Tuesday, October 09, 2007

School and Energy

We're officially in our first full year of homeschooling this year. At least, some of us are. My oldest son is not homeschooled, and Simon, my five and half year old was homeschooled for kindergarten last year, but legally, we were not required to file any paperwork because kindergarten isn't mandatory. This year we're doing the "official" thing complete with lists of materials (my kid reads so fast that I can't keep up with him - do I really want to write down the titles of all 38 Magic Tree House books plus everything else he's absorbed since August?), dates of evaluations (Call it parent testing, clearly designed to make sure you don't shut them up in a closet) and the urge to make snide comments about required subjects (Must. Resist. Temptation. To. Put. Chomsky. On. Syllabus. For. "Patriotism." ;-)). It is definitely an education - for us.

We're also homeschooling Isaiah, 3 1/2, who will be entering his second year of "kindergarten" and who is a very self-disciplined, hard working little person, proud of accomplishing his share of studying and maintaining his garden. Asher, 22 months, is entering his second year of being a major hindrance, old enough to be a pest, really too young to fully participate. But he cheerfully colors, dances, dumps flour into baking projects and tootles as loudly as possible (which is really loudly) on his recorder during music. By next year, we have hopes of being able to include him in "kindergarten."

Our approach can best be described as a mix of Waldorf curriculum, a whole lot of books, Jewish education and whatever works, combined with a total lack of parental organization that looks surprisingly like unschooling. I read books about homeschoolers whose days are disciplined, well organized and who have planned out their entire year in detail. We are not them. But Simon is well ahead of things in most areas (although woefully behind in handwriting and superhero underwear collecting), so we're not worrying too much about it.

Now a lot of homeschoolers do what they do because of a passionate dislike of public school options or from strong religious convictions. I'm not one of them, although both are factors to a degree. I hated school from first grade until I went to college - college was such a relief that I danced through my entire freshman year. My husband didn't hate school until fifth grade, but experienced a similar delight at his release. The problem wasn't that we were bad at school - the contrary, we were both very good at it, but easily bored and impatient. School to both of us was eight hours of grinding monotony - and I admit, I don't see a compelling reason to send a kid who is learning everything they need in a couple of hours hanging out with their parents to school.

And certainly religious factors enter into things - our rural school district has been very kind about us, but Jews are an anomaly here, and we constantly have to explain ourselves "No, Chanukah should not be described as 'Jewish Christmas.' "No, it is not ok if you read a story about the birth of Christ just because you read some story about a little girl lighting a menorah." "No, my son may not have a ham sandwich." "No, it isn't a beanie, and no there aren't horns underneath it." It gets old - fast. And while I expect my kids to be able to operate in mainstream culture, I think there's really no great urgency for them to confront it - 8, rather than 5, will do just as well.

But I'm hardly a homeschooling absolutist, and most of my reasons have more to do with energy than educational philosophy. My oldest son, Eli has been attending school since he was 2, receiving large quantities of speech, OT and other therapies designed to help him function in the world. Although both of his schools have been private, the first an integrated preschool, the second a school entirely devoted to the needs of children with autism, our public school district has helped us find these programs and paid for them, bused him there (actually a shorter ride than to our regional school) provided wonderful people to transport him and been generally both accomodating and supportive. We're very grateful to them. Our hope is that one day, Eli will return to the school district in as integrated way as is possible for him. We may someday homeschool him, by choice or necessity, but for now, we consider ourselves very fortunate to have a supportive school district.

So obviously, I'm hardly the person to condemn public schools, and I'm grateful for the resources we have access to. Sooner or later, the buses will probably stop running. I suspect for Eli it will be later, fortunately, since the district is obligated to provide him with an appropriate education, but as in New Orleans where thousands of special needs students went a year or more without appropriate facilities, these things slip by the wayside. We are prepared, if necessary, to homeschool Eli, but it isn't our first choice. And since the whole of society, not just our family, benefits if Eli achieves his fullest potential and becomes an independent adult, we don't have any deep qualms about taking advantage of this.

Not only am I not opposed inherently to public education, which meets real needs in some case, I've often thought that if my developmentally normal children could attend school the same way my autistic son does - surrounded by enough supportive adults with a lot of attention to give him, and an entirely individualized plan for his education, I'd send them all to school in a heartbeat. Obviously, that's hardly feasible in economic terms - but effectively, that's why we homeschool, to provide my non-disabled children with the same richly supportive and individualized atmosphere that my oldest child gets.

Eli gets what he does despite the cost and inconvenience because he literally cannot function without it, and our society recognizes that a large investment in such children now is likely to have greater net benefits than leaving him dependent all his life. But while my other children are better able to adapt to a generalized, one-size fits all program than Eli, who simply can't, I'm not sure they are in fact, better served by such a thing. While Eli is an extreme case, the notion that an education should be customized to fit non-disabled children as well doesn't seem that radical to me. My five year old is as unique, and in many ways as different from other children as my autistic son. He learns better in some ways than others, and has things he needs special assistance with and things he is radically ahead in. School tends to reduce all these distinctions to a sameness, as though they do not matter. And while my son will not always find himself in a world customized to his needs, I'm not convinced that, as some people have argued, my son must prepare himself for the "real world" by living in the unfettered harshness of the "real world" from five on. We could probably wait a little on that one.

