March 6, 2014 § 28 Comments
While luck is very prominent here, as there is so much of which we are unaware, this topic seems to be also about forgiveness of oneself and partner. Our society seems to ask that we study and be experts before we jump. “Think before you speak” has been taken too far and speaking/jumping has become a source of disappointment and blame. It is not a space from which one can easily recover, as forgiveness seems harder to come by than in the past. There was a time when we did not call in the experts to do the jumping for us. I wonder, what would be the impact on our nation’s obesity epidemic if all individuals suddenly understood that they did not need the expert knowledge of dietitians and trainers. Lower expectations, relieving ourselves and thus not need to become professional athletes or professional anything elses. Suddenly, you can sing and dance, jump, and, gulp, Leave a Reply.
Ya know, I was just thinking I didn’t really have nothing worthwhile to say today and besides which I’ve got paying work aplenty wanting my attention, never mind the list of farm-related tasks Penny reeled off at breakfast whilst outside the temperature slowly dragged its sorry ass out of the double-digit below zero range. Ah, nine below! Finally, a warm spell!
I think Peter makes a great point about forgiveness of one’s self and one’s failures, and it’s not something I mentioned much in yesterday’s post. But jeezum and by gum and whatnot, this place is full of failure. It’s a teeming mess of mistakes and missteps and false starts for which Penny and I have had to forgive ourselves over and over again, lest the weight of it all crush us into submission.
I exaggerate a bit, of course, but it’s not entirely untrue. I’m reminded of it every winter, when I try – just as I did the winter before (and the winter before that) – to fully close the window I installed so drastically out-of-square. And just as I did the winter before (and the winter before that), I fail, and resolve yet again to pull the trim, cut the nails that hold the window in place, and re-shim the damn thing.
Or up by the barn, the stupid platform we built that was going to be the floor of the new milking room that never got built because right about the time we finished the floor, we realized – for reasons that are far too complex to explain here – that it was a ridiculous arrangement. And so now we’ve got this platform rotting away and one of these days I’ve gotta tear it out. I just can’t quite bring myself to do it yet; truthfully, I need to get a little more distance from the absurdity of the situation.
This whole place is full of these sort of quirks and missteps, many the result of jumping without thinking, of blithely assuming we would prevail over (or at the very least muddle through) whatever situation we faced. Maybe it’s confidence; perhaps, at times, it trips that thin line and becomes arrogance. I do wonder if maybe I should worry about failing a bit more often than I do, that perhaps I’d actually be better off spending more time thinking about jumping, than actually jumping. I’ve always been this way, and while Penny is something of a tempering influence, she’s not exactly immune to excitement and “git r’ dun-ism.”
The flip side of all this is precisely what Peter points out: That our culture has, in general, become overly dependent on so-called “experts.” Broadly speaking, we have become deskilled and unconfident to the point of near-helplessness. Because if you strip away all the 21st century socioeconomic artifice and get right down to the brass tacks of food and shelter and water and warmth, the overwhelming majority of Americans would be well and truly forked. Hell, I bet most of us can’t hardly change a flat tire, anymore.
The reasons for this helplessness are multitude, and are built into practically every demographic trend of the past century. You can’t coax folks away from the land with promises of moneyed prosperity and expect them to retain the land-based skills that are no longer economically viable. You can’t structure an economy to reward specialization and industrial production and expect people to maintain their connection to the fundamentals of their well-being. The further away from these fundamentals we get, the less confidence we have in our abilities to attain them. And I wonder if it’s not just confidence in these particular skills, but a generalized confidence that depends on us feeling as if we are, in some fundamental way, useful.
Of course as we lose confidence, we gain fear. Fear of stepping outside the prescribed boundaries. Fear of turning against the crushing tide of the very trends that are making us fearful. Fear of jumping.
