Lying Fallow
July 26th, 2010

After a 10-day break from blogging I am rested, but I’m also struggling to hit my literary stride again.  My mind has been busy with much reading, but I have found that being on the receiving end of mental stimulation is much easier than producing it.  I suppose this shouldn’t surprise me, but to some extent it does.  I didn’t expect my time off – filled with books, magazines, and conversation – to slow the spinning of my mental wheels as much as it did.  But as I struggle today to organize and articulate my thoughts I can only help but feel that I’ve been quite lazy over the past couple of weeks.  This feels like my first trip to the gym after two weeks on the couch.

As I’ve thought about this little phenomenon I remembered a chapter I read earlier this summer in Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers.  He discusses the process of lying fallow – leaving land unplanted between crops – and the ways in which it can augment or detract from agricultural yield depending on the crop.

Here in the United States we grow crops that can drain the soil of its nutrients if the same crop is planted on the same land year over year.  Eventually the soil will be so depleted that the yield will suffer and possibly fail altogether.  Farmers have long worked around this problem with crop rotation and fallow periods.  Letting a field lie fallow allows the soil’s nutrients to replenish, making the next season’s planting more productive.

Early Americans applied this practice more broadly than agriculture, though.  As the school year was designed there was a period of lying fallow built in for children.  Today we know this period as summer vacation.  Kids are allowed to rest their minds, relax, play, and take a break from all that thinking.  As is the case in farming, the idea behind this was that the rest would prime them for more efficient learning during the school year.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the Chinese also applied their agricultural practices to their beliefs about education.  What makes this parallel fascinating, though, is that because they grow rice their educational system looks very different from our own.  Rice, unlike wheat or corn, benefits from more planting.  The more batches of crop that can be planted each growing season, the better the yield.  Lying fallow would be detrimental to the productivity of the land.

In chapters eight and nine of Outliers Gladwell addresses the well known mathematical superiority of Asian students over Americans.  The details he identifies are compelling and I won’t attempt to recreate them here because I’m no Gladwell and if you haven’t already done so you should read the book yourself.  But the net conclusion is that the American agricultural premise doesn’t hold up when applied to education.  That is, our minds become better with use, not rest.  Rice farming is labor intensive on a scale that dumbfounds me.  As the old Chinese maxim goes, “No one who can rise before dawn three hundred sixty days a year fails to make his family rich.”  That attitude applied to education created Asian school years that range from 220 to 243 days long (as compared to 180 days in the U.S.).  And students who are in school up to 35% more days per year than Americans have lots of smarts to show for it.

So I sit here, feeling rested but not particularly sharp.  My grey matter is a bit mushier than normal today and my quick wits have slowed.  I am inspired by the idea of constant learning, but a bit overwhelmed at the same time.  You see, I liked my break.  And, mental laziness aside, I think it was good for me.  Because if I am completely enervated I’ll have nothing left to give to my little mental escapades here.  I doubt I’ll ever go on a three month hiatus from reading and thinking and learning.  But I still contend that a week here and there do more good than harm.  Besides, it’s July which means that it’s hot and humid and utterly miserable outside.  I liken a mental break to a big glass of ice water – delicious and refreshing, but also essential for survival.

10 Responses to “Lying Fallow”

  1. TheKitchenWitch Says:

    I do wonder why the American educational system still follows the agricultural calendar–those 3 months off were designed so children could help with the harvest on their family farms. How many kids farm today? It seems crazy. And yet, I think back on my lazy childhood summers with such fondness…it’s a bit of a pickle.

  2. Gale Says:

    I’m with you, Kitch. Summer vacation is a huge part of our culture. Yet it seems that it’s really limiting our kids’ education. Another thing that Gladwell mentions in Outliers is that the length of summer vacation hurts kids as well. After three months off many of them have forgotten a lot of material. I wonder how Americans would handle a series of shorter breaks; perhaps a month in the summer, a week in mid-fall, and an extra week for Spring break. That way kids would still get plenty of time off, but with less opportunity to lose academic ground.

  3. Eva @ Eva Evolving Says:

    Gale, if this is you feeling not particularly sharp, you are even more amazing than I suspected! What a lovely piece, especially for this time of year. I love to think about my farm upbringing and all the rich metaphors for life. And this one, of allowing land to lie fallow, is one of my favorite. But I had never heard about growing rice – and it’s fascinating.

