Listening to the news the other day on my drive to work, I heard something that really struck me. A USA Today study suggested that the leading three adjectives that high school students used to describe their feelings throughout the school day were "tired", "stressed" and "bored".
Now this is in no way some revolutionary concept. I am not in the least surprised to hear it, nor do I think it particularly enlightening. But in the past few weeks I have been doing a lot of thinking about today's youth and the education system in this country, and hearing this report reinforced what I've already been feeling: that surely it is time for standardized, state-run learning institutions to be rethought and replaced by education that might inspire our youth to become freethinking, self-sufficient adults.
These thoughts were prompted by a few things, most prominently my reading of Joel Salatin's book, Folks, This Aint Normal.
Salatin, a Libertarian permaculture farmer and natural foods speaker/promoter in Virginia, was raised on the farm he now runs, land on which he has for many years hosted interns and offered community learning opportunities. He preaches the import of humans being stewards of the land, of returning to natural animal and land care that has historically nurtured the environment instead of destroying it the way government-backed chemicals, fertilizers and antibiotics do.
Growing up, Salatin was expected to carry out farm tasks from a young age, and in turn raised his children to do the same. For his homeschooled kids, what started out as farm tasks turned into small businesses that instilled in them a sense of responsibility, creativity, independence and confidence. His daughter, Rachel, baked breads and cakes for farm customers and his son Daniel bred and sold rabbits.
Salatin states: "I'm a big believer that children should have autonomous businesses. This teaches the value of a dollar, persistence, thrift, and good math skills. The earlier someone learns the difference between profit and loss, the better...Both of our children hit twenty years old with $20,000 in the bank. I don't believe in allowances - nobody should be paid to breathe. This was not pay for chores. It was self-earned, saved income from their businesses and provided a wonderful nest egg for future pursuits. That, my friends, is liberating and launching."
Salatin's kids were able to express their creativity and individuality through the different ventures they sought, and though Salatin oversaw the businesses, he let them take the reigns.
Now I know that's not the whole story (What kind of resistances did they put up? Were they ever bitter about their separation from the mainstream media? Did they ever feel they missed out on the school experience?) and I am not yet a parent, but I certainly think this model deserves attention. Dan and I talk about homeschooling our future kids and when we tell people this, are often greeted by confused looks, a narrowing of the eyebrows or a sardonic "Why?"
Because when I was a teenager, in addition to being anxious and self-conscious, I was also "tired, stressed and bored" at school. Uninspired and directionless, I figured I had to go to college because I was in Honors and AP classes and made good grades. I can relate to this interaction Salatin conveys in the passage below:
"I will never forget the last time I conferenced with my high school guidance counselor and told her I wanted to be a farmer. I thought she would go into apoplectic seizures. 'What a waste of brains. Are you going to throw away your academic ability?'"
More and more often I hear about programs and see in schools shifts towards preparing everyone for college (by "college" I mean the four-year university), a curriculum and pathway that just doesn't make sense for everybody. Why when we place so much emphasis on supposed "individuality" in our society, do we see college as the best pathway for all of our youth? Yes, I believe those who have a clear goal for and interest in college studies should most certainly be prepped and helped along the way for entrance into university. I am all for bettering oneself in this way, but it should be a choice and not the mandate or at least strong suggestion it seems to have become.
There are so many different intelligences and avenues that nurture these intelligences. My father went to a vocational high school in the 1960s and opted to work his way up in the electronics field in which he had been training as opposed to going to college. As a motivated, engaged and eager young man, he worked hard and eventually became a successful self-built business owner, and surely one of the smartest people I know. He trained in a skill from a young age and has been doing what he loves his whole life. I sometimes feel his is a story that couldn't or at least doesn't exist these days.
In my high school, they pushed us to pursue degrees that would, they intimated, lead to vaguely-outlined white-collar desk jobs. If you had good grades, it was a waste if you didn't go on to college.
Remember, colleges are businesses like any other. They want to make money and to make money they need students. It is not always in people's best interest to take this route, particularly now that student debt is crippling millennials, causing us to postpone buying houses and having children. I pursued a degree in English because I liked to write but didn't have any clue what I would do once I graduate. My first job out of college, nine months after I graduated, required a degree but I was paid $11 an hour and waitressed on the side for money. I ended up waitressing full time because I made almost double the money doing this, something that didn't even require a high school degree. Does this seem backwards to anyone else?
Society was built on people offering different intelligences and skills. To homogenize people, or to demonize or disgrace some roles over others is shameful, and is a detriment to the health of our nation. As Salatin says: "For decades we've shipped our best and brightest off to town to become white-collar doctors, lawyers, accountants, and engineers, and reserved food production to society's dolts. Does that make sense? Do we really want society's bottom feeders to be in charge of our air, soil, and water?"
So what about other avenues? I maintain that we need craftsman who are willing to take on apprentices, to pass on their trade to this generation of kids that have grown up on technology and haven't been introduced to these pursuits. We need to reintegrate the industrial arts back into our society. Because when the whole system collapses, and it will, would you rather be able to program a computer or chop wood to heat your house?
Not everyone can grow up in some bucolic existence where they're expected to milk cows or feed chickens - nor should they. That is not the point. The point is to help guide your kids towards meaningful, rewarding pursuits that are confidence-building and that engender in them an independence and freedom of thought. How might we do this as a culture? The reality of this country is that most of us need to be two-income earning families, so homeschooling is obviously not the most practical choice for us all. Alternative learning schools like Montessoris are a good start.
We need more alternatives to government-run education. We need more training for young people in jobs that will allow them to provide for families and feel fulfillment in their lives' work. Let us look to Joel Salatin's model of raising children to be entrepreneurial and independent. To have them doing work and chores from a young age so that they grow up with a sense of responsibility, not entitlement. These are the types of things parents should be doing at home, but what if our schools also fostered these types of real-world skills instead of merely preparing students for standardized tests and yet more schooling? Would they still feel "tired, stressed and bored"?