by Marie Goodwin
My attachment to books is legendary. My grandmother used to relate how I would arrive at her house with a bag full of books and curl up in a corner chair at her house for much of the duration of every visit, absorbed in words. My parents tell similar stories of my love of books, but also recall how I seemingly abandoned my love of all things literary for horses (and then eventually boys). What they did not know was that I brought books with me on my trail rides, and would always find a cool shade tree under which I would read, allowing my horse to roam and graze nearby.
This love of reading was useful in school, where I was encouraged in this pursuit above all other types of learning. It became habitual to seek the answers to all of my questions from books – the internet was not yet invented – and this too was encouraged by both my parents and teachers. It never occurred to me that doing was the best way to learn something. Reading about a problem was sufficient, and provided the two essential pillars of my young life: getting good grades and adult approval. Of course I was learning by doing all the time: how to care for my horses (and a whole host of other animals that I raised at one time or another); how to manage a garden; how to drive a car; how to care for younger siblings; how to work low-paying jobs in the adult world. I did not, however, consider this to be real learning, important learning, profound learning. Neither did the adults around me, seemingly. I was encouraged to think about college as the single most important preparation for adulthood, where more book learning would prepare me for a career, as yet unspecified.
College offered more options for Real Work, but at first I did not take advantage of them. I chose a strictly literary major, ancient Greek. Ancient Greek is a dead language. It can only be read and dissected through learning the nuance of its complicated yet beautiful grammatical structure. Some advanced students learn to write it. I spent much of my college life holed up at my kitchen table translating Plato, Euripides, Aeschylus, or Sappho. People around me went on years abroad to various European cities, held semester or summer internships, learned to play or perfect instruments, went to New York City for art exhibitions. I translated, sure that my pursuit of literature was a true path to knowledge. My friends were merely entertaining themselves with diversions.
The limits of my philological talents were readily apparent to both me and to my advisor, an archaeologist whose passion was fieldwork. He suggested that perhaps my passion for the subject might be best channeled into archaeological pursuits, not literary ones. And then he did something that changed my life, although it did not seem earth shattering at the time. He contacted a colleague of his and had me apply to a program at the American School of Classical Studies in Athens, a program usually reserved for graduate students. I suspect his influence was the single factor that convinced them to accept me.
At the end of my junior year, for the first time in my life, I boarded a plane and flew to Europe to experience a place that I had read about and to work in a field that I knew only from books. That summer program at the American School revealed a world to me for which I thought I was prepared, but in actuality I had not expected or understood: the smell of Greece, the landscape; the enormity of the Parthenon coupled with the obscurity of the ruins around Sparta; the grace of ancient temples and houses alike; the sight of paint still adhering to buried tombs of Macedonian kings, their portraits as life-like as any portrait created by Renaissance masters; intricate Hellenistic and Roman mosaics, still in situ, still gracing the floors of time-obliterated houses, evidence for the grace and sophistication of a long dead culture.
We traveled the country for nine weeks, and every day was a new site, a new insight. I was overwhelmed by the experience and returned to the states exhausted. When I resumed my studies that next fall, I found the focus of my work changed. My literary pursuits were now a means to answer questions – a million questions – that I had formed in Greece. All of the reading I did now was informed by this sense of place, of having been there. For the first time in my life, at the age of 21, I realized that doing is the primary way to learn, and that only reading about a place, a thing, has substantial limits.
My senior year was rigorous, in particular because I was taking advanced Greek from a legend. He was eighty years old, walked with a cane, chain-smoked, and could free-translate the most difficult passages of Thucydides with ease. To say this terrified me is an understatement. I was his only student that year, and every week my philological weaknesses were laid bare for both of us to dissect. After a particularly hard session with him, he asked me what I thought of Greece, and when I told him of my intentions to return the next summer, he asked me why I would bother. He, in his almost 65 years of studying the subject, had never been and never wanted to go. He preferred to know Greece from the language. The modern country of Greece would inevitably disappoint him, he argued. I sat and listened to him, stunned silent.
I began studying archaeology more seriously during my senior year and prepared to return the next summer to work in Athens. When my work in Athens began, my “real work” realization the year before was underscored by the vast difference between reading about archaeological theory (imagining it as glamorous and intellectually stimulating at every turn) and the day-to-day reality of archaeological fieldwork. Archaeology is dirty, hot, hard physical labor, rarely glamorous, intellectually stimulating only in short bursts.
