Back to School

by Bill Duesing

First broadcast on WSHU/WSUF-FM, August 29, 1997

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 Living Off the Land, 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 skills.

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 The book advocates the chemical industry's outdated philosophy about fertilizers and pesticides, even after it has given several powerful examples of the failures and problems with these toxic substances.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.

Living Off the Land 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 damage.

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

This page and its contents are copyright © 1997 by WSHU-FM, Fairfield, CT, and by Bill Duesing.