What Then?

July 23, 2013 § 21 Comments


Step one

Step one

From yesterday’s comments:

I’d love Ben’s and anyone else’s thoughts on how to control the “But, what if it’s not the right path?” nagging thoughts.  I’m very interested in unschooling, but worry because my child (she’s only 4, so I’m trying to keep some perspective) will opt to just watch movies for hours on end when allowed to make her own decisions.  How do you handle those fears?

And, not at all unrelated:

… we live in an environment that doesn’t want us to trust ourselves or our children for that matter.

I’d love to say that Penny and I have all this figured out, that we never feel conflicted or uncertain about the path we’ve chosen. But that would be a lie. What is true, is that the further we explore the path of self-directed learning, and the deeper our commitment becomes, the more aware we are of its benefits, and the less we fear that Fin and Rye are somehow not going to learn what they need to learn to lead meaningful lives as defined by them.

Step Two

Step Two

I am fascinated by the issue of trust, both as it pertains to our children – not necessarily trusting them, but trusting in them – and as it pertains to us. We live in a world full of experts, and we rely on them heavily. They tell us what to eat, how to educate our children, which medications we should be taking, and even what to wear. It is as if, having been bludgeoned by the overwhelming choice of the 21st century marketplace and the confusion inherent to such choice, we have lost confidence in our own abilities to decide these things for ourselves.

Of course, this is not to say that expert opinion is never correct, nor that there is no place for expertise. But as we become more reliant on specialists to guide us through very personal decisions, I think we risk the erosion of intuition and discernment. I also think it behooves us to consider the backdrop against which most expert opinion is formed. And when it comes to education, it is generally formed with the assumption that our children should be equipped to achieve a particular notion of success relating to college admission, career advancement ($$) and all the other presumed benefits of performance in the context of standardized, top-down education.

Step Three

Step Three

I’m busy as all heck, so I’ll stop there and simply crib from my upcoming book (see below). But first, I feel compelled to address Jen’s recent comment:

The message I get from your blog is that there is only one way to do a particular thing (your way). 

My intention for this space is to share my thoughts and my opinions – many of which are very strong and run counter to conventional so-called wisdom – as they are formed by my family’s experiences on this piece of land. As I pointed out to Jen, this is http://www.benhewitt.net, not http://www.allpossibleviewsexperiencesandopinions.net. Furthermore, it is not my desire to simply recount our days, but to encourage reflection and critical thinking, whether you agree or disagree with what I have to say. If it’s the latter, I am more than open to respectful discussion.

I don’t mean to sound defensive, but I’ve picked up a lot of new readers recently, and it’s important to me that this stuff is crystal clear.

Thank you, and carry on.

Addition, subtraction, writing, reading: All of these and more are necessary for a child – not to mention, an adult – to communicate with his family and community. But the truth is that they can be learned with surprisingly little effort, and in a surprisingly scant amount of time, and always in the context of a child’s true interests and passions. 

We have spent very little time teaching this information to Fin and Rye; indeed, we have found that they learn and retain it best when they are allowed to do so at their own behest. In other words, these lessons never happen as abstractions, but only as the logical outgrowth of their curiosity in other matters: To read a book to themselves, to determine the financial prospects of raising a flock of turkeys for the Thanksgiving market, or to write letters to friends and relatives. Recently, they spent three weeks preparing for Vermont’s hunter safety certification course; for hours each day they painstakingly completed the necessary paperwork, and it was as fine a lesson in reading, writing, and penmanship as anything Penny and I – or anyone else, for that matter – could have given them. Having witnessed this time and again, I am struck by just how much of our children’s time we waste on rote learning in isolation from other knowledge and experience. Even as I write these words, I can feel the frustration and even anger I knew as teen, the sense of my time being stolen from me just so I could meet someone else’s expectations of how and what I should learn. I am struck by how disrespectful this is, and how it cannot help but teach our children that their destiny is not in their hands. 

Does this self-directed approach sometimes mean that my boys do not “perform” to the standards set by contemporary educational assumptions? As a matter of fact, it does. For instance, Fin did not learn to read until he was nearly nine, and Rye seems to be on a similar track. Quite clearly, there are things that many of their peers know – some of whom attend school, some of whom don’t – that my boys don’t know. Or don’t yet know, anyway. Because I have seen that if I can let go of my fear and simply trust in them, they will learn these things, and they will do it happily, without anger or frustration or the sense that their lives belong to someone else. 