This lesson illustrated again how reading can and should inform our interests, but that it is only in doing that we learn a thing completely in all its nuanced complexity. It is in doing that we integrate our mind and our body and allow them to work together, the mind informing the body and the body’s experience informing the mind. The idea of learning by doing is a simple one, and yet it took me twenty-one years to fully recognize its importance in my own intellectual growth. It is, however, one of the foundations of learning that I wish my still very young children to view as vital; that doing is the best way to learn. Books can provide a foundation for learning (and surely books provide rich entertainment), but doing a thing is essential. And fun. And contributes to our communities and to our lives.
Years later, I was told that my crusty, old professor had passed away, alone, in his office – probably reading Greek. I wondered if he ever regretted his decision not to visit Greece, the history of which he had taught for the last fifty years of his life. He was a marvelous teacher, his mastery of the language complete. I had to wonder, however, how he could fully understand the place when he had never known the smell of oregano and thyme growing wild on the hills around Athens, or the sound of the cicadas in full summer, a sound that surely Plato considered a backdrop to his life. Was he able to imagine the sun setting in Athens, the rusty shadows slowly enveloping the enormity of the Parthenon? I could not imagine never knowing Greece in this way…or learning entirely from books ever again. My transformation was complete.
This essay was first published in Open Connections Magazine, April 2008.
I met my muse in a startling manner seven years ago this fall. I was taking a wheel-thrown pottery course, and (like so many do) I found that it looked easier to do than it actually was. My hands did not obey my brain’s orders when encased in slippery clay and slurry. I had a bad habit of pressing too hard with my right hand. For the life of me, I could not get the feel of the centered clay, so any pot that I pulled from my slightly-off-kilter hump would look lopsided and, well, just plain bad. I really wanted to learn this skill, however, so I took two separate “beginners” classes over a period of about six months. As the months progressed, I began to get frustrated and considered abandoning my hopes of becoming a potter.
My muse came to me in a dream, in which I saw my hands on a hump of clay that was spinning on the wheel. My clumsy attempts to center were gone. Instead I carefully and effortlessly felt the clay as it centered, and then I pulled a pot carefully but with skill. I could feel every motion – the cold clay, the smooth centered wet mound in my hands spinning, the rubbing of the wheel on the edges of my hands, how my fingers were pressing delicately to thin out the sides – everything finally made sense. I woke the next morning, eager for my class later that day, sure that I could now center my pots correctly. And I was right. I could, from that day forward, center my pots with ease, although admittedly, there have been many other potting challenges since then.
How many times have you been able to solve a problem from a vivid dream as I was, or thought of the perfect response to a question in a conversation – two days later? How many of you have had “ah-ha” moments about a home renovation dilemma while cooking dinner, or the solution to a simmering problem after not thinking about it for a week or a month?
This is your creative mind at work, but it is only one step in the entirety of the creative process. Granted, it is the step that gets the most attention in people’s imaginations or storytelling (think Newton’s apple), but it is only the last step in a three stage mental process that defines the core of what we know about creative thinking.
The Three Steps of a Creating Brain (1)
The first step is data gathering. When presented with a problem, humans tend to first search out information about the issue. We read books, magazines, journals, and Internet articles. We interview people who know something about the issue. We do a lot of talking to others and ourselves about the problem at hand. We move three dimensional objects in space, or draw out the problem in an effort to visualize its solution. This part of the creative process requires a specialized skill-set: being open to conflicting information, the ability to take in and process information from varied sources, as well as the ability to listen without judgment. Young people are naturally good at these skills and readily apply them to all problem solving experiences. Adults, however, seem to unlearn these creative skills as they mature, tending to approach varied problems from reiterative perspectives as well as self-censoring themselves based upon past experiences or the judgments of others.
An important aspect of our ability to be fully creative is whether we have enough “background information” to make sense of the task at hand. Do we understand the language well enough to know exactly what the problemto-be-solved is? Do we have skill-sets that allow us to tackle some parts of the problem? Have we had experiences in our lives that inform us about parts of the problem? If we have too little experience or understanding, our mind cannot be creative to its full potential. If we have too much information, the problem is simply solved and boring. There is a space of opportunity, where our skills match the problem at hand, and that paring of ability and challenge allows for a state of mind called “flow” by neuroscientists.(2) Flow is that time when one is completely absorbed by a problem, and time seems to stand still or move slowly.
