• About Farm School

    "There are obviously two educations. One should teach us how to make a living and the other how to live."
    James Adams, from his essay "To 'Be' or to 'Do': A Note on American Education", 1929

    We're a Canadian family of five, farming, home schooling, and building our own house. I'm nowhere near as regular a blogger as I used to be.

    The kids are 18/Grade 12, 16/Grade 11, and 14/Grade 10.

    Contact me at becky(dot)farmschool(at)gmail(dot)com

  • Notable Quotables

    "If you want a golden rule that will fit everybody, this is it: Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful."
    William Morris, from his lecture "The Beauty of Life"

    "‘Never look at an ugly thing twice. It is fatally easy to get accustomed to corrupting influences."
    English architect CFA Voysey (1857-1941)

    "The world of books is the most remarkable creation of man. Nothing else that he builds ever lasts. Monuments fall, nations perish, civilizations grow old and die out; and, after an era of darkness, new races build others. But in the world of books are volumes that have seen this happen again and again, and yet live on, still young, still as fresh as the day they were written, still telling men’s hearts of the hearts of men centuries dead."
    Clarence Day

    "Anyone who has a library and a garden wants for nothing."
    Cicero

    "Histories make men wise; poets, witty; the mathematics, subtile; natural philosophy, deep; moral, grave; logic and rhetoric, able to contend."
    Sir Francis Bacon, "Essays"

    "The chief aim of education is to show you, after you make a livelihood, how to enjoy living; and you can live longest and best and most rewardingly by attaining and preserving the happiness of learning."
    Gilbert Highet, "The Immortal Profession: The Joys of Teaching and Learning"

    "Good judgment comes from experience. Experience comes from bad judgment."
    Walter Wriston

    "I'd like to give you a piece of my mind."
    "Oh, I couldn't take the last piece."
    Ginger Rogers to Frances Mercer in "Vivacious Lady" (1938)

    "No race can prosper till it learns that there is as much dignity in tilling a field as in writing a poem."
    Booker T. Washington

    "Please accept my resignation. I don’t care to belong to any club that will have me as a member."
    Attributed to Groucho Marx in "The Groucho Letters" by Arthur Sheekman

    "If you can't say something good about someone, sit right here by me."
    Alice Roosevelt Longworth

    "If we bring a little joy into your humdrum lives, we feel all our hard work ain't been in vain for nothin'."
    Jean Hagen as "Lina Lamont" in "Singin' in the Rain" (1952)
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A rare home schooling post: AP Government & Citizenship

As parents, we make choices for our kids when they are very young with — we hope, we believe — their best interests at heart. I made a decision for Laura shortly after her birth that she recently came to realize was not the right choice for her, and we’ve spent a good deal of time and money, along with a recent “field trip” to the nearest U.S. consulate to renounce U.S citizenship, so that Laura could correct that situation and bring her citizenship in line with her reality.

Laura, who is 18-1/2 and just graduated from high school, was born in Canada and is a Canadian by birth. She has never lived in the U.S. and never had a U.S. passport. But she was also — by accident of birth to a (then) U.S. citizen, who then (sigh) applied for a consular Report of a Birth Abroad — a dual citizen. Laura realized over the past year, after much study (her “curriculum” selections and recommended reading list are below) and reflection, that she is not a dual citizen but a Canadian, and a Canadian only, who has only ever lived in Canada, and who does not believe in divided national loyalties. And she wanted to begin adult life with as few impediments as possible. She had read that renouncing is easiest between the ages of 18 and 18-1/2, because the paperwork requirements are much simpler, so she started the process last year around the time of her birthday, and after submitting all of the required paperwork last November, was given an appointment for last week; that’s a wait of more than six months for the appointment and some locations, like Toronto, have even longer waits. At last week’s appointment, she was told the wait time to receive her official Certificate of Loss of Nationality, which will be dated with last week’s appointment date, will be four to six months. For 2013, there was a 221 percent increase, a record number, of dual American citizens renouncing or relinquishing their American citizenship. In 2015, there were approximately 4,300 expatriations.

The past several years have been basically an Advanced Placement course on U.S. government, politics and law, and citizenship, covering early American history (“no taxation without representation” is apparently a variable concept depending on time and place), constitutional law, patriotism, homeland vs. Homeland, just vs. unjust laws, citizenship-based taxation (U.S. and Eritrea) vs. residence-based taxation (the rest of the world), national sovereignty, personal vs. national privacy and security considerations, and what — or what should — determine citizenship (for example, jus sanguinis, “the right of blood”, or the acquisition of citizenship through parentage; or jus soli, “the right of soil”, or citizenship by virtue of being born in a particular territory. There were also discussions about being Canadian and living in Canada, but having U.S. officials consider everything about you, from your Canadian passport to your Canadian address to your Canadian father, “foreign” or “alien”, when to a Canadian they all mean “home”. It was probably as good a way as any for Laura to figure out what, and where, home is.

This is a very complex issue. I’ll try to write about this as simply as I can, because

  1. there’s a lot of information involved, which can be overwhelming and the temptation to avoid it all can be great;
  2. there’s a lot of misinformation (accidentally as well as on purpose) which, if you follow it, can make make your/your family’s situation worse rather than better, including those who would equate Americans abroad with tax cheats who need to brought into “compliance“;
  3. that misinformation and misunderstanding of the situation confuses many Americans living in the U.S. — including extended family and friends — who don’t understand that there might be very real disadvantages to living overseas with U.S. citizenship; who think Americans abroad concerned about this issue are a bunch of whining complainers and/or tax cheats who don’t want to pay our fair share.

Here’s some background about the situation in general, from the very, very good Isaac Brock Society blog (named for the British major general in the War of 1812 who was responsible for defending Upper Canada against the United States):

The United States is one of two countries in the world that taxes its people no matter where in the world they may reside. The other is Eritrea, which the USA has condemened for terrorism and for its diaspora tax. The majority of US persons who live abroad are not aware of their filing requirements. But recently, the US government has decided to crack down on those who are not in compliance.

But what is more, the US government has begun, since about 2004, to apply with great pressure a long-neglected requirement of 35-year old law called the Bank Secrecy Act. That requirement is FBAR, the foreign bank account report, which the United States government expects annually from those who have accounts outside of the United States which exceed $10,000 in aggregate. The fines for failure to file this form are extortionate, and virtually no US person who lives abroad even knew about FBAR, while most of them, over a certain age, own bank accounts with retirement savings exceeding that amount. The threats of fines and imprisonment has frightened many people who as a result have consulted expensive accountants and tax lawyers to get this mess sorted out, only to face high accounting or legal fees on top of potential fines and back taxes. In 2009 and 2011, the IRS offered voluntary disclosure programs (OVDI). Some who entered into the 2009 OVDI, because of fear of the penatlies, were shocked when the IRS assessed them fines in the tens of thousands, essentially treating them as tax evaders instead of a law abiding citizens in their countries of residence.

For many US expats, renunciation now seems like a really good idea. Why not? Many haven’t lived in the US for years and now they have few ties there except perhaps some family members. So they want to renounce their citizenship only to find that the laws regarding expatriation are confusing and that the exit tax requirements are at best complicated and invasive, and at worst, extortionate and utterly in violation of their right to expatriate.

The media coverage of this issue has been uneven. There have a been a few balanced stories, but most of the time, the media has merely publicized the purposes of the US government; this is especially true of US media sources. The Canadian media has generally done a much better job of grabbing the attention of the world about the abuses of the US government. That being said, even the Canadian media sometimes falls into the IRS trap of projecting fear in order to force compliance. Overall, we regret when the media offers only condemnation and fear without telling the story from the side of the victims or informing them of their rights and alternatives.

US persons abroad also face US border guards who are starting to put pressure on all those who have a US place of birth to travel only on a US passport, even if the person has not been a US person for decades–an arbitrary change of policy making those who relinquished citizenship into would-be loyal taxpayers to a profligate government that has to borrow 40 cents on every dollar its spends.

As with a number of bureaucratic decisions, there is a lot of noise about the intent to target “big fish” and tax cheats, and much of the recent legislation including FATCA seems intended as retribution for the decision by Facebook co-founder Eduardo Saverin but the reality is that it’s mostly little fish, with bank accounts and mortgages, and “foreign” spouses and children, who are getting caught in the net.

From Nancy L. Greene’s 2009 article, “Expatriation, Expatriates, and Expats: The American Transformation of a Concept”,

Expatriation was initially a form of nation-building. For the United States to justify its break from Britain, it had, among other things, to legitimate the notion of leaving one’s country of birth. Expatriation was thus seen as a form of inclusion in America, with former British subjects in mind. Like citizenship itself, expatriation was both a theoretical/rhetorical and a practical/legal issue for the early state. The Declaration of Independence, which complained that King George III had impeded the peopling of the colonies (“He has endeavoured to prevent the population of these States; for that purpose obstructing the Laws for Naturalization of Foreigners; refusing to pass others to encourage their migrations hither”), was a declaration of the right of emigration. In the ensuing decades, in order to consolidate American independence and citizenship, expatriation from Britain had to be deemed a legal, indeed natural, right for both the state and the individual. The United States had to counter both politically and philosophically the competing British claim that birth- right or perpetual allegiance bound those born under the crown everlastingly to it. This essentially feudal notion, most forcefully expounded by the famous jurist Sir Edward Coke in 1608, regarded expatriation as a moral travesty and a legal im- possibility. It would take several decades for the new nation to impose its view that expatriation was in turn a natural right. The right of exit was the necessary corollary to a right of entry, and a Lockean notion of free will underwrote the definition of the new American citizen. …

The United States may have been founded on a notion of the right to leave, leading Albert O. Hirschman [the German-born economist and author of Exit, Voice, and Loyalty] to speak of a “national love affair with exit,” but attitudes about leave-takers depend on who is doing the exiting, from where, to where, and when.

