Archive for the 'education' Category

My Speech to the Nation’s Schoolchildren

Sharon September 8th, 2009

Note: At the last minute, President Barack Obama, bowing to pressure from the right, withdrew from his proposed speech to the nation’s schoolchildren.  Many Republicans had correctly indicated that having the sitting president address schoolchildren was wholly unprecedented, something not done since the distant days of George W. Bush, when that president reminded schoolchildren that their president really prefers they not use drugs.  President Obama, seeing their point that an exhortation to do your homework from the president really was the final step towards communism withdrew, and the White House frantically sought a non-controversial replacement, lighting, finally, on a nearly-unknown writer, farmer and blogger, famed for being non-controversial, unopinionated, and offering a glowingly optimistic view of the future.  Here, then, is my speech to the nation’s schoolchildren.  Upon receiving the text, the White House decided to go ahead with the original plan, for some reason.   To see Obama’s, go here.  I admit, I have no idea why they didn’t want me.

Good morning – how wonderful to see all these bright shining faces looking up at me.  My own kids stayed out of school today, because Presidents talking to schoolchildren is a commie plot, but I’m glad you and the 14 school districts brave enough to stand up to Glenn Beck are all watching me, even if you are pretty disappointed that it is only me.  I only wish I was President or Empress or something, or had ever done anything really interesting, because one wants to be inspiring in these situations.

Or maybe I can inspire you, at least in my own special way.  The President was going to tell you to work hard – I, of course, am going to tell you to do that too, but unlike him, this is more of a “do as I say, not as I actualy did” sort of thing.  But if you are going to grow up to be President, you definitely will have to work hard – or someone in your family will.  For example, it is pretty much a pre-requisite these days to have gone to Harvard or Yale if you want to be President.  To do that, you have to be either really smart and hardworking, like the President, or to have the convenient foresight of being born into one of those monied families that has a place reserved from birth.  And in most cases, that money was made by someone working hard, at least way back in the distant past.  Often doing not too savory things, but we won’t go into that, since you are still children.  So what I’d definitely suggest is that you either work hard getting your parents to give you up for adoption, and getting one of those monied families with political legacies to adopt you, or work hard at school if you’d like to grow up to be President.

My own suggestion, however, is that you not aim for being President.  It seems to me like a very tiring and stressful job – it does come with perks – you can order ice cream at 2am, order troops to invade any foreign country you want, and you get to address the nation’s schoolchildren,  but it comes with a lot of downsides.  There are a lot of other good jobs out there that don’t require you spend two years away from your family running for things, don’t make you an assassination target and don’t involve so much being polite to people you will never see again.  Don’t get me wrong, if you really want to grow up to be president, or senator or national security advisor, I definitely hope you achieve your wish. 

The problem is, that being a powerful political person, involves never really doing anything risky or too controversial for all the years leading up to it.  That’s kind of boring.  It also involves never letting on that you don’t believe in  ”doing things the way they are done” – whether in party politics or in any other respect.  And that can wear on a person.  If you want to be president, you can’t get arrested demonstrating against injustice, you can’t espouse radical political opinions, like that we ought to restrain our use of resources, you can’t, unless you can pull off a Dick Cheney, swear much in public or say what you really think and you have to smile all the time.  Me, I’d rather raise me some hell, and I suggest you’ll have more fun if you do too.

Now to be honest, I chose the slacker path all along, not just when I decided (and it was a very, very hard decision – I was really just about to declare my candidacy when I decided to take the “farmer and unknown writer path” to the future) not to be President. I didn’t work all that hard at school.   In fact, I was pretty lazy.  I cared a lot about learning, I read a lot and studied a lot of things on my own, but I didn’t like the part where we were all expected to parrot the same moral lessons or derive the same meanings from things.  For every inspiring teacher who taught me something that I continue to value (and there were a number of them), I also had a teacher who had nothing worth teaching, or who had been so worn down by the idiocies of administrative life and dealing with annoying kids that they’d decided the power to torture the kids was the only compensation for having to put up with 20 years of this.  For every creative and liberating educational experience there were a dozen repetitions of “recite the causes of the civil war…”  It wasn’t until I was older, and actually had occasion to read a lot of books about the subjects,  that I realized that through six repetitions of American History, all somehow spending 90% of the time on the period between the Revolution and the Civil War, I hadn’t really learned much of anything, except of course, that America was the sun, and the rest of the world pretty much revolved around it.