Thus, we homeschool. But of course, there's more than that. One of the reasons we do is because it is an environmentally wise choice. We live in a large, rural school district. My sons would cover many miles on the bus each day, on a bus that doesn't have to come down our road except to pick up my kids. Right now there are school districts all over the country struggling to provide busing for their students, and some are ceasing to bus entirely as higher energy prices make transportation expenses difficult to bear. Similarly, many school districts are struggling to keep buildings heated or cooled. Stephen Beltramini kindly posted this link over at ROE2: http://tinyurl.com/38odq4. I've heard stories about bus system changes all over the country the last few years, as energy prices rise and already strapped districts tip past the point of no return.

The push to regionalize and expand schools has led to a number of consequences that are potentially troubling in a lower-energy world. Students are travelling more miles on the bus and in cars, and more children are travelling that way, rather than walking or bicycling. Streets and communities are often less accomodating to walkers, and schools are often in inaccessible neighborhoods, that involve crossing busy streets or highways. Many towns and neighborhoods no longer have their own school systems - they are now in large consolidated districts, and as we are less and less able to transport children long distances, many children will be less and less able to go to school.

The sheer cost of maintaining large regional schools that have put their money heavily into extraneous things like football fields and training grounds is likely to make them, like everything else, collapse under its own weight. The buildings are huge, requiring enormous quantities of heating, cooling and maintenence. Weirdly, in the Northeast, these all seem to be designed by the same architect, mostly from the school of butt-ugly - and all seem to have flat roofs (easily damaged by heavy snow loads), air quality problems and large expanses of green lawn regularly treated with toxic chemicals. This is not going to last.

There are psychological and cultural problems associated with large scale education. Classrooms of 28 kindergarteners (as friends of mine in an affluent suburb have) simply can't have the same degree of individual attention that smaller groups can. Thus, there is an enormous amount of pressure to conform. I live in the school district that has the honor of, having been the very first (but hardly last) in the US to try and legally force a family to administer Ritalin to a child whose parents didn't think he needed it. Such things are far more common now - a friend of mine who is a school psychologist in a low-income school district in Massachusetts observes that many of the teachers he meets recommend drugs for nearly every difficult child - in part because they simply don't have the time or energy to use them. Boy children are particularly a concern, partly because they are more likely to have a disability, but often because we have eliminated physical activity by reducing PE and recess time.

All schools provide pressure to conform, and large regional ones have even more reason to provide such pressure. Simon, our first grader is an independent minded, imaginative bookworm, rather like his mother. He liked preschool just fine, and enjoys Hebrew school and was well behaved and compliant, but is happiest following his own interests. He's also an obsessive kid, who focuses intensively on one or two ideas at a time. Since he was two, he's gone through periods of obsession about birds, space, dinosaurs, jazz, Winnie the Pooh, the Beatles, mythology, geography and presidents. At 5 1/2, he routinely corrects me on the capitals of small African states, can tell you how old John Lennon was when he first picked up a guitar, has a stuffed Penguin named "Coltrane" and is mad as heck that Kuiper Belt objects don't qualify as planets.

None of which is to imply that he's anything of a prodigy - he's an ordinary small child, bright in some ways, average or below in others. But he's a specific small child, and both my husband and I vividly remember the limitations of a system meant to do the best by everyone. When we spoke to his future kindergarten teacher, trying to decide whether to send him to school or not, I joked that all of Simon's games eventually "turn into Calvinball" (for those that remember "Calvin and Hobbes," "Calvinball" was the imaginative, constantly rule changing game Calvin and Hobbes played together), and that he tended to spend a lot of free play time doing his own thing. The teacher responded, "We'll fix that for you!" I know she was being helpful, but yikes! I didn't want my son to be "fixed." The qualities that I like in him - his imagination and autonomy, were immediately perceived as potential problems to a teacher who has so many children to tend that "unconventional" means "trouble."

And the reality is that large chunks of public school educations are about conformity, and sometimes conformity in itself isn't the problem, but the shape you are being forced into is. I'm not at all convinced that the conformity that they encourage is the sort that will help my kids in the future. That is, much of what is being taught is preparation for (as almost every school says) "being part of the global economy." Lucky kids, who get to be cogs in that wheel! But whether I like the idea or not, the reality is that I don't think the global economy with its hyper-specialization and emphasis on make-work is going to be around when my son is 18.