Why is it that young people are so good at gathering information and processing it in novel ways? Why is it that they enter “flow” with such ease? Preadolescents have a different brain wave constitution than adults. Their brain activity is rich in theta waves.(3) Theta waves are rare in adults but occur frequently in that in-between state when we are just falling asleep, that jumble of images, memories, and ideas (what my son calls “the twitching time.”) Puberty changes the brain structure dramatically,(4) and the theta waves are no longer dominant. So the brains of young people are naturally filled with this creative jumble of images, ideas, and connections that are so rich during the adult theta wave pre-sleep state, allowing them to make associations that are unconventional and novel.
The second process of a creative mind at work is the digestion of the information. Only a small part of this process is done consciously. We are unconsciously working on problems most of the time, our brain searching neural pathways and networks for connections as we eat, sleep, talk, play, and generally live our day-to-day lives. Even if your conscious mind is really struggling with the issue at hand, your brain is at work on more subtle levels, looking for creative connections. Your unconscious mind uses memories as well as emotions to try and find new and unlikely associations. Quite often, if the problem is particularly vexing, unconscious mental space is needed to allow the brain to do “its job.” It is helpful to engage in unrelated activities, such as thinking of other things, or slipping away from problem solving mode by meditating, sleeping, exercising, playing with your children…doing anything that keeps your mind relaxed and at peace.
The third process is when the insight comes to you.(5) There can be big “ah-ha” moments, or slow, processinfused “ah-ha” moments (i.e. those that come to you as you work through complex problems one step at a time, so there isn’t one big solution, but several small ones that work in conjunction.) There are few feelings as good as when you have creatively solved a problem that is vexing to you or you have found your creative voice in an artistic manner. For me, it is one of life’s great joys.
When asked to define creativity, most people focus on artistic achievement. That is only one specific aspect of the overall view that neuroscientists promote as creativity. For them, true creativity is defined by using a new approach to a problem, whether that problem is novel or common. Howard Gardner, the author of the seminal book on multiple intelligences entitled Frames of Mind, (6) suggests that everyone is creative in their own way in areas of interest to them. Creativity, however, needs to be used and encouraged early in life, thus building confidence over time in one’s own creative abilities. Young people, as well as adults, need opportunities to learn to listen to their creative thoughts and instincts in order to develop flexible thinking skills – skills that are important to thriving and contributing to our world.
Creative thinkers tend to exhibit many of the following traits: they feel free to challenge all assumptions about a problem, including core beliefs (morality, “givens,” scientific or social “laws,” etc.) Most creative thinkers have a fine-tuned sense of intuition and they listen to it. Everyone makes mistakes, but creative thinkers take pleasure from their mistakes, seeing them as opportunities to learn and fine-tune their problem-solving skills. Creativity requires working within community, and creative people know how to listen to others’ ideas without dismissing any as impossible or implausible. When you find people having fun with their work, you will often find creativity at its finest. It is easier to be creative when your whole being enjoys the work at hand. And finally, creative people tend to have a supportive environment around them; positive people, whom they trust and respect, necessary supplies, and aesthetically pleasing habitats are examples of this.
So often, however, we stifle creative thinking by employing “creativity killers.” These come in many packages. It is hard to be creative when you are watched and hovered over. Another hindrance to creativity is the feeling that you are being evaluated and will ultimately fail. Similarly, feeling like you will fail, and in failing, that you will be judged (or lose face) removes all joy from an activity and focuses the participant to merely “get it over with” rather than spend time creating. Creativity is also stifled by being told how you “must” do something rather than being able to explore things on your own. Feeling a pressure to perform, whether that pressure is internal or external, also hinders creative thinking. Finally, time limits that interfere with “flow” take away our ability to work through problems thoroughly and at our own pace. Encouraging the positive traits of creative thinking while reducing the “creativity killers” in your life and in the life of your child can maximize the creative process for your family.
And now, since I do not have a grand finale to this article readily available in my mind, I will move on to another unrelated task and hope that one comes to me before I have to submit this article to editing. I have gathered all of my information and processed it over several days before writing this article. Perhaps I will be granted an “ah-ha” moment in an hour, while picking my son up at an activity, or in a day or two. Perhaps it will come the day after the deadline for this article. That’s more like my luck! I will acknowledge and banish all of the creativity killers lingering in my mind, and then sleep on it. Perhaps if I go out and play with my children and enjoy the beautiful fall day with them and meditate on their innate and quite active creative minds, maybe then I will find some inspiration. We’ll see.
1. The Creative Brain: The Science of Genius. Nancy C. Andreasen. Plume (2006.)
2. Finding Flow: The Psychology of Engagement with Everyday Life. M. Csikszentmihalyi. Basic Books (1997.)
3. Creativity and the Brain. Kenneth Heilman. Psychology Press (2005.)
4. The best description that I’ve found of what this brain restructuring is and what it means to teens is in The Magical Child by Joseph Chilton Pierce.