* * * * * * * * *

A recommended reading list for dual citizens of all ages:

“The Negative Implications of U.S. Citizenship on Those Starting Out in Life”

“My Thoughts on U.S. Citizenship for Young People”

“Letter of a Canadian Businessman to his Dual U.S./Canada Citizen Son on the Occasion of his High School Graduation” (and all comments at the Isaac Brock Society blog are always well worth reading)

Isaac Brock Society blog, and particularly helpful posts from the Isaac Brock Society blog (don’t miss the conversations going on in the comments, which are always helpful):

“Introduction to FATCA for Canadians”

“How to Renounce/Relinquish” (FYI children born dual must renounce, not relinquish)

Introductory Material on: Citizenship-Based Taxation (vs. Residence-Based Taxation), FATCA; A Synopsis of John Richardson’s Info Session (see below for more); A History of Isaac Brock Society

IBS’s consulate report directory and CLN delivery time chart (aka “What to Expect, at the Consulate, When You’re Expatriating”); “currently 240 pages of first-hand accounts of renunciation/relinquishment appointments, arranged by consulate location, along with further information and links to the required Dept of State forms and the Dept of State manuals used by the consulates in processing CLN applications, with an appendix containing a chart of CLN delivery time as reported by consulate location.”

John Richardson’s Citizenship Solutions blog; Mr. Richardson, an American, is a Toronto lawyer who gives frequent, very good information sessions entitled “Information sessions: Solving the problems of U.S. citizenship”. And John himself is incredibly knowledgeable and helpful. He also writes for the Isaac Brock Society blog.

A new blog, The Dualist, an early 20-something born in the U.S. who left there at the age of 13 to live permanently in the UK, now dealing with

the options facing me – a UK citizen living, working and paying taxes in the United Kingdom – when I had just discovered that I am subject to US tax rules which say that no matter where I live, I should be annually filing federal income tax returns to the USA’s Internal Revenue Service (IRS), and reporting detailed information about all of my UK bank accounts to the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network. These rules apply to me because I am an American as well as a British citizen. The US government considers me to be a US taxpayer not unlike an American living within the States, even if I haven’t lived in the US since I was a child, rarely visit, make no income in the US and have no assets there. The fact that I hadn’t been filing meant I was considered as a delinquent non-filer under US tax policy.

In outlining the different options I had for addressing this newly-discovered ‘delinquent non-filer’ status, I showed that even though I was a young person from a normal background just starting out in adult life, there were no easy solutions or certain outcomes. Briefly, the main options were to stay outside the system, enter the system and try to live compliantly, or enter the system with the intention of renouncing my US citizenship in the future.

American international tax lawyer Phil Hodgen’s blog posts about expatriation, including a recent 10-part series by an Irish-American 17-year-old who renounced as a minor, aka “The Expatriation Chronicles of an Accidental American”

San Francisco tax lawyer Robert Wood’s articles at Forbes, such as this one, this one, and this one

The difference between renouncing and relinquishing explained, at IBS and at Citizenship Solutions blog; children born dual can only renounce, not relinquish

One needs to be be very, very careful about the “help” one seeks with this issue because there are many predatory and ignorant accountants and lawyers whose help will net you only large bills and more rather than fewer headaches. There are good, knowledgeable, helpful people and resources available, often free or inexpensive, and this list includes a number of them. Read widely and ask questions before you make any decisions.

And, on the lighter side:

Michael Moore’s latest documentary, Where to Invade Next (2015)

Canadian Bacon, Michael Moore’s fictional precursor to his latest, starring the late, great, Canadian John Candy

Rick Mercer’s Talking to Americans, available on YouTube

 

* The fee for renouncing or for relinquishing is currently US $2,350, payable in cash or by credit card (which must be in the renunciant’s name). In September 2014, the U.S. State Department hiked the renunciation fee by 422 percent, from U.S. $450 to U.S. $2,350. The fee to relinquish in recent years went from 0 to $450 to, last year, $2,350. The current fee is more than 20 times the average of other high-income countries, and the U.S. government has collected about U.S. $12.6 million in fees since the Autumn 2014 fee hike.

Surviving the amphitheater

On the CBC radio show Q this morning (podcast here), host Jian Ghomeshi spoke with New York Magazine author Jennifer Senior on her recent article, “Why You Never Truly Leave High School”, which had been languishing on my list of things to read but jumped up immediately. I was intrigued to find a mention of home schooling in the article. Here’s an excerpt from the article (emphases mine):

Until the Great Depression, the majority of American adolescents didn’t even graduate from high school. Once kids hit their teen years, they did a variety of things: farmed, helped run the home, earned a regular wage. Before the banning of child labor, they worked in factories and textile mills and mines. All were different roads to adulthood; many were undesirable, if not outright Dickensian. But these disparate paths did arguably have one virtue in common: They placed adolescent children alongside adults. They were not sequestered as they matured. Now teens live in a biosphere of their own. In their recent book Escaping the Endless Adolescence, psychologists Joseph and Claudia Worrell Allen note that teenagers today spend just 16 hours per week interacting with adults and 60 with their cohort. One century ago, it was almost exactly the reverse.

Something happens when children spend so much time apart from adult company. They start to generate a culture with independent values and priorities. James Coleman, a renowned mid-century sociologist, was among the first to analyze that culture in his seminal 1961 work, The Adolescent Society, and he wasn’t very impressed. “Our society has within its midst a set of small teen-age societies,” he wrote, “which focus teen-age interests and attitudes on things far removed from adult responsibilities.” Yes, his words were prudish, but many parents have had some version of these misgivings ever since, especially those who’ve consciously opted not to send their kids into the Roman amphi­theater. (From the website of the National Home Education Network: “Ironically, one of the reasons many of us have chosen to educate our own is precisely this very issue of socialization! Children spending time with individuals of all ages more closely resembles real life than does a same-age school setting.”)

In fact, one of the reasons that high schools may produce such peculiar value systems is precisely because the people there have little in common, except their ages. “These are people in a large box without any clear, predetermined way of sorting out status,” says Robert Faris, a sociologist at UC Davis who’s spent a lot of time studying high-school aggression. “There’s no natural connection between them.” Such a situation, in his view, is likely to reward aggression. Absent established hierarchies and power structures (apart from the privileges that naturally accrue from being an upperclassman), kids create them on their own, and what determines those hierarchies is often the crudest common-­denominator stuff—looks, nice clothes, prowess in sports—­rather than the subtleties of personality. “Remember,” says Crosnoe, who spent a year doing research in a 2,200-student high school in Austin, “high schools are big. There has to be some way of sorting people socially. It’d be nice if kids could be captured by all their characteristics. But that’s not realistic.”

I’ve been intrigued by this subject since the kids reached school age and we started home schooling. I’ve read, digested, agreed with, and often recommended Hold On to Your Kids: Why Parents Need to Matter More than Peers by Doctors Neufeld and Mate. I also read and reviewed (briefly) The Case Against Adolescence: Rediscovering the Adult in Every Teen by Robert Epstein, a psychologist and former editor-in-chief of Pyschology Today magazine. Coleman’s The Adolescent Society (subtitled The Social Life of the Teenager and its Impact on Education sounds interesting, especially coming only six years after “Rebel without a Cause” and “Blackboard Jungle”.

Most of us who home school have heard from non-home schooling parents that it’s the everyday school interactions that “prepare” kids for real life. Senior writes,

Maybe, perversely, we should be grateful that high school prepares us for this life. The isolation, the shame, the aggression from those years—all of it readies us to cope. But one also has to wonder whether high school is to blame; whether the worst of adult America looks like high school because it’s populated by people who went to high school in America. We’re recapitulating the ugly folkways of this institution, and reacting with the same reflexes, because that’s where we were trapped, and shaped, and misshaped, during some of our most vulnerable years.

The most poignant part of the NYM article? “It’s also abundantly, poignantly clear that during puberty, kids have absolutely no clue how to assess character or read the behavior of others. … So much of what they think they know about others’ opinions of them is plain wrong.”

The article is well worth a read, if you have teens in the house, if you will have teens, or even if you were once one yourself. And, as the article points out, if there’s any chance you may be headed to a nursing home in the future. As sociologist Robert Faris points out, “It’s not adolescence that’s the problem. It’s the giant box of strangers.”