    I do think times of rest are terribly important, whether the school system maintains a summer break or moves to shorter breaks throughout the year. And I like that breaks allow children to do things they simply don’t have time to try during school. Summer is about going to camp and taking swimming lessons and participating in community theater. All these great experiences that we learn from, even though they are not in the classroom.

  4. Gale Says:

    I agree, Eva. Summer vacation allows for different kinds of learning. Learning how to go away to summer camp and deal with homesickness. Learning how to enjoy hours spent curled up reading a fun book. Learning how to experience new aspects of life that are less regimented than life during the school year. These are all valuable life experiences. I truly believe that much of kids’ “growing up” is done in the summer when they have more independence and less supervision. So how do we strike the correct balance between academics and life? I don’t pretend to know.

  5. Anne Says:

    I’m a big fan of mental breaks…that’s one of the biggest things I miss about life as a grad student…I tend to be someone who thinks in bursts of mental energy, and am not great at consistent inspiration.

  6. Katybeth Says:

    In a Waldorf School the children have lots of break. There is also almost no homework in the early years. Parents are encouraged not to fill that time (especially in the early years) with television, computers, and outside activity but to let the learning from the day digest. Offering meaningful work at home with invitations to cook, clean, go on walks; along with an early bedtime. We found this advice really valuable not only for our son but also as parents.
    I love it when a manic wave hits but am also a fan of giving into a rainy day with popcorn and clearing my calendar.
    Enjoy how you weave a bit of history and learning into your posts! Learning at its best.

    Thanks!

  7. Gale Says:

    Katybeth – Thanks so much for this comment. I know exactly what you mean about enjoying the stark contrast between flurries of work and learning and idleness. I’ve been hearing more and more about Waldorf schools lately and I’m inspired to investigate them further. IEP is only 1.5 years old, so we aren’t quite into the throes of that selection process yet, but I’m excited to learn more about our options.

  8. Kate Says:

    Year round school would certainly help math, but what of creativity? To write and think requires consistency, but also some stretch of time when your thoughts can converge, when ideas can mellow and ripen. I am struggling with my sleep addled brain to remember the schedule for year round schools around here. I think they have three three week vacations so read through the year – winter, spring and summer. But, i have to admit, I still love summer.

  9. BigLittleWolf Says:

    Gale, there’s so much here. You may feel “rested but not particularly sharp,” but that’s not how your writing comes across by any means.

    I suspect we’d do well to lie fallow far more in this country – in many ways. Personally, I know that I’ve been unable to lie fallow in 19 years, with almost no exceptions. Even this summer, with 5 weeks “to myself,” I’ve filled every day of it with absolutely critical paperwork tasks, not to mention behind the scenes searching for projects, daily writing, and so on. Lying fallow isn’t an option for me, summer or otherwise, yet I can’t help but think that I’d be sharper (in all ways) with rest.

    When you apply your metaphor to us as individuals, to our culture, to the educational system for our kids, to our working life, to our American proclivity for seeking short term gain (now, now, now) rather than planning for the future – with our crops, our environment, our planet, our production, or our children – there’s no one interpretation.

    Yet I can’t help but think there are many ways to interpret the analogies – the personal, the cultural, the societal, and so on.

    Rest may mean less sharpened capabilities in the short run, while providing greater long run capacity. Perspective, and as Kate said, new wellsprings of creativity. More time off might encourage other aspects critical to human success – socializing and family.

    I am not a fan of much that we do here that presses us – and our children – to perform too fast, too constantly, too competitively. Lying fallow – truly lying fallow – would be something to benefit from in this country. But I fear it’s not part of our contemporary consciousness.

  10. Christine LaRocque Says:

    I layed fallow through two year-long maternity leaves, and I remember at the end feeling like a bump on a log. Out of touch, few original thoughts in my head, and uninspired. Resting our minds is important, but the balance is key. I tend to be a jump in with both feet kind of person and when I latch on to something I over do it. It breeds burn-out. A bit of this, a bit of that can really shape up for a good intellectual recipe I think.