Confessions of a Reluctant Teacher

July 31, 2009

“Can Do”

Filed under: New York Times,unschooling — christinag503 @ 11:13 pm

I wanted to draw your attention to another brilliant installment of Maira Kalman’s monthly feature, “And The Pursuit of Happiness,” an illustrated column about American democracy.  Her stories of famous Americans are particularly inspiring.  July’s focus is Benjamin Franklin, a great American and a grade-school dropout.

That’s right, Ben had no formal education past the age of ten.  He never learned that he was supposed to wait for other, more qualified people to tell him what to do.  To quote Maira:

“He saw a dirty street and created a sanitation department.

He saw a house on fire and created a fire department.

He saw sick people and founded a hospital

He saw people needing an education and founded a university.”

Well, nobody’s perfect.

Check it out.  Be inspired.


Celebrity Chefs: the End of Civilization as We Know It?

Initially, I was sucked in by the photo of what Julia Child’s famous cooking show, “The French Chef,” was like behind the scenes.  I love how there are five professional-looking adults sitting on the floor around her, hiding behind the counter.  I always thought Julia looked a little distracted from time to time, like something was going on off-camera, but she wasn’t supposed to say what.  Now I know!

“I really should be writing something new for ‘Confessions’,” I thought.  But the aformentioned photograph, plus my mounting excitement over the upcoming “Julie & Julia” movie, seduced me into “taking a quick peek” at Michael Pollan’s article about the rise of the cooking show.

It turns out that in Mr. Pollan’s hands, a story about Julia Child and the rising popularity of cooking shows becomes a cautionary tale about an industrialized culture of passive consumers who spend more time watching celebrity chefs on TV than actually cooking for themselves.  As he observes,

“It’s no accident that Julia Child appeared on public television — or educational television, as it used to be called. On a commercial network, a program that actually inspired viewers to get off the couch and spend an hour cooking a meal would be a commercial disaster, for it would mean they were turning off the television to do something else.”

John Taylor Gatto predicted this in his 1991 essay, “The Six-Lesson Schoolteacher.”  I’m thinking of the fourth lesson this New York State Teacher of the Year taught his students: dependency.  By being the voice of authority that decided where children must direct their attention and what tasks they should be performing at all times, he robbed them of a chance to learn self-directed thought and action.  He taught them “that [good people] must wait for other people, better trained than ourselves, to make the meaning of our lives. It is no exaggeration to say that our entire economy depends upon this lesson being learned.”  He goes on to explain, “The food services, restaurants and prepared-food warehouses would shrink if people returned to making their own meals rather than depending on strangers to cook for them…We’ve built a way of life that depends on people doing what they are told because they don’t know any other way.”

Michael Pollan has the research and the proof that corporations have a vested interest in cultivating the helplessness of American consumers:

“Those corporations have been trying to persuade Americans to let them do the cooking since long before large numbers of women entered the work force. After World War II, the food industry labored mightily to sell American women on all the processed-food wonders it had invented to feed the troops: canned meals, freeze-dried foods, dehydrated potatoes, powdered orange juice and coffee, instant everything. As Laura Shapiro recounts in “Something From the Oven: Reinventing Dinner in 1950s America,” the food industry strived to “persuade millions of Americans to develop a lasting taste for meals that were a lot like field rations.” The same process of peacetime conversion that industrialized our farming, giving us synthetic fertilizers made from munitions and new pesticides developed from nerve gas, also industrialized our eating…It took years of clever, dedicated marketing to break down this resistance and persuade Americans that opening a can or cooking from a mix really was cooking.”

Around this era was when compulsory schooling really started to mold the next generation of Americans into consumers rather than citizens.  Eventually, schools stopped requiring students to take Home Economics.  Have you noticed that schools no longer teach any skills to prepare children to live independently?  I’m sure we’ve all heard stories about college freshman hauling weeks’ worth of dirty clothing on visits home because they have no clue how to do their own laundry.  Or the young adult in making his first home-cooked meal for his sweetheart (normally they’d just get take-out but he promised her something special for Valentine’s Day), and having his mother on the phone to walk him through the steps of preparing food.  Not only do these kids not learn basic life skills in school, but homework and extracurricular activities (that they need so desperately to succeed in life—or at least to get in to a good college) keep them too busy to learn these things from their parents.  And Schools are clamoring for still more hours of our children’s lives!