There are plenty of times when I feel as if I lack confidence, when I feel as if what I do is, in one way or another, inadequate. When a real carpenter comes into our house, someone with the skills to truly craft a home, rather than just build one, I can’t quite get over the sense that he or she is quietly noting the many flaws of our humble shelter. Hah! Look at that out-of-square window. Man, Hewitt sure is a boob of a builder. Oh, my: They used spikes to pin those beams together! Philistines! I could go on. And on. But the truth is, it’s just not that helpful. It does nothing to further our pursuit of living our lives as we wish to live them. I forgave myself that out-of-square window years ago. So did Penny. And those spikes, they work just fine. Better yet, we drove ‘em ourselves. I remember it well. It made our shoulders wicked sore, but it was real fun.
Soon enough, I’ll forgive myself that stupid milking room floor and rip it down. We’ll pile up all the tore-up wood, have some friends over, and spark up one hell of a fire. We’ll laugh at our stupid mistake and our friends will laugh with (at?) us and maybe we’ll cook up some sausages or something. We might even break out some instruments and play some music. I’m still working on gaining the confidence to sing in front of others, but I’m getting there, and maybe by then I’ll be ready to belt out a tune or two.
You know, I think that might be the best thing to do with failure: Turn it into a party.
March 5, 2014 § 19 Comments
On another note, I was wondering if you might be willing to share some of the process you and Penny went through designing and building your house? Any pictures you’ve put up that include the house look so lovely, and as my husband and I are looking for someplace outside of town building our own is definitely on the table. I’ve been looking longingly at the beams across your ceiling for a while now, and wondering how you went about it all. Even if you could just recommend a resource, that would be very appreciated. Thanks!
I’ve told this story in bits n’ pieces, so I’ll try to avoid repeating myself a whole bunch. But I also think the story is in many regards pertinent to some of the discussions relating to work and success and luck and all that happy stuff, so maybe even repeating myself wouldn’t be the worstest thing.
We bought our land in ’97. We had saved $15,000, which was quite a feat, considering I was making about $8/hr at the time, and Penny not much more than that. But we’ve always had a capacity to endure in the name of thrift, and so, through no particular cleverness on our part, we were able to save a tidy chunk of dough working low-wage jobs (me alternately fixing bicycles, banging nails, and selling the odd piece of written work, her working on an organic vegetable farm).
The enduring I speak of relates to our decision to live in a string of low-rent hovels, most of which did not feature running water, and only some of which provided the luxury of electricity. We also lived in a tent for a summer and fall, until the first significant snow chased us into something more commodious. During this period, we never paid more than $100/month for rent.
Anyway. We bought our 40-acres of land for $30,000, which was the absolute upper limits of our budget, since the bank would only grant a land loan with a 50% down payment. Shortly thereafter, we were able to borrow $10,000 from a friend, and that, coupled with the generosity of another friend who gave us two weeks of labor as a wedding present, is how we erected the humble beginnings of our house.
Elizabeth asked about designing our house. I’m sorta embarrassed to admit that there wasn’t much designing involved. I mean, sure, we made some sketches and we talked a lot and generally had a rough idea of what we wanted, but mostly, we started building. Both Penny and I had a modest amount of construction experience, enough that the idea of building our own place wasn’t totally overwhelming, but it’s also true that without the help of our friend, an experienced builder, it wouldn’t have gone nearly so smoothly.
Our place isn’t actually post and beam, at least not in the old world sense of craftsmanship and snug mortise and tenon joints. Befitting our skills, patience, and financial limitations, we banged together a lot of the posts and beams you see with huge barn spikes and sharpened bits of rebar. Indeed, our place is full of these sort of compromises, and while there’s part of me that occasionally wishes we’d taken more time and maybe spent more money, there’s another part of me that’s quite content to live in a structure that was built in accordance with our particular skill set and that mirrors, in ways both beautiful and less-than-beautiful, our characters. Yeah, we had lots of help along the way, and by gum are we grateful for that. We could never have done what we did, as cheaply as we did it, without that help. But despite all that help, in ways both tangible and intangible, there’s no getting around it: This place is ours.
We put an addition onto the original 16 x 32-foot cabin in 2001, which involved jacking up the cabin, removing the piers, and pouring a foundation. This time, we hired our dear friend Bob to help us for a summer of weekends. At the time, Bob was working 7 days per week, and since our funds were limited, we got him only on weekends, which worked out right nice, because Penny and I had taken most of the summer off work and could muddle our way through the weekdays, saving all the tricky bits for Bob come Saturday morning.
