I remember sitting in the library one night early in my graduate school career. I was writing my first 20-page seminar paper on a topic with which I was wholly unfamiliar (Hellenistic painting). I had questions: about the topic, about the assignment itself, about the source material. Sadly, however, I was having a war with myself inside my own head. One part of me was urging the other part of me to get up, go to the professor, and ask questions. Seek clarity!! The more timid side of myself was too afraid. Afraid of being judged a fraud for being accepted to grad school at all; afraid of being yelled at or belittled; afraid to appear anything less than being in complete control. The more sensible part of myself was using logical arguments to encourage the timid me to get the help I needed. "That is what professors are there for! What's the worst that can happen? What has made you so afraid? You have expertise that the professor doesn't have, after all. Someday she might come to YOU to ask for help. Her job is to be there to help you in situations just like these and you are in graduate school to seek the mentorship of these professors. What the hell is WRONG WITH YOU?!!"
What the hell WAS wrong with me?
This internal argument was new, to tell you the truth. Throughout my life, through all previous years of schooling, the timid voice had been the only voice…at least the only voice I can now remember ever having. It controlled my environment for learning and kept me neatly on the straight-and-narrow path of good grades, high test scores, raising my hand, answering when called upon, and generally trying to remain unseen while getting by with the very minimum of effort. Schooling was a game of test-taking and regurgitation. Learning, if it happened at all, was simply a by-product. Even in my way-too-expensive college years, for which I have only just now paid off my student loans, I avoided any interaction with professors, took classes that I felt (sometimes wrongly) that I could easily pass, did the bare minimum, and graduated with a degree in Ancient Greek at the usual and expected pace of four years with exactly the number of credits I needed to emancipate myself. I did not travel or taking advantage of any extras. Extras would have required undue "adult" attention, and I was a professional at avoiding that. I only had the one voice inside my head at that time. "Stay invisible," it said, "and do only what is necessary to get a good grade. Then you can succeed and move on to the next phase of life."
Flash forward the eight years; I was 30, in a prestigious graduate program for archaeology. In those eight years, I lived in New York City and worked in a meaningful, well-ish paid career that required specialized skills (and I was really good at my job). I had, in that time, survived and moved on from profound personal disappointments and heartache. I had grown used to seeing myself as a competent adult, with thoughts and interests that were beginning to emerge from the deep recesses of my psyche. This is when the more sensible voice started to make itself heard. At first a whisper…but by the time I got to graduate school, it was insistent that my conditioned, timid voice listen up. "WHAT THE HELL is wrong with you? Why are you so AFRAID to be seen and heard?"
That night in the library, a cascade of understanding came down on me and, for the first time, I was able to answer that question for myself. I saw that my long years of schooling had conditioned me to feel this fear and anxiety of "teachers." I was able to see clearly this and other "habits" in the way I think about learning and realized that school had taught them all to me, either in an explicit fashion or implicitly in its organization and structure. The habits of schooling I've identified:
Once I realized that schooling had created these assumptions in my mind, and that all of them were deeply flawed (if not outright lies), the questioning voice in my mind became dominant and I walked, that night, to my professors office -- overriding my 30 years of school conditioning by self-force -- and got the help I needed on my seminar paper. From that day forward, I did not allow myself to be guided in graduate school by my conditioning, and thrived because of it, despite the fact that graduate school was still trying to fit me into the "school" mindset of control, testing, competition, and fear. But I was free. I saw it clearly for what it was. I was also able to set it aside and leave academia when it no longer suited me.
Do any of these thoughts that I've outlined above sound familiar? More importantly, are any of these "habits of schooling" controlling parts of your life?
There are so many people choosing to unschool their children these days. But I see a lot of parents struggling to hold this new path, or struggling to decide about whether or not homeschooling/unschooling is right for them. Much of the time, these frustrations and insecurities that parents struggle with are a result of their own schooling and the expectations that they carry forward. All kinds of insecurities rise to the surface: Is my child at grade level? Are they learning normally? Are they well-rounded enough? Will they get into their next phase of life (usually college)? Am I hampering their ability to succeed in life (read… will they be able to earn money)? What about socialization? How can I teach my child biology -- I majored in poetry? Will people think I'm weird or that my kids are weird? I don't want to be weird. How can I do this and maintain my family's standard of living? What if I fail? Aren't I going against what I've been told is normal and good in the world? Won't the adults (the state, older family members, respectable community members) judge me if I choose this path?
