The Things We Don’t Even Know to Look Out For in the First Place

Cutting ridge supports to length
Cutting ridge supports to length

There is much more to say about the pleasures of so-called “peasant labor,” particularly in the wake of my romanticized, self-satisfied babble a few days back.

I must first say this: Yes, I love physical work, and I have at least a middling capacity for it (unless wittle Benny gets a boo-boo, in which case all bets are off until I’ve fully rehabilitated my blister). And yes, it does occasionally feel to me as if the work I do to earn my moneyed living is, to quote something I read recently “white collar, desk-bound, pontificating bullshit.” So there’s that. But the larger truth is that I’m incredibly grateful to be able to provide financial support to my family in the manner I do, and the minute I stop being grateful is the minute someone should just haul off and slap me upside the head.

There was comment the other day about someone’s father or maybe uncle, about how he worked construction his whole life, never turning down the overtime, and now his body is a wreck. Maybe the work was good while his joints and muscles held up, maybe he actually loved it. Or maybe not. But either way, he did the good, honest labor, and it twisted him up, wrung the health and vitality right out of him.

The same day, I heard on the radio, on a call-in talk show, yet another despairing conversation about the state of our nation’s educational system, about how we really need to be sure we get more kids into college, about how we’ll never compete as a nation if we don’t send more young adults to university, about how it used to be enough to maybe get a high school degree, and then you needed at least two years of college, but now, if you don’t have at least a bachelor’s degree and maybe even some sort of post-graduate paper, well… you lose, sucka. I’d link to it, but I’m not willing to risk you wasting your precious time listening. Besides, you can hear the same damn conversation in a million different places every day of the friggin’ week.

These things are connected, of course. The wrung out father/uncle, the ceaseless lament about our nation’s ability to compete on the global stage and how we must push our children harder, funnel them more efficiently into the higher educational system, give them the tools they need to compete amongst themselves. Because we all know college graduates earn more money over their lifetimes, right? Because we all know the science-and-technology-heavy jobs of the future require more than a high school diploma.

Hey, I got a question for ya: Whose gonna build your fucking house? Who is going to saw the timber to make your toilet paper? Who is going to grow your food, make your clothing (what’s that? Chinese children? Ah, I see. No worries, then), fix your car, unclog your septic, maintain the playground with that neat merry-go-round your kids love so much? Who’s going to play the music you listen to on your way to work? None of these require college degrees. Not a friggin’ one. All are essential, honorable work. Way more essential and honorable than creating apps or yet another platform for posting selfies on the internets. Probably even more essential and honorable than writing for a living, though I’m loathe to admit as much.

Hey, I got an idea for ya: What if we, as a society, stopped worrying so damn much about our nation’s ability to compete. About our children’s ability to compete. What if we recognized that, sure, college can be a great thing for some people, and we should do what it takes to make college accessible to those people. But what if, concurrently, we stopped creating this manufactured stigma (is there any other kind?) about those who choose differently, and furthermore, we started paying them a wage commensurate with their role in keeping our society on its feet. Maybe then the commenters father/uncle wouldn’t have had to take all that overtime. Maybe then his body wouldn’t hurt so much when he wakes up in the morning. Maybe then children who are not cut out for college wouldn’t feel like second-class citizens. Maybe then they wouldn’t be treated like second-class citizens. Maybe then we’d stop destroying the biosphere in our clawing, kicking, screaming scramble to compete with other nations. With other humans.

I know many people who went to college, and many who didn’t. Maybe it’s just the oddball folks I associate with, but I honestly can’t say that those who graduated college are doing better than those who didn’t. Might be making more money, sure, but are they overall enjoying their lives more? Not that I can tell. Are they engaged in honorable, even righteous work? Many are. But are you telling me there’s something more honorable than selling firewood? Than milking cows or building houses? Fuel. Food. Shelter. Seems pretty damn honorable to me.

When people ask if I’m concerned about my children’s ability to gain entrance into college, I can honestly say that I’m not worried in the least. Partly, I’m not worried because I know that if they want to go to college badly enough – if there’s something they are passionate about learning that can only be learned in such a place – I know they’ll figure out how to make it happen. But the other reason I’m not worried is because I have seen with my own two eyes that it is still possible to build a good and worthy and fulfilling life without a college degree. Is it getting harder to do so? Yes, I believe it is. But of course the primary reason it’s getting harder is because we are gullible enough believe the stories we are told about education and competition. We listen to programs like the one I heard and we lament right alongside the invited guests and the call-in listeners, and our lament leads to worry, and so we bundle our kiddos up and put them on the college train without even considering whether or not they’re the least bit interested in the destination.

I believe that laments like the one I heard on the radio are built around a myth, one that is perpetuated because it serves broader stories of economics and success. This myth loves nothing more than people competing against one another for their share (and more!) of the resources our industries churn out. Like so many of the stories we are told and sold, it’s a myth that’s become so pervasive that we are no longer aware it’s anything but the gospel truth. And that, more than anything else, is what makes it dangerous. As ever, the things we should be wary of are generally not the things we’re told to be wary of, but rather the things we don’t even know to look out for in the first place.

Damn. All that and not even 5:30 a.m. It’s gonna be a hell of a day.

119 thoughts on “The Things We Don’t Even Know to Look Out For in the First Place”

  1. I completely agree with this. I think the prevailing college-or-bust mentality is downright dangerous, both for creating a monocultural mindset about what work we value and what we don’t and for potentially perpetuating a generation of debt-laden workers whose hefty college loans trap them in less-than-meaningful jobs.

    If my kids want to go to college and won’t be ensnared in debt, then good for them. But it’s not my ultimate goal for them. Thanks for writing about this very important topic, Ben!

  2. Too many people confuse “education” with schools. We get our ” true smarts” from so many places that have nothing to do with a classroom.

    (This is coming from one who loved being a student and thrived on teaching for 22 years. Although I taught English as a second language, my lessons were intimately connected to the real world.)

  3. seriously, ben. agreeing with dirk, that was quite a wake-up! not even sure what to say. might be your best post to date.

    and how about that vermont blue sky?

