• 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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All roads lead to home and hard work

“Too many parents make life hard for their children by trying, too zealously, to make it easy for them.”
German poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832), quoted in “The Case Against Adolescence” by Robert Epstein

I started Farm School two years ago in part because I blathered on for much too long on the subject of children and independence at L’s blog Schola. Independence, self-reliance, and responsibility are among the values Tom and I talked about teaching children when we thought about getting married. And these values are a good part of the reason I decided that it would probably be better to raise children on the Canadian prairie than Manhattan’s Upper West Side; I’m not saying it’s impossible (I think my parents did a fabulous job), but 40 years on it seems rather easier in this neck of the woods.

While we didn’t start homeschooling with the idea that it would be a good way of further inculcating those values, it didn’t take Tom and me long to realize that this educational experiment is as ideal for our child-rearing purposes as it is for our academic ones. And I’m always keen to read anything that supports our rather old-fashioned notions when it comes to raising kids.

So I was more than interested to learn a couple of months ago, at Susan’s blog Corn & Oil, about the new book, The Case Against Adolescence: Rediscovering the Adult in Every Teen (Quill Driver Books, 2007) by Robert Epstein, a psychologist and former editor-in-chief of Pyschology Today magazine. The idea behind the book is that (from the front flap)

teen turmoil is caused by outmoded systems put in place a century ago which destroyed the continuum between childhood and adulthood.

Where this continuum still exists in other countries, there is no adolescence. Isolated from adults, American teens learn everything they know from their media-dominated peers — “the last people on earth they should be learning from,” says Epstein.

Which, in my case at least, means the good doctor is preaching to the converted. While I tend to think that part of the problem with the way kids are being raised is that they are being raised by advice from books rather than from parents’ hearts or instincts or the way they themselves were raised by their own parents (somehow that all seems too easy…), at least there seem to be some better parenting books to choose from nowadays, including Dr. Epstein’s. And as you can see from the bit above, The Case Against Adolescence contains echoes of Hold On to Your Kids by Dr. Gordon Neufeld and Dr. Gabor Mate, another book I like, though I don’t find mention of the title or authors in the index.

But I’ve already found, just partway through chapter three, mention of the two home education gurus, former New York public school teacher John Taylor Gatto and the late John Holt; a peek at the index shows three mentions of “Home Schooling” toward the end of the book. Dr. Epstein notes that Gatto addresses “quite explicitly, … the artificial extension of childhood” in his latest book, The Underground History of American Education (an excerpt of which was published in Harper’s Magazine in September 2003, and which I saw the very week I hit upon the alternative of home schooling for Laura. Yes, I took it as a good omen).

The Case Against Adolescence owes a considerable debt to Jean Liedloff’s 1977 classic, The Continuum Concept: In Search of Lost Happiness, which I read while pregnant with Laura, after coming across a secondhand copy at a library book sale. Indeed, the CC website’s main page features glowing quotes about the book from both Dr. Epstein (“This book is the work of a genius” in Psychology Today) and John Holt (“I don’t know whether the world can be saved by a book, but if it could be, this might just be the book.”)

Just last night, I read Dr. Epstein’s handy summary of Liedloff’s two years with the Yequana Indians of Venezuela:

There is no distinct separation between childhood and adulthood in the tribe; instead, there is a continuum of activities, behaviors, and expectations. Expectations are modest when children are young and increase gradually and smoothly over the years, but the goals are always clear: the development of self-reliance and the full integration of the child into the world of responsible adulthood. Responsibility and authority are never forced on anyone, but they’re given freely as soon as a child shows an interest in taking them on. Independent decision making is encouraged, because “leaving the choice to the child from the earliest age keeps his judgment at peak efficiency,” and the child’s “self protecting ability” is trusted to keep him or her from serious harm.

In contrast, she says, we weaken and damage our children by overprotecting them; we even impair their ability to make reasonable decisions and to protect themselves.

And then, still mulling over the development of this “self-protecting ability” this morning, I happened upon today’s New York Times article on claims of possible child abuse in connection with Kid Nation, a new show to air in September:

The ads promoting “Kid Nation,” a new reality show coming to CBS next month, extol the incredible experience of a group of 40 children, ages 8 to 15, who built a sort of idealistic society in a New Mexico ghost town, free of adults. For 40 days the children cooked their own meals, cleaned their own outhouses, formed a government and ran their own businesses, all without adult intervention or participation.