If any of these thoughts (and probably many more I haven't explicitly stated here) are bubbling up inside of you, you might want to consider trying a deschooling process on yourself. You might be unschooling your children, making this choice for you and your family, but if you spent time in school at all when you were younger, deschooling yourself is probably the best thing you can do. And frankly, if you have removed your kids from school or are thinking about it, the deschooling process is well underway! And, truthfully…? It will never be complete, not really. Or at least it has never stopped being necessary for me, and I've been working on it for the last 20 years of my life. I am still constantly catching myself in "school" self-talk. It is like a wound-turned-scar that is always there, making itself known when the weather changes or in times of stress.
If you aren't one of those people who have decided to unschool your kids…well, you might want to deschool yourself as well. These habits keep us from being our best selves, from achieving, from listening to our inner-voices, to hearing the validity in the experience of others, to connecting deeply with the natural world. Unlearning the habits you learned in school might be some of the most important work you do in your life.
I will give you some pointers about how to begin this process and resources to do some deeper exploration in my next blog post. Or two. This is an enormous topic. Book-worthy in fact. Hmmmmm……..
This is part 1 of a 4 part series. Part 2 can be found here. Part 3 and part 4 are forthcoming.
Image: Tom Woodward/Flickr Creative Commons
I've learned first hand about what activism burn out feels like. Last year I walked away from my long-time work in the Transition Movement, handing over the reigns to projects I started or created, and re-focused my energy on home and self-care. I don't think Transition work is all that very different than in other realms of activism, but burn-out seems to be the focus of a lot of discussions (here's one) in the Transition world right now. People are burning out from this work. It is exhausting to try to change the world by re-localizing and re-skilling your local community. It has also been personally challenging for me, an introvert, to go to endless meetings and help develop leadership in others, to start community initiatives and then step aside so that the vacuum of leadership will encourage others to step in. All the things that Transition excels at doing takes enormous amounts of focused energy on the part of many people. And last year, I had to cry uncle.
Stepping away from Transition work left a hole in my life. I had been working for many years at fleshing out my activism into all areas of my life, seeking coherence and balance in my work through "the four levels." That is, until burn-out left me exhausted, failing at seemingly simple tasks, joyless at things that used to give me pleasure, and grumpy at everyone. It sounds like depression, but it was simply burnout and at some point I knew it. The biggest problem of stepping back, however, was that I wrapped my identity up in my activism at each level, and giving anything up meant disassembling part of how I viewed myself.
Let's unpack that a bit. What are "the four levels" of activism?
People seek to "change the world" through activism on four different levels, no matter what the activism's focus: the personal, the family, the community, and the world-tribe. What I have noticed about activism is that like so much else in life, what level you are focusing on at the moment changes throughout life; it ebbs and flows in phases, and brings richness and bounty to all of the other work we are doing in the world. But often people are working on all levels at the same time, and while this helps life feel coherent and joyful, it can create burnout and stress.
New Story activism is no different from other types of activism in this respect. We know that the personal and small acts have power; we know equally that a world tribe, a new cultural story is growing and we want to be part of that as well. Part of the "new story" is re-localizing (in all its many facets) and the commons, so this work too is important. And we also are aware that relationship work (partnerships, marriage, sex) and what defines family is undergoing a fundamental shift. Then there are the children, if we have them. How do we prepare and include them in the new story? How do you prepare yourself? Yoga? Therapy? Reskilling? Planting a garden? Homesteading?
Can you pick out any one part of this cultural realignment that isn't important. How can you? They are all important! But doing this work on all the levels all the time is a very difficult task indeed.
Let's take a deeper look a what activism on "the four levels" looks like? I will focus on "new story" activism, but I think the levels apply to any sort of activism one might do.
Sometimes we feel called inward to work on our personal "stuff" -- work that requires most of our energy and time. It demands that we sit on the cushion or work with a therapist, see a life-coach, or work on our physical strength to attain goals like a marathon, climbing a mountain, or competing in an Ironman competition. We write our novel or children's book. We focus inward and work on our demons and joys. By the age of 50 or so, this bell rings loudly for many activists and can't be ignored. And this, all of it, is a type of activism. As I grow older, I find that this work becomes more insistent for my attention. I have placed self-care and internal work on a back burner for much of my life, but I no longer feel the leisure of time and so must now more fully attend to it.
