Sunday, December 14, 2014

Home Grown

I thoroughly enjoyed Ben Hewitt's latest book, Home Grown: Adventures in Parenting off the Beaten Path, Unschooling, and Reconnecting with the Natural World. It's a meandering kind of book, at times almost magical. Each chapter is followed by a different sort of piece, a meditation I guess? They're like a reflection or experience that crystallizes the rightness of all Hewitt's decisions that got him to the place (literally and figuratively) where he is today.

For a while it seemed to me that the book wasn't really very much about his kids' education. It was at least as much about Ben's own education and ideas and experience. But about a third of the way in, I realized, that IS unschooling. It's a whole family living, in the place and time they're in, with parents reflecting critically on their own experiences and using that reflection to support their kids' lives and interests.

Much has been made about the external facts of his kids' education. How they're out in nature so much, developing survival skills like hunting and trapping and tanning and basket-weaving; and Hewitt himself puts a lot of emphasis on the impact of their place in Vermont on his family. But a lot of the story seems familiar to me, if you remove the details of what specifically the kids are engaged in. When parents pay attention to their kids' interests and give them the time to go deep in them, the kids go deep. And in so doing, the parents' assumptions or beliefs are challenged in a serious way. For Ben and Penny, it was how much their young children wanted to kill wild animals, whether by bow or by trap, and their use of knives and guns.

From some of the comments I've seen online about the book and his related Outside piece, I think a lot of people (non-unschoolers?) who have read about the Hewitt family are conflating unschooling with the particulars of his family (which are beautiful). But in other families and in other environments, unschooling can look quite different. That said, I think unschooling always involves a critical view of the status quo of most or all of our society's institutions. Once you start questioning the value of school, it spreads to everything else. Or, once you start questioning another societal institution (for me it was industrial food and conventional medicine), it can easily spread to school.

All in all, I heartily recommend Home Grown to anyone interested in alternative education or kids in nature, or for that matter any kind of DIY stuff. It's just a great book. Here are a few of my favourite quotes from the book:

p 25 "They are big and graceful trees, overseers of decades and generations, and I cannot help thinking of all the cows that have loafed in their shade. […] And every year, they give their sap. Am I honouring or exploiting them by accepting this gift? Strange how it can sometimes seem as if there's not much difference between the two."

p 73 "Penny and I believe in presence, not praise. We are here to support and facilitate, but not to cajole and manipulate, through either threat or incentive. The boys' unhampered curiosity is incentive enough. The learning is its own reward.

"Can the same be said of schooled learning? Of course it can. Loving to learn and being compelled to learn from a prescribed curriculum are not mutually exclusive. But there is little question that the overwhelming majority of institutionalized learning occurs in isolation from the tangible realities of place and form, of how the world feels and looks, tastes and smells and sounds. I believe it is crucial for children to learn in ways that are not held in isolation, that involve the body as well as the mind, and that result in something real and tangible. Even better, something of service: a shelter where once there was none; food in a freezer that was previously empty; or even just a piece of clothing mended by their own hands. Interestingly, this is precisely the sort of learning that is rapidly disappearing from public education in the wake of diminishing budgets and immersion in the abstraction of technology."

p 104 "It has always bothered me to see how some parents chase their children away from productive jobs. I have seen it many times, and while I understand the impulse, I have little empathy for the shortsightedness of it, because the truth is that long before they are capable of truly helping, kids desperately want to contribute.

"Like all of us, children just want to be needed. It's our job to make sure they actually are."

p106 "Sometimes the greatest blessings come disguised as inconveniences."

p137 "In hindsight, I see now that our boys had done precisely what children will do: they'd surprised us, an din full candour, we struggled for a time with not being disappointed by this surprise. Where had their passion for hunting and trapping come from? Not from Penny and me. Not from their grandparents, or the parents of friends. We knew people who hunted and trapped, but most of these people were on the periphery of our lives. They were not part of our immediate culture, and we were fine with that. From birth, we'd immersed them in nature, expecting this immersion to install in them our particular idea of reverence for the natural world. It was a version of reverence that did not include bows and bullets and pack baskets loaded with traps."

p138 "Still, none of this prepared us for the reality of our children on the land, traps and weapons in hand. None of it prepared us for the possibility of examining our own feelings about such practices. Once again, our children were forcing us to learn and unlearn, to reach outside our comfort zone."

p140 "The role of mentors in our culture seems to have been reduced to programs intended for youth "in need," those unfortunate children whose parents are not fully able to embody healthy, stable role modelling. But of course all children are in need to a certain extent. As present, attentive, and well meaning as Penny and I are, Fin and Rye were in need of someone to guide them through the skills and ethics of trapping. They needed someone to validate their interests and instincts, someone whose words carried the authority of experience and respect. Because let's face it: children don't always consider their parents to be fonts of wisdom, and it was not long before the phrase "Nate says" became a common refrain in our home.
"Mentors are disappearing across the landscape of contemporary childhood learning and development. And how could it be otherwise? Because how many adults even have time to mentor anymore? Furthermore, after school and after-school activities, and after homework, television, and texting, how many children even have time to be mentored?"

p147 "We do not allow our children to learn at home simply so we can learn from them. Such a thing would be selfish. But in allowing them the freedom to learn as they grow, an unanticipated and beautiful thing has happened: We have allowed ourselves the same freedom."

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