Of course there also is knowledge and experience contained in the vessels of my young sons that eludes the vast majority of their peers. That eludes the vast majority of adults, even. I see the way they move through the forest, stopping to pluck a handful of woods sorrel or chanterelle mushrooms, or to point out the scratch marks of a wild turkey or, in the winter, to stoop at a melted divot in the snow, sniff at it, and proclaim it the urine of a red fox. Everywhere, I see the evidence of their knowledge and learning: The multitudinous structures they’ve built, some of evident purpose and careful design, and some that appear purposeless. 

You might ask, what is the point of knowing these things? To which I can only answer, what is the point of knowing anything? By extension, we might both ask, what is the point of an education? Is it to be socialized to a particular set of expectations? Is to be granted membership into the prevailing economic model and the assumption that one’s happiness and security is best provided by this economic model? Is it to continue sawing at the few frayed strands still connecting us and the natural world? If so, than perhaps you are correct: There is no point to my sons know what fox pee smells like, or which of the wild mushrooms in our forest are edible, or how to make fire from sticks. There is no point to the ease and comfort with which they move through the wilderness. There is no point to their desire to help our neighbor get his hay under cover before the rain comes. There is no point to their boundless curiosity regarding the habits of the woodland animals. There is no point to all the little shelters and tools they’ve built. There is no point to any knowledge but that which will vault them ahead of their contemporaries in the race to secure their place at the top of the economic ladder. 

But what if, as I suggested at the outset of this book, the point of an education is not to teach our children to assume their place at the top of that ladder, but instead to surrender it? What if the point simply cannot be found or measured in the context of performance-based assessments, standardized tests, or projected lifetime income? What if the point of an education is to imbue our children with a sense of their connectivity, and not merely with other humans, but with the trees and animals and soil and moon and sky? What if the point of life is to feel these connections, and all the emotions they give rise to? 

What then? 

By the way, if anyone’s interesting in reading more about self-directed learning, I highly recommend Peter Gray’s book Free to Learn.


Hats! (and cats)

§ 21 Responses to What Then?

  • Mary Beth says:

    Absolutely! I could not agree more. Well said. Thank you.

  • Elizabeth says:

    I know for me it’s fear – afraid that my child will not have what she needs to be able to take care of herself, and also as a single, working parent it feels like I have to participate in the traditional public school and in order for her to succeed in that environment, I have to prioritize what is a priority in that environment. But I see that lack there, I see the pointless memorization in place of learning how to figure things out, how to understand things – how to even still know what you are interested in when there is no time to pursue what those interests are.

    • Ben Hewitt says:

      Hi Elizabeth,

      Thanks for the note. Just the fact that you’re thinking about this stuff is going to be beneficial to your daughter. A lot of amazing people come out of the public school system. Don’t forget that!

      good luck, Ben

  • Dawn says:

    I think this is one of the most passionate posts you’ve ever written and I am going to keep it for reference. I, too, remember the anxiety I felt as a child particularly around the math subjects and the dogmatic way they were/are taught. Your children are so very lucky to have a parent who gives so much thought to their happiness. I hope this will be in the upcoming book. I’d preorder it today, if I could!

  • emma says:

    “I can feel the frustration and even anger I knew as teen, the sense of my time being stolen from me just so I could meet someone else’s expectations of how and what I should learn. I am struck by how disrespectful this is, and how it cannot help but teach our children that their destiny is not in their hands.” Yes, yes, yes. This really speaks to my experience as well.

  • naturalearthfarm says:

    It is so true that there is no right or wrong path (formal school vs. unschool, etc..) – but a child being fully supported and loved on the path he or she is on and realizing that paths often change direction and the new directions will need more support – is what we as adults need to offer to the children in our lives.

  • Kelli says:

    G’day Ben,
    Thankyou so much for your post, your words resonate within me and have affirmed what i know in my heart to be true. In particular your last few sentences
    ‘What if the point of an education is to imbue our children with a sense of their connectivity, and not merely with other humans, but with the trees and animals and soil and moon and sky? What if the point of life is to feel these connections, and all the emotions they give rise to?’
    These thoughts have been strong in my own being for quite some time now.
    Many blessings to you and your beautiful family. Keep shining your light, by doing so you honour yourself and inspire others. Oh and boys that cubby house is awesome!