We worked real hard that summer because, as you see, Penny’d gone and gotten pregnant (ok, well, I had something to do with that), and it seemed only right that our child be born into a house with a roof and maybe even some windows. Which is what happened, though let me tell you, it was right down to the wire. In fact, Penny actually went into labor at the lumberyard, where she had the presence of mind to finish loading the truck and then went grocery shopping before driving home to have Fin.
Our addition was a bit more carefully designed, this time with the help of an architect friend who visited our place and drew up some basic plans in exchange for dinner. Still, it’s a very humble space, simple and perhaps even a little rough around the edges. Again, it feels like ours.
For the addition, we borrowed $50,000 from the bank, which represents the most debt we’ve ever held. Of the many things I am grateful for, the ability to buy land and build a house without assuming an overwhelming debt burden really stands out, and again I have to note that it wasn’t merely hard work that enabled us to do what we’ve done (which is inhabit a debt-free homestead well before the age of 40); it was also luck. We were lucky to have bought land at the right time, before it was priced beyond our reach. We were lucky to have obtained certain skills, and when those skills failed us, we were lucky to have friends to lean on. We were lucky to have the inflated sense of confidence that told us we could do it all in the first place. We were lucky that we worked well together; I honestly can’t remember a single argument over all the months and even years we spent building this house, though I’m sure they happened. We were lucky, we were lucky, we were lucky. Lots of friggin’ luck.
And we worked hard. No harder than lots of people we know, and perhaps even less than some, but still: Real hard. But of course, it never really felt like work. Because it was ours. Because it was what we both wanted. Because as hard as it was, it felt good. It still feels good, and thank goodness for that.
I’m sorry, Elizabeth (and anyone else who’s interested), that I don’t have any good resource recommendations, at least not off the top of my head. Our resources were primarily those of our hands and of our friends; I can’t recall reading any books (this being prior to the era of Internet immersion), though I also can’t promise that didn’t happen. We didn’t take any workshops or anything like that. We just sort of jumped in.
Truth is, sometimes it feels like we’re still jumping.
March 4, 2014 § 17 Comments
Speaking of workshops, our friend Todd is holding a few at his organic orchard just up the road. He’s super-knowlegeable and a real nice guy, to boot. For more details, check out his website.
The first annual Beaver Hide Tanning/Skeet Shooting/Monster Truck Rally Rodeo went off without a hitch (minus the skeet shooting and monster truck rally because, as it turned out, everyone was too tired to shoot skeet by Sunday afternoon [besides which, no one had any skeet, though we figured a lobbed tennis ball might do] and, furthermore, I was the only one in attendance who even owns a truck that might, from certain vantage points, approach monstrous status. And one truck does not a rally make, especially when it’s a nearly-two-decade old diesel that won’t start when it’s as cold as it was this weekend).
The workshop was hosted by us and led by our dear friend Nate, and I was some skeptical anyone was gonna show up to learn how to tan a beaver hide, but lo-and-behold Nate turned ‘em right out, and we had a packed house. For three full days, the entire first floor of our humble home was given over to the scraping, brain tanning, softening, and smoking (this actually happened outside, thank goodness) of beaver hides.
From my perspective, as a non-participant but frequent observer as I went about my usual routine of pretending to be doing terribly important things, it seemed like a tremendous amount of work for a finished hide that might end up being barely big enough to make a proper lap throw. I doubt anyone had anything less than 16 or 17 hours into their hide. But then, I suspect the work itself was much of the reward, as everyone seemed to have themselves a fine time of it. There was much merriment amidst the constant bustle of scraping and softening (which requires a vigorous back n’ forth rubbing against steel cables for literally hours on end). There was laughter and story telling and eating and, in the evenings, a little music playing and warbling. I even danced a little foot-shuffling hoppity jig, and lemme tell you, that’s a some-rare sight, and for damn good reason.