By the time I was a teenager, I did work hard – mostly at being a royal pain in the ass (am I allowed to say “ass” to the nation’s schoolchildren?  Crap…note to self, no more swearing…. oh, and delete “craptastic” from latter portion of speech!) to my teachers and the administration.   I had noticed already that a lot of what I was taught wasn’t really all the truth – and that a lot of what I was taught was, by necessity, basically an extended version of “sit down, shut up and become a good little consumer.”  So I was an annoying teenager, forever pointing out that there was another viewpoint, or that something wasn’t true, or even constitutional ;-) .  And while I genuinely feel bad for my teachers, many of whom were delighted to be rid of me (and some of whom were absolutely terrific, despite enormous pressure not to be), I think that one of the best possible futures for all of you to grow up questioning authority and being a pain in the ummm…tuchus as well.

You see, the President was going to tell you to do your homework, listen to your teachers and work hard, so you can go to college and become the best you possibly can be.  I’m a big fan of hard work, but there’s a problem with this message – most of the people who mean it only imagine one path, and one story for your future.  And that path and story might not be the best possible one for you.  College usually involves a lot of debt.  Getting a good job, and curing cancer is a great idea – but most people don’t cure cancer, they mostly work at WalMart, and that helps keep things like WalMart going.  A lot of people out there have inspiring stories about the merits of working hard to get a better job.  A considerable number of them could also tell you about working hard and ending up poor and screwed. 

The President says we need you to cure poverty – well, honestly, we’ve been trying to cure poverty with social scientists and hoping that a little more money will trickle down to the poorfrom the rich for a long, long time and it isn’t working.  Maybe it is more important if you ask what might work, or why the rich have to get richer for the poor to get richer?  Can you see any just way to get the poor richer faster?  Is there a chance that maybe all of us working hard to get richer might be a problem there?  Can everyone in the world be rich? How about everyone in America? I’m just asking. 

The President was going to say that our future is in your hands, and I agree – but the hands that have had it so far haven’t done such a hot job, and you should be somewhat skeptical of what we’re teaching you.  Ask yourself – is it more important to get a job curing cancer, or is it more important to live a life that puts as few carcinogenic chemicals into the world as possible?  I don’t know the answer – we need both, and how to have both together is one of the great challenges.  We need better and newer answers, and while there’s a lot to learn from your teachers and parents and other people, don’t forget the fact that they not only don’t have all the answers, they’ve often not got any. 

The President was going to ask you to serve your country – and I agree, that’s a great goal.  But maybe ask yourself what the most important way to serve your country is – loving your country means wanting it to be a good and decent country, one that is worth living in and that is worth loving.  That means being there to say “this is wrong” “this is unjust” “this direction is bound to failure.”  A lot of “serving your country” looks a lot like being a pain in the…rear.

If I were going to set up a path for you to serve your country, it would be this – work hard.  But don’t just work hard on the conventional path – everywhere you go, ask “is this the right way.”  Don’t just work hard at doing what your teachers tell you (ok, this advice does not apply to my three homeschooled sons who should always do what their teacher (me) tells them…right guys? ;-)), work hard learning whether what they tell you is right and true.  Don’t take what you are told on face value, even by the President, even by your teachers, and certainly by me – think it through and learn as much as you can and then you decide.

Work hard at what you care about – but make sure that what you care about actually makes the world better.  You’ve been told to care about a lot of really wrong things by people who should be telling you better – the most important things you can do don’t involve owning a house, getting a good college education, being President or having a good job.  The most important thing you can do is find a way to live that’s worth living, and help other people get there, to ask for more justice, and question whether the paths we’re on are worth continuing.  The most important thing you can do is be contrarian, critical, obstinate, radical, thoughtful and angry - and a royal pain in the ass.  So go to it.

G-d bless you, and you be a blessing to America.  Lord knows, we need it.


Back to School

Sharon August 31st, 2009

On my lap, I’ve got a set of school books that date from the 1850s to the 1890s.  They belonged to various of my father’s family – my great-uncle, George Hume, who died long before I was born and studied Eaton’s Common School Arithmetic in Amesbury, MA in the late 19th century, not 20 miles from where I would go to school 100 years later.  The majority belonged to my great-grandfather, Edgar White, who studied latin and algebra in Jonesboro, Maine, and later went on to teach school in Cheshire, Connecticut, using the same books.  My grandfather’s books were mostly published in the 1860s, right after the civil war, and bear the names of previous owners – he got most of his books from Winnie Smith Biddeford, whoever she was.  A note from my grandmother, who passed these books to my father in the 1960s, notes that Winnie was still alive, a friend of the family, now named Winnie Lewis and living in S. Portland. 