  4. Well, that is why ya write. You have the unique
    ability to nail it.

    Yes, pun intended.

    I could tell my story, similar to the uncle, but there are plenty hard luck stories.

    Thanks, man!

  5. WOW. Preach it brother! Amen and amen. Also, I love your homemade scaffolding system. So awesome. Milled yourself even, and true rough-cut 2 X 4 and maybe 2 X 10’s even. WOWsers. That’s some nice timber there. I reckon you did not forge the 2 nails I see in the photograph, but other than that it’s all pretty nifty!

    1. Ok, I’m caught up now. I see you bought the timbers from a local sawmill, obviously cuz you have so many fish to fry. Just as cool though! Plain old wood milled the old fashioned way. Beautiful to behold as well as work with. Enjoy your day!

  6. Ben, thank you for your honesty…..This is eye opening and heart warming at the same time. I admire your path, Robert Frost would be proud…

    Saludos from Mexico!

  7. Worry about competition? Worrying about competition we end up being owned by China. Hell, we should worry about getting out of debt as nation and individuals.
    College is good for one thing- it is the least creative way to run away from your folks. 🙂
    Apps can be very successfully created by brilliant kids who never did go to college.
    I am very much for learning, all the time, everywhere. My parents, in their 60s now, went back to school.

    Just watched documentary about Ramblin’ Jack Elliot, when he ran away at age 16 from doctor father and joined rodeo, he was told to go back, and finish HS, if you finish, they said, you can do anything, including cowboy rodeo, if not, all you can do is rodeo. Some truth to that, yes, PhD will not prevent you from farming. But made me think of a fine line of intuition perhaps and knowing your kids well enough and trusting them enough to know how much to “guide” them through those rambling discovery years.

    And last, but not least, Ben, you are optimistic about your weight and those 2 nails. 🙂

  8. Love this, Ben…you’re right, you’re downright full of it this morning. Makes me want to go out and accomplish something today! 🙂

  9. Well, as an almost-PhD who abandoned academia in the 70’s to become a carpenter & homesteader, I hear ya. Glad you at least have a somewhat realistic picture of the trade-offs. At 76 my body is showing signs of wear, and I still sometimes lie awake worrying about money–but basically I’ve never been sorry. I think you’re right in not worrying about your kids–they’ll be all right. I’ve passed some of my own inner conflicts around this stuff onto my own kids, but hey, life is complicated. Certainly no apologies necessary for being one-half smart-ass geek and the other half grunt. It’s all honorable. (Well, some of the hands-on trades you mention may be a bit more honorable than the manipulative brain shenanigans that have landed our culture in so much trouble, but we won’t get into that.)

    A couple of citations from my professorial side: 1) I hope you’ve read Matthew Crawford’s “Shop Class as Soul Craft,” brilliant disquisition on education, much in line with your ruminations. (A sequel just came out, haven’t seen it yet.) 2) Wendell Berry somewhere has a magnificent passage (which I should find and save so I can quote it) about how no matter how ingenious our efforts at ever-more efficient “labor saving” schemes, someone, somewhere, is going to have to do the irreducible basic work of survival–growing the food, building the houses, repairing the devices, tending the animals, etc.–that will always require getting one’s hands dirty. If I find it, I’ll send it along.

    Meanwhile, sail on, O Sage of the Dirty Life! And be careful with that chainsaw up on the platform. I long ago decided to always do that kind of stuff with hand tools, no matter how inconvenient, and am still sticking by it. At least avoid it on ladders. Cheers, Dan

    1. Dan, Matthew’s book is one of the best books I’ve ever read. A sequel? How did I not know this??

    2. Dan, I really liked your comment, just like many others you left. Thanks for recommending Matthew Crawford. Three books he has it looks, and World Beyond your Head is one that just came out. Very much looking forward to checking it out. Thank you!

    3. I just read the sequel, “The World Beyond your Head,” a few weeks ago, and it blew me away. Fantasic analysis of where our society is headed in terms of a crisis of attention, and more importantly, WHY.

  10. Brilliant. Agreeing with Heather that this might just be your best post so far. There’s just something so wonderful and astonishing about reading a person’s genuine “truth” – maybe because so many are afraid to write/say it out loud these days… great post – great writing. Thank you.

  11. Loved this! On a tangential note, when the Get Enlightened Retreat Industry cranked up some years ago and people began to pay for the privilege of chopping vegetables and sweeping and cleaning the bathroom floor with a toothbrush, I thought, why not take care of your own house and call it housework yoga. Won’t cost you a penny.

  12. Fuck yeah!
    It’s that hierarchy crap. And apparently technology is high up on the list….as we continue to destroy ourselves and the earth with it. Because that’s what smart people do, that’s what respectable, educated people do….obliviously destroying ourselves and everything around us is the goal! Fucking idiots.

  13. Awesome post. I went to a two year business college after I had a job for several years. Got grant money and a loan which I paid off myself. I think all college bound students should work at least a year at minimum wage so they get rid of their sense of entitlement. For some reason some college graduates get this really off the wall idea that they will automatically be put in a presidential position for their first job out of college. And alot of the teachers look down at anyone who hasn’t gone to college as well. I know some of mine did. Everyone has value and now I’m getting off my soapbox 😊

    1. Our son graduated in May with a MPA (Master’s of Public Administration). It was both a humbling and at the same time exhilarating experience to sit in the audience during the ceremony and be personally acquainted with what it took to receive a diploma. Each graduates’ achievements as well as what it means for their futures deserves respect. It’s a monumental accomplishment. It was working the minimum wage jobs that drove our son to want something more. He’s one of the nicest kids you’ll ever meet (gets it from his Dad) and has no sense of entitlement. He also now has a job where he’s making more money than his parents.

      1. My daughter is, too. Making more money than us, that is, and she’s happy. All through school I kept asking her are you sure you want to continue? Is this meeting your expectations and is it still what you want to do? The answer was always yes. And she worked her way through school. At minimum wage jobs.

        I remember when I was growing up. The choices for women were wife, waitress, teacher and nurse. I ain’t that old. The point is: choice! The point is: does it make you happy?

