April 25, 2011
I just finished a book, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, by Annie Dillard, which I picked up after I saw it referenced in two different places within a short period of time. I don’t believe in coincidences; it’s been my experience that when the universe presents things so plainly and repeatedly to me, it’s because they’re going to mean something significant to me.
I requested a copy from the library first, but returned it and went and bought a copy after I loved the first chapter that much. My apartment is small; I have to be selective about buying books.
Pilgrim at Tinker Creek is written very much in the heritage of Thoreau’s Walden. In 1971, Dillard lived near Tinker Creek, in Virginia, and wrote about finding immense significance in the abundance, intricacy and violence of her ecological neighborhood over the course of a year. It’s a wonderful book to read in the spring.
I was particularly struck by what she says about the human quality of innocence:
Innocence sees that this is it, and finds it world enough, and time….It is possible to pursue innocence as hounds persue hares: singlemindedly, driven by a kind of love, crashing over creeks, keening and lost in fields and forests, circling, vaulting over hedges and hills wide-eyed, giving loud tongue all unawares to the deepest, most incomprehensible longing, a root-flame in the heart, and that warbling chorus resounding back from the mountains, hurtling itself from ridge to ridge over the valley, now faint, now clear, ringing the air through which the hounds tear, open-mouthed, the echoes of their own wails dimly knocking in their lungs.
What I call innocence is the spirit’s unself-conscious state at any moment of pure devotion to any object. It is at once a receptiveness and total concentration.
We’re so accustomed to thinking of innocence as a negative state: as a lack of knowledge, a lack of sexual experience, a lack of maturity, something to be overcome. Even in more desirable terms, “lack of guile or corruption; purity,” in the phrasing of my New Oxford American Dictionary, innocence is defined by absence, by lack. In Dillard’s conception, by contrast, innocence is a positive, nearly palpable state of intensity, a potentiality, a spark, not only the absence of self-consciousness but a presence–devotion–and the capacity for active pursuit of joy.
I wish that we valued innocence more in this way, rather than infantilizing and dismissing it. For example:
A picture of devotion, fittingly, to a man who gave us so much by pursuing it himself.
April 18, 2011
I’ve sort of been looking out for an excuse to write about this topic, and lo and behold, I got a request (thank you bbsmum!).
One day in college I was sick in bed, and asked a friend to bring me over some tea and books. One of the books she brought me from her personal stack of library books was Grace Llewellyn’s Teenage Liberation Handbook: How to Quit School and Get a Real Life & Education. As evidence of how much she said she’d loved it herself, it was already weeks overdue.
I’d never heard of unschooling before, but I was a convert. I mean, I sort of understood, with that book, how people become religious zealots. It so succinctly and vividly captured everything that I felt was Wrong with the public education system.
At its most basic, the concept of “unschooling” contests the premise of the traditional school system that children best learn what they need to know by being forcibly confined to a classroom for 7 hours a day, 9 months a year, for 13 years, and mandated to learn all the same things at the same time in the same way as everyone else for most of those years. I’ve come to think of it as “factory-style schooling.”
Rather, the premise of the unschooling movement is that children come as they are desperate to learn, they don’t much have to be coerced or threatened into it, that people learn best by doing first-hand what they’re truly interested in. That the wide world is full of educational opportunities free for the asking and people should be able to use whatever resources work best for their own purposes. And that, intrinsically, children deserve no less than adults to be taken seriously as people worthy of respect and of having a say in the conduct of their own lives.
Some caveats: I’m speaking of the American compulsory public school system in its predominant form. I’m not against the idea of any schools ever, at all. I have no personal experience of charter schools, specialty schools like Montessori or Waldorf or schools designed to accommodate specific disabilities or special interests, so I don’t have any basis on which to make generalizations or criticisms of them. I know that people choose those educational options for a whole variety of reasons (the operative word being choose). And I know that some public schools are doing really wonderful things (one of the coolest in my opinion being the New York Harbor School) to give their students greater opportunity for self-direction and creativity.
