An Unlikely Education

June 15, 2011 § 6 Comments

There are times it feels as if I know nothing. Or, if not nothing, than not enough. This happens most often in times of crisis or near-crisis: A sick animal, the tractor broken, some dysfunctional component in our solar electric system. I am not by nature overly resourceful or clever with my hands, and I often struggle to find the patience necessary to overcome these deficits.

And yet, I know I learn best when left to my own devices. I never finished high school, and although I completed my GED and a couple of half-hearted semesters of college-level learning, my formal education ended in my early teens, which is about the time I decided I’d rather hang out in the parking lot listening to Rush and Metallica, than sit in a classroom muddling my way through algebra and chemistry. I limped through until I turned 16 and could legally dropout, at which point I hauled ass out of the high school parking lot as fast as my $200 VW Rabbit could take me.

That I ended up writing for a living had little to do with what I was taught; indeed, I still struggle with basic things like, comma, placement, and whether I should be saying “he and I” or “he and me” or “me n’ her.” Fortunately, I have editors who are for the most part tolerant of my fumbling.

I am struck by this irony: I have been able to pursue writing as a career in large part because I dropped out of the formal education system, not in spite of it. If I’d finished high school, and followed the assumed path to college, I would likely have ended up with a burden of debt that would have precluded writing and farming as viable livelihoods. Which is not to say I would have wound up in a bad place; only that it would have likely been much different from so many of the factors that currently define my life.

It will probably not surprise you to hear that our boys learn outside the boundaries of the public education system. They learn primarily by doing, and by talking. Often, we read for literally hours each day, although at this time of year the primary focus is immersion in farm and nature. I believe strongly, perhaps obsessively, in reading; when I was in elementary school, I remember setting my alarm for pre-dawn, so I might have time to read in bed for a couple of hours before school. My parents knew, and encouraged it. They were wiser than I gave them credit for at the time.

Most of the time, I feel as if I know what I need to know. I have figured out how to make a living, meager at times, but almost always satisfying beyond the hard measure of dollars and cents. Crucially, it’s a living that allows me to pursue what I euphemistically term my “farming habit,” but which has clearly evolved into something far deeper than simple habit. For all of this, I am profoundly grateful. Things might have turned out much differently.

But of course my ignorance is still a bloated thing, and I often find myself admiring people who have a greater capacity to learn on the fly. Sometimes, I feel stuck in the strange niches of my expertise, unable to bend my mind around a new way of doing things, or a new skill altogether. I think about this a lot in relation to our boys, trying to figure out how I can teach them to be both independent in their thinking and learning, while remaining nimble and dogged.

They are so willing and able to learn. I just hope I’m able to teach them.



§ 6 Responses to An Unlikely Education

  • E. Baron says:

    Just remember that our kids learn from many, many people and lots of experiences of which we’re not even a part. Trusting that it will all work out, while doing the best we can as parents, is what it’s all about. We can no more blame everything that goes wrong on ourselves than we can take credit for everything that goes right. From my distant perspective, you’re giving your kids a lot!

  • It’s scary to share that information. I have what I can list on job applications as “some college” but I dropped out, too. I did theater. I delivered singing telegrams. I wrote for this or that local rag. I beat-mixed in night clubs through the 80’s and then did radio for 20 years-music, sports, news, production, v/o, even admin. And I did it all without a degree in performing arts or literature or business. Now I’m a micro-homesteader with plans to work a a 911 dispatcher, but I also write, podcast and vidcast. Choosing to work rather than get a degree was a great decision for me, and it never held me back from things I wanted to do. Luckily, I never had the urge to cure cancer.

    Higher Education is considered by many as a rite of passage, yet life lessons are discounted. I know 3 blithering idiots who have master’s degrees. The idea of Education is worshiped, but the true result of an education if often a kind of pronounced stupidity, and that stupidity is culture-wide. It’s been mass produced through education. Harsh? Sure. But your punctuation, Ben, is equal or better than that of the average college graduate. The demise of our language is writ on billboards, movie posters, and in articles published by “educated” people.

    The tendency to accept “expert” opinions and advice, and the tendency to reject complicated concepts that question popular ideas unless supported by “experts” is an unfortunate result of the mass programming we call “education”. The lack of critical thinking skill that plagues our society has been blamed directly on “education”.

    Although I’ve been judged for my “lack of higher learning”, I am proud to be self-educated. It’s a bit lonely at times, but so is thinking for yourself.

    Love your blog. Thanks for letting me sound off.


  • I have college degrees and a high school diploma. I’m very grateful for the experience and am glad I did it despite my student loans. I am the first person in my direct line of descendancy (hello made-up word) to attend college. I learned many things, although not necessary what they were teaching me, in college. I also learned a lot through the school of hardknocks and the Army. I don’t regret college.

    That said, I have always felt that autodidacts have much greater comprehension. I find that the things I teach myself are the things that I remember.

  • Wow, Jen! Thanks for the new word! And as long as we KEEP learning, rather than learning from one system and then figuring all our learning is done, I think we have endless gifts for each other…

  • Ben Hewitt says:

    Hi Robbie and Jen,

    Thanks for your comments. I sometimes wonder how things would have turned out if I had gone the assumed route (and it was assumed; both of my parents are highly educated). I’d probably be sitting here thinking “it’s a damn good thing I stuck with it and didn’t drop out of high school.”

    Who knows. It’s nice to have the luxury of considering other outcomes, without regretting the one you got, if that makes any sense.

  • [...] American expectations surrounding the learning process are failing us. (Big disclaimer: As posted here, my personal educational path has been decidedly atypical). I think I will have more to say about [...]

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