Wednesday, September 7, 2016

From Premature Babies to the Gift of Freedom of Thought: At Talk at the Yacon Village Unschooling Conference

Today I gave a 45 minute talk to a group of unschoolers at the Yacon Village community center on Colonie New York. I decided to relate a couple of my main points here.

Isaac Newton's early life was difficult. His father died a couple of months before his birth. His mother claimed that he was so small that he could fit into a quart jar. She subsequently remarried and left Isaac in the care of her own mother. Isaac claimed that he could never forgive her. Isaac hated his stepfather. After his stepfather died, his mother resumed his care. He went to school during his 12th through 17th years. The next part I thought was a variation on the Dead Poet Society movie script. His mother decided that he was supposed to be a farmer. Isaac hated farming. Now imagine the delays in the progress of our science and mathematics if his mother had had her way. Sometimes we as parents or teachers really do not know what is best for the future of our children and our students, even when we think we do. It is unwise for us to quell their core aspirations and pack their lives with our own aspirations for them.

My own early life was arguably not as difficult as Newton's, though we had a few similarities. I was born several weeks early, and might even also have fit into a quart jar. Neither of my parents had Bachelor's degrees, and from when I was about three years old and older, my father worked as a farm hand in the small town of Oakley Idaho. Before I turned four, I developed a fascination for nature. One day when I was around that age I found a 5-gallon bucket half filled with ashes from our wood burning stove. I remembered that plants grow from seeds, and I figured that popcorn kernels were seeds, so I would try my hand at growing them. I found some unpopped kernels in the bottom of a large bowl of popped popcorn, and I told my mother that I was going to plant them!  I'm sure she thought it was ridiculous, but she smiled and waved me on. I toddled out to my bucket of ash, buried the seeds in the ash, watered them, and a week or so later, sure enough, two corn plants began to grow. I continued caring for the two plants through that summer, and they actually provided two small ears of real popcorn. My parents did not try to stop my daring experiment. My parents and neighbors expressed astonishment. They started calling me the little professor, and the nickname caught on through my community.

The moral of my story is that parents, teachers, and the education system as a whole should extend age dependent freedoms to children and not attempt to cram them into a one-size-fits-all curriculum. Parents and teachers should aim high in general expectations, but should keep out of the business of specific expectations. We do not know the future, and our expectations of it are likely to be far off anyway. Society owes children challenge and intellectual stimulation, not heavy external controls and confinement. If the children knew freedom now, they would deal with it better later in life. The challenge to us is to help them grow into it.