The full impact

Pulitzer and Griffin prize-winning poet and essayist Charles Simic has a moving and thought-provoking blog post at the New York Review Blog this week, “A Country without Libraries”, from which:

All across the United States, large and small cities are closing public libraries or curtailing their hours of operations. Detroit, I read a few days ago, may close all of its branches and Denver half of its own: decisions that will undoubtedly put hundreds of its employees out of work. When you count the families all over this country who don’t have computers or can’t afford Internet connections and rely on the ones in libraries to look for jobs, the consequences will be even more dire. People everywhere are unhappy about these closings, and so are mayors making the hard decisions. But with roads and streets left in disrepair, teachers, policemen and firemen being laid off, and politicians in both parties pledging never to raise taxes, no matter what happens to our quality of life, the outlook is bleak. “The greatest nation on earth,” as we still call ourselves, no longer has the political will to arrest its visible and precipitous decline and save the institutions on which the workings of our democracy depend.

I don’t know of anything more disheartening than the sight of a shut down library. No matter how modest its building or its holdings, in many parts of this country a municipal library is often the only place where books in large number on every imaginable subject can be found, where both grownups and children are welcome to sit and read in peace, free of whatever distractions and aggravations await them outside. Like many other Americans of my generation, I owe much of my knowledge to thousands of books I withdrew from public libraries over a lifetime. I remember the sense of awe I felt as a teenager when I realized I could roam among the shelves, take down any book I wanted, examine it at my leisure at one of the library tables, and if it struck my fancy, bring it home. Not just some thriller or serious novel, but also big art books and recordings of everything from jazz to operas and symphonies.

How Simic’s library made him a more interesting, and interested, person:

In Oak Park, Illinois, when I was in high school, I went to the library two or three times a week, though in my classes I was a middling student. Even in wintertime, I’d walk the dozen blocks to the library, often in rain or snow, carrying a load of books and records to return, trembling with excitement and anticipation at all the tantalizing books that awaited me there. The kindness of the librarians, who, of course, all knew me well, was also an inducement. They were happy to see me read so many books, though I’m sure they must have wondered in private about my vast and mystifying range of interests.

I’d check out at the same time, for instance, a learned book about North American insects and bugs, a Louis-Ferdinand Céline novel, the poems of Hart Crane, an anthology of American short stories, a book about astronomy and recordings by Bix Beiderbecke and Sidney Bechet. I still can’t get over the generosity of the taxpayers of Oak Park. It’s not that I started out life being interested in everything; it was spending time in my local, extraordinarily well-stacked public library that made me so.

Simic on those who downplay the importance of libraries in our communities, our society:

I heard some politician say recently that closing libraries is no big deal, since the kids now have the Internet to do their reading and school work. It’s not the same thing. As any teacher who recalls the time when students still went to libraries and read books could tell him, study and reflection come more naturally to someone bent over a book. Seeing others, too, absorbed in their reading, holding up or pressing down on different-looking books, some intimidating in their appearance, others inviting, makes one a participant in one of the oldest and most noble human activities. Yes, reading books is a slow, time-consuming, and often tedious process. In comparison, surfing the Internet is a quick, distracting activity in which one searches for a specific subject, finds it, and then reads about it—often by skipping a great deal of material and absorbing only pertinent fragments. Books require patience, sustained attention to what is on the page, and frequent rest periods for reverie, so that the meaning of what we are reading settles in and makes its full impact.

How many book lovers among the young has the Internet produced? Far fewer, I suspect, than the millions libraries have turned out over the last hundred years. Their slow disappearance is a tragedy, not just for those impoverished towns and cities, but for everyone everywhere terrified at the thought of a country without libraries.

Read the entire post here. Read the NYRblog here, where you can find posts by everyone from Margaret Atwood, Diane Ravitch, and  Mary Beard to Harold Bloom, Michael Chabon, and Joseph Lelyveld.

Support your local library.  Visit often, with your children. Get library cards for the whole family, and use them. Join your Friends of the Library group to help with much-needed fundraising. Take boxes of chocolates and plates of homemade cookies to your librarian and the staff. Join your local library board.  Become volunteer or library page at your branch. Read deeply and widely. Imagine your town, city, or neighborhood without a library.

*  *  *

Earlier Farm School handwringings about libraries:

Those pesky outdated and inaccurate books

Ray Bradbury on libraries

The latest book buzz, or, For whom the bell tolls

A hub for home schoolers

An important lesson for your children, whether or not you home school

just in case you and/or your kids haven’t figured out this whole internet thing yet: “The Web Means the End of Forgetting” by Jeffrey Rosen in The New York Times.

Example #1 from the article:

Four years ago, Stacy Snyder, then a 25-year-old teacher in training at Conestoga Valley High School in Lancaster, Pa., posted a photo on her MySpace page that showed her at a party wearing a pirate hat and drinking from a plastic cup, with the caption “Drunken Pirate.” After discovering the page, her supervisor at the high school told her the photo was “unprofessional,” and the dean of Millersville University School of Education, where Snyder was enrolled, said she was promoting drinking in virtual view of her under-age students. As a result, days before Snyder’s scheduled graduation, the university denied her a teaching degree. Snyder sued, arguing that the university had violated her First Amendment rights by penalizing her for her (perfectly legal) after-hours behavior. But in 2008, a federal district judge rejected the claim, saying that because Snyder was a public employee whose photo didn’t relate to matters of public concern, her “Drunken Pirate” post was not protected speech.

Examples #2 and #3:

Examples are proliferating daily: there was the 16-year-old British girl who was fired from her office job for complaining on Facebook, “I’m so totally bored!!”; there was the 66-year-old Canadian psychotherapist who tried to enter the United States but was turned away at the border — and barred permanently from visiting the country — after a border guard’s Internet search found that the therapist had written an article in a philosophy journal describing his experiments 30 years ago with L.S.D.

As Rosen notes,

We’ve known for years that the Web allows for unprecedented voyeurism, exhibitionism and inadvertent indiscretion, but we are only beginning to understand the costs of an age in which so much of what we say, and of what others say about us, goes into our permanent — and public — digital files. The fact that the Internet never seems to forget is threatening, at an almost existential level, our ability to control our identities; to preserve the option of reinventing ourselves and starting anew; to overcome our checkered pasts. …

It’s often said that we live in a permissive era, one with infinite second chances. But the truth is that for a great many people, the permanent memory bank of the Web increasingly means there are no second chances — no opportunities to escape a scarlet letter in your digital past. Now the worst thing you’ve done is often the first thing everyone knows about you.

Read the article, WITH your children.

The Idle Parent

I’ve been waiting to read some North American reviews of Idler Tom Hodgkinson’s The Idle Parent: Why Laid-Back Parents Raise Happier and Healthier Kids, finally published on this side of the pond in May by Tarcher, but they’ve been pretty thin on the ground.

I did find a mini review in the May-June 2010 issue of Utne Reader, where Keith Goetzman wrote,

Most parenting books lack three elements that The Idle Parent has in spades: an intellectual bent, a distrust of the status quo, and a robust sense of humor. Despite the title, this book celebrates not laziness but the opposite, a deep engagement with the world outside of plastic toys, mind-numbing television, and craven capitalism. Author Tom Hodgkinson borrows heavily from John Locke and Jean-Jacques Rousseau in both words and ideas, grounding his modern alt-parent outlook in the classics.

but that was about it.

I’ve been intrigued by Tom Hodgkinson’s idling for a while now (see June 2008’s Tonic and Toast) and was intrigued last year by the idea of his book on raising children, out in the UK in Spring 2009 with the original subtitle “Why Less Means More When Raising Kids” (I’m a big believer in less is more when it comes to raising and teaching kids), and excerpted in Slate shortly thereafter; unofficial subtitle, by the bye, is “Parents first”. From which,

This last summer holiday, quite remarkably, we found ourselves lying in bed till 10 or 11 on several occasions, and this with children aged 3, 6, and 8 in the house. Sometimes, agreed, they would come and wake us by doing horrible things, jumping on our legs, “rampaging” as we called it, and hitting one another. But after we’d chucked them out a few times, they began to look after themselves. They are all quite capable of pouring milk on cereal, and Arthur, the oldest, can make tea and porridge.

Children actually have an inbuilt self-protective sense that we destroy by over-cosseting. They become independent not so much by careful training but in part simply as a result of parental laziness. Last Sunday morning, Victoria and I lay in bed till half past 10 with hangovers. What a result! And the more often you do this, the better, because the children’s resourcefulness will improve, resulting in less nagging, less of that awful “Mum-eeeeeeeh” noise they make. They can play and they will play.

So lying in bed for as long as possible is not the act of an irresponsible parent. It is precisely the opposite: It is good to look after yourself, and it is good to teach the children to fend for themselves. Our offspring will be strong, bold, fearless, much in demand wherever they go! Capable, cheerful, happy.

I got rather distracted by gardening last month, and pretty much forgot about more reviews of the book, not to convince me of the book’s merits but to see how Tom’s parenting ideas would be received in the United States.  And then a friend, another former New Yorker, sent me a link to a recent New York Magazine cover story on why parents hate parenting,

Before urbanization, children were viewed as economic assets to their parents. If you had a farm, they toiled alongside you to maintain its upkeep; if you had a family business, the kids helped mind the store. But all of this dramatically changed with the moral and technological revolutions of modernity. As we gained in prosperity, childhood came increasingly to be viewed as a protected, privileged time, and once college degrees became essential to getting ahead, children became not only a great expense but subjects to be sculpted, stimulated, instructed, groomed. (The Princeton sociologist Viviana Zelizer describes this transformation of a child’s value in five ruthless words: “Economically worthless but emotionally priceless.”) Kids, in short, went from being our staffs to being our bosses. [Remember the part about “Parents first”?]