Our school is definitively not preparing our children for a local but not parochial society - in fact, the curriculum in things like patriotism that I've seen seems to be quite the opposite - we are trying to create a parochial and globalized society. That is, we are teaching children that they are supposed to participate in a "global" economy but also to believe that Americans are better than other people. My own goals are precisely the opposite - to have my children experience a wide world, through the lens of their particular place. So while foreign languages are not offered in our public schools until middle school, our children study Hebrew and Spanish now.

But for all of this, I'm not an opponent of public schools, and believe public schools can be valuable. In part, my children have the luxury of homeschooling and a better education than could be provided locally because their parents have the luxury of time, which stems in part from frugality and care (our annual income for a family of six is in the mid-30s) but also from comparative wealth, a stable two-parent family. I believe that public schools are important, and I strongly believe in participating them, and helping to shape the curriculum so that it better mirrors the realities of our world. We do that too - we participate in our public schools as well as our homeschool group, and we believe that we do not serve our community if we completely absent ourselves from the institution that does so much to shape what our kids understand about the future. We see homeschooling as a necessary corrective, the reality that we're not going to sacrifice what we value in our kids' education to the inadequacies of public schools, but we also believe good public schools must be available.

Some homeschoolers like to say that all parents should home educate. This is clearly not the case. For example, there are millions of parents who have to work two or three jobs, millions of parents who lack the basic ability to teach their children - including a minimum of 84 million Americans who are functionally illiterate. Teaching your children at home when you can barely read in any meaningful sense is not like staying two piano lessons ahead of your students - it is impossible. There are also millions of parents who are simply too poor, and work too many hours to homeschool. There are tens of thousands of disabled children like Eli who will benefit more from school than home, and millions of developmentally normally children who love and benefit from schools all over the country. And we also all know the simple truth - that there are millions of children in the US for whom school is a far better place than home. It does not do to romanticize too much here - there are millions of households where violence, drug and alcohol addiction and other factors simply mean that children are better and happier at school than at home. There are millions of children whose only hope to escape their bad homes is for them to get lucky enough to have a teacher take an interest them, or for them to show a special spark. Unfortunately, school can't and doesn't do that for everyone. So we need not just good home education, but much better public schools.

Blanket dismissals of the value of public education are wrong too. Homeschooling is an excellent choice for many families who don't think that they are served by public schools, but all of us have reasons to be invested both in public schools and in home education. That is, it isn't an either/or choice. For example, many parents who send their children to school also provide supplemental education to their kids in religious studies, areas of interest, languages, etc... As we develop the skills of relocalization, all parents, homeschoolers and public schoolers are going to have to teach their kids subsistence skills. And for every parents who is happy with their local public school, there are reasons to consider homeschooling in a post-peak, post-climate change society, and to be prepared to do so. For every parent who can't now imagine homeschooling, there may come a time when their children cannot go to school.

But also, if those times come, we cannot simply retreat to our own private households, all in all. We must recognize that homeschoolers, just like everyone else, are dependent on public education - our children will play with children whose parents can't take the time to homeschool. Our children may marry children whose parents didn't speak enough English to homeschool them. All of us benefit enormously from living among well educated people - the kind of society we get depends on our ability to understand the issues that face our society, and to address them, and those are often factors of education. While I think the public schools suffer from some serious deficits, I think we are better off as a society with more education, not less, and we cannot abandon people who cannot or do not which to homeschool.

One strategy we can use while there's still time and resources is to advocate in our communities against larger, district schools and in favor of local, walkable, smaller schools designed to serve neighborhoods. This will difficult because it is bucking the consolidation trend, but it is also important - as oil prices rise, busing and its associated plowing costs become a larger and larger portion of the town or district budget. Small, community schools can cut those costs enormously. They also can bring about other benefits - a small community school with simple infrastructure can also serve, in many ways, as a community center. Here, after all, is where the parents congregate. Here is a kitchen used every day to prepare meals - perhaps it could be adapted to become a community canning kitchen during the weekends, or perhaps a school cafeteria that used local food ingredients could also send home pre-made, local ingredient, healthy meals to be reheated by community members at home, or the cafeterias could be opened on weekends. It is not an accident that in many small towns, the school is the center of communal life - and that it could be again.

All of us can help shape the education children receive in public schools, both by voting and also by participating in discussions about educational culture. Schools generally welcome community participation, and teachers are generally overstretched and have enormous demands placed on them. There is no reason an energetic and devoted person couldn't get a school garden started, or a cooking program using seasonal ingredients. Certainly you could bring out your skills and offer to come in to school to teach ecology or how to build a solar oven.

Most importantly, we can lobby to bring back agricultural education to our schools. The one point in Richard Heinberg's essay about _50 Million Farmers_ here: http://www.energybulletin.net/22584.html that I strongly disagree with is the idea that we should center the educational aspects of agriculture in colleges. Not only do I think that our agricultural colleges have stepped away from relevant missions in many cases (the largest section of many ag schools is now turf and lawn maintenence), but I also think that that's far too late. We need to be teaching our kids to grow food in elementary school and high school, not when they are in college. And since less than half the population ever goes to college, this absolutely cannot be an elitist pass-down from the university educated to those who actually grow the food. One of the great class divisions in the US is between those who actually get to go to college and those who don't, and we can't, now that food growing is finally being seen as important again, associate it with class division more than it is now. But I digress.