To at least one parent of a participant, who wrote a letter of complaint to New Mexico state officials after the show had completed production, the experience bordered on abuse and neglect. Several children required medical attention after drinking bleach that had been left in an unmarked soda bottle, according to both the parent and CBS. One 11-year-old girl burned her face with splattered grease while cooking.

The children were made to haul wagons loaded with supplies for more than a mile through the New Mexico countryside, and they worked long hours — “from the crack of dawn when the rooster started crowing” until at least 9:30 p.m., according to Taylor, a 10-year-old from Sylvester, Ga., who was made available by CBS to respond to questions about conditions on the set.

I also came across a Los Angeles Times article from last week, “Kid Nation” parents: What were they thinking?, where three women were interviewed to “respond to the critics condemning them for allowing their children to participate in the CBS show”. Said one mother, about her 10-year-old, an only child,

He does live in what I call a sheltered environment. He goes to a small school. Most of the schoolmates and friends that he knows he’s known almost his entire life. I thought that this was a good opportunity for Zachary to experience some independence and learn some self-reliance. And if he was able to do this, I thought that was a very good way for him to build confidence in himself.

I worry that in today’s world kids don’t realize things they might have to face in life that might be difficult because, I think, as baby boomers we tend to be very protective of them. And I want him to know that he has the capability to be out in the world and be independent and self-reliant.

All this of course after I’ve spent the past few weeks on and off delightedly wallowing in Mildred Armstrong Kalish’s charming memoir, Little Heathens: Hard Times and High Spirits on an Iowa Farm During the Great Depression. Unvarnished and homespun, these are the stories, words, and advice of a real grandmother eager to share her own part of a disappearing world, and to let later generations know the lasting value of pulling up your socks and putting your nose to the grindstone. As I read through each of the chapters, from her earliest reminiscences to the recipes to her later life as detailed in Epilogue, I realized that Mrs. Kalish has written about a happiness and freedom in childhood, and a contentment in adulthood, that today are sadly rare. From Little Heathens,

The summer after I graduated from eighth grade I … was delighted to go to work as a hired girl on a large farm south of [the town of] Garrison. The family consisted of Cecil, Anna, and their two girls and four boys, ranging in age from one and a half to eleven. Cecil hired one or two extra men in the summer. That meant that Ann and I cooked, set the table, and did the dishes for at least ten people, three times a day.

Anna paid me four dollars a week for my work on the farm, and I was especially proud of that for my closest girlfriends and all of my other friends were being paid only three and a half dollars. Of course, we all received room and board, too.

Here I should report that we were also accepted as full-fledged members of the family, for hired girls were not treated as maids. In fact, I was the only one in this family who had a private room. Located at the top of the crooked stairs, it was about five feet wide by ten feet long, and it had a window overlooking the huge vegetable garden. To me it was a palace.

During those summer months we rose at five-thirty A.M., unless it was haying or threshing time on the farm; then we got up at four-thirty. Anna and I timed it so that we got up just after the men, who immediately disappeared to the barns to do the morning chores. Anna built a fire in the iron kitchen range, while I put the copper teakettle on along with the gray, graniteware coffee boiler and got the bacon started. As the kitchen filled with the delicious fragrance of the bacon crisping and browning, I carried jam, a whole pound of butter, sliced bread, a large pitcher of milk, and a smaller pitcher of heavy cream to the table, which was already set for ten people. Then I carefully broke twenty eggs into a mixing bowl and waited for one of the boys to report that the men were ready for breakfast. At that point I poured the blow of eggs into the gigantic iron skillet and fried them to perfection in bacon fat, sunny-side up.

If there was a delay, or if the men had an especially busy day before them, I might make an applesauce cake — the very one I described in an earlier chapter. Here again, the family training in thinking ahead and always doing more than was required stood me in good stead. I could whip up that cake in just a few minutes since I kept a ready supply of homemade applesauce in the pantry; it would bake while we were eating breakfast and would be ready to eat with our second cups of coffee.

I could handle almost every task in Anna’s household; I could even make gravy without lumps, for heaven’s sake. There was always something to do on that farm: cakes, cookies, and pies to bake; potatoes, radishes, beets, carrots, peas, lettuce, tomatoes, and beans to pick, wash, clean, and peel; chickens to kill, scald, pluck, singe, draw, and disjoint; dishes to wash and dry; clothing to wash; laundry to be hung on the line, then taken down from the line, folded, and ironed. And every day, we made beds for ten people. Everything I had learned in my early years [up until eighth grade] I put to use as a hired girl for this family.