Two of the books belong to some family connection now faded into obscurity – the Academy Songbook and Walton’s Written Arithmetic both belonged to A. B. Hollingsworth.  But who he or she may have been, and how they are tied to my family, I cannot tell you. 

I write about this for two reasons - first, I think it is worth observing that my 100-160 year old schoolbooks are still being used by my children.  The books are faded and falling apart, and I don’t allow the kids to actually touch them. But I do sometimes copy problems out of them, because I suspect their value will increase in the coming years.  

I would hate to see lost, for example, the following math problem:

“A farmer raised in one field 21 bush. 3pk. 7 qt. 1pt. of wheat; in another 48 bush. 2pk, 1pt; in another 28 bush. 6 qt.; and in another 75 bush. 1 pk., 5qt., 1 pt..”
In the margin of the book, next to the 75 bushel measure, by great-grandfather (presumably) pencilled – “not in Maine he didn’t.”  I laughed out loud, appreciating the joke even some 110 years after it was made.

But besides fondness for the old New England part of my heritage, and the stories within, I find them valuable because they demonstrate to precisely what degree our education prepares us for a particular kind of life, and to be particular kinds of people.  It is easy to observe this, of course, but a contrast between the schoolbooks of yesterday and today makes it particularly striking.

 Inside the arithmetics and grammars are a record of a way of life lost.  For example, a math problem lists the 1850 population of New York City as 515,547 and the US President’s salary at 25,000 dollars, has children estimate how many fruit trees can be grafted with how much rootstock, calculate how many men not gone to soldier will be available to bring in a harvest, and how many pieces of cloth will be needed to make a quilt of a particular size.  The emphasis is manifestly on preparing children for everyday agrarian life – how to calculate the interest a bank will pay you, how to write a letter to the editor of the local paper, teach your children, build a barn, not get cheated, make a dress, measure flour and then in the evening, stand up and recite at the public recitations that provide entertainment, or get together to discuss the issue of the day at the Grange or the Women’s Society.

Like all school books, they reveal the limitations of a society, and offer plenty that’s merely anachronistic to entertain you.  For those of us who are not Friends, for example, will probably not require a discussion of how to grammatically use the term “Thou” and “Thine,” and I think few people still use, even at their most formal, the ”th” endings that are mandated after “he” or “she” as in “She hath property.” or “He teacheth well.”  The books were all published in New York or Boston at the end of the Civil War, and all evince hostility to southerners, their grammar and history; and the usual stream of contempt for Irish, Italian and “Negro.”  Nor is it likely that any modern text would offer the model of “That the soul is immortal is believed by all nations.” as a statement of certainty, and illustration of a substantive clause.

But my own children’s schoolbooks reveal equal limitations, and assumptions that are equally problematic.  A great deal of bad stuff has been eliminated over the years – I’m grateful that my children don’t get the assumed Christianity and racism of the earlier books.  But rather inevitably, it has been replaced by some bad and some anachronistic (or rather, perfectly in tune with a rapidly departing present) that will look just as odd soon.  For example, many of my son’s math problems involve weight limits on planes, times of departure and check in times. I wonder whether my grandchildren, looking back at their father’s 3rd grade reader will be struck by the ubiquitous assumption that even small children travel on planes. 

For handling money, the calculation of interest provided by banks has been completely ignored, but shopping is very carefully explained.  While we have a curriculum that is fairly anti-consumerist, they still encourage us to cut product advertisements out of magazines and send children shopping with a limited budget to figure out how long their money will last.  The assumption is that children will have enough money to eat in restaurants and buy ice cream regularly.  The presumption of affluence runs deeply through these texts.

I’m pleased to see, in my son’s math book, that Pam and Jeanne made pies to sell at the fair and are having the problem of cutting them into the correct number of slices, and that the president loves jelly beans, so factory workers decided to send her some, divided into the correct number of boxes.   It is good to know that we have to divide up people into the right number of participants in each first aid class (told ya we got this book for a purpose ;-) ), but I’m a little mystified at how 20 peacocks ate 893 sacks of grain (were they very small sacks or peacocks the size of elephants?) and troubled by the environmental studies curriculum, which discusses the efficiency of cars, but not their relative inefficiency compared to bicycles; and while presumes that private cars are forever in a whole host of ways. 

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t expect my children’s academic examples to live in a perfect agrarian world – but I do think it is important to note the way that our children are subtly schooled to understand the world we live in as normal.  Even the best curricula assume a great deal – the one we use, Oak Meadow, has a slightly precious feel to it in modern day context – its conscious attempt is to bring back an old-fashioned childhood.  In some ways this suits us, but there is a measure of artificiality to it, best perceived in contrast to the actual texts that educated actual agrarian children.

