn)

This fall, hundreds of Toronto students are harvesting beets and zucchini from their school gardens. I say: nice photo op, bad idea. The argument for school gardens assumes that by grubbing in the dirt, kids will learn to love eating vegetables. They won’t think chickens hatch into this world as deep-fried nuggets. And they’ll develop a respect for nature.

Here’s the counter-argument: our students shouldn’t be out scrabbling in the hot sun when one in five can’t pass the Grade 10 literacy test administered by the provincially funded Education Quality and Accountability Office. And while Canadian students score high internationally in reading, mathematics and the sciences, Statistics Canada says our relative ranking is declining due to improved performance by other countries. In this era of global competition, we can’t afford to let other nations nip at our heels.

Half of Toronto’s population was born outside Canada, and it’s a safe bet many of them came here for a better life, including a good education for their offspring. A lot of immigrants originate from agrarian regions of countries such as India, Pakistan, China and the Philippines. The last thing these newcomers need is a morality crusade about carrots. Yet more than 200 of Toronto’s nearly 600 public schools now have gardens, and an army of well-meaning parents, volunteers, activists and advocacy organizations with a social agenda is successfully lobbying for more.

The schools I’ve visited tell me that growing your own food is worthy, wholesome and educational. That’s what Chairman Mao said when he shipped millions of Chinese youth to the countryside—and abandoned them there. I know whereof I speak. I moved to China in 1972, at the height of the Cultural Revolution. As a third-generation Canadian, I didn’t speak Chinese. I knew only what my profs at McGill University had taught me: that China was a revolutionary utopia.

At Beijing University, where I studied Mandarin and Chinese history, I enthusiastically embraced Maoism, including the precept that students must “reform” their wayward thinking through physical labour. It was, to put it delicately, horticultural hell. My classmates and I harvested wheat and hauled pig manure and dug ditches. At one point, we marched 20 kilometres to a farm, where we tilled the land for nearly a year. It being the silly ’70s, McGill gave me full credit toward my Asian history degree, and I graduated on schedule. Intensive farm work, however, vaporized my Chinese classmates’ one precious chance at an education. Today, they’re called China’s Lost Generation.

Mao’s agrarian fantasy and the Cultural Revolution sputtered to an end with the Great Helmsman’s death in 1976. China immediately relaunched its vaunted education system, with rigour. This past year, Shanghai beat the rest of the world in reading, math and science in standardized tests managed by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development.

So it’s alarmingly déjà vu to see the gardening campaign underway at so many Toronto schools, both public and private, even if it’s a far more touchy-feely version. Toronto Waldorf School, where tuition and fees exceed $16,000 a year in the higher grades, is an enthusiastic proponent of whole-earth education. It has a chicken coop, a few goats and a $150,000 organic greenhouse that recycles grey water. A farming and gardening program, centered on its three-acre teaching garden, is an integrated part of the curriculum from Grade 3 through Grade 9. Ninth graders spend three weeks living and working on organic farms, some as far away as Europe.

“We observe cosmic cycles, the moon cycles,” explains Eva Cabaca, the school’s gardening teacher. “We are healing land with special preparations. We are sensitive to the seasons so that everything works in a harmonious way.” When I ask if the students also learn to butcher the chickens and goats, she recoils. “No! No!” she says, shaking her head. Waldorf students brown bag lunch, so they rarely eat the produce, except at a single “harvest” dinner to which families are invited each fall.

Winchester Junior and Senior Public School, which serves Cabbagetown and St. James Town, has one of the city’s biggest school gardens, an 11,000-square-foot plot where portable classrooms once stood. That’s because a charitable eco-organization called Green Thumbs Growing Kids, which focuses its efforts on inner-city schools, has been working with Winchester for 10 years.

In the 2009–10 school year, the Grade 7s and 8s at Winchester built raised vegetable beds using clay blocks. The Grade 3 curriculum includes a section on plants and soils. Meanwhile, almost half of these third-graders failed to meet the provincial standard in 2010 in reading, writing and math. Nearly two thirds of the 380 students at Winchester speak a language other than English at home, and many of them are on a breakfast program. Clearly, these are among our most vulnerable students.

Even if you accept that gardening has some redeeming educational value, students aren’t getting the straight goods. On a sunny noon hour in the garden, I’m speaking to Sunday Harrison, the executive director of Green Thumbs, when a little girl runs over to report an imminent atrocity: a little boy is about to squish a snail. “We don’t kill it,” Harrison says firmly.

After the kids leave, I double-check exactly why we don’t kill snails. Because they’re good for the garden? “Actually not,” says Harrison. “They eat the leafy greens. But these kids grow up in high-rise buildings. It’s more important to teach them about habitat than pest management.” I sigh. After all those years blindly following Mao, I’m allergic to propaganda of any kind.

At least the cafeteria at Winchester uses the produce it grows, mainly because 150 students depend on the $3 lunch program. “I have to disguise Swiss chard before I throw it in the pasta,” says Charmyne Urquhart, the head chef. “The hand blender is my best friend.”

Here’s my problem: if knowing how to grow a potato is part of a good education, then we should also be teaching kids to fix leaky toilets. And that’s why I think Bendale Business and Technical Institute gets it right. Located in the heart of Scarborough, the high school offers a wide range of technical subjects, including carpentry, hairdressing, auto mechanics and, yes, plumbing. Bendale also teaches horticulture—serious horticulture, on its acre of gardens. Once the budding farmers harvest the produce, the business students sell it at an on-site market. Any surplus goes into the cafeteria kitchen, to be prepared by student chefs.

Bendale’s horticultural students get summer jobs at Sheridan Nurseries and Rouge Park. Landscaping companies hire them as soon as they graduate. Several students plan to attend Niagara Parks School of Horticulture. One freshly minted grad, 18-year-old Jeremy Sales, just started a degree program in horticulture at the University of Guelph. He told me he plans to be a farmer.

Bravo for Bendale. But it isn’t the average Toronto school—it’s a shining exception. For those of us who don’t intend to be farmers, let’s stop mucking around.