      2. Yes,…choices. And the commitment to follow through. I am incredibly proud of our son. Congrats to your daughter, Renee. And to you.

  14. Excellent. Yes, very true. My husband is an arborist–he loves trees and his life work is to protect them and educate people on their importance (you would not believed he number of people who want to cut them down because of those messy leaves–or maybe you would). But, in times when there are hurricanes or tornados or blizzards where trees take down power lines and crash into people’s homes, my husband is out from before dawn to after dusk, helping restore power and safety. It is honorable work. Thank you for recognizing that, not many people do unfortunately. But I am proud of him.

  15. Your post brought home a pretty painful image of my dad yelling at me when I was a pre-teen/early teen.
    He wanted, pressed, forced me to go to college, always bellowing that if I did not perform and comply I would spend my life wielding a shovel as a fuckin’ nobody…. He really made it sound like working with ones hands was below any standard. Well, you can guess what happened.
    I spent and spend a good portion of my days wielding said shovel, both literally and figuratively… and I am enjoying myself! I love what I do; being outside, doing physical labour, fingers in the soil. It’s not that I’m an idiot. I got the brains to roll through college easily if I wanted to and get that executive office job…
    But the very thought is revolting…. and now I find myself telling my kids that they should follow their hearts in what they want to do, but that they also should learn a trade; become skillful with hands and tools.

  16. If my kids were still college age, i would most certainly advise them to consider learning a trade instead. Even in a economic crash, there will be need for plumbers, welders, FARMERS, electricians, carpenters, etc. It is honorable work.
    Martin Luther King, Jr. is quoted as saying:
    All labor that uplifts humanity has dignity and importance, and should be undertaken with punishing excellence.

    We are in process of building a small simple barn on our New Hampshire homestead. The 70 year old gentleman who is working the track hoe to do the land moving, told me “I have never worked a day in my life. I wanted to do this since I was 11 years old. I have done it now for 50 years, and it never feels like a job.” And he is really, really skilled at it, too.

    there is certainly something to be said for finding work that aligns with your passion, however simple, humble, or otherwise overlooked by our society, and pursuing it. It becomes a LIFE, not a LIVING.

  17. I try to keep a super low profile and never comment…..but…wow! Who’s going to build your fucking house? That woke me up this morning and gave me a good laugh. And you know what, its my husband who never went to college, worked for years learning his craft then started his own business…..thats who is going to build their fucking houses.
    Its also him that at the end of a hard working day I find sitting in our hammock, sipping on something cold while watching our (unschooled) girls chase the chickens through the garden.
    We smile at one another, because we know we have chosen to live a life we love instead of believing the bullshit they tell us leads to a happy and successful life.
    And personally their is nothing sexier then a man who comes home with dirt on his boots, saw dust in his hair and a big smile on his face.

  18. So…I will admit that I’m an MBA student (and do trawl Ben’s posts and have read a few of his books, along with Wendell Berry’s works). Needless to say, I’m not your typical MBA student. My goal is not to work in NYC (or any other large city), but live much farther out doing something good for the environment.

    As an MBA student, I’ve learned that so much of grad school, undergraduate studies are things that can be learned on the fly, but that you are paying for the network, not the education. I’ve got an engineering background, but helped to start a green design/construction company. While the engineering didn’t really help (don’t tell my home build clients this), the network did help.

    This network is not the exclusive domain of colleges and universities, but is built within communities. As people uproot and move around, a personal network is not built, but rather destroyed. Imagine how a plant would perform if you were to pull it by it’s roots to place it in ‘better soil’.

    Networks are the domain of real people making real connections within their community. Those are the happiest people doing the most meaningful work.

  19. I am glad my daughter grew up on a homestead, being an unschooler. She had friends in our town whose parents were obsessed with gettting the girls in the best colleges. They had substance abuse issues, eating disorders and were suicidal 😦 That’s what happens when a kid is pushed to fulfill some else’s ideal. My daughter does not owe crushing student loans like so many of her peers, thus giving her more choices in life, not fewer. Higher education debt, pharmaceuticals and chemical farming are all the same thing….poison that costs lots of money and slowly kills what it is supposed to help. Follow the money. We are lead to make choices that enrich the 1%, not us.

  20. This may be the only post of yours that I couldn’t agree more with. But what kills me is that basically what you’ve said is just common sense. Which as we all know isn’t that common. I feel for the students trying to make it through college that really shouldn’t be there at all.

  21. When part of the body, i.e. back, starts giving out from carrying bundles of shingles around, you switch careers. My husband changed from general construction to licensed electrician. Despite all the advice, our son is a self-employed carpenter. He’s doing fine and does not want to consider electrical or plumbing apprenticeships. Now almost retired, my husband can work sometimes, if he wants, at a good hourly rate. Our son did learn to weld but did not care to do it full time. I’m very proud that our son has a variety of skills and is excellent at making contacts and networking. He is a fairly good mechanic and was able to replace a broken axle on a jeep miles from any road. Of course, he and the people he was helping had to camp out overnight in the wilderness but they knew to always go prepared. Friends brought a new axle the next day.

    It’s critical for parents and grandparents to teach skills to the young ones.

    Not only that but gramps built our little grandson a sandbox out of recycled lumber. Only cost was buying hinges for the cover. Even at age 3 he enjoys helping in the garage and shop so when he had some spending money he bought a child size broom and pan instead of a toy.

    My son was lucky and his father before him that they could work and earn money while still in high school. Our son actually started his own yard work business when he was 13.

  22. I’ve been reading your posts for a few years now and I have to say that I think is your best yet.

    My own husband worked what seems like a zillion hours overtime to pay for our daughter to go to college.She is now a college graduate with an advance degree. Guess what, she’s a bartender and she loves it and is doing really well in the hospitality industry. Doesn’t think she’ll ever really do anything with her major. Who knew? My husband wishes we just bought her a new car instead of a degree or maybe put that addition on the house we always dreamed about. She’s happy, my husband isn’t. I’m just glad she can support herself and is doing well.

    My son decided right out the gate he wasn’t college material. He’s doing quite well as an elevator mechanic after taking all the necessary classes and training.