As I've said, the line between homeschooler and public schooler can be quite fine. Any of us may find that our child wants to go to school, or that we have a child whose abilities or disabilities suit them better to public school than to home. That is, instead of thinking in terms of "public education vs. homeschooling" I think we need to consider ways in which we can integrate the two. Ways in which we can meet our own needs whenever possible, but also offer a *good* and *responsive* and *public minded* education to people for whom homeschooling is not a good option.

What does that mean? First, in practical terms, I think simple preparedness means that those of us who have children should have a plan for a long-term disruption in existing educational services. That doesn't necessarily mean buying a curriculum or anything, but it does mean having easy access to (either in your private library or at your local, walkable public one) a good variety of educational materials, it means parents picking up textbooks and other materials at local library sales, and being prepared to introduce algebra if the schools are closed for a while due to a natural disaster or the inability of the district to afford heating oil. And it means knowing what your local educational resources are - it isn't necessary for every parent to be able to teach physics or Latin poetry if there's someone on the neighborhood who can help. In a relocalization system, where you want to keep as much of your wealth in your neighborhood and area as possible, educational services are just one of the items of exchange available in our new home economies.

But what if there's a longer term disruption in services and you can't homeschool forever? This doesn't have to mean an end-of-the-world disaster. It could simply mean that the system can no longer afford to run the buses and you can no longer afford to drive them. Or it could involve a localized natural disaster like Hurricane Katrina. Either way, your region or school district could be unable to meet needs for long periods, and even if you can personally homeschool, the neighborhood may be full of kids whose parents can't school them.

That's when parents should get together to consider collective home education. Generally speaking, it will not serve your community to have kids hanging around doing nothing (or better yet, coming up with creative things to do ;-), all the time. It certainly won't serve the long term good to have kids miss years of education. And while the unstructured life has some advantages, in a crisis, those are likely not to be the salient points. So getting together with your neighbors and dividing up the teaching just makes sense. There's no reason a child shouldn't come to your house on Monday to study history and botany, and to learn about herbs, and go to the neighbor's house on Tuesday for cooking and arithmetic.

But that doesn't necessarily mean that one should mimic the schools exactly - public schools have valorized some kinds of education while neglecting or rejecting others. For example, we've long emphasized that "smart" people don't need "vocational" skills like fixing things, building things, growing things and making things. This, of course is errant nonsense. We need to teach our kids to think critically, to write well and compellingly present their ideas, to read complicated material and understand it, to be able to grasp the science and math they are encountering and to recognize the literary, philosophical and historical origins of things. But we also need them to understand how nature works and how science is as yet only a thing that describes one aspect of nature, but is not nature itself. They need to know the limits of book knowledge as well as the potential of that knowledge. And they need to have experience with the basic work of providing for ones own needs - growing and making things.

In his seminal The Archaeology of Knowledge Michel Foucault argues that the way we organize our knowledge always and utterly transforms our relationship to it. And just as peak oil and climate change are in the broadest possible sense "market failures" - that is, failures that illuminate the deep inadequacies of our present economic system; they are also "education failures" - that is, profound revelations about the inadequacy of how we organize knowledge.

The way we categorize our knowledge, segregating our pieces of it as belonging to X or Y part, seperating "reading" from "art" from "mathematics" and "ethics" has led us to this particular point in history. The idea that we can take something and seperate out ecological impact from something like "work" or "sex" or "science" has driven us to a real crisis. That, if nothing else we must change. That is, we have to teach our children new ways of looking at the world and of imagining our future. We need to naturalize, from birth, the connections between moral principle, science, history and our daily actions. We need them to understand the whole impact of what they do and how they live.

I will write more about this in time, because it is far too large a subject for a single (already really too long) post. But I wonder, some times, if the breakdown of our existing educational structures might not be one of our best hopes for the future. Because, in the end, it will all come down to education - the education we offer at home, and in schools, the self-education of billions of adults who transform their lives without any real guides to help them and the messages we pass on to the next generation. It will all come down to what gladly we would teach and learn.



Amelia said...

Sharon, our son was homeschooled from 9th to 12th grade; he's currently attending a local state university.

Half of K.'s day was spent reading and arguing about what was read and making messes in the kitchen and garden; the other half was spent two blocks away at a local aviary that (until recently) was the only public facility in the US that would train youth volunteers to handle raptors.

Over six years, he learned to do everything from rehabilitation of injured birds to shoveling their poop, and as "an extra pair of hands" was involved in daily construction and maintenance of the grounds and facilities -- including the installation of solar thermal panels for generating heat in the mews.