  • Jen says:

    To elaborate on my comment (I am Jen), I will refer to my situation. Three kids, homeschooled/unschooled. Oldest decided at age 14 that he wanted a “real” school and so we gave him one. He is that kid who strives for the grades, participates in competitive sports and (gulp) wants to go to law school. This is all him. As much as we try to create a path for our kids, they will inevitably make their own.
    And yes, while this is your blog with strong opinions (and not a day-to-day account of what you do), your public blog and opinion IMHO should be open to dialogue and maybe a different opinion every now and again otherwise all you will have is a bunch of cheer leaders telling you how fabulous you are. Your response was basically to tell me to stop reading.

    • Dawn says:

      I have a friend whose has one child who thrived in public school while the other preferred and excelled with an unschooling approach. So, I think you are wise to allow your son to follow his passion and learn in the method that best suits his personality. I think that is what all caring parents want to do even if their children chose a path we might not expect or anticipate.
      I don’t interpret any of Ben’s posts as closed to dialogue or differing opinion. In fact, I think his posts and comments to readers have always emphasized encouraging people to do what is right for them and their family, whatever that may be. Like attracts like and certainly people of a similar mindset are going to gravitate to his work and words but I don’t think this qualifies his supportive readers as mere cheerleaders. The beauty of the internet and blogs like Ben’s is that people can become inspired and gain knowledge from his experience that they may not otherwise have access to in their “real” lives. His words and opinions may provoke some challenging thoughts and discussions but that is one of the best ways to learn, I think. Even if you don’t agree with him, you’re probably more sure of what you DO believe after reading his work. I don’t think you should stop reading but, instead, join in the conversation and allow all of us to learn from your experience, too. Peace!

    • Ben Hewitt says:

      Hi Jen,

      Small point of clarification: My response was merely that if it’s offensive to you, I would recommend not reading. I know I don’t read stuff that’s offensive to me; there are far better things to do with my time.

      I am open to dialogue and divergent ideas, but I’m frankly not particularly open to sweeping, accusatory statements like the one that began your original comment. That said, I hope you continue to read and contribute if – and only if – you find something of value here.

      thanks, Ben

      • Chris says:

        this is ben hewitt.net…funny. be careful though because benhewitt.org domain is still open. one of us may claim it. watch out.

        seriously though. i requested the text that you recommended above. anything other stuff like that you could recommend would be good.

        Did you read Summerhill?

      • Ben Hewitt says:

        Read Summerhill a long time ago a neighbor gave it to me not long after I dropped out of high school. Don’t remember much, so thanks for the reminder, maybe I’ll read it again.

        I’m reading a great book right now that’s not necessarily about education (although not necessarily not about education) called the Continuum Concept. It’s been around awhile, so maybe you’ve heard of it.

        Only 1/4 in but loving it.

  • Mary Ann Cauthen says:

    A great writing!! Having homeschooled my fourth child (she is now 38 yr. old), I realize these were probably my happiest & most fulfilling years as a parent. She learned according to her interests, & we seldom used “school books” & never gave grades!! From third grade through high school, often I worried if we were doing the right thing & if she was learning what she needed to know, & she was going right along with her life learning directed by her interests & doing well. Today she has a masters degree in music education & teaches in an unconventional school in mountains north AZ. Provide a positive atmosphere, provide resources as child dictates & get out of their way!! Mary Ann

  • Mary Ann Cauthen says:

    Forgot – John Holt’s writings are great support of this type of learning. Mary Ann

  • Julia says:

    Re: Jen’s comments. One thing about blogs to keep in mind is that they’re not balanced reporting. They’re one person’s pulpit and that’s why I read them–to get that person’s take. Sometimes I disagree with what’s written and wish the blogger would consider and discuss other views or at least acknowledge that there’s another way to see things. But that’s their prerogative.

    Re: Unschooling. I am a teacher who went into public education to make it a better place for kids. I, too, chafe at all the conformity. There are places that require more or less of it, even in public education.

    I agree with some, but not all, of unschooling’s underpinnings. I love that kids learn things in context and that most learning is hands on. One of the things I struggle with is “follow your own interests.” For me there’s an equivalent paradox: good schools expose kids to things they wouldn’t seek out on their own and thus many a child has developed an interest in something they didn’t previously know about. Or taken a class they didn’t want to, but learned something important because of it. Like a lot of things in education, I fear unschooling may be misinterpreted as a free-for-all (remember whole language?). I also believe in the importance of public education’s role in our society. It’s not perfect, but just imagine if all kids were not entitled by law to a free and appropriate education. While I respect anyone’s right to opt out, I often wish the voices of unschoolers were heard more loudly by the school boards of America to bring the focus back to what kids actually need.