Another type of New Story activism is focused on the level of home, children, partner, extended family and friends. This level is often about outsourcing less and simplifying (Radical Homemakers style). This type of activism can take the form of a permaculture project or green renovation for your home. It can be nursing an aging relative or a friend with cancer. It can be educating your children at home or nurturing an infant. It can be focused on home birth and attachment parenting, or growing and storing your own food, or building a root cellar and stocking it. Activism at this level can be about voluntary simplicity on almost any front, including re-skilling just about everything that needs to be done that has been outsourced to our consumer culture: medicine, food, energy, water, education, entertainment, making clothes, and wildcrafting. There is a LOT of work to be done at this level, although this type of activism is often undervalued because it has traditionally been in the hands (for the most part) of women. Often activists assume that this level of work will be done by others or outsourced to the State: the state will educate their children, they will buy food in grocery stores, go to big pharma for medicine. They will flush drinking water down the toilet because water, like oil, feels like it is in endless supply. If there was an emergency tomorrow and the stores ran out of food, they would starve because they haven't considered this level of work important enough to merit their focus. But it is the essentials of life…it was the entirety of life for most people before industrialization. But now -- in this age of Amazon, Whole Foods, and McMansions -- it is an afterthought to most -- at their peril.
The third level of activism is community work; anything that strengthens the ties of community. And this is where my work with the Transition Town movement fell, but this could be working in soup kitchens on the weekend, church volunteerism, advocacy for public art, or running for city council… anything that deepens the discourse in communities around making their collective lives better and stronger by working together. This activism is knowing and working with people directly in your community, the people you see every day when you walk down the street in town or wave to as you pass by their home in your car. It also includes work done to increase or preserve your local commons: public lands, public banking, water sources, green spaces, open space, land trusts, community farms, etc. This is the work of networking with and learning from others. And it is tough, demanding, thrilling, fulfilling, maddening, beautiful work. And it is critical if we are to survive the crises that sit at the edge our collective understanding of the world: economics, environmental, and resource depletion. Like dark clouds on the horizon, we know the storm is coming.
The fourth and final level encompasses large scale activism that collects and energizes the "soul family," the "world tribe," or the "blessed unrest." The cracks in our collective paradigm are growing wider, and more and more people are coming to understand that we are in a time of deep transition from one story to another. Cultivating that new story, seeding it with a deep respect for our planet and its inhabitants, is a pressing and foundational aspiration for activism. And it is critical, not only to ourselves, but for the children of my children -- the 7th Generation. I feel my friend Drew Dellinger's words from his poem Hieroglyphic Stairway ringing in my ear on a daily basis:
it’s 3:23 in the morning
and I’m awake
because my great great grandchildren
won’t let me sleep
my great great grandchildren
ask me in dreams
what did you do while the planet was plundered?
what did you do when the earth was unraveling?
surely you did something
when the seasons started failing?
as the mammals, reptiles, birds were all dying?
did you fill the streets with protest
when democracy was stolen?
what did you do
In my work as an activist I have found this; you can work on one level very effectively, two if you are a person of sound health and lots of energy. If you are working on three of these levels, none of them will be at the depth you are likely seeking, and it will lead to frustration, overwork, mistakes, and more stress than is reasonable to carry for any length of time. If you are working at all four levels, you are on the fast-track to burnout. Implosion might be a better word.
But what do you give up? Look at the descriptions above again. What should you leave behind? Where do the cuts come from? As I'm writing this post, I can't find one place, not one, where I want to cut corners and limit my work in the world. They are all critical, all deserving. All of them call me.
Last year, when I was still doing all of my activism, I was working on four levels much of the time. I've now pulled back to two (well, two and half.) I've had to do a ton of soul-searching about this, disentangling my self-identification with various levels of activism. Right at the time I was struggling with this burnout, Charles Eisenstein wrote a book about activism and action, about the non-dual way of looking at our work in the world. This book helped me begin to let go of my need for "big acts" and "visible projects" (one of ten tenets of the Transition model) and "control of outcomes." While this book doesn't break down activism into the levels I'm discussing here, it does insist on the trust we must place on allowing the movement to come to us, to bring our energy to small acts of deep, personal importance, and allow that even if logic tells us that we are not enough -- not giving enough, not being enough; not trying enough -- that it IS enough. It begs us to let go of "shoulds," self-force, and control and step fully into the New Story we are trying to bring about. So I did. And will.