    My other daughter withdrew from college to get married and go with her husband while he was in the military. She has a great career as a veterinary nurse and guess what, no degree again, on the job training by fantastic doctors.

    All of these jobs are great jobs, didn’t require a degree and my kids are happy, healthy and living productive lives. I couldn’t be prouder.

    1. If you’re talking about economic competition, hopefully never. Unless you think living in a place like the former USSR would be nice.

      We should thank God we live in a free market system where individual drive and hard work are rewarded. We have a quality of life today — health, education, personal comfort — that our ancestors could only dream of. Those who feel that these blessings somehow weaken them spiritually are of course free to live their lives accordingly.

      I don’t think that competition is what’s rotten in our society…I think it’s complacency, entitlement, and broken families.

      1. In the sense that the gov’t doesn’t totally control the economy, prices, etc., yes we do. Of course, we have a massive social welfare system and with ideas like a “living wage” we are moving further away from the free market system.

      2. Oh, and the U.S. — for the time being — still places a high value on private property rights. Something I am sure you are grateful for?

      3. I can see what you are suggesting, but perhaps competition is the vehicle which drives everyone off course to become complacent, have a sense of unreasonable entitlement, and smashes families to smithereens.

  23. Speaking of honorable jobs, I’d like to add garbage truck and recycling truck drivers. We live in a neighborhood with weekly pick-ups for both trash and recycling and I often think about the guys doing those jobs. They are out in all of the elements, deal with a lot of shit (sometimes literally), and nicely get rid of everybody’s junk. I think that I’m probably right in saying that most parents don’t encourage their children to become trash/recycling guys. But since everybody wants to do good by the environment and recycle their plastic water bottles and cardboard boxes that held their 36″ flat screen TV, the people who enable that to happen should be held in a little higher esteem.

    1. Your comment made me think of the little kiddie cartoon Trashy Town – since you have a little one. I thought it portrays the trashman is a positive light.

  24. I just don’t know when looking down yer nose at folks with physical jobs became the norm. It’s a sad thing. This is one of your best Ben! Thanks.

  25. Great piece, right on target. I would add nursing aides and preschool/daycare providers to the list of hugely important work categories that are paid terribly.

  26. While I find myself in agreement with much of what has been written here, I nonetheless think that the situation is not as simple as many here are making it out to be.

    Yes, it’s probably not wise to send everyone to college. Having said that, the nation really is facing a massive shortage of skilled workers. Case in point, a friend of mine worked tirelessly for two years to get a group of investors to locate a small manufacturing plant in the county in which he lives. The plant was to make cabinetry for healthcare facilities and labs using CNC machinery. However, as the project progressed, it became clear to everyone involved that it was simply not possible to hire enough people with the prerequisite skills to make a go of it in the location. The machinery required the operator to have at least a basic understanding of both computer programming and CADD systems, and the local schools were just not turning out people with these skills. Eventually the group decided to go elsewhere.

    And it’s not just the manufacturing segment of the economy that requires an ever growing set of skills and knowledge. Practically any job one can think of is becoming ever more complex. Don’t believe me? Walk into the HVAC or mechanical room of a modern building sometime. Or pick up the blueprints for a “energy-efficient” residential building. Oh, and this isn’t even taking into account the fact that the US is probably a full decade behind most of Western Europe and the developed parts of Asia when it comes to these areas. Even farming is becoming more complicated. Another friend of mine runs a small grass fed beef operation. He told me not long ago that he spends just as much time behind the computer looking at Excel spreadsheets as he does out in the fields with his cows.

    Again, none of what I’ve said here is meant to imply that college is right for everyone. Honestly, I don’t know what the answer is. Trade schools? Community colleges? Apprenticeships? Maybe. But what do we do with the kids who don’t want to, or for whatever reason can’t go one of these routes?

    1. Seems to me business expects someone to provide tailor made fully trained employees to fill ever more specialised roles. Business then works these employees half to death, then spits them out when technology moves on, or there is a brief downturn in trade. Can anyone se a problem with that?

  27. I mostly disagree with this post.

    Your view of the World is very “Vermont-centric” and Vermont is not the America that most American’s experience. Vermont is very rural, with only 14 employers with head-counts over 1,000. 6 ski resorts, 5 hospitals, IBM, Middlebury College, and something called The Grand Summit Hotel in West Dover.

    While I believe that Fin and Rye will be well prepared to be subsistence farmers, I feel equally strong that they are likely to struggle in college, due in great degree to their lack of formal education.

    Sometimes, the tone of your anti-education rants comes across as a justification for your chosen path. Or so it seems to me.

    1. I disagree. If you look at the history of unschooled children you would find they excel in college, if that’s the path they choose, because they are “self-motivated”

    2. I must agree with Jeff. I respect Ben’s views on government education; however, he is clearly raising his children under an ideology that is even narrower in some ways than the public schools offer.

      I also think Ben is glorifying manual labor. Many of my students are recent immigrants from Central America, and they are desperate to get a decent education so that they can quit bussing tables and digging ditches. It’s great if you can afford several acres and be a part time homesteader where all the physical labor you do is for yourself….I am sure that is very satisfying.

      Physical labor is satisfying when you choose to do it; if you are forced to do it, not so much.

    3. I think your definition of “education” is pretty narrow. Maybe to justify your chosen path?

      1. If you are replying to my post, my definition of formal education is K-12 in some sort of sanctioned/approved program, either private or public, secular or non-secular. As far as college goes, I think that all American children should be required to spend eighteen (18) months after they turn eighteen (18) or graduate from high school in some sort of public service program. Such a program would have multiple benefits to all parties.

        Everybody has an “I know a (fill in the blank) who beat the odds and was the exception to the norm” story. Both my Father and my FIL were forced by circumstances, The Great Depression, to lead school without graduating from high school. Both left multi-million dollar estates, but both regretted their lack of a formal education and both encouraged their children to seek the education that they were denied.

        Whatever you do in life, you have to be prepared in order to succeed. Some people require a lot of preparation, hard work, and some less, natural ability, but all require some degree of preparation. As they say, “fail to plan, plan to fail”.