    • Ben Hewitt says:

      Thanks for the comment, Julia. I think your thoughts on the paradox of exposing kids to things they wouldn’t otherwise seek out is incredibly important. I’m going to be thinking about that one for awhile!

    • Dawn says:

      From what I have witnessed with home-educated children in my community, they are just as likely to become interested in activities and subjects outside of their immediate family’s daily lives as government or private school children. You may be friends with someone who shares your love of astronomy, for example, but they are also interested in building model trains (or whatever) and, by knowing that person in one context, you are exposed to the other facets of their lives, too. My husband coaches a youth air rifle team, half of whose members are home-schooled and the other attend private and public schools. Through their involvement in the rifle team, all have become friends and shared other activities they enjoy with each other such as camping, volunteer activities through their different churches, music lessons, etc. I think it is a misconception that home-educated children, even unschoolers, live in a vacuum. I see that they are exposed to things they wouldn’t seek out on their own simply by living in the world among other people and witnessing the multitude of things others are passionate about.
      I commend you for trying to improve the public education system from within. I have an aunt and cousin trying to do the same thing and their efforts, coupled with my belief in the right to home educate, have led to some very enlightening discussions. Best of luck to you!

    • Chris says:

      I too am a teacher who went into public education to make it a better place for kids. I left public education for other reasons.

      How well suited I am now to be a good parent who exposes kids to things they wouldn’t seek out on their own and developed an interest in …

      I find it funny when parents say that their 3 or 4 year old is interested in soccer and they run around in mobs and kick each others chins. I think it is safe to say that kids at 3 aren’t interested in soccer but in the love that their parents shower on them.

      Similarly, it is not a vacuum that these things operate in. Just because my kids live 15 minutes at 55 miles per hour from a gas pump doesn’t mean that Hector doesn’t sever throats in their heads. They’re not only interested in counting hayseeds.

      Personally, I think the point is that there isn’t a right or wrong at all. This is your trip. This is his trip and this is her trip. All the mistakes, all the misunderstandings, all enlargements… aren’t they beautiful? Especially the differences. I find those particularly beautiful.

  • sue patterson says:

    Someone in our unschooling group recommended this post. My kids are grown unschoolers (24, 22, 19) and I agree with you! I love the description of the kids in the woods… so peaceful and familiar to me. :)
    I plan to share this post with the Unschooling Blog Carnival – it’s always great to find new writers to include! (www.unschoolingblogcarnival.blogspot.com)
    Thanks for writing!

  • Todd says:

    Thank you for reminding me, an unschooler whose son is about to turn 18 that I need to stop questioning his motivation.

  • Avid Reader says:

    Avid here again, catching up on (and savoring) all these older posts (I stopped and ordered Home Grown from my local bookstore in the interim, read and enjoyed it so very, very much! As a youngster, I absolutely HATED school – despite straight A’s – and was indignant about all the time I was forced to waste doing and studying things that had no interest or relevance to me, not to mention that we always had to proceed at the pace of the slowest kid in class, who was probably slow because he/she was just as uninterested as I was). Your eloquent articulation of unschooling feels like personal vindication. So thank you! I for one knew there had to be another way to grow up. Stumbling upon Summerhill some years ago was a revelation…and then Alfie Kohn’s ‘Unconditional Parenting’ continued the thread of respect for children, ourselves and our dealings with each other and the world at large (a great book if you haven’t read it). I hope the reach and impact of your writing will save some of our next generation’s children suffering irrevocably under the reign of the current compulsory education system/climate in this country and the broader world. My godson and his siblings attend the Sudbury School, and if I have children they will be unschooled unless, of course, it is their desire to go to a formal school – I have a teenage nephew who was an only child, homeschooled initially, but eventually asked to go to school and his parents obliged him and he remains happily in a school of his choosing to this day. Children should absolutely have a say in their education, school or no school.

    Anyway, I find myself once again with a photo-related question. This post was something of a continued discussion of education but the photos appear to be of the boys making their own hats?! I am assuming from the pelts of animals they trapped? I so wish the photo titles had a bit more information on the process – what came between Step Three and the finished product!? I’m curious about the steps pictured, where the boys got the idea, pattern and instructions, guidance (Erik?), etc.

    Thank you, again, Ben for sharing these portions (essays & lovely photos) of yours and your childrens’ worlds with us, this is the only blog I frequent and it is a refreshing and intriguing space : )

    And please tell Penny some of us womenfolk would love to see more of her in front of the camera! Does she have any reading to recommend?

    PS – any appearances scheduled in the new year for the new book? I’ll be visiting friends/family on the east coast in January…


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