The Opportunity to Be

July 26, 2013 § 26 Comments

The beginning of an axe handle

The beginning of an axe handle

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.

With the exception of the two hours we spent listening to good, live rock n’ roll last night (the family that rocks together, stays together) and the subsequent eight hours I passed in deep slumber, I’ve been mulling over the above portion of Julia’s comment almost since I saw it yesterday. 

I think she’s right: Good schools and good teachers do expose kids to things they wouldn’t seek out on their own. Heck, even some bad schools and bad teachers might do this, however inadvertently. There’s no doubt that many a passionate interest has been kindled via this exposure. No doubt. 

Penny and I talk all the time about what our obligation is to expose the boys to different people, subjects, ways of life, etc, etc. We are keenly aware that by immersing ourselves in a rural community, we are in some ways limiting them: There is little racial and ethnic diversity here, for instance. And the subject matters of their days tend to be those that are inherent to this particular place, and no other. 

There’s no perfect solution to all of this. No matter how much we expose our children to, we  (and by “we,” I mean the royal “we,” which of course includes you) cannot expose them to everything. The world is such an incredibly rich and diverse place, and that’s just the tangible, physical world; never mind the interior world of emotion and spirit. There will always be things are children are missing out on, no matter how hard we try to expand their views and opportunities, because of course a child, like an adult, has only so much capacity to absorb and assimilate. They have only so many hours in a day, a week, a month, a life. 

All of which is to say, no matter how much we might like to think otherwise, we have no choice but to limit our children’s exposure to people, places, ideas, subject. Whatever our sons and daughters are experiencing at any particular time, means that by default, they are not experiencing something else. That’s just the way it is. 

For better or worse, Penny and I have decided to expose Fin and Rye to this place. To immerse them in here. Part of this is because this is how we live our lives; to do anything else would necessitate a wholesale restructuring. But equally, it’s because we feel as if place is important. True, it is not something we tend to revere as a culture anymore, and how could we? Americans move on average every 5.2 years, and travel and choice are widely celebrated in our society. There is not nearly so much celebration of settling in, of not traveling, of choosing to limit one’s choices to that which is of their place. 

I think about this a lot in terms of our culture’s assumptions regarding opportunity. We tend to think of opportunity – and no more so than when pertaining to our children – as being about advancement and accomplishment and recognition. Often, about expanded choice. But of course, these are not the only opportunities available to our children. Again, I don’t necessarily disagree with Julia; I think it is a fascinating and nuanced issue. As I did a couple of days ago, I’m going to take this opportunity (ha!) to draw from my upcoming book: 

When we speak of opportunity, if we speak of it at all, let us speak not of advancement and recognition, of triumph and success.  Instead, let us speak of the opportunity to function as a family, to focus our lifeblood on the needs of the heart, before allowing it to dissipate into the broader community and, finally, into the world at large. Let us speak of the opportunity to feel one’s own way into the world, to be allowed to unfold at whatever pace is dictated by the individual, rather than the institution. Let us speak of the opportunity to develop relationships that are meaningful outside the context of economic advancement and status, and perhaps even outside of the context of humanity. Let us speak of the opportunity to simply be. 

I guess to sum it all up, the things Penny and I are hoping to expose our sons to, by allowing them to immerse themselves in this particular place, are more interior, than exterior. They are not so tangible as all the wonderful people, places, ideas, and subjects we might seek out for them if we lived a different life. An incomplete list might include the sense that they do not stand apart from nature, that the world is full of small and quiet wonders right outside their doorstep, that their needs are few and that their contentment is not available for purchase at any price, that learning is something to love, that their time belongs to them. There are more, of course, but you get the point. 

Anyway. I’d love to hear others’ thoughts on this. And thank you, Julia, for a fascinating comment. 




§ 26 Responses to The Opportunity to Be

  • Kent says:

    A book published this year (“Lincoln” by Lewis E. Lehrman) reveals that Abraham Lincoln received fewer than 12 months of schooling. His personal growth was largely driven by a fundamental work ethic and a deeply held belief that all humans had the right of “an opportunity to be.” The struggle to provide the best for one’s own family deserves all the thoughtful discernment being exercised by Ben & Penny.

  • Philip says:

    I was lucky enough to have been exposed to many a diverse geography and this exposure gave me a broad range of experience by the time I was a teen. I was very lucky, but perhaps only later developed a sense of critical thinking and curiosity to understand what this larger world meant.

    I believe the very act of questioning you describe today’s piece is demonstrative of curiosity and critical thinking that can just as capably be fostered in a more immediate geography. Witness our forbears who for the larger population, journeyed less, but explored their ever enlarging world in the mind’s eye of their imaginations through books and discussion. I am quite sure that while time, circumstance and economics may define how far afield one may travel in all its meaning, it does not define the practice and exercise of curiosity.
    The counterpoint of equal value, a the sense of rootedness in a particular locale, your thoughts give voice to, [the German notion of “heimat” (sp)? a word that describes the sense of place and belonging]. I found this to be an equally satisfying only after fifteen years in one spot and moss started to grown on this formerly rolling stone.

