by Jennifer Hartley
This is the second essay in a series on the topic of why our family is homeschooling (Part I is here). I’ve been thinking about all the many, interconnected reasons that my educational philosophy has been taking the shape it has. Some overarching themes that I can point to are: collapse awareness, learning in and from the real world, and striving for a revised culture based on integrity, kindness, and respect rather than domination and control.
Collapse awareness shapes the way I see every institution of industrial culture: schools, governments, corporations, and all of their subsidiaries. What seems clear to me is that this dominant global culture is completely insane and murderous, in ways both maddeningly subtle and horrifically explicit. I think a large majority of Nature Bats Last readers/contributors can think of many examples of how this is so. Does it really make sense, given that I have a choice, to send my child into the maw of that culture, to be exposed for a huge number of her waking hours to the practices and narratives that most people consider “normal” and “adaptive”? Is it normal to train children from a very young age to submit unquestioningly to authority? Whose purposes does this serve? Is it a good use of children’s time to learn how to play the game known as School, in which they are pitted against their same-age peers to find out who the “winners” and “losers” are via a relentless onslaught of grades and testing, as well as assessments of behavioral “appropriateness”? What do these assessments actually measure? Whether one is categorized as a winner or a loser, does anyone actually “win” in a world of climate catastrophe, rampant species extinction, nuclear contamination, and brutal wars? What do children end up believing about the world and themselves in an environment characterized by competition and control? Too many children learn to shut up and play the game, because they are told they have no choice but to play it. They are told that if they are “good,” they will be rewarded with a college degree, a fulfilling career, and they will contribute to society as agreeable, functioning adults. Those who resist are treated quite harshly, often forcibly medicated or simply labeled and given up on.
Part of the gift of collapse awareness is to expose the rigamarole for what it is: a colossal game, a construct, something not based in fundmental reality. All of these assumptions about the value of schooling: are they for real? when we are quite likely facing the prospect of extinction of our own species? It’s a bracing realization, to take in the view of the scaffolding of the current culture as the set of a theatrical performance, rather than what we think of as “everyday life.” Everyday life, in fact, is about sunlight, plants, food, physical reality, biological reality, a viable planet to live on, and only on those fundmental elements does the cultural scaffolding get to remain up. Take, for example, discussions about “the economy.” Is the economy simply the measure of financial shenanigans, zeros and ones on a computer mostly, or is it entirely based on far more important forces in the real world? What good is the hope of a diploma, a job, a bank account, a reassuring identity, if one cannot be healthy and remain alive, on a planet with other healthy, alive beings?
I reject the assumption that school is the appropriate avenue for my child to learn how to become a functional adult. Our family life is organized around building resilience, maintaining our innate curiosity and love of learning, living with integrity, and fulfilling our moral imperative to be joyful while we are alive. Schools operate on the premise that our culture, our lives, will continue in pretty much the same way as they have for the past 50 years or so: everyone will be assigned their station, the “economy” will keep chugging along, just follow the formula and all will be well. Except all is not well, for crying out loud. For starters, I can’t even assume that my child will have a “normal” human lifespan. (And even if collapse wasn’t on the radar, in truth, we are all mortal, and we don’t know how long we’ve got.) I also don’t assume that schools, colleges, conventional workplaces, and so on —- those “everyday life” places —- will continue to exist in the way that they do now. Would it be responsible of me to have my child invest her energy in constructing her life on a crumbling scaffold?
Having my child learn within and from the natural world feels like the right thing to do. It’s disturbing to think that there’s even a phrase such as “the natural world,” as distinguished from… what? The unnatural world? Does this phrase indicate that we collectively grasp, in fact, that we are pathologically disconnected from nature, and from our natural selves? In our case, the natural world includes a large focus on being outside, connecting with plants and animals, relating to human beings of all ages, and respecting our own minds and hearts. We tend the garden. We are friends with earthworms. We make music and art freely, many times a day. We feel the sun and rain. We talk about patterns: the water cycle, the web of life, the sun and planets, the mesmerizing ubiquity of spirals. We sit enamored of the range of human narrative and experience, as we explore libraries and museums and attend performances. We love our cat, the bear that walked through our yard, owls, ocean creatures. I never ask her questions such as “What do you want to be when you grow up?” This is because our focus is on living fully in the present, rather than the imagined future. Each day brings choices and possibilities.
We aren’t attempting to save the world through homeschooling, or through any of our various efforts to disconnect from industrial empire. We aren’t going to save the world, period. What we can save is our dignity and sanity. We can save our ability to think freely. We can offer friendship and comfort to those around us. We can live according to our priorities as much as we possibly can, and when we face constraints we can repeatedly question whether they are absolute constraints, or manufactured constraints. I believe school is a manufactured constraint, not an inevitable force that children must submit to. A fundamental premise of mandatory schooling is that children must submit to the domination of the state. By exercising our legal and moral right to learn outside of school, guided by conscience, my daughter and I are participating in a much larger movement to create a human culture based on respect and peace. I don’t expect that this movement, vibrant, many-layered, and widespread as it is, will actually “save” us. But I’d rather follow my conscience to the end.
My daughter, who is five, has been asking me a lot of important questions lately. “What does ‘manipulate’ mean? Why are some people greedy? Why do some people watch a lot of TV? What is sexism? Why do people want money?” It’s challenging to answer her as fully as I can, in terms she can understand, but I try my best each time (and if I don’t know something, I say “I don’t know,” and if there are many angles to an issue, I try to include as many as I can). I want her to never stop asking why.
Jennifer Hartley is a homeschooling mother, radical homemaker, permaculturally-inspired gardener, and local food activist. She was a founding board member of the non-profit Grow Food Northampton, and lives on a budding, quarter-acre homestead with her family in western Massachusetts. She is also a former reference librarian and still gets excited about connecting people with resources and ideas, helping people evaluate information, and collecting scads of books. These days she and her daughter can be found biking around town, harvesting violets and sprinkling them on salads, reading like mad, inventing songs, attending skillshares at Owl and Raven, studying chicken coop designs, and finding learning opportunities under every rock (literally).
Guy’s forthcoming radio interview is described here. It will broadcast on Radio New Zealand Saturday morning at 8:00 a.m. If I’m doing the math correctly, that’s Friday at 4:00 p.m. on the east coast of the United States.