        If anything I write offends you, well, so be it. I don’t intend to come across as being rude or boorish, but I don’t believe in the philosophy of “unschooled” and think that you are doing your children a huge disservice by denying them any exposure to formal education. The choice is yours to make, but I think that it is a sub-optimal choice.

    4. I do believe that the America/Europe/world most Americans/Europeans/people experience is a faltering and abusive society, based on false assumptions, exploitation of the masses and tons and tons of lies.
      Our education system is based upon drilling kids to become compliant adults, docile consumers, bound hand and foot to a system that exploits them, lies to them and sucks them dry in order to channel more wealth to the chosen few.
      Kids like Fin and Rye do not fit that bill. They can take care of themselves, find their own way and I guess they often will have a view of the world that is most unwelcome to the ruling class.
      And I often have the strange feeling you Jeff are desperately trying to be a docile minion in the middle class; shunning the ones that do not comply or are below you and serving the ones above you in order to safeguard your place in our glorious modern society.

      I do believe the “Vermont”-way will largely be the way kids like Fin and Rye or their kids will experience the world in times to come.

      1. I’m a happy and docile minion. I run a multi-million dollar company, I have lots of material wealth, I have a happy marriage, and smart, successful kids. As far as serving the ones above me, I don’t know who those people would be. I raise corn, soy beans, and cattle that are sold either on contract or on the open market. I pay my taxes, follow the rule of law, consider myself to be a conservative, and pretty much ignore that which doesn’t concern me. I work at living a life that would fall within the parameters of “The Golden Rule” of doing unto others and I would have others do unto me. I am also a fan of the Boy Scout Law, twelve words to live by, in that a good scout is trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean, and reverent. I struggle with thrifty, as I am somewhat of a spendthrift and indulge myself more often than I should.

        Population wise, America has been more urban than rural for around a century and I sincerely doubt that it is a trend that is going to reverse within this century. Vermont is much less special than some would believe it to be.

        Or so it seems to me.

    5. What part of subsistence farming, doesn’t involve struggles you have to overcome either, Jeff? You broke the Golden Rule. If you had the opportunity to succeed, no matter where you started from – so do others.

      1. I don’t understand your response. I don’t believe that I have injured Ben or his family, therefore I haven’t broken the Golden Rule. If anything, I have provided a sincere counter-point to the fawning response of the legion of sycophants. As they say, “If everybody agrees with you, you must be wrong.”.

        If someone thinks that I’m doing wrong, I’m happy to listen to them, but I reserve the right of every free citizen to disagree and do things as I see fit. I think that everyone has the right to succeed, but many fail because they are ill-prepared for success, either by their own hand and because of the environment in which they were raised. Many others have the skills to succeed, but fail to have the courage to seek opportunities outside their comfort zone or they are intimidated by every hurdle in their path and quit. Winners never quit and quitters never win, it is and always has been that way.

      2. The Golden Rule, is about choosing to be a hypocrite in your dealings or not. While giving yourself and your family, the benefit of the doubt, of whether they would succeed at what they put their minds to – you didn’t extend that same courtesy to Ben and his family.

        Should they choose to embark on a more formal education, why should your ideas, of where they were born or how they were raised, matter? It will be what their father taught them about themselves, and how, what they did, mattered.

        That sense of identity is transferable across any chosen profession in life, whether it comes with challenges or not.

      3. What??????

        “Putting your mind to something” is all well and good, but it is pretty hard to be a (fill in the blank) without an adequate formal education.

        I don’t believe that I ever said that Ben didn’t have the right to raise his kids however he wants, I just said that I think that it is a sub-optimal choice that will leave Fin and Rye with limited choices.

        The fact that school wasn’t Ben’s strong suit doesn’t mean that denying it to Fin and Rye is a good thing for them. Without having experienced it, they won’t ever know and at their ages I think that it would be hard from them to integrate into that world even if they wanted to.

      4. It all depends how you get your formal education. There are other avenues than the ones you’re familiar with. Ironically, I learned this through my husband who didn’t graduate from high school, but had become an executive in his trade qualification. His next step was to become a Trainer Assessor, so he could qualify apprentices in his industry. This is when he did assignments on Adult Learning.

        There is a plethora of opportunities for Adult Learners, if you are well versed in them – and how best to communicate the steps. This will not only grant trade qualifications to individuals, but lead to the pursuit of Degrees. Its called Recognition of Prior Learning, or RPL’s. At least in Australia. I don’t know how the US terms it, but they do have a facility for Adult Learners entering formal education.

        If you want to know how Adult Learning came about, research Malcolm Knowles and the principle of Andragogy he founded.

        Just because you haven’t experienced those other avenues to K-12 and college, doesn’t mean they don’t exist for those who pursue qualifications later, as adults. If you were wondering as to the what and the how, of “putting ones mind to it”, there is the formal answer.

  28. The idea is being bandied about, and even tested in some European cities, that universal guaranteed basic income will be
    a fact of life in our brave new world. The thought is that there aren’t enough jobs for everyone now, there will be fewer and fewer jobs as technology replaces people more and more, and that to stave off civil unrest, governments will be forced to provide everyone a guaranteed minimum income. This is a serious proposal, believe it or not.

  29. One thing that would help is to have really good high school vocational counselors that could guide students as to whether or not to go to college.

    1. On the surface, this approach has merit but, then again, there are no crystal balls. I know a young lady who was told by a high school counselor that she wasn’t cut out to go to college. Funny how some of us react when told we “can’t” or “shouldn’t”. She is an extraordinary individual who went on to become a pediatrician. When we showed up for our sons HS graduation, we literally did not know whether or not he was going to walk across the stage. It all hinged on the results of one exam. His math teacher found him before the ceremony and informed him that not only did he pass the exam, he got the highest score in the class. Amazing what one can do if one decides to apply themselves. (One of the reasons why he has a permanent flat spot on the back of his head brought to you by yours truly!) I wonder what kind of advice a counselor would have given him. He is currently considering studying for his PhD. Point is, you just never know. We should never limit anyone, or ourselves for that matter.

  30. Very great thought provoking post.

    How I define “we”: the whole human race.