With the exception, prehaps of a few romanticized junior transcendentalists, the actual 19th agrarian childhood that emerges may have had imagined fairies in it, they listened, at night, to the stories told by grandmothers at fireside, but there is no romance in the schoolbooks.  They are more practical, training young farmers for a future of hard work, careful use of money, moral behavior and practical daily life – and to live that life in close concert with extended family, friends and neighbors.  My great-grandfather’s schoolbooks, for example, have many stories of grandmothers – they inevitably live with the children in the stories, or very near.  Ben and Meg, however, the two archetypical Oak Meadow children (from a book every bit as pedantic and moralistic as any 19th century tale), drive to visit granny and to the local orchard.

For my great-grandfather, the books themselves were precious – not precious in the sense of being self-consciously nostalgic, but literally expensive.  One of them has been marked “$3 – a vast sum in a region where cash was used only to pay the taxes.  They may have been drier than modern school texts (although actually, I’m not sure that’s true), but they were carefully tended and treasured.  We have all but my grandfather’s 7th and 3rd reader, all his arithmetic books, his first and second latin (I have no idea if he went further) .  My great-grandfather was manifestly not the first owner – if Winnie was alive in 1967 when the Latin grammar was bestowed upon my father, she cannot have been much older than my grandfather.  But Winnie was not the first user either.  Kerl’s Common School Grammar has three other names in it, none of them ones I recognize.  They are pencilled through, and I can read only “Venus Castle” and “Stevie Beebhill” - by the time my grandfather was using them in the 1890s. Fom his pencil notes one can tell he then would go on to use the books to teach school in the early 1900s, until they were finally replaced – the last teaching year mentioned is 1911, but when he received them, the books were already 30 years old or more.  

Whatever old New England’s faults, the literacy and educational rates were extremely high – in north coastal Maine, there was not much money to be had for books.  Education was valued highly, enough that my great-great grandfather took out his first-ever debt ( and debt is not a word that New England farmers speak lightly)  to send my great-grandfather to what was then the State Teacher’s College at Machias.   My great-grandfather grew to manhood at the cusp of higher education requirements for teachers – it was no longer quite enough to simply have finished the last reader to teach. 

You could see how education was valued  in the care given to the books my great-grandfather stewarded – they passed through other hands, and six generations after publication, are still in use.  My father wrote his own name in them, neatly below the names tracking back for generations.  My own name is below my father’s, dated 1993.

For quite some years, I taught college composition and literature at various colleges, many of them filled with the affluent children of affluent parents, who went college mostly because college was what one did.  Some of the students truly appreciated their education, some of them didn’t – but many of them had a deeply different sense of education than past generations did. Now it was certainly true when my great-grandfather went to school, that plenty of students cared little for their schooling.  There were dropouts and cutups, lazy students and disciplined ones even then.  In Laura Ingalls Wilder’s _Farmer Boy_ for example, there are older boys who come each year only to disrupt school and assault the teacher.  It would be needlessly sentimental to imply that education was always equally valued.

But overall, the weight of the culture’s preoccupation with an education that was mostly for its own sake tells its story.  The care of the books, or the pressure one sees in later volumes to introduce advanced studies so that students leaving school after eighth grade to farm full time will have the full advantage of a good education.   For example, Greenleaf’s Geometry and Trigonometry, two subjects that in these days are generally introduced in 10th and 11th grade, notes that the book was added to the standard curriculum because modern (ie, 1870s or so) schools “have enabled pupils to complete their arithmetical studies at a comparatively young age; and in consequnece, a demand has arisen for a more advanced trigonometric course to follow the eighth grade.” 

We are also told that the quadratic equations and rationalization have been included, so that students may proceed immediately from completion of the book to college, and a guide for those studying alone, with no teacher is included, with the observation that many young scholars have mastered these skills at the end of a workday, and a rousing reference to Lincoln.  I admit, I would have had trouble mastering trigonometry at home, late at night, before the candle and after milking – but the book was written, at least, with this in mind.

