By what can only be coincidence – or is it all that snow and maple syrup? – I came across another wonderfully inspirational book about living the good life in Vermont. Ben Hewitt’s Home Grown is a beautiful, gentle book, part musings on education and learning and part meditation on the land that his family live upon and on. At its centre are his two children, Fin and Rye, who have never been to school, and their 40 acre smallholding in Cabot.
It is hard to separate the Hewitts’ learning approach from their land. The two boys’ education is shaped by the landscape they are a part of and Ben himself places a huge amount of emphasis on connection to land and place. And it is hard to imagine this type of immersion learning working quite so well in the city. Still the broader principles are applicable in any environment, and will be familiar to anyone who has read John Holt or who is into unschooling.
Fin and Rye are brought up right from the start being a part of every chore and task that their parents do. Living on a farm makes this easier – it is difficult to involve a small child in, for instance, paying your electricity bill online – but great patience is required to let your toddler loose in your newly planted vegetable plot for instance, or to have a job take twice as long as it ought in inclement weather because your child is helping.
They are given serious knives at the age of four, and are driving a tractor at eight. Their parents supervise but are not afraid of the inevitable cuts and bruises in the process of learning how to operate such tools. And as a result the boys demonstrate the kind of dexterity that the regular, over-sheltered city child can never even aspire to.
Their sons’ learning – whether it is learning to write or to learning to milk goats – is entirely their own choice. Hewitt observes that both boys learn the basics – reading, writing, maths – much later than in a conventional education, but quickly and painlessly and of their own volition, to meet a newly arisen need for these skills. There is no external motivation for them to learn – no rewards or punishment – and so they learn voraciously and solely on account of their own desire to have that skill or knowledge.
And they are far more ingenious than their parents, who have been schooled and brought up more or less in the taditional way. Ben recalls how Fin wanted a pop-gun for ages. They held off and finally his wife, Penny, looked up how to make one and got ready for a fun mother-son activity only to be surprised by Fin running up with one he had just made on his own – with no instruction or guidance. And it worked. For those of us who rely on YouTube for everything from erecting a tent to planting a seed to unblocking the sink, this is something of a wake up call.
What the reader really appreciates though is the author’s honesty. He admits to doubts about the unstructured education their boys have. He acknowledges that his and Penny’s desire to live a life connected to nature and place, and their lack of faith in mainstream schooling, has driven the choices they’ve made about their sons’ learning. Is it selfish or misguided to try to bring up your children to a very particular, in this case even peculiar, type of life just because it is what you believe best and to make decisions on their behalf which will massively influence their own futures? Possibly, but don’t all parents do that? The social aspirants giving their sons the best education money can buy just as much as the unschoolers? Can parents act otherwise? Ben is also candid about the (nasty but perhaps in the long run salutary) surprises his children spring, such as their passion for trapping small animals, which only grows stronger and stronger. After initially fighting what they see as a cruel, gratuitous activity, the parents come to accept it when they realise the extent of the boys’ interest and, putting aside their own prejudices, learn from their sons what it really involves.
A more thorny issue is the autonomony the Hewitt boys have which at times makes them stubborn, uncooperative and unwilling to do chores. They are their own masters and do what they wish with their time. Is that a realistic way to live or bring your children up? John Holt discusses this too, and from what I can remember his view is that we should allow children to enjoy their learning and their lives as far as possible. True adults often have to do things they don’t want to, but why make children suffer similarly on the premise that they need to learn such things early?
And, although Ben doesn’t seem to think this is a bad thing, the reader may wonder if the lack of socialisation with their own peer group is detrimental for his sons. Yes they are unselfconscious. Yes they are not even interested in the video games and social media that take away so much of the average child’s childhood. But are they too different, too isolated? Will they be able to fit into the society they are in fact a part of?
For all that they lead a very different life, Ben is not extreme in his views. He offers his book more as an explanation and description of his own family’s choices and lifestyle and urges readers to find the way best suited to them. He sees that school has a place in the community and for some families it is by far the best option. You have only to think of the opportunities school offers to a subsistence family in India to realise that institutional learning still has many many advantages. In fact, when I see children of construction workers in Bangalore playing and helping their parents on the construction site (no health and safety here), messing around with sharp tools and carrying heavy loads, filtering the sand for cement and mixing it with mud to make little animals on the side of the road, I can’t help but wonder if this is unschooling by a different name. Is it that we of the urbanised, ‘educated’ middle class have gone too far down the intellectual schooling route and hence some are now doing a dramatic u-turn to try and reset the balance? For those street children, school of any sort would surely be a ticket to a much better life, but in a couple of generations would they be at the same quandary we are at now?
As Ben says towards the end of the book, he can’t know how his children will turn out or what their future holds, and nor can any parent when they decide on the schooling method they think best for their children. What we can do though is focus on now and live with our children in the present rather than a projected future.