I have also come to realize that these levels are not things we have to work on, every day, for our whole lives. The levels gain importance in stages of life, and beckon us differently depending on where we are. Like the "meta-goals" that I wrote up about our unschooling years…goals for an entire educational journey of the course of my children's time at home… the four levels of activism can be seen as "meta-goals" of a lifetime spent trying to create the world anew through work and activism. Things will always be left undone and unsaid, but seeing our activism as one of life-stages and phases, rather than as an endless pursuit of "things to be done" right now might add some breathing space to our work in the world. And in that space, we might hear what can be done, right now, to create beauty and joy for those here and those to come.
Image: Time Flies” Photo courtesy of h.koppdelaney of Flickr Creative Commons. (http://bit.ly/16TSfDb)
Once upon a time, when my kids were toddlers, I spent a lot of time thinking about our dreamed-of life as unschoolers. I did a lot of reading on unschooling theory, neuroscience, and attachment theory. I talked to everyone about this path who could offer me some insight, and generally tried to prepare for the responsibility of taking on my children's learning. In general… yeah, I was over-eager and uptight. And, I'll admit it, a little afraid. Afraid of bucking the system, afraid of having to de-school my own expectations, afraid of screwing up. So I did what any ex-academic does when confronted by a problem… I did even more research.
That is how I spent the first several years of motherhood, but as time wore on I got to witness the natural learning of my two littles unfolding before my eyes, and I calmed down a bit. They learned complicated things with ease. My oldest taught himself to read, via Shakespeare (!), at the age of six. My youngest drew dragons at age three and knew the names of rare animals (coati, vontsira, hirola) that she learned seemingly by osmosis. They are not gifted or unusual. This is the way of things, and it happens in unexpected ways, each kid unfolding into their unique self, right before your eyes. I let go of my year-by-year plans and ideas about proper modes of pedagogy, and generally relaxed into learning as a life exploration. I also began to turn my reading and thoughts to de-schooling myself more than anything, because clearly I was hanging on to ideas about grade-level, performance, social expectations of success, and educational force (i.e. compulsory education). I was growing increasingly uncomfortable with these part of myself and in our culture more generally.
While I had no particular dream-profession or specific vision for my children's life and no desire to pigeon-hole them into what they might become, I found that, while I wished to unschool, I was still very interested in living/exploring broad modalities of thinking in our family life as a way to encourage my two children to explore it more fully in theirs. I began my work as a Transition Town activist in our community, started an alternative currency, and generally began to open my mind up to a much more broad understanding of what encompasses a "successful adult" not only in our culture now, but in the changing world we live in -- and if I know anything it is that changes are coming.
When it came time for me to declare our homeschooling selves to the State of Pennsylvania when my son turned eight, they required a goal-setting document for the year to come. I submitted that, but also went one better… I compiled all of my broad dreams and ideals about raising children (over the course of their early lives, from childhood into their teen years and beyond) into a "meta-goals" document and submitted that as well… just for shits and giggles.
The district completely ignored it. (What did I expect them to do with "lifetime goals.")
Every year, for a few years, I continued to submit it along with my affidavit. And they continued to ignore it. Eventually I stopped submitting it, and it sat deep in my homeschooling folder for years, unopened.
Recently I opened the document again and read over it, preparing to send it to a new unschooling mom as a reference. I thought I might share it to my wider community as well. What would you add?
Our young people
The hardest thing about homeschooling for me is not what you would expect. It isn't that my kids won't listen or don't care some days; it isn't because we are judged by a myopic culture as being suspect (or at very least weirdos); it isn't the challenges of learning math or science or reading, and it certainly isn't "socialization" (don't even get me started on that last one.) No…none of these are really that big a deal frankly. However, for me, my main source of frustration within our unschooling journey is finding mentors and adults to guide and advocate for my burgeoning teens in their self-directed interests.
