A syllabus from the early 1900s in American schools included plant diseases, erosion, insects, surveying, engineering, glaciations, and geology, all to improve their farming. Touring dirt-poor rural America in the early 1900s, Clarence Hall Robison found that agriculture and floriculture were required courses for all students – 320 hours for boys – in addition to botany, zoology, physiology, physics and chemistry.
Robison describes a “typical Ohio village” in which gardening was introduced as a class and the children threw themselves into it. Nor were these students just bringing home a seed in a paper cup, as a few students might do today – in one class the 12 students could not use the standard textbook, for “it proved too easy, as the boys already knew most that it contained.” The boys’ plan that year – just the boys, mind you, so perhaps six students – was to experiment with varieties of corn in “288 hills.” Some boys read about how beehives were made and immediately went home and constructed some of their own, and one child described how he caught two wild swarms of bees and set them in a hive.
In some cases the students lobbied for these classes themselves. After a school heard a lecture on poultry, a group of sixth-graders, Robison said, was “in a class studying Shakespeare, taught as it happened by the instructor in agriculture, [when] one of the girls suddenly exclaimed, “Mr. Button, why can't we study poultry?” The idea was so popular that a class was immediately organized.”This wasn’t just in schools; some Midwestern advocates of modern farming practices, wanting to popularise them in rural areas, began after-school “corn clubs” that became the 4-H. The Boy Scouts, in one of their earliest manuals, lists a badge for agriculture. To receive it scouts had to “a practical knowledge of plowing, cultivating, drilling, hedging, and draining,” show “knowledge of Campbell's Soil Culture principle, and a knowledge of dry farming and of irrigation farming” and “[g]row at least an acre of corn which produces 25 per cent, better than the general average.”
In the 19th century, it was all the rage in Europe to turn school-yards into teaching arenas – “child-gardens” or in German, kinder-gartens. In Ireland, Horace Plunkett, who helped found many co-operatives across the Irish countryside, urged that “Children should be given elementary notions of science and a training in the faculty of observation through illustration … drawn from the physical surroundings of rural life.” In 1917, H.S. Sheridan wrote that school gardens teach children “to observe and to think, to use their hands, eyes and minds in conjunction. Concrete facts are presented, and the pupils are taught to think in realities and not in symbols.”
By learning how to grow their own food, children learn the basic skills needed to provide for themselves and their families in a crisis, and lets them live with fewer expenses and less financial stress. They learn that food does not magically show up on store shelves, that we depend on fragile things to stay alive. As a classroom activity, it is a perfect way to demonstrate how plants and animals depend on and fight each other. It teaches chemistry: some plants do better in boggy soil or chalky, can better tolerate warmth or chill. It teaches world history: the limestone under your feet is a coral reef hundreds of millions of years old, mountains made of the shells of a billion billion creatures.
It also teaches a patience needed in this age of texting and Snapchat. An entire generation grew up knowing the world mainly through a glowing rectangle -- the television, a computer or the text screen of a mobile phone. But life is not inside the screen, and neither is childhood.
Photo: Gardening class in the UK, courtesy of the Garden Museum.