In Jonesboro, Maine, where these books were used, school took place for older children only during the winters.  The rest of the time, older boys were needed on the farm – it was a cold, harsh and rocky place to practice agriculture, and that my great-great-grandfather managed to save enough to send one of his sons to college is remarkable in many ways.  The school, according to my grandmother’s notes, was some 4 miles from their farm, and my great-grandfather walked each day 8 miles round trip, often in weather well below zero F.  Studying was done after school, after the walk home, after milking the cows, after doing the chores, after supper, by kerosene lamp, before rising to milk again at 5 am.  I realize this sounds very much like “I walked to school 25 miles uphill each way in 30 feet of snow.” But I think it is worth thinking about – the deep commitment required of parents to send their children to school when they lived so economically close to the margin, on poor land, and could have used their labor.  And about the deep commitment of children to education when it demanded so much of them.  Why did they do it?  The students certainly may have been grateful to get away from the chores, but what motivated their parents?

We still live in that world of education at high cost in some ways – for all the affluent students sent to college as a placeholder, there are the students who work for it – who hold down multiple jobs and sit up late at night, who care for their children by day so that they can go to night-school and better themselves, the first-generation college students who worked their way through for a dream of a better life.

What has changed is not the kind of people we are, so much as the assumption of what an education is for.  Although my grandfather went to college and became a schoolteacher, most of his peers and siblings didn’t see their education as potentially remunerative, except in the sense of enabling them to have a better agricultural and community life.  It was necessary that they figure interest and master the selling of oats and corn, that they have enough literacy to read contracts and such.  But for farmers, education beyond that was not directly relevant, even though it was common. 

 My great-grandfather would give up the farm, but his brother stayed, and went to school just as long, working his way through Geometry, Latin poetry and grammar not to improve his economic lot, but to improve his community, and himself.  In fact, it isn’t at all clear to me that my great-grandfather or his father thought that teaching would be an improvement on farming – teachers were not well paid, and if you didn’t have to hay in 90 degree heat or milk cows at 5 below, well, you often had trouble supporting a family – my great-grandfather got into money trouble more than once along the way, I’m told.  The reason they sent him to college was simply that he loved to learn, and they wanted to give him the best chance to do what he loved.

While I’m sure this is true of some of the workers and strivers of the present, the overwhelming justification for education at every level is that you will need it to get a job – education will cost you now in loans, time spent doing activities that look good on college applications, tutors, SAT prep, etc…. but it will return to you your investment many times over.  The problem of course, is that as education’s costs have risen, this has become less and less true for most people.  I think I attended college in the 1990s at the break-even point.  Now, as students come out of their degrees with little hope of making enough money to pay their loans, that promise of education, and the merits of education, are lost.

Why did Winnie and George and Edgar and Venus and Stevie go to school?  Winnie and Venus might have taught school for a few years (although who knows), but with marriage the only widely available career for women, they certainly didn’t go to get rich.  Stevie was probably headed back to the farm.  George was going into the factories, where no education is required, and Edgar was the only one who actually needed the education he got.  And yet, if they learned what was in their books, they came out of their schools with a fine liberal education – able to recite bits of Virgil, diagram sentences, write political essays, quote Emerson, with enough algebra to build a barn and enough trigonometry to go to college.  And for the most part, it got them nothing – indeed, it cost their parents days of desperately needed labor.

Except, that it didn’t get them nothing – the benefits were not remunerative, but communal.  They were competent citizens.  Quoting Virgil may have been of no actual use to a farmwife in rural Maine except this – that she knew she could, that she could teach Latin to her children were she to go west, far from schools, that she would have in her head forever the story of the founding of Rome, alongside Emerson on “Compensation,” “Barbara Freitchie” and the history of the rulers of England.  We can quibble with what she knew – suggest that the history she learned might have better included different stories, that there are better poems.  She would live her life in a community that had, if it had nothing else, a library, able to read fluently and enjoy when she had a few minutes alone.  What we cannot argue with, I think is the value that communities found in education in these times was that education had value for its own sake, in creating educated citizens. 

Despite the fact that that education cost people something, they went on providing it, because it was right, because farmwives who read poetry and fishermen who knew algebra made farmwives who wrote letters to the editor and gathered for literary gatherings and community theatricals, and fishermen who recited poetry to themselves as they drew in their lines, recited them to their children at bedtime, and stood for town council at the end of the day.  We should not over-romanticize the role of education in ordinary, work-filled daily lives.  Nor, however, should we understate how remarkable it was.