He got his spot in the biology department after a routine freshman intake appointment with an advisor turned into an hour-long discussion of the impact of wetland development near the Great Salt Lake on migratory bird populations, the difficulty of maintaining a stimulating environment for raptors in captivity, and the repair and care of hand tools.

His advisor was so thrilled that he took K. on personally, despite his lack of formal education (and immediately drafted him into the permaculture program: this advisor bullied the administration into allowing two gardens to be established on campus, and teaches classes on the subject throughout the year): as he put it in a meeting with us, "The reading he can pick up; it's the ability to synthesize what he's read and then apply it to the problem that takes us so long to teach."

We were lucky in that our jobs allowed us to work from home, and our interests overlapped well enough that we could cover each other's deficiencies (I have dyscalculia, while my husband is morbidly uneasy around "organics": he can't even slice raw chicken); we also chose to move into town so that we could provide access to libraries and concerts without having to drive him everywhere -- he takes the bus to campus every day, and just headed off to his job in a bakery on his bike.

Not everyone can afford to rearrange their lives to accommodate such a home-centered life, and we are very grateful that we could: he is a happy and competant human being, and hopefully we've given him a tool kit that will see him through whatever he has to face.

Anonymous said...

Any thoughts on what coming energy problems mean for colleges? Certainly the US college system is pretty energy intense, and vastly more people attend college than in previous low-energy times. Do you see "homecolleging", on the horizon?

On the structure of knowledge, this hits pretty directly into the territory of philosophy. It sure seems to me that knowledge is organized in our culture, and most others, in terms of the division of labor. And, of course, our society like most, organizes its division of labor into a class-system, and the divisions in educational level mirror our class system pretty closely. If economic stress causes a little de-specialization in division of labor, then knowledge-systems will probably follow suit. BTW I recently checked the figures, the income divide between those who go to college but don't finish, and those who graduate, is about as clear and sharp, as the one between those who never go, and those who go but don't finish.

Knowledge that is not directly vocational is typically left to some function other than formal schooling. Advertisements and pop culture teach the knowledge required for consumption. Movies and literature teach value systems and so on. So much of our actual knowledge-system is completely outside of the school-system. Since knowledge about how to consume is left mostly in the hands of people with strong interests in promoting special kinds of consumption the line between knowledge and advocacy is really fuzzy. But then that is true in schools too. English teachers are advocating literature as much as teaching it. Vast quantities of ephemeral knowledge is created and forgotten in cycles that imitate ecology. Each issue of Parenting magazine or Entertainment Weekly creates articles which are read and soon forgotten in the copy-cycle.

And these fragmentary failed categorization systems of knowledge are deeply inevitable. Our society is too complicated for any human mind to grasp, much less the natural world. That is what division of labor IS. No one really understands how it all works. Anyone who honestly tries to understand, winds up humbled by the complexity of it all. No human can "understand the whole impact of what they do and how they live," anymore than we can jump to the moon!

But we can try to step back and look at the big picture, to the extent we can. That is one of philosophy's jobs, and we are flagging badly. Further we can study things apart from a professional interest in them. That is the function of amateurs, and often seems directly threating to the professional system.

I often hope that the internet will wind up being a tool empowering amateurs at the expense of professionals, and that this will do good. But that isn't really the main problem in our education system. The main problem is that TV, mass media, pop culture and advertising simply have power that dwarfs that of the school-system. Look at the forces trying to teach our kids to eat more Snicker's bars, and the forces trying to teach them to eat fewer Snicker's bars, and compare the methodologies used. Kids spend more time in schools than in front of the TV, but TV consistently out-performs schools, despite having even LESS individual tailoring than a teacher with 30 students. Well- produced visuals with strong emotional hooks and careful pacing, just plain works better, than professional earnestness. And the research suggests that video games are even more powerful than TV because of the addition of interactivity and ability to tailor (together with the visuals, emotional tone, pacing, and so on). PBS and the rise of educational cable channels do more to help than most educational reforms, and even those are badly pervented by the market dynamics they are bound too. As long as the effective learning-systems are in the hands of the corporations, the results will be students effective taught to the tastes of the corporations. And what they want the next generation to be like, is not the same as what parents want the next generation to be like. And this is at least as strong an effect with little kids as with my college students.
But I guess I'm just bitter, and spending to much time writing stuff of your blog instead of working on my own educational career.

-Brian M.

Anonymous said...

I am very lucky in the school district in that it goes in for small classes and specialist instructors so that there is a mimi-IEP for each child, up through 6th grade. (We certainly pay for it in taxes: however, the year I qualified for free lunches, I found that there was a of help availble, very descretly, for less afflucant famiies.)