  • Joanne says:

    I think Julia’s comment is one of many stereotypical remarks that the general homeschool population are being subjected to. Yet I can see why this would concern someone. As a society we put our kids exposure and free time high on the priority list often if it means sacrificing the family unit. I think many people are unaware of just how relatively new this modern education system is to human history. Just because it is mainstream today does not make it right (or wrong necessarily). I also don’t think it is worth the negative things that my children would be subjected to in the nearby schools (So yes, I am a homeschooler) It is in complete opposite in what has been the natural course of events (educationally) throughout human history. Of course I happen to believe in predestination… my children will be what they are meant to be. What matters is their moral character (which is diverse in its approach but much of it is Universal) and a desire to continue learning throughout their life. History is wrought with examples of those with little schooling, but a deep amount of self education.

  • Nancy Settel says:

    well I would say that you are exposing them to things that make them think for themselves and then this will make them more curious as they get older and if they want to expose themselves to other things they will be well equipped to handle what comes with that. You are giving them such a self assured foundation, sure nothing wrong with that!!! nancy

  • sally p. says:

    I believe in the love of learning, not necessarily teaching. I love to learn, but had to get out of school to really do so. Allowing our children to learn how to learn, and be excited to do so, is the best we can gift we can give our kids! My oldest cannot be taught, but supply books and materials and he’ll learn more in an afternoon on his own than I could’ve gotten into him in a week, or more. He’s a bright kid, but would do poorly in a school setting. My other two would bounce off of the walls…they were meant to run barefoot in the grass under the brilliant, blue sky! My husband lived abroad, being a military kid and all, and we now live half an hour from my hometown. Very different pasts, but we ended up in the same place, sharing the same life. And we are quite content with that. He never wants to travel again (he hated moving so much) and I feel no need (I am not overly ambitious, and very much content). Here, our kids have community and a safe place to explore and experience their place in this world and what it means to be human. Having livestock, gardening and diy-ing skills means we live with the seasons and are never without something meaningful to do. And my goodness, is there anything more exhilarating than that?!?

  • Wendy says:

    I have seen the positive and negative of both situations (moving around or never leaving one’s town) and think that so long as children are taught from a holistic and positive place of being, they will be open and curious to all that life brings them to interact with and less inclined to develop biases that perpetuate harmful thoughts and actions.

  • Chris says:

    I’m not the best at communicating my ideas but I think you’re on the right track. I think the important thing, at least for me (at this point), is to love those BEINGS who don’t see meaning outside the context of economic advancement and status.

    For me, it is most important to open my heart to them and to consider their journey wonder-ful and beautiful. It may be the only way forward.

    I don’t know.

    To take it down a level, hasn’t the best exposure to other ideas always been books? Our public library in the big city sells their used books for $7 a grocery bag full. Hardback kids books:The story of Prince Rama, My Dad John McCain, If I were a Dairy Farmer, Heather Has Two Mommies…

    Then there is TV. We didn’t make the digital transition for broadcast TV so our TV only shows us what we request from the library now. Non-feature films and kids movies rent for 21 days which keeps the late fees manageable. And my son is on a first name basis with David Attenborough. Sure it is the devil’s box and the boob tube but I personally have been ‘exposed’ to a lot of good ideas going through Morgan Spurlock’s list of documentaries, top 50 Bollywood films…

    Then there’s the internet. Talk about exposure. Yikes. Haven’t figured that one out yet.

    But if you’re point is distillation and truth again I think you’re on the right track (this is, right?) to look at primitive societies. I can’t remember if I told you to take a look at Jared Diamond’s new book. And, like I said, if you do the DVD thing, then Mark & Olly is an entertaining (if modern) way to start.

    But to ‘get back to basics’, Ben, the problem is the models. The problem is the models. The problem is the model. F**k a model.

    Mother Ann Lee was a prophet and she lived among the world and she loved the people of the world and the people of the world came to her and they built beautiful societies from your area in the northeast all the way to where I am in Indiana. And the world was a better place, I think, because people of the world could go to their societies and see them dancing and loving. But somewhere along the way they became a model. And they fell apart. Now you can buy a $20 shaker shelf to put your books about money on. If you will see God in that shelf or in any of your books, I don’t know.