5. Ibid. 3.
6. Frames of Mind. Howard Gardner. Fontana Press (1993.) An updated work is Multiple Intelligences: New Horizons, by the same author (2006.)
First published in Open Connections Magazine, October 2007
Sadie has wandered late to words. She's taken the path of nature and imaginary play, and turned her nose up at the stories others might give to her in books. She's not yet interested in other people's stories. But lately, there is a tint (just a vague, almost invisible ruddiness) of interest in writing down some of her thoughts and questions.
We took a walk the other day, mostly to calm my mind about the state of our country and the world, which seems to be fraying at the seams of ignorance and anger and self-righteousness lately. I asked the kids to bring notebooks and use the world as a source for some writing and deep observing, and then sent them off on their own. Mostly so I could hear myself think and listen to the wind and the birds and the water.
Sadie, who used to sob when confronted with the written word, handed me this.
I Move with the Water
When I hear the water I feel like I am calm,
like I could live forever.
It makes me feel like I might fall into a deep trance;
and I fall deeper every time.
It is see-through.
The reflection is amazing.
The water and the music it plays heals my soul.
It is a race against time;
every drop is in the race and
I am in the race too.
I move with the water.
It's not The Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock, but I couldn't be more happy that she is finding her voice and letting us all know what is inside waiting to come out.
I am reminded of my unschooling mantra, which I find myself remembering daily these days: Let go of attachment to outcome and they will arrive just where they need to be.
Photo by Berit from Redhill/Surrey, UK (Creative Commons)
It shocks me how much I don't know. I sometimes wonder how I am a functioning adult at all, frankly. For instance, I have enormous gaps in my knowledge about world history, like most Americans do. We still seem to be able to adult and get on with our lives, not knowing when the Glorious Revolution happened (1688, I looked it up) or when, exactly, Charlemagne lived, ruled and destroyed pagan cultures (742-814. I looked that up too.) I got a job when I was 23 years old at the Museum of Modern Art, despite not knowing anything about art history past the death of Alexander the Great. I learned right quick, I can tell you that. I've never hunted for my own food, and wouldn't know how to dress a deer carcass if my life depended on it, but I greatly admire those who can (and do.) Until I traveled in Asia, I knew little about Asian geography, religious traditions, art, and the various histories. I can't trigonometry my way out of a paper bag. And my inner-feminist is ashamed to admit that I've never changed a tire, and I have no plans on doing so. That is why AAA exists.
The list is endless.
As I have aged, I have learned many things and filled in some of the gaps. I'm generally pretty curious and like to dive deep into learning subjects. Unschooling the kids has actually provided me with incentive to look things up and be curious about my own blinkers and the rather broad empty spaces in my own learning.
I know you are nodding your head, fully commiserating with what I'm saying. Right? After all, who doesn't have gaps in their education? So much to know…! You understand that there are things you need and should learn, but somehow you don't get around to it. But you can still function as an adult. Hold down a job. Feed your family. Should it become truly necessary to learn some particular thing or another, you know you can learn it. It might take a little time, but isn't that what life is about?
Now what if I told you my children have gaps in their learning too. Big ones.
"She-who-will-not-be-tamed" (a.k.a. my daughter) has steadfastly refused to learn some things in her ten years of life: she did not know her alphabet until she was seven, maybe eight. She's beginning to read now, at age ten, and the only reason she is even trying to do that at all is because her friends who go to school make fun of her for being behind. (Sigh.) Yesterday, through sheer force of will, she finally learned to ride a bike. She was too embarrassed about doing it in front of people who might see her or judge her as being "behind" at the grand old age of ten, so she made her dad take her to a parking lot at 10 pm so she could practice in peace. She learned in two days and she is as pleased at her accomplishment as anything I've ever seen her do. Yet, she is not an intellectual slouch or lazy in any way. And she is fierce in her determination when she sets her mind to something. She was the earliest "deep-end" swimmer at our pool - ever - and she could at age three or four name and quote facts about rare animals the world over. She is sometimes better at math than I am. And, most importantly, she has stories and philosophical questions inside her waiting to come out. She can play for hours uninterrupted in her room, lost in imaginary play -- even now, on the cusp of teen-dom. In this age of plugged-in childhoods, I don't know many kids like her. She is glorious.
