Sunday, April 29, 2007

Of Operas and Sparkling Streams

The other day my daughter went to see opera Manon Lescaut with some friends. The dress she wore was one she made herself. She buys second hand "retro" patterns online and sews them up with my sewing machine, which is almost the same age as she is.

I was thinking that this is another one of those life things that would be trivialized if you tried to put them in scope and sequence, academic terms. Sure, you could write sewing down for home economics and the opera down as a music elective. There is nothing wrong with doing that in my mind if it helps the child to reach future life goals like, say, for college or vocation.

But if you thought that was really what the sewing and music were about, you would be missing the point. There is so much more here -- a memory, a way of living life, a connection with the community, aspirations and dreams. More still. To put it into formal educational terms would thin it out. There have been times in the past, to be truthful, when I have spoiled the richness of one of the childrens' endeavours by too quickly casting it in "educational" terms.

It is one of the minor sadnesses to me in homeschooling that I have to pay attention to these things, and it is ironic that the more I am trying to unschool, the more pressure I feel to assign educational value to rich, organic experiences and projects.

JoVE wrote:

I also wonder whether as homeschoolers, we feel some pressure to identify all the learning that happens and claim it for part of the homeschooling process. I suspect those who follow a more structured curriculum don't feel the pressure to do this but those of us who are more unstructured .....may feel that we need to identify the learning in an activity to demonstrate that the unstructured approach does lead to this culturally desirable outcome.

I think that it was perceptive of JoVE to say that sometimes unschoolers have the temptation to put "life" into little ticky tacky "learning" boxes. In our honest desire to show that learning takes place naturally and richly in life, we may sometimes find ourselves reducing "Life" into little categories that don't do justice to what the actual experience is about.

I love the idea of "learning all the time" and think that desire for knowledge is one of the core desires of the human being.

Aristotle writes:

All men by nature desire to know.

John Holt writes:

“Among the many things I have learned about children, learned by many, many years of hanging out with them, watching carefully what they do, and thinking about it, is that children are natural learners.

“The one thing we can be sure of, or surest of, is that children have a passionate desire to understand as much of the world as they can, even what they cannot see and touch, and as far as possible to acquire some kind of skill, competence, and control in it and over it. Now this desire, this need to understand the world and be able to do things in it, the things the big people do, is so strong that we could properly call it biological. It is every bit as strong as the need for food, for warmth, for shelter, for comfort, for sleep, for love. In fact, I think a strong case could be made that is might be stronger than any of these.

“A hungry child, even a tiny baby who experiences hunger as real pain, will stop eating or nursing or drinking if something interesting happens, because that little child wants to see what it is. This curiosity, this desire to make some kind of sense out of things, goes right to the heart of the kind of creatures that we are.”

I think that there is truth in Frank Smith's idea that learning is something that most often comes in the course of something else -- trying to become like what is around us and chiefly, what we identify with and feel we belong to. This seems similar what the Greeks thought about "paideia" -- the process by which children grow into their heritage, their birthright. It may be like Chesterton says -- that it's when we aren't functioning well that we tend to think about our functioning. Kids don't usually think: "What am I learning?" They just learn.

However, as I wrote in JoVE's comment box, I think it is very possible that in our society, where there is a temptation to think of the human being in terms of "worker" and production value, not the broader human value -- there might also be a corresponding temptation to think of the child's learning as his "work" and over-obsess on his learning, while reducing it to things we can measure and identify. You notice, and JoVe mentioned, all the "educational" toys out there. Not that they are objectively bad, but there is something to be wary about in restricting a child's explorations to phonics and shapes and colors when he has the mental equipment and energy and absorptive power to tackle the richness of the entire universe.

I think some homeschooling mom angst may spring from the fact that we are often, not always, staying home and giving up a paycheck to do this homeschooling, and feel an unconscious pull to justify our existence and our workload by showing lots of achievement-oriented results. And there is also a temptation to watch our children carefully and anxiously and fret about whether they are really learning or perhaps just "wasting their time".

JoVE's post brought up the question to me: "Is there anything that could be called "NOT-learning?"" Of course, this is the quintessential unschooling question. But what she wrote made me see it again from the other side. The rushing current and the silent rocks underneath the top, sparkling part of the stream; the hidden seeds under the ground long before they sprout and perhaps, become mighty sequoias or flourishing lilacs. Not that all of life is about learning, but that all learning springs from life.

Resolve: to get back to "mindfulness". Try to see the sparkles in the stream and maybe, what is underneath them. Which means I need to slow down on this pondering and step back from the computer for a while!

My daughter writes about her sewing and patterns here.

Related posts from the archives:

Vertical Relevance
Marshmallows and Thoroughbreds
Value of Play
Mindful Learning


momof3feistykids said...

What a BEAUTIFUL post! There is so much here to ponder. And, of course, your beautiful girl looks fabulous in her dress.

Kaber said...

I love sewing vintage clothes!

Very nice posts! Great things to ponder. I vascilate between unschooling and sturctured/scheduled...

I just tell myself that my kids get to experience the best of both.... which is mor elike the best of neither since we don't stick to it..LOL

Beate said...

Willa, your bog always makes me ponder. God has given you a true gift with words. The past couple of posts have come at a time that finds me in the grip of uncertainty - am I doing enough, am I failing my dc? Is the life we lead sufficient? You remind me of what is important, the relationship with Christ and one another. God bless you!!!

Mary Vitamin said...

Great post Willa. I've been doing a lot of educational soul searching recently and your thoughts are very helpful.

I need to ask you about your posts on "leisure" and "recreation." Do these links to other posts bring me to those ideas?

Kaber said...

You have been linked to in my latest post.....

Karen E. said...

Another beautiful post, so perfectly expressed. Thanks.

Jen said...

Today we were studying the split of the Roman Empire focusing on Byzantium/Constantinople and as part of our school work, we listened to They Might Be Giants "Istanbul: Not Constantinople". It was one of the best homeschooling moments of the year. Was it learning?? Yes. They'll never forget the name of this city.

Willa said...

Mary Vitamin,
I thought I had more posts than I actually do on "leisure". My search only brought up a few. But I'll collect the ones I do have, and the links on the web to more about that topic.

Mary Vitamin said...

Will I'll be looking forward to your posts on leisure.
(Feel free to call me Helen - I guess that is one drawback with using my apostolate name as my ,about name. Although, I do like Mary Vitamin also!)