Me Don’t Need No Education

July 27, 2012 § 12 Comments

For various reasons, I have been thinking about what constitutes an education and the ways in which our twenty-first century 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 this soon, but for the meantime, I thought I would post an excerpt from an essay I wrote for the current issue of Taproot

What is an education? Should it be one thing, and not another? It’s a silly question, really, a bit like asking what is a person? Should she be one thing and not another? I recall the time my father told his mother – my Grandmother – that I was working toward becoming a full time writer. She looked incredulous: “But he’s not qualified!”

Our boys’ names are Finlay and Rye, and they are ten and seven, respectively. It will probably not surprise you to hear that they do not practice formal schooling. “Unschooling” seems to be the contemporary term of choice for education based on life experience, although I’m not sure how I feel about it. I mean, is not doing something the same as undoing it? Or maybe we are schooling them; what is schooling, anyway?

Not so long ago, a few months at the most, I mentioned to someone that Rye does not yet read. She was shocked. “Really?” she kept asking. “Really?” As if this were some unconquerable failing that would haunt him all his life. I was not offended, for I know what the expectations are, what they have become. I know that by age seven, my children are expected to be reading, to be multiplying endless rows of numbers across a page, to be sitting for hours on end, bent over pencil and paper, or, more likely, a laptop or iPad. I know what they’re expected to know.

But in full truth, it’s what they’re not expected to know that interests me: To identify every tree in our woodlot from 30 paces. To butcher the hindquarter of a hog. To wield a splitting maul and use a chop saw. To make a fire. To know when a windrow of hay is dry enough for baling. To disappear into the woods below our home and return an hour later with a bag full of chanterelle and hedgehog mushrooms. Of course, this knowledge is not mutually exclusive to a conventional schooling experience. But a child cannot know everything; there are only so many waking hours in a day, and if those hours are passed inside the four walls of a classroom, or gazing into a pixilated screen, they are by default not spent otherwise.

Every so often, I fall victim to the manufactured educational expectations of our culture, and I worry that my boys will remain forever out-of-step with twenty-first century America. I fret over the many things they don’t know, and think, my god, I am failing them. Or I consider my own unlikely education, and my still-bloated ignorance, all the times it feels as if I know nothing or, if not nothing, then not enough.

Yet, this I do know: Whether by serendipity, stubbornness, or blind luck, I have pieced together a good and satisfying life far off the well-trod corridor of the assumed educational path, and it is the aggregate of everything I have learned and experienced that has led me here, to this exact place. In my wildest dreams, I would wish for nothing else.

When I remember this, I am reminded that perhaps the most crucial knowledge I can impart upon my boys is that an education, like a life, can be whatever one chooses. And what I want to say to them is, Go. Do. Be. I will teach you what I can. The rest is up to you.

§ 12 Responses to Me Don’t Need No Education

  • Gail says:

    Thank you Ben for a very thoughtful piece. My son dropped out of school at 16, got his GED and is working on “some college”. Both his parents are well educated and it was tough watching him on this path. I grew up on a farm and passed on as much “working” knowledge as I could to him but he is having to learn a great deal through working on farms and now, through the GMC intensive summer farm program.

    People are surprised at his educational choices when they meet him. He is very bright and well read. He just can’t sit in a classroom for long. I hope for him what you found – an education in the world, from experience and people he respects. It is an awesome thing.

  • jennifer fisk says:

    You are such a good parent.

  • Hannah Smith says:

    Hear! Hear! Of course, you are spot on Ben! My children, now 14 and 10, did not read before 11 and 9, respectively. Absent any pressure to do otherwise, now they are both voracious readers. They began reading when reading had relevance and meaning in their lives. At some point, they each realized there was a whole other world out there to which they wanted independent access.
    Arguably, learning led by curiosity is the deepest and most fulfilling form. As parents, it can be a huge leap of faith and SO worth it if we can tolerate getting out of the way of our children’s innate desires and drives. Thanks for putting it out there!

  • astoriaann says:

    Neither of my sons (who attended a non-traditional but still academic school) could read by age 7. The eldest is a great reader now at 11, scoring in the 97 %ile in reading on a standardized test but more tellingly, never without a (good) book. My other son has all the signs of a dyslexic brain and continues, at 9 to work at reading at his own pace. In neither case did pressure, force, or comparison with other children help. I very much wish we had the resources and skill set to give them the hands-on education you describe. Instead we teach them from our own menu of real experiences and skills, evaluating year by year whether a school environment will be enriching or not.

  • maggiemehaffey says:

    So much is wrong not only with today’s institutional educational model, but also with a culture hell bent on consuming and destroying all of the world’s natural resources within only a couple of generations. A new model is desperately needed. I firmly believe you are on to something in how you are raising your boys. You don’t really want them to grow up to be bankers anyway, do you? education is more about learning how to learn. It is up to you to show them that. The rest is up to their own curiosity and persistence.

  • freefalling says:

    Food for thought.
    (not that I’ve actually got any kids!!)

  • Angela Kelly says:

    I think your blog is fascinating and wonderful! Hello, I found you through Kate of longest , who inspired me towards the life my boyfried and I are now striving for. I can’t to read more about your life. :)

  • McKenzie says:

    Oh man, I am SO glad I found your blog today. Everything you’re thinking is just what I needed to read in between pulling weeds and supporting tomato vines today. I work at a Montessori preschool and while pretty much all of our students are learning their sounds and/or reading by three or four, we still don’t FORCE them into it at all. They want to read because it’s a gateway into reading cool books by themselves. We provide them with so many ways to connect with their environment, between a mud kitchen, multitudes of logs to roll around and paint with chalk, a firepit, chickens, a veggie garden, composting… but it makes me sad knowing there’s a limit to all of that. At home, these kids are rarely (if at all) exposed to things like butchering animals, harvesting crops, hunting…. you know, real life skills. And that’s why when my husband and I have children we would really like to “school” them at home. (Whatever that means…) It’s nice seeing that you’re doing just that. So what if your boy doesn’t read yet? Obviously he will when he wants to. That’s a staple of Montessori philosophy that I really support- taking the child’s lead.

  • Vonnie says:

    Ben, we have this internal debate all the time about whether our kids are getting what they need in school. Our oldest is considered “gifted” in his school and attends classes for 3 hours a week that allow him to actually be challenged, the rest is just boring to him. We do think that homeschooling them would serve them better, but are unsure if we are right. It’s something I’m researching. I wish we had a farm like yours to raise them on, it would make the choice a lot easier for us for sure. I’m a big, big believer in life skills and wish we had the means to make it more possible to give them more of that as well. ~Vonnie

  • Melissa R says:

    I just finally finished reading the first issue of Taproot. I have been squirreling it away for peaceful times and it’s taken this long to get through it all! Glad to know that you also have written in other issues and it wasn’t a one-time thing!

  • music to my ears, this piece.

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