My son, by contrast, learned things pretty much as expected by our culture -- alphabet by age three, bike at age six, reading at age seven, tie-shoes at age eight, Harry Potter at age nine, cursive at age ten, Minecraft at age eleven, D & D at age thirteen. (The last one is a joke.) But he has huge gaps in his knowledge too, just not ones that elicit concern from "professionals," random strangers, and old-school relatives. On the flip side, he knows things that many adults have never had exposure to their whole lives. Ask him about Norse, Greek, or Roman mythology. You'll see.
The difference is that my son learned a few key skills according to the arbitrary measure we have instituted for all children, skills that we've enshrined, somehow, into the culture as "holy." Thou shalt read by age eight or else! Thou shalt ride a bike by age eight or you are pitiable! Thou shalt play baseball (or be sporty in some way) if you are a boy or take ballet/dance if you are a girl. Though shalt know thy multiplication tables by 4th grade or you will end up a pauper on the street! And if a young learner in our culture deviates from that path, they are suspect in some way. They are slow. They are a failure. And as parents -- for the most part brought up in school culture -- we see ourselves as a failure alongside our child if the path is not strictly followed. And the whole thing is even more crazy because our culture is just plain wrong with all these expectations as it is in so many other areas as well.
I want to encourage you to step away from your preconceived ideas about when children should learn what and how they should learn it. Step away from the idea that you, the adult, needs to be in the driver's seat. Let them guide you. If they resist you in some way in your attempts to introduce things to them, take that as a strong reminder that you are there to assist, not push. Facilitate, not direct. They are interested and capable human beings developing in their own time. You might have a child or two who is happy to go along with "the program" and learn things "on time." But you might have a "she-who-will-not-be-tamed" on your hands, and she will push back, fight, and resist your attempts to colonize her childhood with your concern-trolling over her inability to read at age eight. She doesn't care. She won't do it. And you can't make her. So don't try. Learn to let go and deftly navigate the waters of uncertainty. Place the importance of the relationship above the dictates of cultural norms. Do this every time. For everything.
Someday she will come to you and say, "I want to learn to ride a bike." And she will learn. Faster than fast. And, at that moment, you will realize that it all didn't matter -- these agendas we have for our children in this culture. The pressure and angst you felt for years over this and that was all for naught. You will see that we are all works in progress and that they learn when they are ready, and, truth be told -- without exception -- everyone has gaps. Everyone. Even your children.
Some days, this is what unschooling looks like.
A table strewn with craft supplies, everything pulled out of the shelves. Where is that one perfect thing needed to finish the project? Nothing is put away. Chaos reigns. It is a mess that some people I know cannot tolerate even for a moment. However, to tell you the truth, I don't mind the mess at all because the house is never more joyful than when this is happening.
Today, the project was costume creation for a game created A YEAR AGO at our annual trip (with 10-15 other families) to Assateague Island National Seashore in May. As the weekend for the trip this year approaches, Eli is in high design mode, and Sadie is his muse and the costume-wearer. There is nothing that cannot be achieved with duct tape, foam, paper, cardboard, markers, scissors, and uninterrupted time. The key here is "uninterrupted." Hours and hours of plotting and planning, laughing and excited agreement. And no hovering mother trying to micro-manage stuff getting picked up, or better ideas for how to do things.
On days like today, I've learned to step aside and let all of the plans for the day take a backseat. On days like today, they become acquainted with the words "creative flow" and the phrase, "necessity being the mother of invention." On days like today, rain or shine, more learning happens than can ever be achieved in some well-lit room with 25 other well-behaved learners in desks listening to an adult. On days like today, they rarely ask me for help at all. On days like today, they forget the meaning of the word "boredom."
On days like today, despite the chaos in the kitchen, I am truly my most happy as a mother.
My daughter has been sick. Not terribly sick, just unwell enough to not feel a lot of motivation to see friends or play with her stuffed animals. She wants to cuddle a lot and do art. Mostly on her whiteboard, so that she can both cuddle and do art at the same time.
Today, as I was bitching about politics on Facebook, she sat next to me and drew a spotted wolf, his face raised to the moon, howling. The moon had a happy, benevolent face. The wolf sat on Mother Earth, in a long, flowing black dress (she only had a black marker), and star-friends looked down lovingly on the whole scene.
She asked me, "How do you write my name in cursive." So I showed her… and over the next hour, she practiced and practiced her signature after the cursive alphabet I carefully wrote for her on the board. Word after word. This is the first time she's ever mentioned cursive to me, other than handing me hand-written notes from her grandparents and saying, "I can't read this." This is how learning happens. In the sick moments on the couch, snuggled under covers, drawing and erasing, and drawing over again…creating questions, answering them, and then asking new ones.
