Cultivating Variety

I recently happened across Michael Pollan’s The Botany of Desire, a PBS program that explores the interaction between humans and horticulture, particularly our power to transform plants to our purpose for better or for worse.

In a segment on the apple, that most Biblical of fruits, Pollan reflects on the innate human desire for sweetness. He notes, “Although they occur rarely in nature, sweet-tasting apples have become the ones most favored by humans, sometimes at the expense of varieties that aren’t as sweet.” Centuries ago, humans realized that apples grown from seed resulted in a great variety of largely bitter apples. While this served nature’s purpose, it did not serve our sweet-tooth. It was discovered, however, that sweet apples could be consistently produced by grafting a sweet-apple plant onto another plant. Voila! Human ingenuity produced what nature could not: an abundance of sweet apples.

Over time, however, unforeseen consequences emerged (again, how Biblical!). The mass cultivation of apples for a single trait resulted in fewer and fewer varieties of apples—just three came to dominate the marketplace. Furthermore, Pollan says, “as we go about selecting the tastiest apple and sending it around the world, we are also shrinking the species’ genetic diversity by grafting the same plant over and over, restricting its natural ability to keep adapting its defenses against the pests that prey upon it. That has allowed the apple’s natural insect and viral enemies to gain on it, requiring farmers to apply ever-greater amounts of pesticides to keep the predators at bay.”

It would seem, then, that in our desire to cultivate the red Delicious and the ubiquitous Macintosh, we lost as much as we gained—a diminished hardiness and drastically narrowed options for the pleasure of the human palette. Today, some apple growers are reversing this trend, intentionally cultivating scores of different varieties, each with its own distinct taste and purpose; and reviving cider making, the historic use for the many bitter apples that naturally occur.

What does Pollan’s discourse on the common apple have to do with schools? I leave it to you to draw your own lessons! It reminded me again (not coincidentally, perhaps) of the human pride embodied in the Fall. It also made me wonder: are we, with every good intention, cultivating students the same way we cultivated the sweet apple? Over time, have we defined a narrow set of highly valued traits, skills, and capabilities that constitute the “best” student? Certainly many families going though the college admissions process believe this to be the case, as do parents of 5-year-olds heading for kindergarten.

Episcopal schools have long valued and celebrated a “variety of gifts.” In the pressurized and commoditized world of high-powered education, we have a rare opportunity to truly honor the “biodiversity” of gifts and talents of our students.