It was fun to have the house full of good folks, in large part because the sort of people who are interested in spending three full days tanning a two-foot diameter circle of wild animal hide are, generally speaking, not uninteresting. And it was the precisely the right time of year to wring a little extra joy out of life. I mean, any time of year is right for that, but the beginning of March, over a weekend that continued the trend of zero and even below-zero nights (12 below this morning, yikes), is particularly right. Penny and I have a small fantasy of hosting more such workshop-like gatherings in the future, although it might not be a fantasy. Our house is in many ways just right for it; large enough to accommodate a good number of folks and also messy and worn enough to feel comfortable. Around here, you ain’t gotta worry about damaging the furniture; indeed, the only real threat is that, via collapse or the poking of a malformed spring or splinter of wood, the furniture will damage you.
The other thing is, it’s real nice to every so often to surround ourselves with people who are at least as weird as we are. I don’t mean weird in pejorative sense, not at all, but rather simply to acknowledge the frequent sensation we have of being isolated from many of the socioeconomic/cultural mores of our time. We are incredibly fortunate to live amongst a community of friends and neighbors who accept and even respect our choices; the sense of isolation we sometimes feel is more on a societal level, than a personal level, and that is certainly far easier to bear. But it is still a fine thing to be amongst a larger gathering of people who, for lack of a better word, “get” what we’re doing and why we’re doing it. Who dig right in to the beaver liver pate alongside us, who don’t even think to ask us if we’re worried that Fin and Rye won’t be admitted to the college of their choosing, who we can immediately fall into easy conversation with because, even if the exact particulars of our lives might be unique to us all, the overarching desire to live a humble life connected to the wild and abundant world outside our respective doorsteps is shared and tacitly understood to be shared.
That is all for now, although I did want to mention that all the great comments relating to my Winter Reading post really got me thinking. So, fair warning on that account.
February 28, 2014 § 9 Comments
This morning I found myself stomping repeatedly on the overturned rubberized pig trough, like an oversized child throwing a tantrum, trying to dislodge the frozen remnants of last evening’s milky slop. It was hard work, lemme tell you: Over and over I jumped, stepping down every so often so I could snatch up the bowl with my hands and thwack it against the ground, and by the time I had the trough cleaned out and the new piglets were snout deep in breakfast, I was sweating good and proper. Not a bad feeling, really, to be sweating in below-zero weather. If nothing else, it’s a symptom of proper labor, and I’ve always felt that proper labor is, in-and-of-itself, a symptom of proper living. Or it is for me, anyway.
I cannot recall a winter of such consistent cold. I wouldn’t be surprised if the number of below-zero mornings we’ve had over just the past three months surpasses the number of below-zero mornings over the previous three years combined, and it looks as though there are still a few more to come. “Cold enough, huh?” said Jimmy when I picked up two full buckets of waste milk this morning, and I had to agree. It’s cold enough.
With the exception of that one memorable day, I have not minded the cold. This is not to say I do not welcome the impending arrival of warmer days, only that I know my appreciation of these days does not stand on its own. It demands that I endure something, and in that sense, the enduring itself becomes part of the anticipation of that first 50-degree in March, when the sun will be high and almost harsh, and the sap in the trees will awaken, plinking drop by drop into the buckets we hung the day before. I thought about that this morning, when I was bopping up and down on that confounded pig trough. Sugaring. Hauling sap. More sweat. Proper living.
The boys, however, aren’t down with enduring. Over the past couple weeks, their enthusiasm for winter and all its charms has steadily deflated. They still go outside every day, usually on snowshoes down into the woods to track one hapless creature or another, but they return home sooner than they used to, and have taken to spending long hours indoors reading and swinging (does not everyone have a rope swing hanging in their living room? No? Well, they should. Heck, even Penny and I like to see if we can kiss the ceiling with our feet) and wrestling. This is all fine and dandy until their energy becomes too big for the house and things invariably devolve into an argument of some sort or another, often triggered by an act of treachery that from the hot center of the conflict cannot even be recalled.
Ah, well. So be it. They are children, after all. To them, the immediate is everything. They cannot understand how quickly things change, how soon it will be spring and sap will be running and the snow will be melting and we’ll be trudging across the field pulling 120-pounds of sap – enough to make maybe three pints of syrup – in a sled back from Melvin’s big maples. They can’t grasp that someday, they’ll not wish for time to accelerate, but would instead give just about anything if only it’d slow down for a bit, even if that meant another week or two of below-zero mornings. Another week or two of stomping the pig trough until sweat beaded on their brows.