    Why can’t “we” just have better education? We’ve got the goods if we want it. Why can’t “we” have flexible formal schooling? Why can’t “we” have creative formal schooling? Why does it have to be get yer learnin’ in the ditch as best ya can or… you don’t have a Harvard PhD so you’re behind the eight ball?

    Where is middle ground? Where are allowances for individual creative expression?

    I just think – in general – that we as human beings tend to think in ruts and love our rut and damn all the other ruts as deficient. When can “we” start thinking outside our own personal ruts?

    (Maybe we’d just drive into another rut and get stuck there.)

    But maybe not. If it has to be a rut maybe it can be a rut that is so wide as to include every way of thinking except narrow thinking.

    Just so we’re clear I’m against looking down the nose at laborers. I’m against any looking down the nose at anyone. Any normal person. Hitler types are not to be tolerated. Not that open minded.

  31. “…it’s a myth that’s become so pervasive that we are no longer aware it’s anything but the gospel truth. And that, more than anything else, is what makes it dangerous…”
    Rings so true, pick any category, such as ” Vaccines are safe,” GMO’s are safe,” Government regulatory agencies are looking out for our best interests,….. Pay attention, “follow the money”

  32. Thank you Ben for this post. Nourishing rant. Seems like same old story: doers and checkers. Doers complain the checkers have no common sense, commodify everything,treat people like a number. Checkers complain doers don’t get the big picture, look for shortcuts, don’t think long run. I read all the comments but still can’t figure it, will I get more nookie as a cool dude laborer or a pink fingered college boy?

    1. 😀 nookies for independents.
      Never take sides my grandma said, you never know when things will change.

      Jeff, I agree about Ben’s ‘Vermont-centric’ view, and that rural life and manual labor is not for everyone. It makes me think of that great article Ben wrote about the young couple who were toiling from the first ray of sun into the late dark. No way I would want to do it seven days a week, unless it was life and death situation.
      On the other hand, those suburban neighbors of mine, white collar, who rush to drop off their kids some place, then take an hour commute at 6 am, get back home at 7pm, then rush kids to soccer, themselves to gym – I have no idea how they do it.

      I say any lifestyle that requires more than the good old European 35 hours of work a week is insane. 🙂

      I very much doubt that Fin and Rye will struggle in college. Thinking of myself, a peasant immigrant, with poor English, not knowing the system and requirements in American colleges…

      Or they will skip college and offer some expensive foraging classes to all the white collar suburbanites.

      1. I don’t agree that Ben’s view is “Vermont-centric”. The way his children are learning reminds me of the 4-H program “4-H grows confident, capable, and caring kids with the life skills to thrive in today’s world and succeed in their boldest dreams for tomorrow.” Kids need to learn useful skills and gain confidence in themselves. They need to learn where to get information and how to get places. They need to build the attitude that if there’s a problem, they’ll be able to figure out how to fix it. Our educational system tends to cater to the upper ranks and ignore the middle. Over the years of k-12 there were school projects assigned that required skills and materials not provided by the school. That’s not even fair even though our son tended to do the best on those kinds of projects.

        Thanks to his initiative at age 13 to start a yard work business, he had an income that resulted in lessons about mutual funds and savings accounts. The yard work business led to a steady p/t job cleaning a dog kennel, keeping records, learning how to give shots to puppies, and training dogs. It also involved an encounter with a moose which became the subject of a school science project while other kids were making models of the solar system.

        In other words, Ben’s kids might give expensive foraging lessons to white collar suburbanites or they could become successful writers or videographers (gosh, David Carroll, a MacArthur Genius Award Winner comes to mind), or maybe go into the handcrafted leather apparel business or maybe precision machinists for a NH manufacturer.

        It was through 4-H, I got a chance to hear Drew Conroy give a motivational speech about how his parents tried to talk him out of raising oxen as too old-fashioned. Drew became an international authority on working oxen, a university professor, and world traveler not to mention one stint as an animal handler in a Hollywood movie (since he owned a breed appropriate for that era).

        If Ben’s kids are competent people, they’ll figure out what they need to do next. Nobody is going to have to tell them.


      2. Totally agreed, loved your comment. Not to discuss Ben’s kids here, but I do have complete confidence in most unschooled kids (in all kids, really), and that they can become anything they like, in fact, exactly what THEY like and can do it with incredible passion instead of stumbling through life doing what someone else expects you to do.
        Our “centric” views – the good and the bad – do stick with us probably more than we want to acknowledge, I am super guilty of that. And that is all I wanted to say.
        Thanks for the 4-H reminder and great story on Drew Conroy! We watched some cardboard boat races yesterday, all ages 0-73 competing in their handmade boats made of cardboard, glue and paint, and it was inspiring to see kids work with such passion, ingenuity, patience and teamwork. 🙂

      3. People seem intent on putting others in a box and then labeling it. There are many ways to grow a capable, caring and confident child that inoculates them against a minion mentality. As with any decision, there are pros and cons. “Where is middle ground?” Good question Renee.

      4. Karen, I am reading Jeff and Ron battling it out above, and I feel like in education it is exactly that as of now – the middle ground is missing. My kids are little, 4 and 7, and over the last 2 years I had researched all options available in our area. Not too many ‘middle ground options’ available around here, although I heard some more progressive places do have options. For children under 10, I would like part time options to participate in semi-class setting, but there simply are no such options. People are getting more creative in using what is available, or designing their own ‘schools’, but we are still so primitive about education. For it to change will have to be pushed out from the grassroots, just as always.

      5. Bee, Please know that my comment wasn’t directed at you personally. All the negativity has hit a nerve. Truth is, my son works for a prominent university and my husband has a newly acquired teaching certificate. Come August he will be working with inner-city kids teaching them middle school math. And so I ask…Whose going to do that? Is that not honorable work also? I believe it is. And very much a “labor” of love.

      6. No worries whatsoever, Karen. Definitely noble labor of love. And while we have inner-city kids all we can do is to do our best to keep some of those young dreams and hearts alive to guide them out of inner cities or to inspire to transform inner cities. Best of luck to him lots of strength. My friend is an occupational therapist at early intervention state program, and she says the hardest thing emotionally is to see a child doing a little bit of progress, but to watch parents who are indifferent or even sabotaging child’s progress. She feels like blowing against the wind. We say system is broken, education system, healthcare system, but “systems” start with people, perhaps broken people propagate broken systems.