We are now on to "how to draw anime eyes."
I am a reader by nature, or maybe by nurture (as in, I learned my school-lessons well, perhaps a little too well.) My first instinct, when confronted with a problem, is to read. Then I talk to others investigating and walking the same path or asking the same questions. Then I read some more. I have been accused of over-thinking, and as I grow older I often agree with those critiques of my habits of learning. But I am, at almost fifty, unlikely to eschew reading about a subject to help me in my investigations of life, learning, and love. With that caveat in mind, what follows are some books to read and some videos to watch to help you get into an deschooling mindset.
Please note: I am not listing reading/movies here to convince you to homeschool or unschool in a particular way or for a particular reason. What I am outlining here is a collection of thought-provoking reads (and watches) about how school (and the mindset around school) creates habits in all of us that are debilitating to a life fully-lived, to enthusiastic and joyful learning, and to a basic freedom from other people's thoughts about how we construct our own life. I am also giving you opportunities to explore options to a life lived dominated by school. This list is not complete by any stretch of the imagination. It is merely a list of things that jolted me forward in my deschooling path at one point or another in the last fifteen-ish years I've been on this path. These are works *I* have been reading, people *I* have been following, but should not be considered some sort of definitive list. This is just one person's guide.
Classics on Schooling
Author: Ivan Illich
Book: Deschooling Society, (1971)
It is really hard to describe who Illich was, other than insanely intelligent. Seriously, just read his Wikipedia entry if you want to be intimidated by someone's intelligence. He was born in 1926 (d. 2002), spoke more languages than most Americans will ever hear in their lifetime, traveled widely, lived and studied in Europe, the US, and in Central and South America, and never saw a cultural institution that he couldn't rip apart at the seams. His book, Deschooling Society, should be at the top of your reading list. I once spent six months or so reading all of his major works. You cannot go wrong doing this. Here are some pithy quotes.
Author: John Taylor Gatto:
Books: Dumbing us Down: The Hidden Curriculum of Compulsory Schooling (1992) & The Underground History of American Education (2001).
John Taylor Gatto's Dumbing us Down was the first book I read when I was pregnant with my firstborn and considering homeschooling as a path. He had been a "Teacher of the Year" for New York State at one point, so his street cred was pretty high in my book. The man knew school with all its warts from the inside out. Dumbing Us Down confirmed all of my instincts about my habits of schooling. His second book, The Underground History of American Education, is a scathing look at how compulsory schooling was set up in this country and why. The "why" is the interesting part. And you won't look at the function of school in our culture again in the same way. It is a "red pill or blue pill" moment.
Author: John Holt
Books: How Children Fail (1964); How Children Learn (1967); The Underachieving School (1969); What Do I Do Monday? (1970); Freedom and Beyond (1972); Escape from Childhood (1974); Instead of Education (1976); Never Too Late (1979); Teach Your Own (1981); Learning All the Time (1989); A Life Worth Living (1990)
John Holt had roughly the same lifespan as Ivan Illich. And if you have to pin-point one person who has made the biggest impact on the homeschooling/unschooling movement, I would have to say John Holt is that person. He expands his critique of schooling and moves the conversation to observing children, advocating for children, and seeking understanding about how humans learn, rather than just critiquing the institutions. The books do become rather reiterative at times (I've read them all), but if you only read three of them, read: How Children Fail, How Children Learn, and Learning all the Time.
Contemporary Critiques of Schooling
Author: Peter Gray
Book: Freedom to Learn: Why Unleashing the Instinct to Play Will Make Our Children Happier, More Self-Reliant, and Better Students for Life
Blog: Psychology Today: Freedom to Learn
Peter Gray is a psychologist who specializes in the effects of schooling on mental health, primarily focused on the role of play in learning (and how reducing play has consequences.) He has famously called schools "prisons," and has done some interesting studies on unschooled children. His work is very thought-provoking, evidence-based, and ethnographically grounded.