I’ll try to be brief (ha), as there are many good books on this subject, about some of the reasons I think unschooling is worthy of consideration as an alternative to how we currently educate most of our kids:
1. The school system does not have students’ best interests at heart. It can’t. It’s incapable of having any respect for individual learning needs, life needs, passions or ambitions that fall outside the narrow parameters it’s designed to allow. Because the system isn’t designed to give impassioned minds as free a reign in their own highest development as possible, but to keep as many young people under control in as small a space as possible. The convenience of the system will always take precedence over individual well-being.
2. The school system is dishonest. It lies to students about what life is really like and what will be required of them. The traits most required for success in school are obedience and credulity, whereas the traits most required for success in life are creative problem solving, courage and critical thinking. Rather than discouraging immaturity, ignorance and short-sightedness, it exploits those traits to keep students under control with fear of the future. Adults with any self-regard wouldn’t put up with a fraction of the disrespect, humiliation and absurdity that school kids do every day only because they don’t know that they have a choice. By isolating students from working adults and from the world as it really is, schools create the impression that the knowledge they offer is all there is, and the way they require learning is the only valid way. The system calls people failures who simply can’t do things the way it demands. It says that education is something separate from real life by cutting students off from the world around them and from genuine experience. It says that life is something you’re preparing for, that you’ll be qualified for upon graduation, not something that you are living.
3. Age grading reinforces immaturity. It deprives kids of older classmates to be role models and mentors, younger classmates to be models and mentors for, and pathologizes healthy and helpful relationships between students of all ages as developmentally inappropriate or undesirable. It demands that there’s a right or a wrong age to learn any given subject or skill.
4. I’ve made this argument before, so I’ll truly keep it short here: the main values instilled by the school system are obedience, conformity, and fear of authority. Those are not the traits we most need citizens to have to fix our democracy, our economy, and our environment.
5. The real world is so much better, so beautiful, wondrous, strange, astonishing and so full of things to learn to do. Thirteen years is too long to spend locked up.
Though I’m tempted to try to anticipate and preemptively answer some of the more common objections to the unschooling movement, I’m curious to see what will naturally come up in discussion. So comments section, take it away!
April 7, 2011
I had an old friend in town this past weekend and we went to visit The Cloisters in upper Manhattan. (The Cloisters is a museum of medieval European/Christian art and architecture, and the building is actually assembled from bits and pieces of ruined abbeys and monasteries from the 12th-15th centuries.)
I was smitten over and over by the sight of gardens, sky and light through multiple iterations of windows and passageways.
There’s a metaphor about confinement, revelation, seeking, labyrinths, and illumination hiding in there somewhere….
April 1, 2011
Time for another edition. Happy April Fool’s Day, everyone!
“Computer calculates most boring day ever.” –Time, 11/28/10
“German customs officials seize fake canned unicorn meat.” –Time, 12/2/10
“Palin denies Tea Party’s involvement in Dancing with the Stars.” –Jezebel.com, 12/7/10
“Dubai jails ‘wizard’ who promised rain of cash.” –New York Times, 1/12/11
“AOL buys another crack at a future.” –New York Times, 2/7/11
“Scientists discover how to make squids go completely berserk.” –Christian Science Monitor, 2/18/11
“Aussies warned to flee killer birds.” –newser, 2/18/11
“[John] Edwards lies low, but that won’t last.” –New York Times, 2/28/11
“Avril Lavigne not quite a grown-up.” –New York Magazine, 3/8/11
“Study undercuts view of college as a place of same-sex experimentation.” –New York Times, 3/17/11
“Fight waged with forks is rejoined in Congress.” –New York Times, 3/17/11
“Young people with old souls prefer records to CD’s.” –New York Times, 3/21/11
“Gay bar mourns Elizabeth Taylor.” –New York Times, 3/24/11