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Soil, Seeds, Salt: Education Brought Down to Earth

Madhu Prakash in the kitchen, photo by Doug Pibel

Madhu Prakash

Photo by Doug Pibel

Dandelion leaves flown thousands of miles  from Mexico now grace the organic section of our best local grocery stores. For this new addition, we can thank the demands of green consumers, newly educated about prevention of cancer and other diseases through organics and the natural gifts of Mother Nature.

I find myself smiling at the latest proof of the power of our greening greenbacks. I am also amused and saddened by the irony that the leaf generously and effortlessly yielded every hour for most months of the year by soil and worms in our own backyards must be carried north in airplanes guzzling barrels of oil and spewing millions of pounds of greenhouse gases.

How many young and old in our campuses and classrooms lack the simple knowledge possessed by illiterate peasants who are skilled in recognizing a dandelion leaf at a fleeting glance, and who have been taught by their unschooled mothers and grandmothers about the healing powers of its minerals and vitamins?

Humble handfuls of dandelion greens stand ready to teach us abundant lessons in humility; our backyards can educate us about healing our bodies and our earth. The dandelion needs no fossil fuels to perennially, generously feed and heal us. All it requires to do its good work is to be left alone.

Mexican farmers must surely wonder why a plant that literally grows itself  needs to be imported by northerners.

What education will it take 98 percent of us—stuck indoors in concrete classrooms and offices—to enjoy harvesting our own dandelions for free, instead of paying grocery stores to refrigerate and fly them all the way north from the southern fields of Mexican peasants?

Education in the Abstract

Every "Philosophy of Education" course I have taught has begun with all students sharing a brief set of reflections on their philosophy of education—“uncontaminated” by any of the readings I assign in my courses.

Those personal philosophies are invariably defined by abstraction, lacking any real texture or grounding in any particular place on earth. Education happens in indistinguishable classrooms and tech-labs everywhere, nowhere, any place, no place, cyberspace.

Listening to such ideas and ideals of education, I grope to learn where they belong. Which soil or place do these learners and teachers seek to learn or teach about? To care for? Where are the commons that cultivate and nourish their common sense? Such questions haunt my reading of their first philosophies of education. They float, as it were, out in cyberspace. Laptops beam onto printers. Each “writing” is in perfect print—zero trace of human hands—as clean and untouched as Wonder Bread packaged without the threat of being sullied by human hands or an infinitesimal hint of soil.

Not once has the word “soil” ever appeared one of my students' first statements. Yet, by the last week, soil becomes less alien stuff. They know well that the health of our soil and of our bodies is inextricably linked; that moving from Fast Food to Slow Food is as essential to their personal well being as it is for the healing of the damage each one of us is doing not only to our place on earth, but to other peoples' places as well.

Learning to Escape Soil

When I started life in the classroom in my native India, 98 percent of Indians worked the soil for their subsistence. The higher I climbed the education ladder, the more I ached for that 98 percent, doomed to subsistence, to slave and toil on soil.

As I delved deeper into my studies on Development Economics, I found the solution: the American Dream, where 98 percent can escape toil on soil because of the genius of agribusiness. Two percent feed the whole nation and generously stretch to include some of the starving billions of the world. Voila!

Lady Liberty held out to me the promise of an education to liberate the majority of people on earth—India’s peasants included—from subsistence. I began dreaming the American Dream: democracy, freedom, equality for all.

Five years later, with my newly minted Ph.D. in the Philosophy of Education in hand, I was ready to spread the gospel of Global Education for Development across the world. My education had enlightened me about the shame of subsistence.

Dismal statistics about the millions stuck to the soil dominated our studies of educational policy and theories for global development. How do we escape underdevelopment? This was the question directing and pushing our academic research of Education and Development for every nation on earth. Thanks to all the technological advances in travel, communication, and health care, a shrinking planet could offer each and every global citizen the gift of good education.

Philosophers of Soil

But one brief encounter with a philosopher and thinker we had never bothered to study in all the decades I had spent in classrooms suddenly, out of the blue, came to haunt and harass my philosophy of education, which I assumed to be engraved in stone. Suddenly, shockingly, it all collapsed like a flimsy castle built of cards.

Ivan Illich did not exist even as a tiny blip on the radar screens of all the educators shaping and directing my doctoral studies in education. But a few weeks after I had launched my professional career as a philosopher of education, a brief, unexpected, and unplanned exchange of ideas with Illich left me sitting disheveled, dumbstruck, and distressed amidst the wreckage of all my educated certainties about Education.

Everything I had built upon as the foundation for rational, scientific, statistically sound, and well-documented Education/Development Theory, Policy, and Analysis was revealed by Illich as professional hocus-pocus and modern myth-making, industrially manufactured and disseminated world-wide with the finesse of toothpaste advertisements, and fabricated to sell us all of the illusions defining the American Dream.

Illich provoked and pushed me to study in ways none of my professors ever had. More dangerous yet, he moved me to seriously study philosophers I had either never heard of or, even worse, revered as the greatest minds and spirits of contemporary times without knowing a single thing about their books or ideas.

Following Illich’s gaze, it was inevitable that I arrive at the doorstep of the American philosopher Wendell Berry—as unfamiliar to me as to anybody else I studied with. Equally inevitably, I soon discovered why the Gandhi we revered as a Mahatma (i.e. Superman) was never studied, his 90 volumes gathering dust in the best libraries. Berry and Gandhi were clearly not joining the Great March headed by Nehru, Truman, and others to the newest and shiniest Temples of Progress, Development, and Education.