They can’t fathom these changes, both those external and those internal. But they’re coming. They’re coming real soon.
February 27, 2014 § 26 Comments
One of my favorite magazines to write for is Yankee. I love writing for Yankee because of their focus on a region (and the people of that region) that’s important to me. And I love writing for Yankee because I have a great editor who gives me almost complete autonomy over my stories. Finally, I love writing for them because there are not a whole lot of periodicals that run 5,000-word feature stories anymore (oh, sure, The New Yorker, but I have about as much chance of snagging an assignment from them as I do of getting trampled by a marauding elephant in our woodlot).
Anyhow. If you’re interested, I have a couple of stories in recent issues of Yankee. The first is about the proposed Northeast Kingdom Development Initiative, which is basically a mammoth economic development project in Vermont’s least financially prosperous county, funding largely by foreign investors who, through a program known as EB-5, can essentially “buy” a green card. I find rural economic development stories fascinating and nuanced, and this one was no different.
The second, which is not yet online, but is probably at your local newsstand, is about our friends and neighbors, Jimmy and Sara Ackermann and their efforts to make a life for themselves and their new baby daughter Allie Rae on the same dairy farm Jimmy’s grandparents farmed. Jimmy and Sara milk about 50 cows, have a 2500-tap sugaring operation, plow driveways, sell about 50-cords of firewood each year, and hire out for various logging and landscaping tasks. I love this story because it’s about people I care about, but also because it’s about people who, outside their immediate community, work in almost total anonymity (or who did work in almost total anonymity, until I wrote about them). Since it’s not online, I figured I’d give you a short teaser, in hopes you’ll all rush out to your nearest newsstand and pick up a copy or 10.
When James “Jimmy” Ackermann was 19, in the fall after he graduated from Cabot High School, in Cabot, Vermont, he drove forty-five minutes due west from the town in which he’d grown up. His destination was Johnson State College, where it was assumed that Jimmy would lead the Johnson State Badgers basketball team to glory on the court. It wasn’t a flawed assumption: In high school, Jimmy had been one of the Cabot Huskies’ star players, racking up more than 1,000-points, once scoring 35 points in a single game. He wasn’t tall, but he was tough and strong, and despite his muscular frame, exceptionally nimble. Obviously, he could score. Yeah, he was good.
“I wanted to play ball something bad,” he told me. We were driving in his big GMC pickup, floating down a rural Vermont road on a halcyon September morning. The truck’s radio was tuned to Froggy 100.9; a male singer was drawlin’ about fast trucks and slow women. Or maybe it was slow trucks and fast women. Jimmy was dressed in a grey tee shirt tucked into shorts of a heavy canvas weave. He wore a pair of tattered work boots on his feet. His dirty blonde hair protruded from his head in an unruly fashion that looked as though perhaps he’d stuck his head out the open window of a moving vehicle.
But Jimmy didn’t play much ball in college because, as it turned out, Jimmy didn’t much like college. Oh, sure, he’d drunk his first beer at JSC, and that was kind of fun. And there were pretty girls everywhere, and that was pretty cool. But when it came right down to it, Jimmy had to admit that college was, well, a little too slow for him. “The thing I didn’t like about college was it wasn’t busy enough,” he told me. “I’d wake up at six and I didn’t have class until ten, and everyone’s walking around in sweatpants hanging off their ass. I mean, what the hell was I supposed to do?” He offered a little sideways grin, as if to acknowledge the absurdity of the whole situation.
So what he decided to do, after two of the most physically lazy and interminable weeks of his young life, weeks which he largely spent gazing jealously through classroom windows at the men mowing the college’s expansive grounds atop shiny John Deere machinery, was leave school to the ass-hanging sweatpants-wearers. And get to work.