One by one, our homeschooling friends have given up, closed up shop, and sent their young family members to school. When my children were young, we had it good. Fourteen families in our little town were planning to unschool their children, and we were friends with them all. Fourteen! It seemed like a bonanza of adult resources and and endless opportunity for our littles to develop social skills and friendships. This lovely alternative route to education seemed bright and well-paved for us. We were all idealistic and could pepper our grown-up dinner conversations with child-led learning theories from John Taylor Gatto, Ivan Illich, and John Holt. We made bold plans to create an unschooling based eco-village. Life seemed dreamy, child-and planet-focused, and, most importantly, mutually supportive.
Flash forward ten years… all but three other families of the original fourteen have decided at some point to send their kids to school. Most of us aren't really even friends any more, because schooling schedules trump social time and we just don't have that much in common any more. No time for playdates or game night…homework wins every time. Needless to say, we aren't living in an idealistic bubble of an eco-village cum CSA cum unschooling co-op that we had all envisioned. Frankly, this attrition has been more than a little disheartening for every member of our family. Every time another family gives up, a little part of my unschooling idealism shrivels up and dies.
There appears to be two phases to this exodus from homeschooling to school, and even the most dire-hard, zealous, and articulate advocates are not immune. (Homeschooling is hard! Not all the time, but hard at times nonetheless.) The first phase comes at the point in a family's homeschooling life when reading and math start becoming challenging for the oldest child (or maybe a middle child), usually around the age eight or so. Life just gets too complicated, especially if the family is spaced out in ages. It is hard to cater to the capriciousness of a two year old and simultaneously meet the very different learning-needs of a six year old and ten year old. The parents become overwhelmed with all the differing developmental needs of their children, and it is just easier to realign the family to cultural and family pressure and send their kids to school. If there are reading challenges -- especially if there are reading challenges -- family pressure (and "school culture" pressure) to conform is relentless. Parents get worried that they aren't doing the best for their children, that they will get behind. This is where parents get mired in their own schooling expectations … about grade level, and conformity to outside norms and why de-schooling ourselves becomes an imperative if we are going to move through this phase successfully. Also having a solid homeschooling community and a supportive family really helps.
The second phase is when their older child enters the teen phase of learning, which is -- as far as I can tell -- universal. I call this phase "mentor seeking." This is when a young person, usually in the 11-13 year old range (aka the onset of puberty) begins to find focus in their understanding of the world, is seeking a higher purpose to learning, and is no longer interested in play-based activities. They actively wish to find mentors outside the family for their particular learning aspirations. I've tutored home schooled high school students for years, all of whom were "mentor seeking." (I also now have a full-fledge "mentor seeking" teen, and one in the green-room of teen-dom at the age of ten.) Homeschooling co-ops, camps, and gatherings that do not fulfill this need in their teen population risk becoming irrelevant to young people in this phase. I've seen it happen over and over again. Every homeschooling/unschooling parent I've talked to who has made it through this particular phase still homeschooling says that it is a profound challenge; the most serious challenge that they've encountered in fact. And this is why so many parents "give up" at this stage and just send their kids to school. Or, inversely, it is at least one of the reasons why teens ask for their parents to send them to school for high school.
But wait. It should be easy for a homeschooling parent to find mentors for their teens… to help them find employment or apprenticeships… right? Wrong. It should be easy, but it most certainly isn't. I'm finding out that identifying these potential mentors for my teen and soon-to-be-teen is much harder than I originally thought, and it isn't for a lack of skilled adults out there. No one, or almost no one, takes teens seriously. (But there are exceptions -- see here…and here…and here.)
Teens are interested in real work and depth-learning. They deeply desire to be held as an adult in their real-life community and learn from adult-oriented interactions and experiences, but are thwarted at almost every turn. There are very few volunteer or job opportunities for those under the age of sixteen (insurance and state regulations, you know…) Classes for artistic endeavors almost universally lump teens with younger children (or with each other) in "beginner classes" or "after-school activities" that cater to the "we-want-adult-supervision-or-something-bad-might-happen" crowd rather than to the unique needs of the individual teen seeking depth and immersion. Adult classes are often held during the work-day during the week (for retired and semi-retired learners), but many of these potential mentors don't have their child-abuse and other required clearances (again insurance and state regulations)… it is too costly and onerous a burden to obtain, so these classes are just closed off to anyone under eighteen. I've also been told, as an aside, that no one really wants to converse with teens in an adult class. They want it to just be adults so that the topics don't have to be censored. And since no one really takes the teens seriously and they don't want to have to deal with the responsibility, "state regulation" is an easy excuse to make to parents like me asking for more. Even community-college classes can't accommodate younger learners, and anyway…for unschoolers…that is school, not mentorship. It sort of misses the point, unless the teen's goal is academics and college.