  • Sandra Ragsdale says:

    I received what used to be considered a traditional liberal arts education, a mix of classical and Romance languages (Latin and French in my case), English and American literature, European and American history, and the basic sciences, biology and chemistry. I wouldn’t have changed anything about the curriculum, although there was truthfully some room for improvement in the methods at times.
    But I doubt very much if I would have ever become the Francophile that I am had it not been for my exposure to French in high school. It may sound trite to say it but I believe it’s true, that exposure to another culture is a very mind-expanding experience.
    Notice I’m not saying that homeschooling cannot provide all of the above. I am saying that traditional education sometimes is very good.

  • Even if you send your kids to school you are still their primary teacher…and will, through action or inaction, impact them for life. Live to be the example. If you are curious, they will be curious. If you are racist, they’ll pick up on that too. The nut doesn’t fall far from the tree.

  • kelly harp says:

    Okay, when’s that book coming out??! I resonate soundly with your comments on relationships. Beautiful.

  • CJ says:

    Interesting growth rings on the Ash tree. Is that an extra thick bark layer or were the last couple years quite stressful for the tree?

    • Ben Hewitt says:

      Probably looks interesting because it’s actually an elm. I’ve confused ’em before, too.

      The handle wood is ash, tho.

      • CJ says:

        Ah, that would make a difference. After I posted I looked again but didn’t even think of elm – they are so scarce around us now. We lost our last big one about 10 years ago. We have a picture of our house from the early 1900’s and the tree can be seen in the background. I also figured the length being split had to be ash and just assumed it was from the same tree.

  • Anne says:

    It is a complex question. I think at the root lies the saying of one of the colleges I went to: “Education is a journey, not a destination.” So much is focused on being educated as an endpoint, when really, it should be the jumping off points to other experiences.

    I would say that fostering critical thinking skills, questioning, and curiosity are things that are imperative yet seemingly lacking in our society- I noticed this both in my own attendance in various colleges/universities as well as within kids that I’ve worked with over the years. Being comfortable with these three things will help not only with self esteem/assuredness in approaching the world, but also give them the skills to deal with new ‘learning’ experiences in the future.

    The other thing that I think is huge is giving them the skills (above) to not only seek out new experiences, but also the nurturing of not being fearful of new experiences. I think a lot of reason that folks don’t seek out new experiences is that they are fearful- be it in a classroom discussion situation, a talk in front of folks, or going into a new neighborhood/part of the world. Of course, I could argue that some pieces of that fear are rooted in parental ideas that the kids unwittingly pick up (e.g. if they observe their parents feeling uncomfortable/uncertain in a certain social situation, so they learn to be fearful of the same.) If there is a lack of fear and general openness toward the world, there will be learning of all of the things you perceive the boys are ‘missing’ by being rooted in place.

  • dawn says:

    I am thoroughly enjoying the thoughtful comments your recent posts have generated and many have given me lots of points to consider. Thanks to all for sharing your opinions. Just another great source of life learning, no institution required!

  • Jamie says:

    In following ones interest you still will bump into people who share their thoughts and ideas that are different then yours, pick up a book from an author that broadens your understanding or do an experiment that leads you to the library to check out another book to explain what went wrong. If you give your child the foundation of home, family and the love of learning …. then that child has the wings to learn new things and have new interest for the rest of their life.

    Even in a closed society where everyone looks and lives in a similar environment everyone is different. Children learn from the whole community when given the chance. These people share their interest and that sparks the child to go learn more about that subject.

    In a society where we rush our kids from BEFORE birth ( just because the child is not born right on the due date doesn’t mean you need to panic dr) …… to learn to read before they even enter school when they should be running through the forest ……. to expecting an 18 year to know what they are going to do career wise for the rest of their life …. and that is not even taking into account the children who “make it big” and are on a down ward spiral by 25. I am not sure why we feel that we must cram so much into our children’s head or that they must have a life worth’s of experiences in 20 years. It really comes down to big business sells our society a bunch of nonsense. It is a big huge cycle that is all connected. ( Public schools are not a non-profit.)

    In disclosure: We have home schooled our 2 children since birth. Our problem has never been about not having enough interest, but just the opposite. Most of those years we lived on $30,000 or less. We have lived in the same house. Our curriculum manly came from the library and thrift store. From age 12 down was about exploring anything and everything. Hands on activities and play filled our day. I scattered odd ball things throughout the house and exposed them to different people in the community. As they have reached middle school and up we have started thinking about how we are going to finish up and call it done. We still check out an array of books and have a pile of rocks and sticks in the front yard. One thing that has changed is me making certain things a must on the to-do list each day (umm.. a little bit of math, grammar and writing). Even though my child have special needs and learning disabilities people are always amazed at how they love learning, ask well thought out questions and are very well rounded kids. We are not 100% unschoolers. We have allowed our children to be children though, which I think is one of the most important keys is raising the next generation of adults. I am also a certified PreK-8th grade teacher by trade who doesn’t know about everything in this world but keeps checking out books that peak my interest at the ripe old age of 36.