As the cost of education continues to outstrip the economic value of education, it becomes more and more imperative that we return to valuing education in proportion to its goods – these are vast.  I, the product of a liberal education, give enormous credit to mine.  But I had the good fortune to have a college education much like the one my great-grandfather had, one not expected to get me much.  I was a scholarship student, without parental expectations, or parents investing much of their capital into educating me.  My friends were told that they could minor in theater but had to major in computer science or economics or something that would get them a good job, because after, all, the parents were not paying 20,000 dollars a year to let them major in the humanities.  Since my parents were paying very little, and I came from this inheritance of valuing education mostly for its own sake, my desire to study poetry and history was never questioned.  Since I mostly got my education from scholarships, I didn’t have to pay off vast student loans, so there was nothing stopping me from going to graduate school in English, poor as the odds were that I’d ever get a professorship (the first year I went on the academic market there were 5 candidates for every job).

Even in the early 1990s, I realized how incredibly unusual and fortunate I was to be able to learn simply for its own sake.  Now, I think at the college level, there are almost certainly as few people learning simply for their own sake, without worries about the job they will get, as when my great-grandfather was encouraged by the school superintendent in Jonesboro to apply to the teacher’s college. 

At the lower levels, the emphasis is still on the economic value of education – but we are assured at every step that free public education has no value – you *must* go on to community college, to college, to graduate school, often at stunning cost (and the not-stunning costs are rising, as states cut subsidies to education).  You must do these things because a free education cannot get you a job – simply having a high school degree is nothing.  And we are so caught up in the economic value of education – and in the necessity of training students for higher education or blue-collar slavery, that we’ve entirely forgotten the value of education outside the economy – of education as a way of making people. 

This old-fashioned value, as arcane as my great-grandfather’s school books, however, will be back.  Because if we have to live locally again, live mostly with the people around us, education for citizenship, for self-improvement, so you have some poems and stories and ideas in your head, so you can talk to others, argue, write a letter, stand for council or congress, or even simply build a barn, this is what school should teach us – and why it will persist.


The Pedagogy of Collapse

Sharon August 23rd, 2009

I owe John Michael Greer a beer, or maybe two. Now that he’s moved to this half of the continent, I may yet have a chance to offer him one.  Over the years of writing, Greer and I have argued and allied, worked together and apart, had our books published in the same season (twice now) and never yet met in person.  Having a background in lit crit, I tend to think of my relationship with Greer as having a slight taint of Harold Bloom style anxiety of influence to it, causing me to spend more time articulating my differences than recognizing our deep similarities of viewpoint.  Still, I have to admit here, I definitely owe him a drink.

 The reason is actually a project of Eric’s.  As you’ve probably all heard by now, my husband is a professor of Physics in the SUNY system – he was trained as Astrophysicist, working on Gamma Ray Bursts very, very far away, but spends most of his teaching time these days going local (it seems to be a theme here), at least by astronomical standards. That his, he teaches the history of space-science, which is basically local to our solar system, and he teaches environmental physics – the physics that apply primarily to our immediate planetary home.

After a break of a bit, Eric has taken up environmental physics again, and has, perhaps obviously, as his focus, the question of the physics of our future – the scientific realities of depletion and climate change, and what this means for a future.  He’s taught this class before, but one of the things he was anxious to do was to make sure that the concept of limits, and the progessive fallacy (ie, the idea that technology will save us) are addressed straight on early, but rather than bang hard on the drum of material limits, he really wanted a way for the students to come at the idea themselves.

And therein comes Greer’s eminently useful construction – he argues on his blog and in _The Long Descent_ that our crisis of depletion is in fact, not, as it is commonly presented, a problem, with potential solutions.  It is rather, he argues, a predicament, a situation we simply face, which cannot be solved.  The obvious model predicament is death – something that can be addressed and handled in a whole host of ways, some productive, some not, but that can never be solved – we all die.  How we approach our deaths, how we view them, the contexts in which they occur – these details matter enormously, but none of them approach the status of solution, eliminating the basic problem.

I’ve always liked this bit of Greer, but as Eric was telling me about his desire to frame the class differently than he has in the past, I was particularly grateful, because the “problem vs. predicament” lens seemed eminently useful as a way of talking about the scope of our problem to undergraduates, a superb organizing principle which I’m writing about here because I think it might be helpful to other people teaching at the high school or college level, or perhaps preparing teaching materials for adult education classes.

The idea’s great beauty is that it doesn’t demand the stark contrasts of “will we succeed or fail” or of the traditional rhetoric of apocalypses or futuristic manifest destiny – what Aaron and I call the “Klingons vs. Cylons” view of the future.  Identifying, say, climate change, as a problem doesn’t imply that we will solve it.  Identifying depletion as a predicament doesn’t mean there are no viable responses – merely no solutions.