Author: Ben Hewitt
Book: Home Grown: Adventures in Parenting off the Beaten Path, Unschooling, and Reconnecting with the Natural World
Blog: Ben Hewitt.net
Ben is the most fun you'll have anywhere reading about how kids learn when they are completely free in their environment. Ben is a seriously talented writer. His two boys have almost an unlimited ability to define how and when they learn, roaming the land in the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont. Reading this book, I had daydreams of moving to Vermont and setting my kids free in the same way. I still dream about it. And his descriptions of his home life, his observations, the seasonal work of being a farmer, what his children do with their time, and how it all weaves together to make a life worth living is inspirational and provides an alternative to the life most of us live. His other books are great too. Read them as well. For the short version of his book, read this article from Outdoor Magazine: We Don't Need No Education
Author: Nikhil Goyal
Book: School's On Trial.
Full disclosure. I have not read this book. It just came out, but everyone is raving about it, so I'm adding it to the list.
Modern Critiques of Culture**
Author: Daniel Quinn
Books: Ishmael, My Ishmael, The Story of "B"
If ever there was a book of fiction that could acutely detail our failing cultural story, this one is it. It lands the nail right on the proverbial head. Ishmael is such a "must read" that we read it out loud in my family (when my kids were big enough to understand it) and talked about what it means together. My son then went on to read My Ishmael (which is written for a teen audience) on his own. Reading Ishmael is another "red pill or blue pill" moment.
Author: Charles Eisenstein
Book: Ascent of Humanity
Website: Charles Eisenstein.net
This book will undermine your belief in the dominant thinking that undergirds every cultural institution: history, technology, education, math, economics, medicine, biology, cosmology. The destruction (and re-construction) is so complete that it remakes your interior world. It took me six months to finish; I had to keep setting it down to ruminate on parts that were so shattering to me. (For a point of reference, I blew through the entire corpus of Game of Thrones in under three months…) He has a few other books that are crazy-good as well: Sacred Economics, The More Beautiful World our Hearts Know is Possible, and the Yoga of Eating.
Author: Gabor Mate
Book: Hold On to Your Kids: Why Parents Need to Matter More Than Peers, co-authored with developmental psychologist Gordon Neufeld, (2004)
Website: Dr. Gabor Mate.com
Gabor Mate is best known for his work on addiction. But attachment theory is the baseline of where his interests lie; attachment (or lack there-of) and how it effects neurological development in children, and the impact that development then has on adults. But attachment, while it changes and morphs after early childhood, is still an important feature in child development through the teen years. Mate's book, Hold on to Your Kids, really struck home with me. I wanted to explore attachment theory in later childhood, since attachment theory had been such a profound influence on how I chose to parent my children when young. What this book helped me see was that deep parent-child attachments are normal even in the teen years. Not just normal, but very important. Our entire understanding of tweens and teens is skewed and mistaken, and we are compounding problems upon problems in our young people. This book will make you revisit your ideas about the idea of "teens" and what is normal.
Author: Wade Davis
Book: The Wayfinders
Website: Wade Davis.com
Do you want to value indigenous ways of knowing and learning? This book will expand your mind in ways you didn't even know it needed to be expanded. And it will make you cry for what we have lost.
Movies and Videos to Watch
People & Ideas to Ease Fears Around College and the Early Adult Transition
To begin, get a copy of Grace Llewelyn's Teen-age Liberation Handbook. Read it with your teen. That's your first resource.
So many people don't follow this homeschooling path because of fears about their children's ability to get into college. People feel if they homeschool or unschool they will be unprepared for life and unable to function in college or even get in into college the first place. First of all, I know MANY homeschooled/unschooled teens who have gone on to college. If your teen wants to go, the path is open to them. I don't want to belabor that point, but your teen might actually be MORE desirable to colleges as a homeschooler if they are academically minded in the first place.
What if they don't want to go to college? Or aren't academically minded?
There are SO MANY alternatives to college as well, and every single day I seem to hear about a new one. Here are some various alternatives and beautiful collaborations springing up, available to young people. Many of these are known to me because I know the creator. There are so so so so many I don't know. This is just a sample.
I'm quite sure I have left many many many places out. Feel free to add other resources in the comments and together we can elevate the possibilities for our young people everywhere.
This is part 3 of a 4 part series. Part 1 can be found here. Part 2 can be found here.
Image Credit: Pete/ Flickr Creative Commons.
** I wanted to add that my cultural critiques don't include things like Marx or writings on anarchy, environmental critiques of cultures, as well as archaeological/anthropological writings on the subject not because I am in ignorance to their existence, but because I don't wish to a) write a book on the subject, and b) delve into political/philosophical debates.
My last post on the habits of schooling is not a new topic by any stretch of the imagination. John Holt identified the habits and emotional responses children have habitually to school in most of his books and essays. Here's an essay of his from 1969. John Taylor Gatto's essays and books on school history and culture (here's one) were catalysts for my own awakening about school way back when. This discussion has been going on for a long time. My insights are not new.