    2. Babes just love it when guys comment on blogs about getting nookie. I can tell you’ll go far regardless.

      1. Babes just know what’s on guy’s minds. Although I am no babe, just a vanishing bee.

        After I read Renee’s comments about the ruts, I had hard time sleeping, having nightmares of these “ruts”, widening and deepening and turning into WWII trenches.. Watched entirely too many WWII films (that was about 80% of all Soviet TV) and that feeling of being in the trenches seems all too realistic.
        And truthfully don’t you just feel like we are so often mentally embedded in those trenches, with little wish or hope to get out or to get to know and understand the person from the ‘enemy’ trench.
        Rich’s comment made me smile.

      2. Couldn’t tell you. One, Russians are from my ‘enemy’ trench, second, I don’t hang out with ‘those kind of people’, three, this post was about education. 🙂 Oh, wait, learning that in Russian would be education of sorts..

  33. Love it when you get fired up! Reading this, I am reminded of a family friend of ours when I was a child. He was some sort of director in the national FFA office and regularly lamented that the very people who were discouraging young people from farming were farmers themselves. The belief that physical work was somehow not as worthy or desirable as “intellectual”, indoor/office work became so pervasive that those in the best position to hold up the value of such work were the very ones discouraging others from pursuing that life. As my grandfather used to say, “Not everyone will need heart surgery (hopefully), but everyone has to eat.” Incidentally, he grew up on a farm but his banker father moved the family into town when he was a young teen. When the Crash happened, they moved back out to the farm. He always said that those were the best years of his life and he had no appreciation of the devastation of the Depression until many years later. As he said, they were together as a family, they had plenty to do and plenty to eat. The only thing that was hard for them was they just couldn’t bring themselves to eat the rabbits they raised!
    I most definitely came from a family where college was expected (even when I had a moment of hesitation and my mother told me I didn’t have to go, I could tell she didn’t mean it.) However, we have had very healing conversations of late regarding our hopes for our boys and their futures which may or may not include institutional higher learning depending on their desires. She actually said the words, “That’s cool” which just shows that discussing such topics can lead all kinds of interesting places. Just like the comments here! Thanks, all.

  34. Back in 1991 when I started secondary school (differentsystem here in Oz) the general consensus was that you had to complete form 4 (year 10) as a minimum to get a good job. The school leving age was 16 or so and so you finished the year you were in and left about then. By the time I reached 16, it was advised to complete your VCE or HSC (year 12/form 6) in order to get a good job. A mere 2 years later when I got there, it was the general thought that you could not get a good job without a basic bachelor degree (3 years of uni). I took a few years off before heading to uni by which point a uni degree was little more than expensive toilet paper! I never did complete my degree but I have the debt (the government pays and we start having it deducted from our taxes once we earn a certain amount)) that will likely sit there until I die as I am now a stay at home mum. 🙂

  35. I can’t be bothered with this sort of discussion but I did want to say hello. I’ve been gone for a few months while writing another book, finished last week and now I’m wandering back into blogs again. Where is our wormy friend? His blog has gone. I hope you and the family are well and happy. xx

    1. Wormy friend had some very nice mention of Grandma Rhonda and all your support before he danced off with Fire Pinks and now singing somewhere among mulberries and cherries perhaps, maybe simmering the pot to get into greater plateaus. Miss him.

      1. Tis a pity he’s gone. With all the talk of the internet being a permanent and dangerous reminder of crazy misbehavings, I find it’s a perilous high cliff where things disappear all the time. Thanks for letting me know BeeHappee. I will miss him too. He is a good man.

  36. Ben, your article brings up a recent school debarcle for us recently. All the “gold star” students (meaning they got high grades) were given a free day to the movies, to watch a new coming of age animation called, Inside Out. All those who weren’t gold-star holders were expected to spend the day at school, in a half empty class room, to do work.

    We knew nothing about it until our daughter asked for the day off. We didn’t just give her the day off though, we took her to the movies to watch it on the same day. It was about instilling belief in our daughter’s capabilities. The school was rewarding marks achieved, not effort, so we called her our gold-star student for effort.

    More importantly though, our decision was based on her social development. All her friends were high academic achievers and the next day, she would not be able to carry on the conversation about the movie. This was a coming of age movie, about coming to terms with conflicting emotions. If she couldn’t share that discussion with her friends, how much more isolated would she feel in her learning environment? Why would she want to try harder in class?

    Frankly, I thought it was plain remarkable the school would divide students up like that. But it just reminds me, this is where it all starts. These young teenagers, both male and female, don’t know yet to discriminate against someone who isn’t a high performer. Our daughter isn’t a high scorer academically, and yet all her friends find something valuable in her. She makes them laugh. She’s seems to be, what they find harder to be. A little out of step from the norm, and still prepared to be the face of something worthwhile.

    So we made it possible that these special friends from different academic scores, could still have something in common. That they could still share important life lessons together. Even if they didn’t share the same movie theatre, or lay eyes on each other, the next day they got to return to their classes, without a sense of diminished or enlarged entitlement. They both received a portion of reward, which is what this whole article is about.

    1. If you daughter isn’t a high scorer academically, what are you doing to provide her the support/coaching/tools to become the best student that she can be? Most kids and many adults fail to see that traditional schooling is incremental, Just like building a house, the grade school years build a foundation for success in middle school and middle school, in turn, builds a foundation for success in high school and high school, we hope, builds a foundation for success in college and for the individual to before more comfortable with who he/she actually is.

      Or so it seems to me.

      1. She is already the best student she can be, in a system which isn’t designed to handle individual learning styles. I’ve tried intervening and the few teachers who listened, saw remarkable improvements in her grades. Those teachers earned the high respect she gave them, and sometimes shed tears, for how they made a difference to how she felt about school. She still talks about those teachers with praise.