Gandhi and Berry’s writings and reflections, joined to Illich’s, became for my philosophy of education the Non-violent Gang of Three—peacefully, without guns, humiliation, or insult slaying all my modern certainties. All three wrote about reality that ripped into shreds every theory and statistic I had ever studied including, of course, the “fact” that the American Dream could be dreamed and realized by every hard-working, sincere, and educated global citizen. Each of the three rendered unacceptable the view that all the illiterate billions of peasants on earth needed to be fully educated and liberated from their toil on soil.

Turning on its head this central certainty of education—that every highly credentialed graduate of the world should empower every peasant-farmer into also becoming an educated professional—these three thinkers invited us to gaze at the uneducated, the illiterate, and the drop-out in a whole new light: learning to humbly respect rather than arrogantly reject their traditional ways of working, learning, teaching, and living—exemplars of what it means to be well-rooted and grounded in soil.

“Look down at soil, humbly” Ivan Illich urges us. “Search below our feet because our generation has lost its grounding in both soil and virtue.”

Bringing us down to earth, down below expert ecologists’ abstractions about “planet Earth, global hunger, threats to life,” Illich invites us home: to the soil on which we stand, right beneath our feet; the same soil we put into our mouths with zero thought as disengaged “industrial eaters.”

Stanford, NYU, and other famous centers of education could not seduce Berry into prolonging his city residency. Before wasting too much time out-of-place, Berry found his way home to his native Kentucky, where his grandparents and other ancestors learned and taught how to tend, toil on, and love their soil.

Berry invites us all to find our way home: to live, teach, and learn the knowledge and skills necessary to deeply care for the physical and cultural soil of our own places. Every place on our diverse earth has its own special and distinctive soil whose particular and peculiar tending explains the fabulous diversity of every one of the earth’s millions of “local cultures.” The health of local soil has always depended on the shared stories people have told each other—keeping them alive with daily telling and neighborly talk—the living memory that is the “stuff” and “soil” of every local culture. Berry says:

If the local culture cannot preserve and improve the local soil, then, as both reason and history inform us, the local community will decay and perish … A human community, then, if it is to last long, must exert a sort of centripetal force, holding local soil and local memory in place.

Practically speaking, human society has no work more important than this.

Gandhi’s sovereignty was rooted in people taking back their soil, seeds, and salt. Soil had to be tended daily for growing food and taking care of shit. Shit work must be done by every person who shits; bread labor by everyone who eats. This inevitably nourishes the character of self-rule or autonomy. Soil constituted the center of Gandhi’s quest for sovereignty.

Nai Talim (new education) and Hind Swaraj (home rule)—Gandhi’s two shortest treatises on soil for subsistence—offer rich, succinct, juicy shortcuts through his 90 volumes that elaborate on every aspect of freedom and sovereignty. Instead of being good consumers or colonized subjects to empires and multinational corporations, Gandhi’s education cultivates the knowledge and skills necessary for sovereignty.

Digging In

How do we bring alive the ideas and ideals of Gandhi, Berry, Illich on a philosophy of education at the center of which is living soil? How do we explore these questions so that they are not abstract and opaque—something read and forgotten minutes after the end of examination week? These are the questions that perennially push and challenge my philosophy of education. They are far from easy to answer mechanically or bureaucratically. Stuck for hours in industrial classrooms, how do we speak of soil without rendering it yet another abstract idea. Stuck in the context of dirt-free zones, how do we celebrate dirt and enjoy the pleasures of mucking around in it?

Jesse, a student sick with Crohn’s disease, shared her dreams of starting a garden with her six friends and growing good, nourishing healing foods for herself and her little community. They knew next to nothing about growing food and, as typical student apartment dwellers, lacked land to start their experiments in learning. Jesse’s joyful enthusiasm and hopefulness, joined by that of her six “ignorant” friends, melted my reservations. In hours, they had dug up a piece of my suburban backyard.

Three years later, not only was Jesse robust and radiant again; this “Gang of Gardening 7” became the most compelling and contagious spokespeople for a philosophy of education that uses soil as the center for teaching and learning all of the school disciplines in an integrated, non-conventional manner.

I know of no professor of education on my campus who was as compelling as this group of undergraduates. Students could identify with them in age and pressures of schooling and, in addition, be moved by their capacity to take the formal Philosophy of Education curriculum and root it in soil.

Each time they candidly and humbly shared their story of starting from ignorance and learning from unending, multiple failures on their little plot of lawnscape-turned-foodscape, the resistance and cynicism of their classmates melted.

For thousands of young people bored by the irrelevance of what they are learning and moved by the desire to eat food that heals rather than sickens, the message to become the change they wish to see in the world has the awakening and compelling ring of truth and conviction.

Grounded Education

Simple questions bring my philosophy of education full circle. Questions like these invite us out of confinement into the vast, open outdoors, where millions of peasants are joined by our three philosophers of soil in enjoying the abundant gifts of the earth; no longer fearing toil-on-soil, we learn to teach and savor the gifts of bread labor, re-linking our heads, hearts, and hands (along with miles of intestines) to the soil on which we stand—grounded and well-rooted.

Among the most educated 2 percent of people on our planet, freed from all illusions of the superiority of my knowledge over that of unschooled peasants and farmers, I have also been liberated from the hubris of wanting to liberate the 98 percent who toil on the soil, empowering them with my classroom knowledge and skills. Instead, daily I seek to learn with them, by their side, enjoying the contagious wisdom they gain through toil in soil.

Stood on its head by Gandhi, Illich, and Berry, my philosophy of education is finally finding its feet on the ground, growing roots in real soil.


Madhu PrakashMadhu Suri Prakash wrote this article as part of Learn as You Go, the Fall 2009 issue of YES! Magazine. Madhu is a professor at Pennsylvania State University. Her books include Grassroots Postmodernism, Escaping Education, and the forthcoming No Chive Left Behind.

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Madhu Suri Prakash shares her mother’s kitchen secrets.

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