This mean, for me and my children, that public school has been part of a school community, on that does the bulk of the donkey work, while I (and my parents) at home do the less skilled one-on-one work, reading and being read to, endlessly, critial thinking, additional infor on topics that seemed to get short shift, including mending (my 10 year old does most of her own at this point) (and at times, PT, ST, and OP, under the directions of the professinals). Then there is the neighborhood part, the retired teacher who tutors both girls as needed -- back ground in reading and some special ed, and a person who could teach a puppy to moo, as well as others who have done there bit to fill in the gap. I seem to be the one who teaches the niehgborhood kids about cooking and jam making.

It is, on a very small scale, and relying to much on the school, what you decribed. It makes me realize again, how lucky I am to be living in my neighborhood.


Karen said...

Thanks for such balanced commentary on education. We live so often in an either/or world...I think that education is best approached as by embracing what ever works for a particular family at a certain time. My daughter has to Waldorf, Montessori and regular public school. In between these things, and for all the rest of her siblings, we have homeschooled for the better part of nine years. This year, after realizing how much yelling I was doing, I decided to put all 3 of my youngest in public school. I plan to use this time to renew myself in emotion and spirit so that when I bring them home again I am not so burned out...and hopefully much nicer. In the mean time, they are learning things I can't teach them at home....like how to deal with a whole lot of people who don't see the world as you do. I also had the priviledge of getting to do a presentation in my daughters 3rd grade class...I got to talk to the kids about herbalism and wildcrafting, and midwifery! It was so great to bring a not so mainstream point of view to the kids...they loved it...and I never would of had the chance if we hadn't given school a try. Now I'm on to creating some change....a reduction in the amount of homework (it's crazy what they are having the kids do) and getting the cafeteria to stop serving lunches on non-recyclable styrofoam trays with plastic utinsels! Can you even imagine the amount of waste.....
Anyway...I appreciated your thoughts and observations.....thanks!

sylvia said...

Yes. School almost killed me (and my husband), it was so boring. I don't know if I would be able to put my kid through that.


Shane in Australia said...

I love your posts but this one was way too long....maybe try and slim things down in future?

homebrewlibrarian said...

In Alaska, a great many people choose to live in very spread out rural areas. A great many more live in remote areas only reachable by air or boat (if along a river or the ocean). Or dogsled or snowmachine in the winter. The truly remote villages do have local schools that all the kids can walk to, but the folks who live miles down gravel roads away from the only road that goes anywhere else have two choices - put the kids on the bus or homeschool. Many homeschool for the reasons you note but the rest pack their kids off to schools many miles away. Since these people choose to live miles from their neighbors, I wonder how they'll handle things once the buses no longer run. Sending the kids over to learn gardening from one neighbor one day and then algebra from another neighbor on a different day would require some sort of transportation other than walking. Even choosing a central location would mean everyone would have to get their via some sort of transportation. I can guess that people who live in the very rural areas of Montana, Wyoming, Nevada, Utah and Idaho will face the same problems. Living close by is within 5 miles of someone else.

What is the answer to this situation? Abandon the land and move to the city? Take a crash course in homeschooling? Don't even bother with formal education at all? It will be interesting to see how very spread out rural areas react to education for their children suddenly becoming too far away.


tk said...

And I love your long posts -- they make me focus. If a post like this is too long, I'd hate to see how someone like one of the above commenters would handle a book.

tk said...

Now that I've defended your post length, I'll comment to tell you how you keep introducing concepts to me that I would never have thought of. I knew I wanted to homeschool any kids I (probably won't) have, but I thought of it in terms of: what do kids learn in school? To be cruel to one another, and to become acquisitive. The sponsorship of schools gives me the willies.

Even though I don't think I'll be having kids, I would still like to help. Can a childless neighbor help with cooperative learning, I think she can. I'm inspired to talk to some of my friends who are parents about this now and see whether they'd like us all to learn gardening, canning, or scratch cooking together. If not -- no biggie! If so, the benefits could be great.

jewishfarmer said...

Amelia, your son's experience sounds wonderful!

Tk, I absolutely think that childless people can and should be involved in community education. I'd love to have you in my neighborhood!

Brian, re: College - I suspect college will be there, but it will be rather less common. I hope my kids will be able to go to college, but I don't count on it - at least in person. If we can keep the internet up and running, distance learning, while not the same in any sense, is at least an option. Home college is a smaller phenomenon than homeschooling, but exists now. I'm a book junkie, so it isn't any trouble to me to rescue books on additional subjects - we were already pretty well set on some subsets of History, Philosophy, Literature, Math, Physics and Astronomy, but if my kids want to focus on military history or Russian poetry, I've got some building to do. Obviously, I can't be a college library, but the local libraries are so small and utterly inadequate for adult research needs (heavy emphasis on popular novels and biographies of first ladies, little on anything scholarly, although the children's section is good) that I feel like I need to work on this. But that's no hardship for me - I love books and will happily read anything.

You are, of course, right as usual about tv. But I admit, I grew up watching bad television with everyone else. The thing was, despite all the commercials for froot loops I saw, my Mom wouldn't buy them. And despite all the hours of "Challenge of the Superfriends" I watched, my Dad would occasionally point out that the world didn't divide up neatly into good and evil. And at a point, I was required to turn the damned thing off.

