Written by The Dad
[Trigger warning: This blog post contains commentary on public schools. It’s not bad, but still… It doesn’t really matter what is actually written below, if you’re usually bothered by thoughts critical of public schooling you’ll probably be bothered by this. If you’ve ever told a homeschooling parent you’re worried their kids won’t be socialized enough, this means you. You’ve been warned.]
Lighting a Fire
I’ve finally come to terms with wanting to homeschool. I haven’t come to terms with the act of homeschooling itself, just the internal conviction that I want to. It sounds like a lot of work. It took me awhile.
Here’s how I got there…
Education has always been important to me. I had decent grades in school and earned a college degree in engineering. I have many educators in my family and was raised loving the idea of learning. I really appreciate that.
Education is not the filling of a pail but the lighting of a fire.
– William Butler Yates
I came across this quote one day and loved it. I’ve been carrying it around with me ever since. It simplifies my feelings toward learning. At least…how I’d like to feel about learning.
My problem is, somewhere along the line I started thinking the opposite is true. I developed the idea that if I amassed enough knowledge and subsequent certificates for my wall I’d feel successful and find security in life. If I could work my way through the education system and find a job with a large enough company I’d have all the security I needed. I learned a lot of stuff I don’t care about so I could get a safe, secure job.
Then I started learning about real life. I’ve watched as many people who’ve done the same thing as I did reach retirement age unhappy with their lot in life. The systems they trusted their time, health, livelihoods and fortunes to haven’t paid out like they thought they would.
I’m on the same track.
An Observation About Large Systems
[Note: I’m going to use the terms “we” and “our” for plurals and “you” as a singular pronoun primarily for convenience, but I don’t necessarily mean you the reader. Read it however you’d like.]
In our everyday lives we trust many systems larger than ourselves, the public education system being just one. There is also the financial system that regulates our money, governmental systems (local and federal), healthcare and insurance systems, the companies we work for, etc.
- For your healthcare…trust your doctor.
- For your education…trust the schools.
- For your retirement…trust your savings and the equity in your home.
- For your money…trust your bank and stock brokers.
- And increasingly, for all of the above…trust the government to regulate security into existence.
We acknowledge that we can’t know everything about anything (for some reason we think this is required for a basic level of happy living), so we trust a larger system to do the heavy lifting. We trust top down planning to deliver a dependable product. Right? We trust those systems, don’t we?
I don’t really think we do.
When someone is successful in a certain category (education mostly, but investing is a great example for this) they pat themselves on the back for the great choices they’ve made.
However, when things don’t go right, who do they blame? Certainly not themselves for their poor choices. They blame the system.
This post isn’t an indictment of any of those systems, it’s just an observation of our relationships with them. We seem conditioned to trust things we can’t control and then complain when they don’t work. We like top-down systems because of their power (and implied ability to relieve us of some decision-making), yet we dislike when this power isn’t used to benefit. Against all historical evidence to the contrary, we believe large, top-down systems like large companies or the government will provide us security in exchange for our trust and money.
I feel like school is where this mindset gets started. In school, you learn that getting good grades is the path to success. Earning a lot of gold stars makes you look valuable to the next level of school, and the more school you accumulate the more marketable and employable you are. The more employable you are the more “security” you have.
Of course this isn’t globally true but I’m not going to waste any space writing about it. This topic has been beaten to death in all sorts of blog posts, books, TED talks, etc, and you can read all about it elsewhere. Suffice it to say I believe all of this “security” actually makes a person more fragile. The more you buy into a system that you don’t own the less freedom you have to innovate your own life. The irony is: the more you seek security the more you end up fearing failure, and the less you actually control the outcome. You can complain about the outcome all you want and you can decry “the system” or “the rich” or “Big ___” (fill in the blank; Oil, Banks, Government, Pharma), but you can’t do much to change it.
The Safe Path
This idea of security and the safe path has bugged me for a while. I believe safety and security are relative to what you know and can control
Security is mostly a superstition. It does not exist in nature, nor do the children of men as a whole experience it. Avoiding danger is no safer in the long run than outright exposure. Life is either a daring adventure, or nothing.
– Helen Keller
When I started my first job out of college I was quickly exposed to something that bothered me. It was the spring of 2008 and the economy was sputtering after the market crash the previous winter.
One day a coworker stood up from his desk and threw his hands into the air in disgust. He’d been closely tracking his savings account, daily watching it dwindle. With sneering disgust he told everyone around him how much he’d lost in the previous 24 hours alone. It was more than I was going to make (pre-tax) for my first year on the job.
Others around him started consoling him by openly explaining their own savings depletion. Off to the side I asked a coworker I knew well what his investment strategy was. He didn’t have one. He just threw money into a 401(k) account and hoped for the best.