Which explains why Tom’s book hasn’t made much of a splash.  Because nowadays a good many North American parents are running around rather than idling, putting themselves last.  In addition to abandoning the (very helpful) component of benign neglect, parenting has become professionalized, as Jennifer Love writes in the NYM piece,

When people wait to have children, they’re also bringing different sensibilities to the enterprise. They’ve spent their adult lives as professionals, believing there’s a right way and a wrong way of doing things; now they’re applying the same logic to the family-expansion business, and they’re surrounded by a marketplace that only affirms and reinforces this idea. “And what’s confusing about that,” says Alex Barzvi, a professor of child and adolescent psychiatry at NYU medical school, “is that there are a lot of things that parents can do to nurture social and cognitive development. There are right and wrong ways to discipline a child. But you can’t fall into the trap of comparing yourself to others and constantly concluding you’re doing the wrong thing.”

Compare the two on the subject of “choices”.  Ms. Senior writes,

A few generations ago, people weren’t stopping to contemplate whether having a child would make them happy. Having children was simply what you did. And we are lucky, today, to have choices about these matters. But the abundance of choices—whether to have kids, when, how many—may be one of the reasons parents are less happy.

And then there’s Tom Hodgkinson,

Oh, how we whinge, we pampered parents of the West, attacked by choices, condemned to strive always to do the right thing, to get it right. We complain about money; we complain about lack of sleep; we complain about our partners, our co-workers, the newspapers, social networking sites, the government. We stamp our feet and shout at the usurers in the banking corporations and the swindlers and avaricious cheats on Wall Street, but most of all we complain about our own children.

The first few months after the birth of the first baby are fairly blissful. Then the competing elements of the artificial constructions that we grandly call our “lives” become locked in mortal combat. We try to “get the balance right” between unenjoyable and enjoyable activities. But we are moaning about the very lives that we have created for ourselves. We took that job, we bought that house, we chose that boyfriend or girlfriend, we had that baby, we bought that car, we live in this city, we live in this country. We were free to go and retire alone in Goa and live on the beach for the rest of our lives, childless and free. But we chose not to do that. And then we complained!

This excerpt on choices and complaining/whingeing is one of the favorite pieces I’ve read from the book,

Whingeing is the adult’s mirror image of the child’s whining. When they hear us whingeing about things, they assume that it’s normal to complain, and therefore they whine. Indeed, we encourage them to whine and complain by continually probing them for their judgment on things: “Did you have a good time? Was it fun? Is it a good book? What did you think of the film? How was school?'”

It’s what the ancient Chinese called the “discriminating mind,” the false setting up of good things and bad things. This discriminating mind is really a way of making children into consumers, because consumers are the biggest whingers of all, always ready to fire off complaints and always ready to buy better products.

We are not obliged to have children. We choose to have them. Now, instead of whingeing and moaning and wishing that things would somehow change, take my advice and learn to say “Yes!” to your kids. This very simple idea was suggested to me by … John Lloyd [the producer of Black Adder and Spitting Image]. He said that he had noticed in his own life how much he was fobbing off his kids: from the early days, when he would linger late at the office because that seemed preferable to facing the mewling infant and general chaos of home, to later, when the kids were a little older, when he would become angry if disturbed by a child in the middle of a phone call.

I have noticed this tendency in myself: Sometimes I am staring at my computer screen and a child comes into my study and asks to play a game: “Will you play Tractor Ted with me?” Self-importantly, I sigh and say something along the lines of: “I’m working” or worse, a querulous: “Can’t you see I’m working?” The child persists for a while and then gives up. I then look at my screen again and wonder whether checking the Amazon ranking of my last book can really be considered to be important work. Can it not be left for five minutes?

Lloyd pondered these questions and decided to start saying “Yes” to his children when he was on the phone or working and they asked him for something. He realized too that their repeated requests and irritating behavior toward him were a sort of demand for recompense for earlier love starvation. So he would put the phone down and go and play with the child. Isn’t this rather a lot of work for the idle parent? Not really. The child will be delighted with its five minutes of mucking about. And in any case, it’s actually a pleasure for the parent. After all, you’ll have plenty of time to work and stare at the screen as they grow older and less interested in you.

Read the rest here, which includes the Lloyd Plan for Happy, Stress-Free Parenting.

Should you need to apply some “less is more” to raising children, Tom has a website for the book, “The Idle Parent: How to Enjoy Family Life: Tips, Discussion, Resources, Links”, which includes lots of excerpts, such as “Discover how to intersperse loafing with Latin”. And really, if the point isn’t enjoying life as a family, what it is it?

*  *  *

By the way, over at The Idler’s main website, you can learn about The Idler’s Academy of Philosophy, Husbandry and Merriment (motto: Libertas per Cultum, or “freedom through education”).  You will also learn about such intriguing things as Latin tea towels, which I think I want.  For the children to do the washing up, of course. And practicing their Latin after dinner won’t hurt, either.

In search of lasting import

Over on the right, in one of the sidebars (“Our Curricula/For the Parents”) ever since I started this blog about four years ago has been a link to Jane Healy’s book, Endangered Minds: Why Children Don’t Think And What We Can Do About It, first published in 1999. It was one of the first books I read after we decided, fairly abruptly, to begin home schooling, and it dovetailed neatly with our choice of a classical education.

As Dr. Healy wrote back in 1991 (here),

Fast-paced lifestyles, coupled with heavy media diets of visual immediacy, beget brains misfitted to traditional modes of academic learning. In a recent survey, teachers in both the United States and Europe reported overwhelmingly that today’s students have shorter attention spans, are less able to reason analytically, to express ideas verbally, and to attend to complex problems.

Recently, Dr. Healy’s ideas have been supported by Nicholas Carr, author of the infamous Atlantic article “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” and the new book arising out it, The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains; and last month’s report from Duke that high speed internet and universal access to home computers “widen the achievement gap in math and reading scores”.  Worth noting that the study took place from 2000-2005, before MySpace, Facebook, and Twitter took off.

And in today’s New York Times came David Brooks’ column, ‘The Medium Is the Medium”, about a new study; from the column,

Researchers gave 852 disadvantaged students 12 books (of their own choosing) to take home at the end of the school year. They did this for three successive years.

Then the researchers, led by Richard Allington of the University of Tennessee, looked at those students’ test scores. They found that the students who brought the books home had significantly higher reading scores than other students. These students were less affected by the “summer slide” — the decline that especially afflicts lower-income students during the vacation months. In fact, just having those 12 books seemed to have as much positive effect as attending summer school.

…there was one interesting observation made by a philanthropist who gives books to disadvantaged kids. It’s not the physical presence of the books that produces the biggest impact, she suggested. It’s the change in the way the students see themselves as they build a home library. They see themselves as readers, as members of a different group.

As Brooks writes, emphases mine,

The Internet-versus-books debate is conducted on the supposition that the medium is the message. But sometimes the medium is just the medium. What matters is the way people think about themselves while engaged in the two activities. A person who becomes a citizen of the literary world enters a hierarchical universe. There are classic works of literature at the top and beach reading at the bottom.

A person enters this world as a novice, and slowly studies the works of great writers and scholars. Readers immerse themselves in deep, alternative worlds and hope to gain some lasting wisdom. Respect is paid to the writers who transmit that wisdom.

A citizen of the Internet has a very different experience. The Internet smashes hierarchy and is not marked by deference. Maybe it would be different if it had been invented in Victorian England, but Internet culture is set in contemporary America. Internet culture is egalitarian. The young are more accomplished than the old. The new media is supposedly savvier than the old media. The dominant activity is free-wheeling, disrespectful, antiauthority disputation.

And more, emphases still mine,

These different cultures foster different types of learning. The great essayist Joseph Epstein once distinguished between being well informed, being hip and being cultivated. The Internet helps you become well informed — knowledgeable about current events, the latest controversies and important trends. The Internet also helps you become hip — to learn about what’s going on, as Epstein writes, “in those lively waters outside the boring mainstream.”

But the literary world is still better at helping you become cultivated, mastering significant things of lasting import. To learn these sorts of things, you have to defer to greater minds than your own. You have to take the time to immerse yourself in a great writer’s world. You have to respect the authority of the teacher.

Right now, the literary world is better at encouraging this kind of identity. The Internet culture may produce better conversationalists, but the literary culture still produces better students.

It’s better at distinguishing the important from the unimportant, and making the important more prestigious.

Perhaps that will change. Already, more “old-fashioned” outposts are opening up across the Web. It could be that the real debate will not be books versus the Internet but how to build an Internet counterculture that will better attract people to serious learning.

I’d tell you to read the rest, but I’ve included pretty much the entire piece above because I think David Brooks wrote such an important essay that supports what so many of us are trying to do with a classical education. There will always be two camps on this — witness one of the column comments that a friend’s son improved his reading by playing World of Warcraft — and neither side will be much convinced of the other’s merit, but I’m happy to be in the Brooks camp.

Trading up

Another article from a few days ago (I’m on a roll…):

Carol Morello of The Washington Post reports that “a small but apparently growing number of the college-educated who are taking up the trades”:

Armed with a bachelor’s degree in theology from Notre Dame, Adam Osielski was pondering a route well traveled: law school.