I agree with you that tv is our worst export, that it is very hard for any teacher of 30 to overpower its influence. But I don't know that it is impossible for a parent to overpower it - or a beloved and intimate teacher of four. I don't know for sure if it is the scale of things or the relationship that allows one to teach critical analysis. But it can be done.

In _The Plain Reader_ one of the essayists (I can't find my copy, so I'm quoting from memory here) talks about a busload of tourists coming to visit the Amish. They asked the Amish, "What does it really mean to be Amish?"

And an Amishman asked them, "How many of you believe that tv is bad for your lives?" And every single hand went up. And then he asked, "And how many of you would be willing to give up your tv, since it is bad for you?" Not a single hand went up.

And the man said, "That's what it is to be Amish - to say no to what is bad for you."

Now one of the things that struck me about this story is that everyone did raise their hands. There are comparatively few people with real doubts that tv is junk for your brain. The question is how to discipline yourself to turn it off, to put it away. And that I can't answer, except to say that moral arguments have been persuasive on the far left and the far right - but have yet to touch the center. Does that mean the center can't be touched, or does that mean we haven't made the right argument? I don't know.

I do think it is interesting that you seem to except the internet - I'm willing to bet that most of us aren't promoting democracy on the net (I'm not sure I am) but doing the equivalent of hanging out watching "Challenge of the Superfriends" ;-).


Robyn M. said...

Hi Sharon,

Regarding your response to Brian M.: I'm not sure I agree that parents can any longer overwhelm the influence of commercial tv in their children's lives, at least not without removing it from their lives entirely (as we have essentially done). I don't think that our own experience in our childhoods is a good gauge of what is or is not possible here, as the data I've seen indicate that things have changed radically since we were kids. Child-targetted advertising has increased exponentially since we were young, and has become much more sophisticated. Studies are regularly commissioned to understand how to better manipulate children, including inducing them to nag, whine, moan and throw tantrums until they get what they want. Nevermind what this sort of advertising is doing to the parent-child relationship, it just wasn't around in such an egregious form when we were young. In order to combat the situation now, I would ideally need the backing of a multi-billion dollar industry, including panels of experts and enticing celebrities to help me; all I've got is an underfunded "5-a-day" nutritional program, the half-*ssed advice of glossy parenting magazines, and Nickelodeon occasionally saying "Hey, why not go outside?" Now, in response to this, we've done the only sane thing we can think of--we don't have commercial tv in our house. But obviously (along with your Amish story), we are in the minority here.

Like Brian, I too am willing to defend the internet, or at least to currently except it from the tv criticisms. Sure, by and large we've turned it into a vast repository of porn and on-line shopping, but the interactive power of the internet is allowing a remarkable amount of democracy to be done (maybe even despite itself). The internet is allowing conversations to happen that would've been impossible a decade ago, and would never occur via conventional mass media. Just my $.02.

I go in circles on homeschooling. I agree to a great extent with your analysis of the situation. It so happens that we purposely chose to live somewhere that, in fact, is within walking or biking distance, although I'm sure the overall energy expenditure of the school outweighs anything that would be done at home. However, I find it very valuable for my children to be able to be in the public school environment, especially our older son who, if he is not autistic, is very nearly so. I also value my children being exposed to ideas and things that I would never conceive of presenting to them (sometimes good, sometimes bad). I value the time, care and training that the teachers went through. And I value having time away from my children to keep myself sane. But I do recognize the problems, especially in Alex's 28-student kindergarten class. A hybrid schooling of some kind may be the way to go. But I do dislike the feeling that I'm always having to defend my choice to send my children to public school to my friends, some of whom have said that they consider homeschooling to be more "virtuous" than public. There are many virtues of homeschooling, and many virtues of public schooling.

Hmm... I seem to have inherited my husband's tendency towards long-windedness. I had no idea that was a trait inheritable across marriage relationships. =)

Amelia said...

Robyn, I've found that having a DVR (rented from our cable company) really cuts down on not only the quantity of television we watch, but how much time we devote to it: if I know that the program I want will be there when I get around to it, I'll wait until the weekend or a day when I can't work outside. And the "skip 30 seconds" button is a wonderful, wonderful thing, providing a few seconds' worth of commercials rather than five minutes.

That being said, a lot of what I want to watch has to be downloaded: I can't get programs like BBC Gardeners' World or It's Not Easy Being Green here in the States, and if our television gave up the ghost tomorrow I don't think I'd miss anything other than Mythbusters.

Sophia said...


I just wanted to drop in and applaud especially the following from your post:

"Blanket dismissals of the value of public education are wrong too. Homeschooling is an excellent choice for many families who don't think that they are served by public schools, but all of us have reasons to be invested both in public schools and in home education. That is, it isn't an either/or choice."

