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Cultivating Conversation: How Caitlin Flanagan has got us all thinking out loud


Students prepare soil and seeds for a science experiment

From all of us at Cornell Garden-Based Learning:

It has been two weeks since we read Caitlin Flanagan’s article Cultivating Failure: How school gardens are cheating our most vulnerable students published in the January/February issue of the Atlantic.  Over fourteen days have passed and we’re still processing it—through emails with long-distance colleagues, conversations around the office and the dinner table, reading thoughtful responses on blogs and through list servs.

No doubt the article is flawed and misinformed, leaving many understandably disappointed, both in Flanagan’s lack of good research, as well as Atlantic’s poor editorial judgment.  There is a significant body of research to support garden-based learning, some of which points to increased academic achievement, in addition to the myriad other benefits, from improved nutrition to enhanced environmental awareness.   As a research-based program devoted to sharing highlights of that work with others, to support their programs as they struggle to convince administrators of the value of their work, and to seek further funding for programs not typically well endowed, we make an effort to keep tabs on this exciting, emerging body of work.  You’ll find it on our website.

While Flanagan’s article left us somewhat bewildered, we are uplifted by the incredible response of children, youth and adult program partners nation-wide.  There has been an outcry, and an outpouring of response.  We believe where there is energy, there is opportunity.  Here is our hope:  that the constructive conversations continue well beyond the blink of this abrasive article.  Let’s use this momentum to build new partnerships, gather more research, and share the wonders of garden-based learning with audiences who are not yet familiar with the value.

We have collected some responses below.  Let us know if there are any you think we should add.  We are particularly interested in responses from students who have been involved in school garden programs.  What do they have to say to this article?

Wishing you vibrant garden experiences and looking forward to continued conversation,

Cornell Garden-Based Learning


School garden programs are vital to students’ education and health
Barbara Damrosch, The Washington Post

Life Lab Staff Letters to the Editor of The Atlantic
John Fisher, Life Lab

Responding to the School Garden Debate and The School Garden Debate: To Weep or Reap
Lisa Bennett, Center for Ecoliteracy

School Gardeners Strike Back
Corby Kummer, The Atlantic

Failure to Cultivate:  A response to Caitlin Flanagan on school gardens
Kurt Michael Friese, Civil Eats

A Farm Student’s Perspective on Education
Abundant Table Organic Farm Project

Rage Against the Vegetable Garden:  Caitlin Flanagan declares war against public school foodie propaganda, exposes evil Alice Waters plot
Andrew Leonard,

Alice Waters—Edible Schoolyard Takedown in the ‘Atlantic Monthly’:  Wrong, wrong, wrong
Ed Levine, Serious Eats

Response to Caitlin Flanagan in The Atlantic
Abby Jaramillo, Urban Sprouts

Thoughts on the Atlantic’s Attack on School Gardens
Tom Philpott, Grist

In Defense of School Gardens
Susan Harris, Garden Rant

Atlantic Gets it Wrong:  School gardens cultivate minds not failure
Jesse Kurtz-Nicholl, Center for a Livable Future

Related articles:
School Gardens Across the Nation, and a Resource List for Starting Your Own
Adriana Velez, Civil Eats

School Adds Weeding to Reading and Writing
Kim Severson, New York Times

The Garden, A Master Teacher
Kirsten Berhan, Life Lab


  1. John Fisher says:

    Thanks for gathering and posting responses to “Cultivating Failure”. These collective responses demonstrate how passionate we are about the value of garden-based learning. Caitlin’s article has galvanized school garden supporters across the nation and spurred a bit networking.

    At Life Lab, our staff has voiced their responses to the editors of The Atlantic and offered a more positive look at school gardens. See our replies to the editors of The Atlantic and check out “The Garden, A Master Teacher” an essay that we requested they publish.

    John Fisher, Life Lab Science Program / UCSC CASFS

  2. Hi John,

    We have added the Life Lab staff responses as well as Kirsten Berhan’s piece to our list above. Thanks for sharing with us!


  3. dani says:

    There’s been a volatile discussion of this continuing on my blog… I believe there was value to Ms. Flanagan’s article, despite it’s absurdly inflammatory nature and misplaced attack on the garden program. If there’s any way to set that aside and extract the point that I believe her final paragraph finally got to, it’s that the problem isn’t necessarily being solved with the gardens. No one, not even Flanagan disputes their value. I think she’s (not tactfully) trying to incite us to think about what we really want our kids to be getting out of their school system at the end of the day. I personally DO want my kids laughing at Shakespeare in all the right places….

  4. Kailyn says:

    As a Dietitian and someone who is passionate about school gardening being used for educational purposes, I feel Flanagan is way off track when referring to this style of learning as a “cultivating failure.” Her lengthy explanation for why this is so gets her no where as she goes off on tangents about why students should be writing an essay on “The Crucible” instead of learning how to write a recipe. It leads me to believe she does not see the whole picture about all the educational opportunities school gardening has to offer. This is not about labor or an excuse for socializing with peers, this about learning, both with already established academic areas such as math and science, and about exploring new areas of learning with nature and nutrition. She must be aware that there is not only a childhood obesity epidemic on our hands as a country, but also a serious lack of understanding how fruits and vegetables are grown, why they are important and where they come from. Food is something we need to survive. How can it be said that learning about food is not an important component to a child’s up bringing.

    Reading and learning about history are clearly important, but in no way is school gardening an approach to make children “semi-literate” as Flanagan phrases it, or an attempt to replace history class. If anything school gardening is a way to build on math and science skills, subjects already required and important to a child’s knowledge base, while teaching them important life and social skills that are lacking significantly in schools across America. If life and social skills are not in order, how do we expect these children to face the so-called “real world?” Having your “nose in a book” will only let a child grow so much. The process of learning in a child’s life needs balance. Developing social and life skills are equally, if not more important than reading “The Crucible.” I appreciate the comment written by “anonymous” regarding the same issue about how social and life skill development seems to have vanished from schools and how this is holding kids back from growing to their highest potential.

    Also, Flanagan’s approach about making the reader feel sorry for immigrants who may find it offensive and disheartening to see their children putting blood, sweat and tears into a garden, leaves me no sympathy. Though I do feel sympathy for new comers to America who are struggling to make ends meet, in no way shape or form should an educational approach to learning about fruits and vegetables growing from seed to plant, be viewed as a form of labor. School is a place for learning, not labor. Therefore, how can it be said that learning about fruits and vegetables, in a “do it yourself approach” is a form of labor? There is so much more to it than meeting a “social agenda” as Flanagan puts it. Though she does have a point when saying we are “mocking” our culture because we should already know where our food comes from and the value of healthy eating. Unfortunately, this is not the reality. It is the obligation of health providers and educators to make this change. Children today are surrounded by junk food. Whether it’s the school cafeteria, fast food restaurants, processed foods at home or the inviting television commercials encouraging sugary cereals and drinks, children are surrounded by poor environmental influences. If parents and children already had a full grasp on healthy eating, our country’s health crisis would not be as devastating as it is. Therefore, teaching this concept in schools, a place designed for learning, is crucial for these kid’s futures. And yes, math, science, history, reading and writing should still continue to be an important part of the school day. With that said though, kid’s will not be able to apply what they learned from reading “The Crucible” when they “grow up”, but they will be able to apply the healthy eating behaviors they learned in the outdoor classroom.


  1. […] The folks at Cornell Garden-Based Learning have been collecting responses from across the nation to Mrs. Flanagan’s article. See them here. […]

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