He watched his friends work long hours as paralegals while studying law and weighed the all-encompassing commitment. That was five years ago. Today, Osielski, 29, is a journeyman electrician rather than a law firm associate. Or, as Osielski might say with his minor in French, an électricien.

In a region in which 47 percent of Washington area residents have a college degree, the highest rate in the nation, Osielski is among a small but apparently growing number of the college-educated who are taking up the trades.

They started out studying aerospace engineering, creative writing and urban planning. But somewhere on the path to accumulating academic credentials, they decided that working with their hands sounded more pleasant — and lucrative — than a lot of white-collar work. So bye-bye to term papers and graduate theses, and hello to apprenticeships to become plumbers, electricians, auto mechanics and carpenters.

For Osielski, the attraction was natural. After graduating from Notre Dame, he spent two years in Haiti working with a charity building schools, but he wasn’t allowed to do the one task that seemed most intriguing: wiring the electricity.

When he returned from Haiti, he began working as a furniture mover in the District to pay the bills and discovered the satisfaction that comes with an empty truck at the end of a day. A legal career seemed too much like drudgery.

“I have friends my age who are just deciding to go to graduate school,” said Osielski, who graduated this month from an apprenticeship program run by the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 26 in Lanham. “I’m glad to be already working and developing a career.”

Why the trend toward the trades?

Economists and labor scholars say the rocky economy has been a boon for trade schools. But they also point to policymakers, guidance counselors and parents who don’t value the trades and overvalue college as the gateway to success. As a result, American students come to trade apprenticeships relatively late, often after they’ve already tried college. The average age of the beginning apprentice in the United States is 25; in Germany, 18.

“It’s hard to get high school counselors to point anyone but their not-very-good students, or the ones in trouble, toward construction,” said Dale Belman, a labor economist at Michigan State University. “Counselors want everyone to go to college. So now we’re getting more of the college-educated going into the trades.”

This I found quite interesting but not surprising, having graduated from Middlebury with a BA in history and married a farmer and carpenter:

In the early 1970s, Robert Glover, an economics professor at the University of Texas, studied apprenticeship programs in nine cities. He found that 27 percent of journeymen in six construction trades had at least 13 years of schooling. Among the tradesmen he interviewed was an electrician with a bachelor’s degree in aerospace engineering and a bricklayer who was listening to classical music on the radio.

“It woke me up,” he said. “There is a strong anti-manual-work bias in this country. I fell prey to it, too.”

So too did Brian Jones, who is 30 and studied physics in college hoping to work as a NASA engineer. Unable to find a job in his chosen feel, he opted for work as an electrician: “It’s not the same as a job with, say, Lockheed, with a lot of office politics,” he said. “In the electrical trade, your knowledge and actions speak for themselves. The only downside is the prestige. If you say you work for a multinational, half-trillion-dollar company, versus, ‘I’m an electrician,’ it doesn’t have the same ring.”

It’s all about options and choices…

*  *  *  *

Related Farm School posts:

Moving in a common rhythm; from which one of my favorite Andy Rooney quotes, from his 2000 commencement address at the University of Virginia, “Don’t rule out working with your hands. It does not preclude using your head. There’s no reason why education should be incompatible with craftsmanship.”

Carriers of arts, letters, and dumplings

Carriers of arts, and letters

Craftsmanship

Hands

Tonic and toast

Further thoughts on self-esteem and self-confidence

All roads lead to home and hard work

More thoughts on independence and freedom

Late philosophy, on-time engineering

I’ve been meaning to post an interesting article The New York Times ran several months ago about teaching philosophy to children, but that one’s old enough now it can wait until the end of this post.

In the efforts of being a little more timely, here’s a much more recent NYT article, from earlier this week, on how “Many Schools Teach Engineering in Early Grades”,

All 300 students at Clara E. Coleman Elementary School are learning the A B C’s of engineering this year, even those who cannot yet spell e-n-g-i-n-e-e-r-i-n-g. The high-performing Glen Rock school district, about 22 miles northwest of Manhattan, now teaches 10 to 15 hours of engineering each year to every student in kindergarten through fifth grade, as part of a $100,000 redesign of the science curriculum.

Spurred by growing concerns that American students lack the skills to compete in a global economy, school districts nationwide are packing engineering lessons into already crowded schedules for even the youngest students, giving priority to a subject that was once left to after-school robotics clubs and summer camps, or else waited until college.

Supporters say that engineering reinforces math and science skills, promotes critical thinking and creativity, and teaches students not to be afraid of taking intellectual risks.

“We still hear all the time that little kids can’t engineer,” said Christine Cunningham, director of Engineering is Elementary, a program developed at the Museum of Science in Boston that offers ready-made lessons, for about $350 each, on 20 topics, and is now used in all 50 states, in more than 3,000 schools.

“We say they’re born engineers — they naturally want to solve problems — and we tend to educate it out of them.”

The Obama administration’s Race to the Top competition, which will distribute $4.35 billion in education stimulus money to states, favors so-called STEM programs, which stands for science, technology, engineering and math.

No surprise, the part about competing in a global economy and the “Race to the Top” makes me queasy.  But yes, yes, yes, to the quote about young children being born engineers.  The best part of the article:

“It gets your brain going,” said Elizabeth Crowley, 7, who wants to be an engineer when she grows up. “And I actually learn something when I’m doing a project — like you can work together to do something you couldn’t do before.”

And really, ultimately, isn’t it about getting your brain going, and hang the global economy?

Read the rest of the article here.

———–

Back in April, just after I returned from NYC (which might explain why I never got around to blogging about), The New York Times had an article on “The Examined Life, Age 8”, or teaching philosophy to the very young.  From which,

A few times each month, second graders at a charter school in Springfield, Mass., take time from math and reading to engage in philosophical debate. There is no mention of Hegel or Descartes, no study of syllogism or solipsism. Instead, Prof. Thomas E. Wartenberg and his undergraduate students from nearby Mount Holyoke College use classic children’s books to raise philosophical questions, which the young students then dissect with the vigor of the ancient Greeks.

“A lot of people try to make philosophy into an elitist discipline,” says Professor Wartenberg, who has been visiting the school, the Martin Luther King Jr. Charter School of Excellence, since 2007. “But everyone is interested in basic philosophical ideas; they’re the most basic questions we have about the world.”

One afternoon this winter, the students in Christina Runquist’s classroom read Shel Silverstein’s “Giving Tree,” about a tree that surrenders its shade, fruit, branches and finally its trunk to a boy it has befriended. The college students led the discussion that followed — on environmental ethics, or “how we should treat natural objects,” as Professor Wartenberg puts it — with a series of questions, starting with whether the boy was wrong to take so much from the tree.

“We don’t actually try to convince them that trees deserve respect,” he says, “but ask them, ‘What do you think?’ We’re trying to get them engaged in the practice of doing philosophy, versus trying to teach them, say, what Descartes thought about something.”

Dr. Wartenberg has a book, Big Ideas for Little Kids: Teaching Philosophy through Children’s Literature (September 2009), and his book has a website, Teaching Children Philosophy, with the usual resource pages for Educators, Parents, and Kids.

Professor Wartenberg and students use eight picture books to introduce children to the major fields of philosophy, including aesthetics, ethics, metaphysics, social and political philosophy and philosophy of the mind.

With Arnold Lobel’s Frog and Toad Together, in which Frog and Toad try to determine whether they can be brave and scared at the same time, the pupils examine the nature of courage — one of Aristotle’s central virtues. With Bernard Wiseman’s Morris the Moose, about a moose who mistakenly assumes all his friends are also moose, they consider how someone can maintain a belief in the face of contrary evidence. And with Peter Catalanotto’s Emily’s Art, about a talented young artist who loses a contest, they debate whether there can be objective standards for evaluating works of art.

The Times notes that Dr. Wartenberg isn’t the first philosopher to work with children, citing Matthew Lipman, who in the 1970s established The Institute for the Advancement of the Philosophy for Children.  Many home schoolers are familiar with Dr. Lipman’s books, especially Harry Stottlemeier’s Discovery and also Thinking in Education and Philosophy in the Classroom.

Okay, that’s it.  I’m glad I have that done.  Go, teach, learn, think, and make something useful out of the bits and pieces in the garage.

Carriers of arts, letters, and dumplings

I had a post yesterday on Rebecca Mead’s current New Yorker essay, “Learning by Degrees”, on the purpose of education, which I agree with her should not be to “compete in the global economy”, as our politicians like to natter on about, but as Ms. Mead wrote, to “nurture critical thought; to expose individuals to the signal accomplishments of humankind; to develop in them an ability not just to listen actively but to respond intelligently.”

So I was interested last night to read in yesterday’s New York Times Wednesday food section the article, “Their Future, Made By Hand” about a new twist in the road for “young, college-educated, Internet-savvy, and unemployed” New Yorkers who now find themselves at “the intersection of the economic downturn and the rise of the local artisanal food movement”, leading to “the recent flowering of small culinary start-ups” and food entrepreneurs:

As the next generation of cooks comes of age, it seems that many might bypass restaurant kitchens [and possibly college…] altogether. Instead, they see themselves driving trucks full of artisanal cheese around the country, founding organic breweries, bartering vegan pâtés for grass-fed local beef, or (most often) making it big in baking as the next Magnolia Bakery.