But it wasn’t so much the sheer volume of work that intrigued me as the simple fact that, beyond a small circle of customers, family, and friends, they toil in anonymity. Although they produce food (milk and maple syrup), they have not ridden the wave of recognition bestowed by the local/artisanal/sustainable food movements upon many of the region’s producers. They do not sell their products at farmer’s markets; they do not tweet or blog about their farm and its offerings; you cannot “Like” the Ackermann Farm on Facebook, because the Ackermann Farm is not on Facebook. In fact, the scope of their marketing efforts can be summed up in that “Pure Vermont Maple Syrup” sign flapping in the breeze at the edge of the barnyard.
In a sense, Jimmy and Sara Ackermann are throwbacks. I do not mean this in a derogatory sense, but rather with the understanding that their lives exemplify a deeply historical New England work ethic that seems to be evolving inexorably away from the land to align itself with our nation’s cultural embrace of digitized technology. It is not that Jimmy and Sara are dismissive of technology, and they own both a computer and cell phones. But if these items were to suddenly disappear from their lives, very little would change for them, and their work would be essentially unaffected. I’m struck by how rare this is.
It may be obvious by now, but in Jimmy and Sara I see something both humbling and hopeful. I am humbled by the sheer scope of their commitment to their work and the good-naturedness with which they go about it and I am I hopeful because I cannot help but wonder how many other young New Englanders are leading lives of similarly quiet, purposeful intent. There are times it seems to me as if it cannot be many, but then I remember that the very nature of Jimmy and Sara’s relative anonymity suggests there could be an awful lot.
And yet, it must be said there are times when I see in them a certain naïveté. It’s not merely their youth (although that might be part of it), and I suppose it is best explained by their assumption that if only they work diligently and conduct themselves with integrity, they will be afforded the life they dream of. In short, that hard work is all it takes. Can this be true? I want it to be so, not just for Jimmy and Sara, but also for myself and for my children, if only because I wish for my sons to inhabit a world in which the honest integrity of hard work is justly rewarded. In this sense, the story of Jimmy and Sara Ackermann is not merely the story of a young couple eking a living from the land. In this sense, it is the story of us all.
February 26, 2014 § 19 Comments
Every so often, I have some notion of what I’m going to write here, but most mornings I fly by the seat of my pants. If I happen to be wearing any pants, because as you know, I work at home, and thus the impetus to wear anything more than a pair of woolen long johns adorned with flecks of dried egg yolk is at a minimum. Too much information, perhaps, but hey. This is my party and I’ll admit to working in yolk-flecked long johns if I bloody well want to.
I am appreciative of the many thoughtful comments relating to my last post. The subject of our children’s education is fraught with hope, expectations, assumptions, fear, pressure and probably a few other things I’m not thinking of at the moment, and sometimes I get a little panicked to remember I’m about to launch a book that calls to question many aspects of our culture’s common understanding regarding what education can and should be. Of course, the book is about much more than my sons’ education, as it must be, since my sons’ education truly cannot be segregated from our life on this currently-frozen and windswept hill. Still, the how and why of their learning – and not just their learning, but also Penny’s and mine – is arguably the most prevalent thread holding the whole shootin’ match together.
I don’t mind people disagreeing with me. I have found, as Robin commented on Friday, that outside of a core group of friends and family who already know all my quirks and contradictions well enough that their opinion is unlikely to change unless I do something truly egregious, the older I get the less I care what others think of me. This is one of the benefits of maturing, I suppose, and it’s nearly enough to offset the fact that I no longer seem able to get a bite of egg to my mouth with dribbling a skosh of it on my woolies. I have been aided in this regard (the caring less, not the egg dribbling) by having my work be a matter of public record. I’m learning that the only way to please everyone is to say nothing at all or, at the very least, to say nothing of any real value, which strikes me as essentially the same thing. I’m not opposed to small talk – I do it pretty well, actually – but the written equivalent is not really what I want to put out into the world.
There’s little question that my forthcoming book is both the most personal of any I’ve written and maybe the most provocative. Or maybe not, because of course “provocative” is in the eye of the beholder. Certainly, it’s not as provocative as at least one other book on education I can think of (which, if you haven’t read, you darn well ought), but it’s also far more personal, and as such, I feel a certain vulnerability when I consider it becoming fodder for disagreement and criticism.