It makes me furious with frustration, because this is emblematic of much larger and deeper issues in our fear-and-control based culture, a culture of conformity that has made it almost impossible to treat teens like learning adults-to-be.
We miss so very much by falling into this cultural trap. Having teens mixed with adults in a learning environment helps reinforce very positive ideas about life and learning for everyone, like a) learning is a life-long endeavor; b) older teens and adults model adult behavioral expectations -- professionalism, mature conversation, concentration, c) intergenerational friendships provide spice and richness to life, no matter what age, and d) teens have a lot to teach their elders. Learning isn't a uni-directional activity, although most adults seem to think this is a deep Truth (with a capital "T"). Teens want more than almost anything to learn from and with adults, and to deny them these opportunities in the early years of their life (while simultaneously demanding that they spend their whole day, every day with same-age or younger peers) hinders and demeans our young people profoundly. I would argue that it damages natural maturation and falsely reinforces this self-fulfilling cycle: Phase 1: adults treat teens like children, demand that they stay in their age-range-based activities. Phase 2: Teens then learn social behavior from other children their same age, act poorly, and then Phase 3: adults treat the teens like children, because "See, they can't do better!" Wash, rinse, repeat.
Of course, teens still have the confusing and often maddening mixture of hormonal changes and lack of frontal lobe development, but this is not an excuse for adults to hold teens to low expectations and infantilize them. It is actually a reason for teens to be held close by their wider adult community and given real work to do to make themselves and their communities better, to focus their idealism, energy, and unique gifts on something worthwhile, to them and to us. They then grow into these expectations and are held when they falter.
There are so many ways we could assist, as a culture, our "mentor-seeking" tweens and teens. Rights of passage, (other than our age-based "rights" like drinking age, driving, and voting) rooted in our communities, would go a long way toward ushering young people into this new stage of learning. Programs focusing on rites of passage are becoming more and more common, but are far from being a part of every local community. Adults might want to consider creating locally-based rites of passage groups or supporting others when they do.
Other ways to be of service as a mentor -- Offer your skills through alternative systems like timebanks, homeschooling co-ops, or advertise your availability through Meet-Up, Craigslist, or local FB groups. One of the most enriching experiences of my adult life was mentoring a group of eight teens in studying the ancient world during their high school years (I have an advanced degree in the topic). They were each interested in the subject, and each in their own way, sought mentorship in our relationship. Now, several years later, I have eight young adult friends who have taught ME a tremendous amount as well. There is no reason why you can't do the same with your professional skills, whether they be art, programming, architecture, cooking, gardening, green-energy, woodworking, blacksmithing, or any number of different topics that might interest young people.
We might also assist this kind of learning if we made all high-school non-compulsory and brought mentorships into the building during the day/night, every day and every night, for all teen and adults to learn with/from. Simultaneously, we should allow for internships and employment for young people willing to work and learn. I'm not envisioning child-labor here…but spending years of your life learning a skill, say graphic design, if you want to do industrial art as an adult is not time misspent. Spending time learning calculus might, however, be time misspent for this person. Allowing flexibility and self-determination in learning, and supporting it fully, would help our young people thrive. Teens could explore many paths to a successful adult life by trying on many hats in their teen years.
Such changes in the way we learn would, however, have to be met with changes in ourselves and in our cultural expectations of young people, such as the myth of the "well-rounded student" or the myth that "everyone must go to college" or the myth that "success is defined solely by making money." We must all seek to re-align our values by prioritizing and supporting in everyone (teen or adult) the values of life-long learning, curiosity, happiness, empathy, care of the earth, and strong friendships over our go-go-go, strive-strive-strive, money-money-money cultural norms. A hard task, for sure, but not an impossible one.