  • Claire B says:

    A wise woman once told me that as we raise and educate our children, we are seeking to weave a hammock. By a hammock she meant the type that’s made out of string. Yes, there will be holes in it, but it will hold a lot of weight (or ideas, as the case may be). It’s impossible to cover everything with our children, but if we give them a broad base (which includes sharing our own passions and interests), encourage inquiry and discovery, and are open to learning ourselves, then they are well on their way on life’s adventure. Who of us, as adults and parents, consider ourselves a finished product yet? Not me. My hope to to keep learning and growing until the end.

  • Bill says:

    “For better or worse, Penny and I have decided to expose Fin and Rye to this place. To immerse them in here.”

    Well said, and to my way of thinking that is a very wise decision. We are culture that has become unrooted and disconnected from any sense of place and continuity. If we as parents can resist that and work to change, then we should, in my humble opinion.

    During their lifetimes I’m sure your children will have exposure to a great many things. I can think of no good reason those things can’t wait a while.

    For what it’s worth we made a similar decision with our own children. Both are now college graduates, living life off the farm. Our son has a wife and daughter and has become a computer technician. Our daughter just returned from two months studying Spanish and volunteering in Guatemala and is preparing to become a vet tech. I’m convinced their childhoods here on the farm enriched them. I’m convinced they weren’t deprived of anything of value, to be found only in an institutional school.

  • Abbie Park says:

    I have faith that children have a strong innate desire to learn, to act upon their world with curiosity and care, and to make sound decisions to pursue what they choose. I have trust in my children, and in others, that they will follow their own path, seek out new and novel experiences, and go places I cannot bring them, if their natural desires to acquire knowledge and their courage and confidence to pursue their chosen experiences is supported, nurtured, and encouraged. Ben, I guess it comes down to human nature. I love learning. I’ve been able to learn how to acquire skills my parents could never teach me and meet people my teachers could never introduce me to because one thing led to another, and that is where I found myself. If you believe that we all are connected, our world and all the experiences it has to offer are connected, like a huge web, you can tug at one strand and a whole bunch come forth attached, you can travel to anywhere, anyway, anytime you choose. You only have to choose.

  • Kelly says:

    Interesting discussion. I think the benefits of school are not just about exposure to content you may not cover at home, but perhaps more importantly, people. It’s unsettling to me to imagine my children learning all that they need to know about the world from my husband and me. Of course, homeschoolers are likely to be seeking out all types of relationships, but with kids in public school, we have found time for that too. School ends at 3:30 and we have weekends and summers to go to farms, learn carpentry, budgeting, values, sewing, guitar, etc. For our family, we have decided to leave that 9:00 to 3:30 part of the day with the loving, thoughtful adults (teachers) of our neighborhood school and then spending all that other time on the stuff they don’t get to in school. They are exposed to plenty of kids who come from families doing life differently, and we consider that a part of their education. Works for us, but I think what you’re doing makes sense too.

  • may says:

    One of the most important reasons that I send my daughter to public school is because I believe in public education for the common good. I believe that public education is a way that each of us can contribute to benefits to society as a whole, instead of focusing on individual advantages. It is in everyone’s best interest to have an educated citizenry (educated here meaning with the ability to read, write, have some knowledge of the world). Unfortunately, if many of us who care about critical thinking, hunger for knowledge, thoughtful reflection, and intellectual curiosity opt out, the system is weakened, and there are many children–future voters, coworkers, and neighbors–who are negatively affected. For my own family, I choose not to exit the public school system but to use my voice to try and effect change within it.

  • Susie says:

    Hi Ben. I’m struggling with the issue of opportunity and exposure for my five year old son at the moment, so thank you for the timely post. We’ve decided to delay school and have just moved to a rural community. I am plagued by doubts everyday because my son doesn’t have any other children his age to play with (he would – if he went to school), I’m quite shy and take a long time to integrate into a new place so he is at the mercy of my ability to create social opportunities (he wouldn’t be – if he went to school) and I worry that I’m letting him down. But then I watched him set about the task of building a house from his own mud bricks today and I think ‘I can’t sent him to school!’. But still I worry – am I creating a lonely situation for him? I should mention that he does have a three year old sister and I feel all the same things for her too!

  • Pam Moran says:

    I greatly appreciate this perspective…. looking back, i would choose to consciously expose my children to much less. I think the simple life for young children is so beneficial in learning to just be, to be content with what is and to learn that this cannot be bought. I realize now that it is me who needs to be present and content so that i dont feel that i need to go go go to fill up myself in the name of exposing my kids to this that and whatever else. When they are ready…. they will move outward in their own time…after they have been filled up sufficiently inward! Thanks for expressing your perspective so well.

  • Glenn says:

    Please make him wear safety glasses before he loses an eye. Hitting two tempered steel tool heads can disperse shrapnel. Just say’n…….

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