Full disclosure, before I move on. I work with a man named Charles Eisenstein. You may or may not have heard of him, but he's a philosopher and public speaker. He's a story-teller. He's a cultural critic and de-growth activist. And Charles has been interested in how school inculcates the cultural story (what he calls "the old story") into people from the very beginning. This old story is beyond broken and is based upon faulty science and reasoning. And we are destroying the planet because of an almost unquestioned belief in its veracity. Charles and I have been walking a similar path for many years, completely unknown to one another. And finally when we met -- by an amazing sequence of synchronicity some years ago -- it was completely obvious to us both that I should work with him.
Like I said, he's been talking and writing about school, our cultural story, and "new story" education for many years. In 2008, he gave a seminar at the AERO conference titled "Deschooling Ourselves…" Sound familiar? When I wrote my last blog post, I hadn't really remembered this and it wasn't until I went back to look up Charles' work on education that I found it ("VOILA") and listened to it again for the first time in 4 years or so. I realized immediately that it is analogous to my last blog post but in no way reiterative, interestingly enough. The talk and discussion is two hours long -- be warned. The sound is pretty bad on the video, but you can hear Charles well because he has a microphone. I'll outline some of the details here and in future blogs posts on deschooling ourselves so you don't have to work through the video if you don't want to.
The most interesting thing in this AERO conversation, at least to me is the assertion -- completely true I think -- that each "habit" we learn in school has a mirror image of rebellion, and that the rebellious act --when done automatically and unthinkingly -- is just as much a habit of schooling as the more obvious trained habits I discussed in my last post.
Here are some examples:
Habit: Needing to be on time Reactive Habit: Habitual tardiness
Habit: Doing all the assignments Reactive Habit: Laziness
Habit: Reliance on External Learning Reactive Habit: Unthinking distrust of all authority
Habit: Wanting to be seen as right Reactive Habit: Wanting to go it alone
Habit: Wanting to measure up Reactive Habit: Narcissistic self-importance
Habit: Learning in safety Reactive Habit: Disregard for safety
It goes on and on -- for every habit outlined, there is a reactive habit… and, um, gulp. Guilty as charged. I sure do see THIS in myself. Charles states in the video, "To unthinkingly reject something is just as much a habit as unthinkingly accepting something." So really, when it comes right down to it, these habits fall into two main categories: Habits of submission or habits of defiance.
(As an aside, when you watch the video, it is also amazing to me how many habits of schooling the gathered group identified and the fact that most of them did not overlap with the list I posted in my last blog post.)
A point came up in a discussion on Facebook about my blog post as well as in this video. The question is summed up as: "But aren't all these habits just part of our culture at large? Where does it start and end?" Well, yes, of course that is true. But school is the primary way that our culture indoctrinates our young into cultural norms. We'd like to think that the family is the prime mover here, and family can be a mitigating influence. But our schools are set up to slowly but surely get our children in line with broader cultural values. That is its role. And the cultural norms are based on the industrial model: training workers and citizens who can read (but who accept their superiors without question) to make them good citizens, and people who will partake fully in neoliberal capitalism. It bids children to conform to our consumerist culture unthinkingly. Don't take my work for it… it is fully discussed in the brilliant book The Underground History of American Education.
This post is really meant to be an addendum to my first post. Upcoming posts will include resources to read, investigate, and explore either individually or in your family to begin the deschooling process. These sources will not be specific to unschooling, homeschooling, Montessori, free-schooling, or any particular flavor of alternative education. I really don't care too much for these labels, as every family is different and has differing resources available to them. I'm much more interested in the dance of self-discovery at all ages, rather than adhering to dogma around one particular way to learn. And…well... I'm allergic to kool-aid. (Maybe that is a reactive habit of a reactive habit…..?) Another upcoming post will concentrate on process work you can do individually, in your families, or in a group to bring some of these unconscious habits to the surface. But in the end, the deschooling process is seemingly never-ending, mostly because it requires healing from the deep wounds of our culture. The good news is, there are multitudes of people out there doing this work, people who are creating networks and a "commons" to help others do this work more effectively and more deeply. And in this reevaluation of self/school, working together is not cheating (that thinking is a habit of schooling)… but the most fundamental skill we possess as humans.
This is part 2 of a 4 part series. Part 1 can be found here. Part 3 is here. Part 4 is forthcoming.
Image: JACK LYONS/FLICKR CREATIVE COMMONS
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)