That “ability not just to listen actively but to respond intelligently”, learned in high school or in college (if not afterwards for many of us), can come in very, very handy. Keep your mind and your options open, and your future might well be delicious.  Read the rest of the Times article here. (And while you’re at it, go get the recipe for 1989 Rhubarb-Strawberry Mousse.  Yummy.)

Related Farm School posts:

Moving in a common rhythm; from which one of my favorite Andy Rooney quotes, from his 2000 commencement address at the University of Virginia, “Don’t rule out working with your hands. It does not preclude using your head. There’s no reason why education should be incompatible with craftsmanship.”

Craftsmanship

Hands

Tonic and toast

Further thoughts on self-esteem and self-confidence

All roads lead to home and hard work

More thoughts on independence and freedom

Carriers of arts, and letters

Rebecca Mead, in her latest comment piece, “Learning by Degrees” in the current issue of The New Yorker, writes,

The skip-college advocates’ contention—that, with the economic downturn, a college degree may not be the best investment—has its appeal. Given the high cost of attending college in the United States, the question of whether a student is getting his or her money’s worth tends to loom large with whoever is paying the tuition fees and the meal-plan bills. Even so, one needn’t necessarily be a liberal-arts graduate to regard as distinctly and speciously utilitarian the idea that higher education is, above all, a route to economic advancement. Unaddressed in that calculus is any question of what else an education might be for: to nurture critical thought; to expose individuals to the signal accomplishments of humankind; to develop in them an ability not just to listen actively but to respond intelligently.

All these are habits of mind that are useful for an engaged citizenry, and from which a letter carrier, no less than a college professor, might derive a sense of self-worth. For who’s to say in what direction a letter carrier’s thoughts might, or should, turn, regardless of the job’s demands? Consider Stephen Law, a professor of philosophy at the University of London, who started his working life delivering mail for the British postal service, began reading works of philosophy in his spare time, decided that he’d like to know more, and went on to study the discipline at City University, in London, and at Oxford University. (A philosophy graduate in the Class of 2010, by the way, stands to earn an average starting salary of forty thousand dollars a year, rising to a lifetime median of seventy-six thousand. Not exactly statistician money, but something to think about.) Indeed, if even a professionally oriented college degree is no longer a guarantee of easily found employment, an argument might be made in favor of a student’s pursuing an education that is less, rather than more, pragmatic. (More theology, less accounting.) That way, regardless of each graduate’s ultimate path, all might be qualified to be carriers of arts and letters, of which the nation can never have too many.

Read the entire piece here.

Of course, one nice think about home schooling is that you can start early nurturing critical thought, exposing the small individuals you love to the signal accomplishments of humankind; and developing that ability to respond intelligently.  You also have the chance to teach them basic economics, that expenses should not exceed income, so that they don’t find themselves with an enormous, unpayable bill at the end of four years; and also marketing 101, that there are wonderful professors to be found at institutions without snazzy T-shirts.

Spotera!*: Recapturing a writerly fairyland

A few weeks ago The Guardian featured a lovely article by Valerie Grove as part of the marvelous “Life in Writing” series, an overview of her new biography of Kaye Webb, So Much to Tell, to be published in Canada next week in time for Puffin’s 70th anniversary.  Miss Webb established the Puffin Club for young readers in the 1960s, and I was a devoted member across the pond in the early seventies.  I wrote a bit about the Puffin Club just over a year ago, here.  And while I didn’t get Mars Bars from Roald Dahl, I did spend afternoons with Ezra Jack Keats and author Ben Lucien Burman and his wife, illustrator Alice Caddy, who gave us Puffineers autographed copies of the Catfish Bend books.

Miss Webb rather fell into children’s book publishing, having read only few children’s books in her youth,

Her luck was to arrive at the dawn of a second “golden age” in children’s books in the 60s. Enduring classics were being written by authors such as Philippa Pearce and Rosemary Sutcliff. Improved colour printing brightened picture books and inspired illustrators such as Brian Wildsmith and Quentin Blake. American publishers (Grace Hogarth, Marni Hodgkin) infused the scene with transatlantic know-how. New magazines gave guidance for parents on the best new books for their children; soon there was the Bologna children’s book fair, and the broadsheet papers were devoting whole pages to reviews of children’s fiction.

What Webb brought to the changing scene was her enormous personality. She acquired new titles, brokering deals with the enterprise of an innocent. She cajoled hardback publishers – still sceptical and snooty about paperbacks – to yield up rights. She founded a Children’s Book Circle, wooed librarians and booksellers. She commissioned in her distinctive style: “Darling! I’ve got this wonderful idea, you have to do it, come straight round, it’s your big chance!”  …

Only months after taking the position at Puffin, Kaye Webb’s mother died and her husband, the celebrated cartoonist Ronald Searle, abruptly left her and their two teenaged children, for his lover in Paris, informing her by letter.  But, Ms. Grove, writes,

The Puffin job proved the making of her: she set about establishing the brand as the marque of excellence in children’s literature, and increased sales by 300% within a year. To the Narnia books and Noel Streatfeild she added Mary Poppins, Paddington Bear, Clive King’s Stig of the Dump, Dodie Smith’s The Hundred and One Dalmatians [Grove has also written biographies of Dodie SmithLaurie Lee, and my father’s beloved John Mortimer]. Soon, authors needed no persuading: “I could have all the authors I wanted,” Webb said. Roald Dahl, who had taken years to get his children’s books published in Britain in 1967, actually asked to be in Puffin (at a 17.5% royalty, which he repaid in astronomical sales.)

And then things get truly exciting:

Webb had always encouraged her son, John, to be fearless. She once drove him to Chesil Bank in Dorset, the setting for J Meade Falkner’s Moonfleet, and suggested he dive in and test out the fierce undercurrent that had wrecked many ships. Children liked to have adventures away from their parents, as children do in books. Heedless of health-and-safety, she took readers to see real puffins, on the precipitous Yorkshire coastline. In fact, the first Puffin Club adventure, a trip to Lundy Island, could have been disastrous. The boat almost capsized in choppy seas. Webb had to tie the children down and pray that none were flung overboard. After that she collaborated with Chris Green, the schoolmaster founder of Colony Holidays, lifeline to many frazzled mothers confronted by long school holidays in the 60s and 70s. There were Puffin holidays, winter and summer, at castles such as Featherstone in Northumberland, or vacant boarding-schools, where the children (benignly supervised) could scamper in fields and woods, write and perform plays, bird-watch, build boats, produce newspapers, sing round campfires. Webb scorned parents who apologised in advance that their “shy” children would be reluctant joiners-in. There was no such thing, Webb said, as the shy child.

Nobody doubted that Webb enjoyed her jamborees as much as the children did. Conflating Hallowe’en and Guy Fawkes, she would dress up as a wizard, a cat or a silver fairy queen at “Guyween” fireworks-and-bonfire parties. The chaotic Puffin office seemed to hold endless celebrations; it was always someone’s birthday, an excuse for balloons, jellies and “Puffins pleasure” cocktails, filling the Penguin HQ with shrieks of laughter. Every Puffineer got a personalised greeting, each birthday. They were effusively grateful. “Thanks awfully for my purple bag,” wrote one prize-winning child. “I think it’s super and a marvellous prize. Did someone make it specially? If they did, could you thank them terribly?” Puffineers became substitute grandchildren for Webb, before she had one of her own.

After which come the late seventies, and the end of that second golden age,

doubts began to be voiced at Penguin about whether Webb was sufficiently aware of deprived children whose homes were not book-lined. Was she doing enough to attract the reluctant boy reader, or appeal to ethnic minorities? Webb bridled in self-defence. She cared little for social engineering, only about upholding the high standards, and imaginative writing of the kind adults could enjoy reading aloud time and again. …

In 1978, aware of the threat to literacy from television, she organised a Time Capsule containing books, messages from authors and from readers, ceremoniously buried (by Patrick Moore) in the garden of Penguin headquarters at Harmondsworth, to be opened by the grandchildren of the “Puffin Guardians” in 100 years’ time. Only 10 years later, noting the rise of the computer and a less biddable, less bookish generation, Webb told me the capsule would probably have to be exhumed much earlier.

Her successor at Puffin, Tony Lacey, launched the popular Fighting Fantasy and Dungeons and Dragons books aimed firmly at boys, to Webb’s dismay: what had become of literary merit? Puffin Club membership dwindled, the magazine was no longer cost-effective, and was closed down in 1987. Her long retirement was afflicted with crippling arthritis – she had often had to conduct Puffin business from her hospital bed – and she died at 82 in 1996. She did not live to witness the Harry Potter phenomenon. She would certainly have been horrified to learn that in 2009 it was reported that many children go through their schooldays without ever reading “a whole book”.

Read the entire article, “Queen of the Puffineers”, here.  Long live the Queen.

*  *  *  *

* The reply to the secret Puffin password “Sniffup!” Together, they spell out, backwards, Puffins are tops.  Indeed.

Bait and switch

Just one reason why we farm organically: “Farmers Cope With Roundup-Resistant Weeds”, from last week’s New York Times.

Daniel, who turned 11 the other week, is delighted this year to be old enough to drive the big John Deere tractor to cultivate the fields.