Eric’s idea is to present each of the major present limitations on our present situation as both a problem to be solved, and a predicament to be responded to.  The students will be expected, then, to ask what the terms and realities would be if, say, peak energy or climate change, water depletion, our food situation or overpopulation  is a problem, with available solutions, and also, to ask what the realities will be if it is a predicament. 

Even more importantly, this organizing principle enables Eric to draw connections between each situation – if, for example, climate change is a predicament, but peak oil is a problem – what are the chances of being able to allocate massive quantities of our resources to addressing peak oil in a world where resources are being drawn down by remedying the disasters that go with an increasingly unstable climate?

And this, I think is actually the most useful bit of Greer’s distinction, at least for me – a point I think I’ll use as illustration – that is, if any of the above situations is a predicament, there’s a real chance that they render even issues that were otherwise problems, potentially soluble, into irremediable predicaments. 

For example, let’s imagine that our food crisis is a problem that can be solved – that the right combination of investment, research, resource allocation etc… will permit us to feed 10 billion people, at least for a while.  But what happens when you add any of the other problems into the mix?  I can answer this in some detail, actually – much of _A Nation of Farmers_ is precisely about this question.  And generally speaking, what you find is that any of those situations being irremediable, makes the food situation much more dire.  For example, if peak energy is irremediable, that means that in the longer term, populations and food must be much more closely linked – to wildly overgeneralize, in a much lower energy world, people have to live much more where the food grows, and much less where it doesn’t, reducing transport energy and replacing fossil fuel energy in agriculture with human inputs.  That means that a lot fewer people can live in Tucson and in Manhattan and a lot more people have to live in Iowa and Missouri.  And of course, the reallocation of populations is very energy and resource intensive – and deeply political.  Those are inter-American migrations, and perhaps imaginable.  The questions get harder when we ask where the people of Bangladesh will live.  If Peak Energy is a reality, and can’t be solved (or can be but isn’t), then we are very close to having our food crisis be a predicament as well.

Mix in climate change, and the situation gets more complex still – because much of the most productive available farmland is dependent on meltwater that will disappear, near coastlines and subject flooding and salinization of water supplies from rising seas, or otherwise vulnerable.  Add in the projected overall reduction in grain yields, and one finds that we’ve now moved firmly from “food crisis as a problem” to “food crisis as a predicament.”

And fascinatingly, most of the intersections of our difficulties work this way – if any one of them is fundamentally insoluble, if our choices are how to respond, rather than whether to prevent, the other crises become more firmly fixed as well.

There’s nothing really new about this analysis – it mirrors, for example, the findings of _The Limits to Growth:The 30 Year Update_, which observed that in nearly all of its models, the result was inevitably collapse, not because of any single, insoluble factor, but simply because the system eventually ran out of the ability to cope with multiple crises, each of them reducing the range of options available for responding to the *other* crises.

What’s most useful in Greer’s language, and framing of this issue, which I think will be uniquely interesting and also, not offputting to college students.  Eric has long ended his History of Space course with a few days on “by the way, earth is a planet too, and it would perhaps be unwise to get too fixated on the idea of leaving it, given the situation we’re facing” ;-) , in which he attempts to address the long emergency, and give his students a sense of what they are facing.  This is important work – his class is one of the largest and most popular general education classes at his large SUNY campus, and that means that nearly a thousand undersgraduates each year – 1/4 of the student body during any given 4 year period – have gotten at least a solid basic exposure to the acute situation our society is facing – usually their first.  It may not change the world, but priming that many young people for what’s coming matters, IMHO, a great deal. 

But three days at the end of a class with the professor focusing on his perspective are a very different thing than an intensive class that gives undergraduates the tools to address the larger questions themselves – the ability to calculate tons of carbon, calories of food, rates of depletion and EROEI, Energy density and what the real odds of a progressive, high tech future are for yourself.  What I think is so valuable about Greer’s construction is this – as a pedagogical tool, it isn’t threatening - the students are going to have to cover some scary territory, and the temptation to view everything as problems, to simply argue “but if we just…” will always be there.  But instead of Eric offering the counter-arguments, this phrasing offers a way of getting the students to fully formulate both answers, to compare them, and to watch the ways they intersect.

Of course, he hasn’t done it yet.  One of the great rules of teaching is that sometimes things don’t work out quite as well as you think they will.  But we both see potential there.  And I definitely owe Greer that drink.


What Kind of Homeschoolers Are We?