And since I’ve already quoted abundantly from the article, here’s one more passage for the road:

“The Food Network (blogger’s note: AND SCHOOL!) has helped to transform cooking from something you do into something you watch — into yet another confection of spectacle and celebrity that keeps us pinned to the couch. The formula is as circular and self-reinforcing as a TV dinner: a simulacrum of home cooking that is sold on TV and designed to be eaten in front of the TV. True, in the case of the Swanson rendition, at least you get something that will fill you up; by comparison, the Food Network leaves you hungry, a condition its advertisers must love. But in neither case is there much risk that you will get off the couch and actually cook a meal. Both kinds of TV dinner plant us exactly where television always wants us: in front of the set, watching.”

July 30, 2009

How Unschoolers Fare in the Real World

Filed under: unschooling — christinag503 @ 11:54 pm
Tags: , , , ,

One of the main criticisms of homeschooling and unschooling is that children who are raised to be independent and self-directed will not be able to ever find a ‘real’ job.

To that I say: GOOD.

Most adults with the types of ‘real’ jobs these critics have in mind find them distasteful. They don’t like being stuck inside, behind a desk, for most of their waking lives. They don’t like the stressful commute, or being unable to spend time with their families or prepare a decent dinner. They don’t like dealing with bosses who force them to perform tedious or unpleasant tasks, sometimes for no apparent reason. However, they have to do everything their boss says, with a smile, because the boss has the power to punish them.

Why do we teach our kids that this is a stable and fulfilling life to which they should aspire? I know that there are exceptions to this situation, and there are many people who enjoy their desk jobs. (I know I do!) But there is a fundamental disconnect between what adults say to children about work, and what we actually train them to do. While graduation speeches and “little books o’ wisdom” exhort young people to dedicate their lives to doing what they love, we spend twelve years teaching them that misery and boredom is a necessary part of every weekday. We teach them that they should devote nearly all their time to subjects and busywork that they barely tolerate, let alone “love.” They learn to constantly submit to randomly assigned authority figures, instead of looking up to and learning from people who actually inspire them. What we have here is a severe case of failing to walk the talk.

“But Christina,” I can hear you say, “that’s the way the world works.” Baloney! The only reason people put up with crappy work situations, such as mentioned above, is because we train them to do so, when they are young and their brains are malleable. Our institutions teach this lesson, and then we reinforce it with example. Many adults are caught up in the cycle of spending their weekdays at a meaningless, maddening job, looking forward only to when they can dull their psychic pain and get a hit of artificial stimulation by watching TV, going shopping, and/or getting hammered (or high; pick your poison). Does that sound like a life you’d want to get used to?

Which brings me to my main point: yes, it probably is difficult to get unschoolers to join the rat race of the ‘real world.’ I’m sure there are some who do. But for those who try and fail to fit in with corporate culture, it’s not the end of the world. There is a way that they can continue to do what they did previously (namely, doing work of their own choosing, under their own direction, that they enjoy so much that the work is nearly indistinguishable from play)—it’s called SELF-EMPLOYMENT. The number one thing an individual can do become a productive member of society while (is this actually possible?!) still truly enjoying his or her life is to “CREATE and DELIVER real value.” I’m quoting from Steve Pavlina’s inspiring article, “How to Make Lots of Money in a Recession.” He continues:

Creating value means expressing your unique talents and skills in a way that can potentially benefit others.
Delivering value means ensuring that other people are actually receiving and benefiting from the value you’ve created.”

That sounds much better than devoting your time to becoming a well functioning, albeit miserable, cog in a large machine. I really encourage you to take the time to read the whole of this inspiring article. (I know I just said the word ‘inspiring’ twice within the space of a few sentences, and normally I hate that, but I use the word ‘inspiring’ a lot with Steve Pavlina. It’s just so apt! It’s hard to think of a more fitting word, other than ‘electrifying,’ ‘eye-opening,’ and ‘motivating.’ Not that I necessarily agree with everything Steve says, but…the man is thought-provoking!)
And if any parents are still worried about their children eventually entering the marketplace on their own, without large, well-financed corporations to feed, protect, and entertain them, I’ll leave you with this idea to chew on, also from Steve Pavlina’s brilliant (Brilliant! That’s a good one) article, “10 Reasons Never to Get a Job.”

“Does putting yourself in a position where someone else can turn off all your income just by saying two words (”You’re fired”) sound like a safe and secure situation to you? Does having only one income stream honestly sound more secure than having 10?”

It takes a lot of hard work to start your own business. But so do many of life’s most enjoyable and rewarding activities: growing a garden, playing an instrument, raising a child. The time will pass anyway. Why not spend your limited days doing hard work that brings you joy? And give your kids the same chance, while you’re at it.

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