We’re off later this morning to pick up our shelterbelt tree order to plant around our fields.  This year, though, it’s only 200+ rather than 2,000+, to replace some of the trees the deer have eaten and trampled.  And luckily for me, the shelterbelt tree pickup warehouse is near a wonderful greenhouse…

Child’s play

David Elkind, professor emeritus of child development at Tufts University, has an op-ed in today’s New York Times prompted by the decision of many American schools to hire “recess coaches” to oversee schoolchildren’s time on the playground.  As “someone whose scholarly work has consistently reinforced the idea that young people need unstructured imagination time,” he writes, “I’d probably have been opposed to recess coaches in the past. But childhood has changed so radically in recent years that I think the trend makes sense, at least at some schools and with some students. Children today are growing up in a world vastly different from the one their parents knew.”  Dr. Elkind writes further,

A Nielsen study last year found that children aged 6 to 11 spent more than 28 hours a week using computers, cellphones, televisions and other electronic devices. A University of Michigan study found that from 1979 to 1999, children on the whole lost 12 hours of free time a week, including eight hours of unstructured play and outdoor activities. One can only assume that the figure has increased over the last decade, as many schools have eliminated recess in favor of more time for academics.

One consequence of these changes is the disappearance of what child-development experts call “the culture of childhood.” This culture, which is to be found all over the world, was best documented in its English-language form by the British folklorists Peter and Iona Opie in the 1950s. They cataloged the songs, riddles, jibes and incantations (“step on a crack, break your mother’s back”) that were passed on by oral tradition. Games like marbles, hopscotch and hide and seek date back hundreds of years. The children of each generation adapted these games to their own circumstances.

Yet this culture has disappeared almost overnight, and not just in America. For example, in the 1970s a Japanese photographer, Keiki Haginoya, undertook what was to be a lifelong project to compile a photo documentary of children’s play on the streets of Tokyo. He gave up the project in 1996, noting that the spontaneous play and laughter that once filled the city’s streets, alleys and vacant lots had utterly vanished.

For children in past eras, participating in the culture of childhood was a socializing process. They learned to settle their own quarrels, to make and break their own rules, and to respect the rights of others. They learned that friends could be mean as well as kind, and that life was not always fair.

Now that most children no longer participate in this free-form experience — play dates arranged by parents are no substitute — their peer socialization has suffered. One tangible result of this lack of socialization is the increase in bullying, teasing and discrimination that we see in all too many of our schools.

Bullying has always been with us, but it did not become prevalent enough to catch the attention of researchers until the 1970s, just as TV and then computers were moving childhood indoors. It is now recognized as a serious problem in all the advanced countries. The National Education Association estimates that in the United States, 160,000 children miss school every day because they fear attacks or intimidation by other students. Massachusetts is considering anti-bullying legislation.

While correlation is not necessarily causation, it seems clear that there is a link among the rise of television and computer games, the decline in peer-to-peer socialization and the increase of bullying in our schools. I am not a Luddite — I think that the way in which computers have made our students much more aware of the everyday lives of children in other countries is wonderful, and that they will revolutionize education as the new, tech-savvy generation of teachers moves into the schools. But we should also recognize what is being lost.

Dr. Elkind concludes that “We have to adapt to childhood as it is today, not as we knew it or would like it to be”, since the “question isn’t whether recess coaches are good or bad — they seem to be with us to stay — but whether they help students form the age-old bonds of childhood.”

Here’s an idea.  Rather than adapting to something that doesn’t work, dare to do something different.  For those who are able, join those — dare I say it — supposedly unsocialized home schoolers and show your kids that it’s not necessary to buy into a failing system.

The magic of reading aloud

Michael Winerip writes about a remarkable nine-year-plus readaloud streak in “A Father-Daughter Bond, Page by Page” in this week’s New York Times:

Their shared reading provided a shared language. When Mr. Brozina asks if Kristen’s absolutely sure, she’ll answer, “Certain there’s a jertain in the curtain” (Dr. Seuss). If Mr. Brozina orders a hamburger, Kristen will say, “I am a great eater of beef and I believe that does harm to my wit” (Shakespeare, “Twelfth Night” ). By high school, Kristen had a busy social life. “I’d be out with friends, and say, ‘It’s 11:30, we need to stop back at my house.’ A carload of teenagers would come in. They’d play some game or cards in the living room. I’d go upstairs to Dad’s room and he’d read to me.”

“Then she’d go back out with her friends and I’d go to bed,” Mr. Brozina said. …

Like all earth-shattering acts, there was more to The Streak than met the eye, although for years it was unspoken. About the time The Streak started, Kristen’s family shrunk from six to two in a year’s time. Her two surviving grandparents died. Her sister, who is seven years older, went off to Yale. And her mother left her father. “It was just the two of us,” Kristen said. “The Streak was stability when everything else was unstable. It was something I knew would always be there.” ..

Her father felt that, too. “With a family of two, I wanted her to be absolutely sure in her mind that I was here for her,” he said.

But he had other reasons. At 61, he’s part of a generation that held reading as an almost magical ticket to upward mobility. He’s been a school librarian here for 38 years, knows most everyone in this modest blue-collar town, and whenever he bumps into one of his former students, the first thing he asks is, “Are you reading?” followed by his mantra: “If you love to read, you’ll probably go to college, maybe for free. You’ll get a better job, get a higher income, live longer.”

Over the years, he has built a collection of 700 of the best books he and Kristen read together. “I don’t have much money to pass on,” he said. “But these books, she’ll read to hers and they’ll read to theirs. And they’ll read to the generations down the lines. It’s a means for me to touch generations I’ll never see. They’ll all be smart. I can’t imagine these books will never be used. Every single one of them is so good.”

Read the rest, aloud or to yourself, here.

Messing about in boats

I posted the following, part of the very famous first chapter of The Wind in the Willows, at one of my homeschool groups the other day, in response to a mother who’s been having so much trouble getting her young son to stay on course with their Well-Trained Mind studies that, as she wrote, she was ready to throw in the home schooling towel.  After receiving a variety of replies, including one from me recommending Melissa Wiley’s idea of “Tidal Learning”, the mother wrote, “It’s hard to know when to keep the boat in the current and when not to try and push the river and when to allow the boat to drift into an eddy.”

Which immediately brought this to mind,

“This has been a wonderful day!” said he, as the Rat shoved off and took to the sculls again. “Do you know, I’ve never been in a boat before in all my life.”

“What?” cried the Rat, open-mouthed: “Never been in a — you never — well I — what have you been doing, then?”

“Is it so nice as all that?” asked the Mole shyly, though he was quite prepared to believe it as he leant back in his seat and surveyed the cushions, the oars, the rowlocks, and all the fascinating fittings, and felt the boat sway lightly under him.

“Nice? It’s the ONLY thing,” said the Water Rat solemnly, as he leant forward for his stroke. “Believe me, my young friend, there is NOTHING — absolute nothing — half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats. Simply messing,” he went on dreamily: “messing — about — in — boats; messing —-”

“Look ahead, Rat!” cried the Mole suddenly.

It was too late. The boat struck the bank full tilt. The dreamer, the joyous oarsman, lay on his back at the bottom of the boat, his heels in the air.

“– about in boats — or WITH boats,” the Rat went on composedly, picking himself up with a pleasant laugh. “In or out of ’em, it doesn’t matter. Nothing seems really to matter, that’s the charm of it. Whether you get away, or whether you don’t; whether you arrive at your destination or whether you reach somewhere else, or whether you never get anywhere at all, you’re always busy, and you never do anything in particular; and when you’ve done it there’s always something else to do, and you can do it if you like, but you’d much better not. Look here! If you’ve really nothing else on hand this morning, supposing we drop down the river together, and have a long day of it?”

The Mole waggled his toes from sheer happiness, spread his chest with a sigh of full contentment, and leaned back blissfully into the soft cushions. “WHAT a day I’m having!” he said. “Let us start at once!”

Funny, isn’t it, the affinity between water and sailing metaphors and home schooling.  There’s also the famous quote from that other celebrated watery children’s book Swallows and Amazons — “BETTER DROWNED THAN DUFFERS IF NOT DUFFERS WON’T DROWN”, our unofficial family and school motto.

Yet another reason to home school

After Wal-Mart, [Ms. Perry] was off to Meijer’s to look for an Xbox 360 for her son, and for gifts inspired by the film ‘Twilight’ for her 12-year-old daughter.

” ‘She’s got to have the Twilight lip gloss,’ Ms. Perry said. ‘Every girl at her school has it, so she’s got to have it, too’.”

from yesterday’s New York Times account of Black Friday 2009

*  *  *  *

As I was reminded while poking around the Whole Foods store on Amsterdam and 97th yesterday ($9.99 for 30 ounces of mashed potatoes, and organic, naturally colored sprinkles for baking, neither of which exists at my Co-op supermarket in Alberta), my husband, children, and I live in a very, very different world.

When I headed out here last week, my 12-year-old daughter, who is more or less unaware of the phenomenon that is Twilight (until she reads this blog post maybe) was reading Anne of Green Gables, rereading The Penderwicks, working on her quilling cards to sell at the Christmas Farmer’s Market on Tuesday, using Blistex Medicated Berry Lip Balm, and doesn’t really have to have anything for this Christmas…

Trip report, part 2: NYC, still wild

On our second day, Sunday, we were up bright and early to go birding in Central Park with Deb Allen. We met what seems to be a devoted group of regulars by the Turtle Pond dock near Belvedere Castle, where I spent many high school Saturdays climbing the castle and the rock walls below. Laura was delighted to be in the midst of the fall migration, surrounded by her favorite warblers, and found it interesting that some of the birds we take for granted and enjoy in full summer plumage, such as goldfinches, are simply visitors in New York in the autumn.  Also novel was birdwatching as a large group activity.