Sharon August 8th, 2008

Someone asked me recently if I’d do a post on what kind of homeschoolers we are.  It was someone I know well and like a lot, so I couldn’t do what I normally do with requests for posts I really don’t especially want to write, which is ignore it ;-) .  So I said I would, and then sort of intentionally forgot about it.  Except that my friend didn’t forget.  And now I’m feeling guilty, and it is time to start getting my act together for the new school year, so I might as well do it. 

 Why don’t I want to answer this question?  Because in a world of homeschoolers who can put neat labels on themselves “We’re Christian Classical Educators” “Unschoolers here!” “We do a combination of Waldorf and Montessori” we don’t really have a good label.  Or rather, there is a good way to describe our kind of homeschooling, but it isn’t the kind of label you revel in – we’re slacker homeschoolers.  This is not a recognized curriculum model ;-) .

Now we could probably get away with saying we are unschoolers, except that we aren’t.  There are definitely things I like about unschooling, but I’m actually pretty firm about the fact that my kids have to learn multiplication tables and practice piano, even if they don’t particularly want to.  A lot of the time we let our kids follow their own interests and pursue ideas their own way – except well, when we don’t. 

 We currently have a Waldorf curriculum, Oak Meadow, for every year, K-5, but that’s because we got it cheap from someone else.  We use parts of this, and really like it, but the whole sitting in a circle with a lighted candle thing, or the no pressure, learn to read when you feel like it thing we’re not so into. 

 We have a lot of cool Montessori stuff, but since pure Montessori isn’t into fairy tales and imaginative stuff, we ignore that part.  I like some of the elements of classical homeschooling, including its emphasis on going through ideas at three seperate levels, and we do this – when we remember to, but my kids aren’t taking Latin, they are doing Hebrew and Russian, and we’re not really doing the whole “western civ” is the world thing.

 We do the Jewish thing at home, but unlike a friend of mine who integrates her Christian faith into everything, we don’t do the “If four Leviites meet 3Kohain, what do you…”  thing.  Unlike friends of ours who afterschool (that is, they send their kids to school and then work with them constantly afterwards), we’re well, kind of lazy, and we miss a lot of teachable moments.

 We also don’t do the homeschooling thing that doesn’t have a name, but seems to be the dominant motif of homeschooling – that is, the “take them everywhere and do everything” thing.  A lot of the homeschooling parents I know are constantly off to this class and that one, this event and that.  Our adventures tend to be lower key – see the local community theater production of The Wizard of Oz, to meet the worm lady at the public library story hour, or back out into the woods to look for salamanders.    Some of this is principled, of course, but some of it is just plain disorganization – we often hear about amazing things afterwards, since we haven’t read the local homeschool newsletter.

Basically, we pick and choose.  And in real life, I’d say that our dominant motif is – inconsistency and slacking off.  That is, we do formal lessons, we do some workbook things (because the kids love them), we do go to see things, we do structure, we do no structure, we follow Simon and Isaiah’s enthusiasms – the shift from The Wizard of Oz to Robin Hood, for example.  We make up projects, like our current trip through time.

 But just as often our plans to do some elaborate thing get sidetracked by our attempts to do other things, and instead of an exciting science project we’re back to “who wants to help Mommy mix the dough” – and that’s ok too.  The thing is, I don’t feel any particular guilt about this one.  The kids are learning – Simon is way ahead in most stuff, still catching up on handwriting and manual dexterity, while he reads Shakespeare for children and chapter books for kids 5 years older than him (and Mommy hides some of the other ones we don’t want him reading yet), and we bug him to look up from the book occasionally. Isaiah is a math whiz at 4 and a junior naturalist who corrects Dad on plant identification all the time. He already grasps multiplication, but still isn’t clear on some of those middle letters, the l-m-n section of the alphabet we now refer to as the ”flyover letters.”  Asher is, well, a hindrance, who mostly likes it when we do froot loop math (yes, we buy bulk froot loops for this and potty bribes – so shoot me ;-) ), where after a bit of counting, he gets to eat them.  They seem pretty normal – ahead in some things, behind a bit in others, but nothing we worry about.

What we do that is different is that we emphasize manual skills, require a comparatively large number of chores, and keep the kids outside as much as possible.  My educational philosophy comes down, I think to a mix of ” Mean Moming” (ie, making kids do things I think are good for them that they don’t especially want to do, like practice music, do, chores,  memoriz some stuff or brush their teeth), “Nice Moming” (ie, supporting their interests, arranging ways to follow their dreams, seeking out materials to let them do what they love), actual teaching, in both the formal and “teachable moment” sense and  saying “Go out and play and find something to do.”  I figure they’ll explain what I did wrong eventually, probably in some detail.  Until then, I’m going with slacker education.