I’ve been thinking a lot about community lately, thanks to two books I’m reading at the moment: Dumbing Us Down: The Hidden Curriculum of Compulsory Schooling and The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals . Subject-wise they are very different – the former is an indictment of education in America, the latter traces the origins of 4 meals, revealing a lot about agribusiness and nutrition in the process. Yet both books spend time extolling the virtues of community.
This morning we read some terrible news – our local volunteer fire department had been robbed of the profits from their Christmas tree sales, and the thieves also made off with one family’s Christmas presents that had been hidden in the firehouse. Who would do something like that? As I’ve been reading Dumbing Us Down on and off all day, I started to think of community and whether it makes a difference when it comes to something like theft. People do steal from people they know, but is it less likely if you know someone well? For instance, would it make a difference if you knew the fireman’s name, how hard he works to earn his money and that he freely risks his life to help keep the community safe?
Dumbing Us Down talks about community a lot. The author, John Taylor Gatto, grew up in a small town in Pennsylvania, taught in New York City and was named city Teacher of the Year three times. He quit teaching while the reigning state Teacher of the Year in 1991. And he firmly believes that community is the key to education, and I agree as his ideas have serious merit.
Obviously, we’re concerned enough with the aims and abilities of mass education to homeschool our children. That decision was based on our own experiences as schoolchildren (bored, unchallenged and ultimately uninterested in school-oriented learning), the desire to teach them to think critically as well as the desire to let our children keep their love of learning by not boring the wits out of them or placing limits on what they can learn.
M has surprised us recently with his abilities and interest. He stated that ‘we live in house seven,’ which he learned because ‘that’s the number next to our door.’ We weren’t aware that he could recognize numbers, but a quick check with some flashcards showed that he could. He’s also picked up a math workbook on his own and asked to do some exercises. While waiting for Trish to finish nursing J, he started and correctly finished one on his own. A National Geographic article on Saturn resulted in an evening of discussing and learning about planets and our solar system. The desire to learns seems to be innate, and in these past few years, my own desire to learn has returned.
Dumbing Us Down confirms some of the things that I intuited about mass education. I’ve felt that schools don’t seem that different from a corporate environment – quiet and controlled. I don’t understand how a child will learn to interact with the world if her time is spent with other similarly aged and similarly undeveloped minds. And I know that the ability to memorize and do busywork is valued and taught much more than the ability to think critically. So where does community come in to play?
Gatto talks about segregating our society by sticking children in one institution and the aged in another. Spending the majority of your time with only people of the same age doesn’t allow one to get a full view of life or a sense of the past. I have extremely fond memories of spending time with my grandmothers, as well as my great-grandmother and, briefly, my great-great-grandmother. I learned of their childhoods and got a sense of the passage of time.
I encountered this again a few years back when I was visiting a friend in England and while my friend worked, his mother took me out to meet his grandmother. They were an extremely close-knit family to begin with and I thought it was very sweet. In the end, I learned quite a bit from a woman who was, if I’m not mistaken, Libyan and went to a school run by Germans during World War II. And she staunchly defended the fact that women were indeed different and less capable than men, continuously ignoring her daughter’s proclamations to the contrary. Of the several weeks I spent in England with different people, that conversation is the memory I treasure. (Tom Foley, please contact me if you ever read this.)
Gatto also discusses learning from others in a community and ‘one-day internships.’ Your outlook on food would probably be different if you bought your vegetables from a local farmer and spoke to them regularly rather than buying commodities in a polite but impersonal supermarket. (This is something Joel Salatin of Polyface Farms espouses in The Omnivore’s Dilemma). Spending a day with a farmer would be a ‘one-day internship,’ and an opportunity to learn a lot more than just facts in a classroom. (Field trips attempt to do the same, but there’s no substitute for extended one-on-one interaction. That’s why people like to tout low student-teacher ratios, right?) Living in a real community and seeing different people leading different lives would be enriching, much more so than seeing strangers leave their houses in the morning and come home in the evening.
I never thought about that until reading about the work that Prince Charles of England is doing in revitalizing Cornwall and testing solutions to the problems of modernity. Specifically mentioned was the village of Poundbury, where the streets are narrow and the pavements wide to promote pedestrians, local shops and thus community. Up to 1/3 of the housing is for lower-incomed people for a more varied social and economic mix. It’s an expensive experiment, but certainly better than land being ravaged by developments of McMansions.
This makes me realize that my life has been much richer than I had imagined. Until I was 10, we would go to India from October through March. I wasn’t in school and spent every day with my extended family. Up to 30 people lived in the house, and while my similarly aged cousins were at school, I spent time with aunts, uncles, grandmas, grandpas and visiting friends and relatives. I would have discussions and play games with any and everybody. Sometimes I would accompany a relative to work or run errands with them, going to farmer’s markets, tailors, mom & pop stores and, my favorites, bookstores. The family artist would have philosophical and political debates with his friends. Our milk would be delivered fresh from the farm every morning, our clothes were picked up & dropped off weekly by the same man, who was always invited to stay for a cup of tea. Our phone was owned by the phone company and in a pecularity I’ve never heard of elsewhere, it was cleaned once a month by the same woman, year after year. Peddlers and salespeople would come calling. It seemed that everybody, at the least, was somebody.
Even jetlag had its benefits, as I would be awake at 3am and watched Kolkata come to life. Herds of goats were led to the butchers (there were no precut meats, and you would go, pick the goat and pick up the meat later in the day). Men pushed bamboo carts with huge blocks of ice to markets as refrigeration was uncommon. Uniformed school children in white shirts with white skirts or shorts would be scurrying about. The tide of people ebbed and flowed throughout the day, dipping for siesta time and coming back after the school and work days finished. I had no idea how good I had it until now, and it’s an experience I’d like my children to have. The traditions and relationships in a community seem to be irreplacable.
It’s strange how learning about 2 different things (reforming the educational system and where our food comes from) has led to the same conclusion. Real community is worthwhile. I’m going to join our local homeowners association and try to make a difference.