What troubled me wasn’t the market scare; I knew those happened. What troubled me was seeing a bunch of professionals who were just like me but with twenty or thirty more years of experience, much smarter and more experienced, with looks of bewilderment as they realized they didn’t know how to protect what they’d been working for. They spent their entire lives developing a set of skills to get a safe, secure job. It had worked in that they were still gainfully and continuously employed. Yet the fruits of their labors were nearly worthless to them because of something they didn’t control or even understand. The safe path lead nowhere because the systems they trusted had failed them. They could be upset all they wanted (they were) but it wasn’t going to bring their savings back.
I understand this next comment will sound crass to anyone older than myself but I don’t intend it that way: That market crash was the best thing that ever happened to me. It illuminated the terms “risk” and “security” to show completely different definitions than I’d learned.
I don’t want my kids to view “risk” as a bad thing. I’d rather they learn to manage it. I want to teach my kids how to love learning so that as each challenge comes along they will have tools and an attitude to deal with it and hopefully gain from it (if not materially at least in knowledge).
I read a book recently that gives a name to a concept that I’ve never seen clearly articulated anywhere else. It’s called Antifragile – Things that Gain From Disorder (Incerto) by Nassim Nicholas Taleb. I won’t give a book review (the New York Times and Wall Street Journal both have great, and opposing, reviews), but I will say that I really like the general concept. I don’t completely buy everything in the book but I’d highly recommend it. The main idea is…
- We have a word for the thing in the box that breaks when shaken: fragile.
- We have a word for the thing in a box that is resistant to damage when shaken: robust.
- We don’t really have a word for the thing in the box that gets stronger when shaken, so the writer gives it one: Antifragile.
An object, system, or creature is antifragile when it actually gains from applied stress rather than being destroyed by it. Without going into a detailed critique of the concept I’ll just say, I like it. I love the idea that rather than seeking safety and security through trust in a great system your whole life, why not learn how to learn from failures and build on them.
If your success is based on getting certain gold stars you’re fragile to any force that threatens them and you will learn exactly enough to earn them (and no doubt forget most of it the same day). If your success is based on learning alone you won’t be disappointed by failure. Even failure causes you to learn and will be seen as net positive.
The book takes the view that this isn’t some new-age way of thinking; this is how nature works and how we are designed.
What’s the point of this post?
My overall point is sort of vague, even to me. I guess I’d distill it down to this: I want to teach my kids the virtue of bottom-up tinkering as opposed to top-down authority and planning. I want to teach them that systems and models are tools to aid in thinking, not substitutes for thinking. I feel that public schools teach the exact opposite; that top-down approval is success.
I’m not going to teach my kids to distrust larger systems like schools, government, or doctors, but I want them to know that knowledge doesn’t have to be blessed by one of these entities to be valid, either.
I don’t want them to learn that getting the wrong answer is a demerit on their record. I want them to make lots of mistakes and learn from them, similar to how they learned to walk by falling. They already love trial and error; it’s born in them. I don’t want them to lose that.
I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.
– Thomas Edison
I’m going to teach them that their success in life is primarily their own responsibility. The existing systems should never be ignored, but they should be viewed as tools rather than substitutes for personal decision-making. When you take responsibility for yourself you remove the ceiling for your upside. There’s no limit to how much you can achieve and how much you can help others when you figure out how to do it yourself. Just by being born in this country they’ve been given a start in life most of the world can only dream of, and I hope to teach them to appreciate it and value it.
Implicit in this lesson is the requirement to take responsibility for your own educational destiny. We have more resources now than we’ve ever had; use them. The average American grade school kid has more information at his or her fingertips now than presidents had only a few terms ago. There are also wide arrays of groups that support each other in homeschooling efforts. There are mentors at every turn, both for teachers and students. The internet allows collaboration that was unheard of a single generation ago.
I don’t know exactly what our particular version of homeschooling is going to look like yet. There are all sorts of ideas, ranging from formal classroom settings in the home to “unschooling/hackschooling”.
Most importantly I just want them to love learning. I don’t want that love to be bled away by structure not conducive to how they learn.
This blog post isn’t meant as a rant against public schooling. I went through public school myself and loved it. I have a bachelor’s degree that I wouldn’t trade for almost anything, and I will absolutely encourage my kids to pursue post-high school education if they are interested.
I believe a lot of kids fare better in a more structured setting, and I don’t know yet whether that might be the case for one or more of my own kids.
There are numerous reasons not to homeschool too and maybe I’ll talk about those some other time.
This post is just meant to advocate for keeping options open and thinking outside the box. I want to learn to be more like this myself, and what better way to learn than alongside my own kids?
I believe the best way for us is homeschooling.
I just want to light the fire.
Also, we’re going to go to Disneyland at off-peak times while most kids are in school so the lines will be shorter. Homeschooling has more obvious benefits, too.