        The rest of the time she got used to being accused of not trying, or not listening. Tell that to someone who is trying and attempting to listen, and they’ll soon stop trying and listening altogether.

        Can’t expect a minor to build a foundation all on their own, and I can’t force teachers to listen to my feedback and adjust their attitudes. So she is being the best student she can be.

      2. Chris,

        No disrespect intended, but it sounds like you quit on your daughter. What kind of parent stops fighting when his/her kid needs help? I guarantee you that if you daughter was my daughter, I’d drag any teacher who wouldn’t listen to me to the building’s principal. If the principal was of no help, I’d drag the superintendent into the discussion. If the superintendent wasn’t any help, I’d involve the school board. If you aren’t getting the help that your daughter needs from her school district, you aren’t trying hard enough. Never forget that bureaucrats will almost always say “NO”, ’cause it saves them from having to put in any extra effort and most people will quit, rather than challenge “authority”. Bureaucrats live to maintain the process of status quo, often at the expense of the people who they are paid to help. But most bureaucrats want to avoid looking bad to the people who they report to, IOW to the guy who determines what the bureaucrats annual raise is, and will almost always work with you is you are strong and refuse to take “no” for an answer.

        I am persona non grata at my daughter’s high school, but the principal takes my calls and reads/answers my emails. He made the mistake of blowing me off one time and I went straight to his boss and ripped him a new rectal orifice. I know that he hates me for making him look bad to his boss, but I don’t mind being hated, as it happens when you challenge “authority”.

      3. This is her first year of high school, and I chose my battles during the earlier years. I even got to laugh about it with the teacher, who later became the Principal. We had a run-in, once, or twice, but became amicable about it.

        From their perspective, I’m sure they thought I was too protective of her. From your perspective, I quit and stopped harassing the educators.

        Its a good thing I don’t fulfil my expectations, based on how others believe it should be, for me.

      4. Chris,

        If, due to your decision “to pick your battles”, your daughter doesn’t build a good academic foundation early on, no battle you choose to fight down the road is likely to matter, as it may be too late by then for her to catch up. My advice is free and it is certainly your choice to embrace or ignore it.

        Teachers are public servants and it is easy for them to let the struggling students slide, ’cause they just pass them along to the next grade and make the ill-prepared student those teachers’ problem. As with most things, if you’re not demanding, you won’t get the best/highest level of service.

      5. Catching up can take a lifetime. I don’t believe its ever too late to improve one’s education. There are three people in my family alone, who failed to graduate high school – but two, now have their Bachelors, working in high-level positions, and one is on the way to receiving their Bachelors.

        We all bloom when we’re ready to.

      6. Not everybody blooms. There are a lot of people who fail and never recover. Fail to prepare, prepare to fail. Your daughter has my sympathy.

    2. This is her first year of high school, and I chose my battles during the earlier years. I even got to laugh about it with the teacher, who later became the Principal. We had a run-in, once, or twice, but became amicable about it.

      From their perspective, I’m sure they thought I was too protective of her. From your perspective, I quit and stopped harassing the educators.

      Its a good thing I don’t fulfil my expectations, based on how others believe it should be, for me.

      1. Sorry to trouble you Ben, but can you delete this comment. It was placed in the wrong “reply” area. Thanks.

  37. Chris, I am sorry this happened to your daughter and other students in her school and I’m afraid it happens in a lot of schools in varying degrees. It was a school district librarian who made me aware that a lot of things about school are unfair. There are a lot of homework assignments that require supplies and skills that are not provided by the school. We live in a rural area so even if the parents have the money, you can’t just run out to buy something sometimes. In elementary school it was the diorama of a moonscape a third grade teacher assigned that was due the next day. Fortunately, I have lots of craft supplies and imagination. This year one granddaughter couldn’t find a book about Daniel Boone. Our town library is only open 2 1/2 days a week and the school they attend is in another town where although the library is open a lot of hours, they don’t have library cards (non-resident of that town).

    It took more than 50 years for a friend to tell us that the worst day of her life was when the rest of us went off to college. She couldn’t afford college but the guidance office neglected to give her any help and no teacher took her under their wing. She wasn’t a top student.

    It sounds like your daughter already understands that all teachers are not created equal either. It also sounds like your daughter has a range of friends which I think is great. Our son was like that (He is grown now with children of his own). I don’t think the ability to have friends and socialize with them is given enough credit. It counts a lot in the adult world. My office skills include listening to people and knowing what questions to ask them. I actually do not know how I developed this skill but it’s something our son is also good at. For me, it was a way up the job ladder because I could solve problems other people couldn’t. Our son has a great sense of humor, is a great story teller and has a great work ethic. He is great working with customers. People like him. He enjoys life. I think he has also enjoyed the challenge of making more with less.

    Maybe this sounds like your daughter? You just showed her how to solve a problem by taking her to the same movie. I realize you did not solve the problem of a school doing something like this but keep your chin up. I also think you taught your daughter about being resilient.

    BTW one homework assignment in jr or sr year of high school was to make a puppet (teacher suggested a sock puppet was something anyone could make). By then, our son was more of a back of the classroom kind of kid. He brought one of his best friends home to do their assignment and, of course, made great use of mom’s craft supplies. One of the girls who worked so hard to be on the honor roll was furious because the two guys made the best puppets and got the best grades. She told me she was coming to our house next time. I think SHE realized something about fairness that day.

    1. Your son sounds like someone people would like to be around while working, and doing their daily stuff. Supporting our kids emotional development, is just as important as supporting their education (in whatever form it takes).

      Thanks for sharing your experience. Its good to know a well-rounded individual came out of it, in the end. It’s not so easy, those school years. There are many reasons why grades can fall, and not always due to a lack of intelligence. It’s good to have friends though. 🙂

  38. And sometimes people transplant themselves into a new career and bloom someplace else. Yesterday we met the newest owner of the Tappan Chair company. He used to be a shop teacher and metal worker. He and his family now live in Sandwich NH. In addition to using some of the same equipment and patterns, he is also working with Sabbathday Shakers to build Shaker chairs. According to his website, he started off in linguistics and international affairs. He is a great speaker and craftsman. And it sure looks like he has a fascinating life.

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