by Jennifer Hartley
Focusing on the journey, rather than any final achievements, seems to be part of my rationale for homeschooling — counteracting the cultural impetus towards “progress,” particularly destructive progress, by focusing on the path rather than the destination. When you suspect that humanity is headed for near-term extinction, is there a sane alternative?
Conventional schooling focuses on grades and tests. Even when lofty ideals are presented such as nurturing lifelong learning and respecting the individual process of each child, when grades and testing are present, there is invariably a sense that those are the paramount “achievements” rather than merely markers of achievement. (Dubious markers though they are — I seriously question what they’re actually measuring.) And if one questions the usefulness of grades and testing, one is countered with, “What about getting into a good college?” And if one questions the usefulness of college, one is faced with, “How do you expect your child to get a decent job?”
I’m here questioning all of that. I don’t believe that our current regime of conventional schooling, college, and “decent” jobs is producing a culture that we can live with and thrive in. I believe that it’s perpetuating the conditions that are killing us and thousands of other (blameless) species.
I also believe that it’s likely too late to reverse the murderous effects of a greedy, competitive culture. Even if we had a mass consensus to drop out of society and operate on radically different principles, we have initiated dangerous feedback loops that can’t be undone.
How can one face into this reality as a parent, or as any person with a conscience? I’m trying, hard, and with considerable anguish, to let go of attachment to final outcomes. To let go of “achievement.” To let go of “measuring up” or “being good enough.” To let go of “fixing” or “saving the world.” To let go of others’ approval, others’ definitions of success. There is no winning this mirage of a game. This is why I’m focusing on the path rather than the end results. We know the end results already, for all of us: death. We have not found a solution for death.
Our path seems to be about learning for its own sake; learning things that are useful and beautiful; and minimizing suffering.
With an overlay of pressure, tests, and grades, it can be difficult to appreciate the intrinsic value of learning. It can also be difficult to retain knowledge beyond its application to completing tests. Who are we without external assessment? Is the value in the grades, or the knowledge? The excitement and interest of the learner? Who gets to decide? As homeschoolers, we get to decide. I have heard that in democratic schools, such as Free Schools or Sudbury Schools, there is also such freedom to decide on the part of all involved.
I am a bit of a sentimental fool about scholarship. My heart remains wedded to the idea of passionate learning and research in a community of scholars. I was continually disappointed in academia in this regard; I thought if I could just jump through all the requisite hoops of school and college and grad school and the job market, that there could be a golden land of true scholarship, driven purely by intellectual passion, somehow beyond the reach of “the economy,” or competition or one-ups-manship or having to bend to hierarchy and domination. How wrong I was. But on the other side of that disappointment, I’ve come to realize that true scholarship can be achieved by anyone who seeks it, no matter one’s age or markers of supposed success. It’s possible to find mentors, inspiration, and fellow scholars in both obvious and unlikely places. As long as we love to learn, as long as that love is not extinguished, we can employ strategies for true scholarship.
I had a role model in this regard. My late grandfather, Luigi (“Gigi”) Foschi, was my prototype of a true scholar. He was born in 1912 into a working-class family and lived in Bologna, Italy, where he was a colonel in the Italian army. He did not go to college. (My parents were the first in their families to go to college.) Gigi was not enamored of the institutional structures of life; he was in the army because it was a job, not a calling. He held the Catholic Church at arm’s length, and had a particular disdain for priests. He had the same sort of fundamental distrust of Italian government that most Italians have. His true path, however, was that of intense, devoted, self-initiated scholarship.
What Gigi loved most were history, art, and architecture, particularly that of Bologna, but extending to most of Europe. He taught himself Spanish and French and also learned a decent chunk of English once my mother met my American father. He eagerly recited poetry from memory and wrote poems of his own, particularly in honor of family events. Gigi traveled, photographed, and wrote essay after essay in longhand with titles such as “The Bells of Europe” or “Sundials of Europe.” He did a great deal of independent research. He spent many hours guiding me and my sister around Bologna, giving us animated, in-depth disquisitions on the history and grandeur of sites both noted and obscure; occasionally passers-by would stop and listen as well to our own personal Cicerone. He would also regularly frequent the large Gothic basilica of San Petronio and meet people from around the world and offer to show them around, for free. (If they offered to pay him, he said he would only accept a postcard from their home country. He had a box full of these postcards.)
His enthusiasm for lifelong learning affected me deeply. His example enabled me to claim my own passion for learning, and to seek to nurture this quality in my child. As we stare down the abyss, I want to make every day of being alive count. I don’t want us to waste time trying to impress others or bow to their expectations or jump through their hoops. I want us to revel in the greatest joys—immersion in the beauty of the natural world, freedom to learn what is most useful and beautiful, the ability to fulfill our need for integrity as human beings.
I wonder what Gigi would have thought of homeschooling. I’m fairly certain it would have been a distinctly foreign concept to him, but I think he would have been interested. And I wonder what he would make of the disasters that lie at our feet. He endured the horrors of World War II; he described to me how awful war is, and how fortunate we were to be living in a time and place of relative peace (he said this to me in the 1980s). His vivid stories remain an anchor in my consciousness, grounding me in the reality of both suffering and joy.
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 reading books, making art, singing a lot, harvesting and preserving food, playing with numbers, and having deep conversations. Jennifer loves sharp hand tools, mows with a scythe, and splits wood with an axe.