Still, here’s the other thing I’m learning: You can spend an entire life trying to avoid being perceived as vulnerable. Indeed, an awful lot of people do, and there are many aspects of our social and economic structures that both support and depend on this desired avoidance.
But of course no one can ever truly avoid it. We are all, on one level or another, and probably on many levels, vulnerable. And the sooner we acknowledge that, the sooner we say screw it, this is who I am and this is what I believe, the sooner we can get on with living life exactly the way we want.
February 21, 2014 § 33 Comments
Over the past couple weeks, I’ve interviewed a passel of adults who were unschooled, on top of the handful I interviewed a bunch of months back for an upcoming feature story in Outside magazine (September, I think; I’ll be sure to let ya’ll know when it comes out).
I conducted these interviews because it seemed the most honest way to answer the questions I often field from other parents, which generally revolve around my sons’ future educational “opportunities”. To be perfectly frank, Penny and I have absolutely no agenda regarding Fin’s and Rye’s path toward and through higher education. If they want to go to college, and can figure out the finances, good on ‘em. But we do not view college as being anything more than one of many options, and to be perfectly frank again, I am rather bemused by our culture’s obsession with college-level learning, which is rooted in the rarely-questioned assumption that higher education is a fundamentally good thing, an assumption that is itself based (at least in large part) in economic self-interest. How many times do we hear soaring tuitions justified by presumed future earnings? How often do we hear that college is the gateway to prosperity? The answers to these questions are, of course, many and often.
What if they want to go to college, these parents ask me, and I’m fine with it; I understand how deeply the assumptions underlying this question are rooted, right down into the compacted subsoil of what it means to be successful. In some ways, what it means to be American. What’s sort of interesting to me, though, is that no one asks the parents of conventionally schooled children what if they want to be free? What if they want to learn things they’ll never learn in school? Because as I’ve pointed out many times before, children only have so much time and energy. There’s only so much they can learn and do.
Still and all, I thought it’d be interesting to talk to some adult unschoolers, in part to see what had become of them, but also to learn what hindsight reveals about their atypical educations. And lurking unflatteringly in the back of my mind was the notion that perhaps these fine, upstanding people would provide fodder for my replies to the questions I field about my children’s possible futures.
Briefly, here’s what I found: The majority of unschoolers I spoke with attended college (8 of 9). Furthermore, every single one I interviewed who had attended college (some earning master’s degrees) felt as if being unschooled had actually advantaged them. The common refrain? “I wasn’t burned out on school like all my classmates.” I’d have to go through my notes to be sure, but I’m almost certain that every single one of them said something to that effect.
All of those who went to college found it remarkably easy to gain acceptance, although a few did have to take classes at their local community colleges before being accepted into their schools of choice (a brief sampling: UVM, St Lawrence University, University of South Carolina Law School, College of the Atlantic). Math seemed to be a particular weak spot.
Every single one of those I spoke with feels gratitude for their unconventional paths. Not a single one expressed regret, or wishes their learning had been different. They all feel as if the freedom to learn at their own pace, and of their own design, has imbued them with a love of learning they don’t see in many of their peers. Those with children said they plan to offer their kids similar opportunities, with the exception of one mother who told me her husband just wasn’t having it.
All of the unschooled adults I spoke with are gainfully employed, still in college, or parenting full time. Jobs ranged from political pundit, to carpenter, to farmer, to analyst for the federal government. None felt as if being unschooled had limited their employment opportunities.
Clearly, this was a pretty small sample. There’s no scientific rigor, here, and I’m not pretending otherwise. For all I know, for every unschooled adult I interviewed, there’s another dozen doing five-to-ten for mugging little old ladies. But it at least illuminates the truth that an unschooled childhood does not preclude a satisfying career, or meaningful personal relationships. Obviously, it does not preclude college.
In fact, after talking to something like a half-dozen consecutive unschoolers who’d attended college, I was somewhat relieved to find one who didn’t pursue higher education. Therefore, I can confidently say that unschooling does not preclude not going to college, either, and thank goodness for that: I’d sure hate to think Penny and I are limiting our children’s options.