by Jacob Saborin
Our Open Doors Intern, Jacob Sabourin, has worked closely with struggling students at Aquinas College here in Grand Rapids. He is a Political Science major with a keen interest in the politics of power. At Open Doors, he offers a class called Powerful Possibilities. Here he continues his critical analysis of power.
In Part I, Jacob explored how teens can reclaim their power. It begins with some critical thinking about what power is, and how they can access it. Here he explores how critical thinking can be integrated into every part of education — connected in the same way the real world (outside of the classroom) is connected.
Usually we can speak the word from an early age, and we know what it means. It’s a strawberry. It’s red. It has seeds. We can taste that it’s sweet and tart. The green parts are less sweet. We learn these things on our own, before schooling even begins.
Then we enter school. We learn to spell. S-T-R-A-W-B-E-R-R-Y. We write it ad nauseum to practice for a spelling test. Second grade, probably. We copy the definition out of the dictionary. A fruit, hollow on the inside. Things we pretty much knew already from eating a fruit salad at home a couple times a week. But we sure got that spelling thing down, anyway.
Sixth grade we start talking about various countries’ imports and exports. We might imagine crates of strawberries stacked between rows of pineapples and melons on a boat sailing from Brazil (which we recently learned is in South America) to the U.S.A., relayed onto a truck, and driven to the supermarket. We wrote down and presented those lists of imports and exports on a poster and read them to the class for our presentation. Strawberries were grouped in the category “fruits and vegetables.”
In high school we probably took a class on economics that said all prices are determined by supply and demand in our advanced capitalistic free market system. More people demand strawberries, the supply goes down, and the price goes up. Or vice versa.
And that’s what we learn in school about strawberries. What else is there to learn?
First off, the connections and relationship between the linguistic roots of strawberries (explored cursorily in second grade), the geography (hardly glanced over in sixth grade), and the economics (oversimplified and propagandized in eleventh grade) were never explored. The social and political aspects of strawberry-related agriculture were never mentioned. In essence, through schooling we never understand how a strawberry actually affects our lives.
What if we learned about strawberries in a different way?
If I were to visit a strawberry farm on Michigan’s western shore, I could ask the farmer why his strawberries grow there because I read on my plastic supermarket package of berries that they were from Mexico and usually the fruit says it comes from a Latin American country. A conversation like this might ensue:
Farmer: “Well, the soil’s pretty decent in the southern part of Michigan because three hundred years ago the land was almost entirely covered in oak trees, which died or were bulldozed and left good nutrients in the ground for plants to grow.”
Me: “So good soil makes good strawberries?”
Farmer: “It helps. It’s hard to grow on poor soils like in the Upper Peninsula where the pine trees leave the ground all acidic. But the biggest reason there’s so much fruit grown in western Michigan is because Lake Michigan keeps the growing season longer than in other places.”
Me: “How does the lake keep the growing season longer?”
Farmer: “The growing season is between the last frost of spring and the first frost of autumn. Water has a very high specific heat, which means it takes a long time to heat up and a long time to cool. Much longer than land. So in autumn when the ground in most places starts to get cold, the lake is still warm, and it keeps the plants from frosting over and ruining the fruit. Plus, the lake keeps the temperatures predictable in spring, so we know just when to plant the seeds to make sure they won’t frost after we plant them. The lake being so warm in winter is also the reason we have lake-effect snow.”
Me: “Oh, that’s cool. A couple years ago I heard there was a problem with fruit growing or something. All the fruit was expensive and I couldn’t find any local fruit.”
Farmer: “Yes, the prices went up because massive amounts of our crops died because there was a sudden frost weeks after we planted in the spring.
Farmer: “I lost all my money and had to get a loan and go into enormous amounts of debt, and now I can’t afford to eat anything but rice, beans, and the food I grow myself. Weather anomalies like that are getting more common because of global climate change caused by the unchecked industrial development of the human race, and it could cause a lot more disasters, food shortages, famines, and economic collapses. Also all of those things tend to incite war.”
Me: “So what you’re saying is, you think we’re all going to lose our jobs and starve if we continue to destroy the planet?”
Farmer: “Well, let’s not look at it in such a grim light. That’s not going to happen to all of us.”
It may seem like I’m drifting off-topic at this point in the conversation. But I’m not. This imaginary conversation just covered geomorphology, geography, climatology and weather, politics, sociology, and economics. And the entire conversation was, at its core, about strawberries. And the entire conversation related to the everyday lives of the people involved: the news stories we hear on the radio or television, our financial struggles, the food we eat, the weather we trudge through, and our seemingly mundane conversations at home.
The youth at Open Doors often want to think critically, on an advanced level, so that someday they can have these sorts of conversations and not feel totally unaware. If teens want to access their power, they can start by understanding how connected the world is, and how their choices — in what they purchase and how they treat the environment, for instance — can have a powerful effect on the world.
This post is part of our “Your Life – Your Learning!” series, designed to help the Grand Rapids community rethink teen learning, and brought to you with support from the Wege Foundation.