I went to private (Catholic) school for a few years, then public school, homeschooled for awhile, and then completed highschool at an alternative school. My family moved a few times while I was growing up, and each time my mother re-evaluated her options. Not only does the decision vary from person to person, but also from time and place.

I must confess, I have a favorite: I attended the alternative school only three days a week during the end of highschool, and I loved it. We students were not separated by age, meaning you could take part in any learning situation you were physically and mentally capable of doing, and very often the older kids looked after and taught the younger. Our "survival" and gardening classes were probably the most popular while I was a student, and we grew crops on the campus. The teachers were more like aunts and uncles than anything else, people you’d seek out for help, not because you were obligated. We cook together, clean together ... it wasn't so much a school as a community, and it was great. Anybody who feels torn over whether to homeschool or not should look and see if such a place exists near them.

Or create one yourself. My school is not very old, really, and came into existence when a few homeschooling moms started meeting together a few times a week so that the kids to could learn a skill one of the other moms possessed. One taught music, because the others didn’t know as much on the subject, another taught a language, etc. There’s no reason why you couldn’t just have the neighbor kids come over on Thursdays to learn a bit about agriculture. Of course, it’s easier if everyone’s homeschooling already, because most public/private schools won’t allow a permanent Thursday absence, but you could always ask.

BoysMom said...

It occured to me recently that the ONLY things we can be absolutely certain our children learn are the things we ourselves know and teach them.

Now clearly every poster here is literate, and one presumes has some basic math ability. So our children will probably be okay on the basics.

For an example, we nearly lost half our small town to a wildfire this year. Had the fire-bombers not already been en route to another fire when this one started, one side of town would have been gone. (The people would have crossed the river to the other side and likely been okay.) Library, schools, county courthouse, our place, all but one church, all that would have burned.
As it was, only some fences had to be replaced. But what if there were no fuel for the bombers?
In the future of decreasing oil it becomes increasingly easy to loose depositories of knowledge and harder to replace them. While unlikely that tensor analysis and Homer will be completely lost, they might well vanish from many areas. There's no part of the world that's immune from all natural disasters.

What's in your head? What should be?

Kerri, our pioneer ancestors used horses for transportation or sent children to board with relatives/friends in town for a few years for schooling, if they wanted more formal schooling than could be offered at home. I expect that could work, as long as teachers and materials were available. I also expect the school year will shorten considerably, likely to match the snow season.

Anonymous said...

It's weird I'm not even particularly anti-TV. We have a DVD of the life of Fred Rogers, a truly inspirational hero. At one point he argues passionately and mildly about how much good TV can do in the lives of children. And he is so persuasive. Lots of PBS is great. TV can be a great medium. I don't think TV is bad for you, I think it is primarily being used for agendas that are bad for you. There is a great book "Everything Bad is Good For You" about what is going right with TV and video games, and the answer is a LOT! I think of it a lot like the economic concepts of "wealth" and "illth." TV outputs a lot of genuinely valuable stuff, but at the moment it outputs a lot of dangerous stuff too. It seems to me that at the moment the illth outweighs the wealth, but I'll bet it is close.

You are certainly right that good teachers can be more individually powerful than mass culture in the best cases. But all teachers vs all mass culture? I think the mass culture pretty demonstrably has a bigger influence than teachers as a whole, even if there is some individual variation.

I except the internet largely because it is still such an amateur medium in so many places (and I suppose because I grew up spending more time on BBSes watching TV). It is getting more and more professional and corporate, but people keep flocking to the amateur sections. I trust what people do for love, far more than what they do because someone else is paying them to. When the professional bloggers and professional trolls, and folks who comments on blogs as part of their PR jobs overwhelm the amateurs, I'll start looking for somewhere else besides the blogosphere.

-Brian M.

Anonymous said...

G-d bless ya, Sharon. You really are a great and sensible mom. As for oil-free rural education, I point to the unimpeachable authority of Laura Ingalls Wilder. Remember in the "Little House" books how they would have one-room schoolhouses located within a few miles of a dozen or so families, and the children would get together and walk? When the weather was really dangerous, there would be no school. When Laura was a teenager she taught school, and had to board with a farm family who lived nearby. Her future husband attended a rural school whose teachers spent the winter boarding at several of the parents' houses in turn. (And got beaten up by the students, but never mind that.) If parents had had to come up with cash enough to support a highly credentialled teacher with a family, mortgage and student loans, a one-room schoolhouse couldn't have worked. By using employing single young people and providing room and board as part of their compensation, they made it affordable to have a teacher for such a small group of students. Just a thought.


Anonymous said...

They used to have schools over the radio in the Outback, didn't they?


Amelia said...

There's the example of the UK's Open University: it's distance learning, but it's ranked among the top universities in the country for the quality of the teaching; some of the courses are available on-line for free, from anywhere in the world.

A degree qualification from OU is recognized all over the world, and in some industries employers weight one higher than a traditional "brick-and-mortar" qualification because of the dedication required to get it.

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