We started off at the Turtle Pond,

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Laura with her new binoculars, a belated birthday gift from Grandpapa,

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The lack of binoculars didn’t hinder Daniel,

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and I can tell you that by the end of our birdwatching, that backpack was full of acorns, all of which made the journey home with us.

The group zeroes in on a new specimen,

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Laura in her element,

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We walked through the Ramble, then out onto the very new Oak Bridge (which is really steel and aluminum), and toward Strawberry Field,

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Laura kept a list in a notebook of all her sightings for the day, which included ruddy ducks and gadwalls at Turtle Pond, brown creeper, golden-crowned kinglets, a swamp sparrow, a northern water thrush, winter wren, brown thrasher, eastern towhee, and pine warbler. I’m sure there were more, but I’m not the official birder in the family. Between the birds and the lovely New York birders we met, it was a wonderful morning.

We left after two hours (the walks usually last three hours) to head over to my parents’ apartment to make pancakes for brunch. As it was, we ran into a 10-block street fair at Broadway and 86th Street, which slowed us down considerably,

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Happy back-to-school season

or, yet another reason to home school.  From the what-are-these-people-thinking department (emphasis down below mine, all mine):

To mark the start of the school year, parents here [in Sedgewick, Alberta, 180 km southeast of Edmonton] say a group of new Grade 10 students were invited to a bush party, tied by their wrists to a bridge with their pants and shorts pulled down, and flogged by older schoolmates.

Some Central High Sedgewick Public School students allegedly used belt buckles, vehicle antennae, broken hockey sticks and bats to beat the bare backsides of the incoming sophomores in a so-called “initiation” last Friday night.

One teen is said to have swung a bat wrapped with the same abrasive material used to line truck beds. Another allegedly wielded a cheese grater taped to a piece of wood.

“After 10 to 15 minutes of this beating, that they call paddling, someone from Grade 12 finally stepped in and said enough,” the parent of one of the beaten boys said. “Supposedly when they were all done and they finally released these children, then they gave them alcohol and said they earned their respect.”

RCMP have heard rumours of such hazings for new Central High students in the past. But officers had not received a complaint until last weekend, when someone came forward who was “directly involved.”

However, that complainant has been unco-operative with investigators since their initial complaint. Police are unable to get on the record a single witness to the hazing, despite reports that more than 100 people were at the party.

At least five teens were beaten, with some left bleeding. Some reportedly had trouble sitting down. …

The victims have been reluctant to come forward because they fear it will result in alienation from their peers, said one child’s mother. Her son has told her that since the initial complaint to RCMP, some who were hazed have been threatened with violence if they snitch.

The mother said they decided as a family not to give police a statement.

“We talked extensively about the repercussions,” she said. “This is a small community. I can’t protect him 24/7.”

Central High Sedgewick Public School is the only high school in the area and students from K-9 schools in neighbouring towns are bused in when they start Grade 10.

The party to end the summer was held Aug. 28 off a gravel road about eight kilometres north of Killam, in a popular spot called “Bridge,” where area teens have been drinking for decades.

The old wooden bridge to which the students were apparently tied spans a stagnant creek, surrounded by high grass littered with countless empties of cheap domestic beer. There’s also a massive firepit, full of more empties and the blackened springs of a mattress.

The mother who spoke to The Journal said she debated letting her son go to the party. He thought there would be some form of hazing, maybe a quick paddling, but felt he better to go and get it over with than skip the party and risk alienation when school started Aug. 31.

According to another article also in The Edmonton Journal,

“Just people getting paddled. I don’t think it’s a big deal,” [one 10th grade student] told Global News. “It was fine with me. It didn’t bother me at all.” …

RCMP are aware of reports that a similar party is planned for students from nearby Forestburg and Daysland this weekend.

St. Albert RCMP have laid numerous hazing charges against high school teens in recent years.

Fourteen St. Albert teens were charged last year for ritual paddlings police said took place at the end of the 2008 school year and involved students from Paul Kane High School, St. Albert Catholic High School and Bellerose Composite High School.

Eight students said they were paddled by older peers, with some suffering bruising, redness and bleeding on their buttocks and upper legs.

In each incident, the victims were instructed to go to various locations, such as a forested park or a friend’s basement, where they knew they would be hazed.

A year later, four other St. Albert teens were charged after two Grade 9 students were alleged paddled on the buttocks with a shortened goalie stick, leaving bruises.

A reminder for summer vacation

from author Michael Chabon, writing in the current issue of The New York Review of Books:

As a kid, I was extremely fond of a series of biographies, largely fictional, I’m sure, that dramatized the lives of famous Americans — Washington, Jefferson, Kit Carson, Henry Ford, Thomas Edison, Daniel Boone — when they were children. (Boys, for the most part, though I do remember reading one about Clara Barton.) [I would think this is the COFA series.] One element that was almost universal in these stories was the vast amounts of time the famous historical boys were alleged to have spent wandering with bosom companions, with friendly Indian boys or a devoted slave, through the once-mighty wilderness, the Wilderness of Childhood, entirely free of adult supervision.

Though the wilderness available to me had shrunk to a mere green scrap of its former enormousness, though so much about childhood had changed in the years between the days of young George Washington’s adventuring on his side of the Potomac and my own suburban exploits on mine, there was still a connectedness there, a continuum of childhood. Eighteenth-century Virginia, twentieth-century Maryland, tenth-century Britain, Narnia, Neverland, Prydain — it was all the same Wilderness. Those legendary wanderings of Boone and Carson and young Daniel Beard (the father of the Boy Scouts of America), those games of war and exploration I read about, those frightening encounters with genuine menace, far from the help or interference of mother and father, seemed to me at the time — and I think this is my key point — absolutely familiar to me.

The thing that strikes me now when I think about the Wilderness of Childhood is the incredible degree of freedom my parents gave me to adventure there. A very grave, very significant shift in our idea of childhood has occurred since then. The Wilderness of Childhood is gone; the days of adventure are past. The land ruled by children, to which a kid might exile himself for at least some portion of every day from the neighboring kingdom of adulthood, has in large part been taken over, co-opted, colonized, and finally absorbed by the neighbors.

Chabon writes at the end about the consequences of losing this land:

What is the impact of the closing down of the Wilderness on the development of children’s imaginations? This is what I worry about the most. I grew up with a freedom, a liberty that now seems breathtaking and almost impossible. Recently, my younger daughter, after the usual struggle and exhilaration, learned to ride her bicycle. Her joy at her achievement was rapidly followed by a creeping sense of puzzlement and disappointment as it became clear to both of us that there was nowhere for her to ride it — nowhere that I was willing to let her go. Should I send my children out to play?

There is a small grocery store around the corner, not over two hundred yards from our front door. Can I let her ride there alone to experience the singular pleasure of buying herself an ice cream on a hot summer day and eating it on the sidewalk, alone with her thoughts? Soon after she learned to ride, we went out together after dinner, she on her bike, with me following along at a safe distance behind. What struck me at once on that lovely summer evening, as we wandered the streets of our lovely residential neighborhood at that after-dinner hour that had once represented the peak moment, the magic hour of my own childhood, was that we didn’t encounter a single other child.

Even if I do send them out, will there be anyone to play with?

Art is a form of exploration, of sailing off into the unknown alone, heading for those unmarked places on the map. If children are not permitted — not taught — to be adventurers and explorers as children, what will become of the world of adventure, of stories, of literature itself?

Read the entire piece here.

Back when Chabon had a website, which I remember a year or two ago, he had a very good piece on kids, Lego, and imagination.  Here’s where it was, in 2006.  Will have to see if I can use the Wayback Machine to get a better link. Aha.  Try this.

(By the way, Chabon is married to Ayelet Waldman, author of the recently published Bad Mother)

Ray Bradbury on libraries

In yesterday’s New York Times, legendary author Ray Bradbury on why, at age 88, he is campaigning hard to save the HP Wright Library in Ventura, California, from state budget cuts:

“Libraries raised me,” Mr. Bradbury said. “I don’t believe in colleges and universities. I believe in libraries because most students don’t have any money. When I graduated from high school, it was during the Depression and we had no money. I couldn’t go to college, so I went to the library three days a week for 10 years.”

According to the article, Mr. Bradbury “spends as much time as he can talking to children in libraries and encouraging them to read.”  As for the internet,

Don’t get him started. “The Internet is a big distraction,” Mr. Bradbury barked from his perch in his house in Los Angeles, which is jammed with enormous stuffed animals, videos, DVDs, wooden toys, photographs and books, with things like the National Medal of Arts sort of tossed on a table.

“Yahoo called me eight weeks ago,” he said, voice rising. “They wanted to put a book of mine on Yahoo! You know what I told them? ‘To hell with you. To hell with you and to hell with the Internet.’

“It’s distracting,” he continued. “It’s meaningless; it’s not real. It’s in the air somewhere.”

Read the rest of the article here. For a different view, here’s a January 2009 post on closing the library from the Ventura City Manager’s blog.