The children all helped in as many ways as they could. They would make their own beds, wash vegetables, carry wood and water, set the table, dry dishes, and gather eggs and apples. Like the children I grew up with, they understood that hey played a part in making the family work.

We had fun with one another. There was a lot of joking, laughing, and good-natured teasing. And often in the evening, on those occasions when we had somehow managed to finish our chores as well as our supper before dark, the kids would hep me with the dishes if I would agree to come outside afterward and play with them. We played hide-and-go-seek, touched-you-last, and may-I. Some evenings we would have water fights, tossing pails of water on one another. Or we might just sit out on the front porch and sing.

Or, as The New York Times article on alleged child abuse concluded,

“Everyone usually had a job,” said Mike, an 11-year-old from Bellevue, Wash., who participated in the show. Among them were cooking, cleaning, hauling water and running the stores, where, he said: “It was hard work, but it was really good. It taught us all that life is not all play and no work.”

Taylor, from Georgia, agreed. “I learned I have to work for what I want,” she said.

I’m sure both Mrs. Kalish and Dr. Epstein would approve. Pass the applesauce cake, please.

(Very likely more thoughts to come on The Case Against Adolescence, and Little Heathens, in upcoming posts.)

More food for thought: connections and disconnections

I’ve been cogitating for the past week or so on the things I read in Natalie Angier’s science book The Canon, partly in preparation for my regurgitation earlier today and partly in preparation for the kids’ science studies next year (informal plans for which I hope to post before too long). So everything was rolling around in my head quite nicely when my I started to read one of the books from my father’s recent parcel*, Barbara Kingsolver‘s latest, the nonfiction Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life, just published in May and which I’m enjoying very much. It sounds very much of a piece with her 2002 book of essays Small Wonder, which JoVE has mentioned at least once to me in her comments here. (My request was down pretty low on the interlibrary loan list, but after opening the package, I canceled the hold and requested Small Wonder instead.)

So on page 11 of Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, I discovered this passage (emphasis mine),

Many bright people are really in the dark about vegetable life. Biology teachers face kids in classrooms who may not even believe in the metamorphosis of bud to flower to fruit and seed, but rather, some continuum of pansies becoming petunias becoming chrysanthemums; that’s the only reality they witness as landscapers come to campuses and city parks and surreptitiously yank out one flower before it fades from its prime, replacing it with another. (My biology-professor brother pointed this out to me.) The same disconnection from natural processes may be at the heart of our country’s shift away from believing in evolution. In the past, principles of natural selection and change over time made sense to kids who’d watched it all unfold. Whether or not they knew the terms, farm families understood the processes well enough to imitate them: culling, selecting, and improving their herds and crops. For modern kids who intuitively believe in the spontaneous generation of fruits and vegetables in the produce section, trying to get their minds around the slow speciation of the plant kingdom may be a stretch.

What Kingsolver’s husband, Steven Hopp, a biology professor, calls “agricultural agnostics” (he and their daughter Camille are co-authors of the book, by the way). Which of course handily echoes what I had read not too long before in The Canon (one of the bits I posted earlier today):

Farmers, too, were natural scientists. They understood the nuances of seasons, climate, plant growth, the do-si-do between parasite and host [and this is much more true of present-day farmers who farm in more traditional, less conventional methods without synthetic chemicals that kill the parasite and injure the host]. The scientific curiosity that entitled our nation’s Founding Fathers to membership in Club Renaissance, Anyone? had agrarian roots. …”The average adult American today knows less about biology than the average ten-year-old living in the Amazon, or than the average American of two hundred years ago,” said Andrew Knoll, a professor of natural history at Harvard’s Earth and Planetary Sciences Department.

There’s a reason this place is called Farm School and there’s a reason we’re not budging.

Of course, The Canon goes off in one direction, toward science education, and Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, toward another. Here’s a hint:

When we walked as a nation away from the land, our knowledge of food production fell away from us like dirt in a laundry-soap commercial. Now, it’s fair to say, the majority of us don’t want to be farmers, see farmers, pay farmers, or hear their complaints. Except as straw-chewing figures in children’s books, we don’t quite believe in them anymore. When we give it a thought, we mostly consider the food industry to be a thing rather than a person. We obligingly give 85 cents of our every food dollar to that thing, too — the processors, marketers, and transporters. And we complain about the high price of organic meats and vegetables that might send back more than three nickels per buck back to the farmers: those actual humans putting seeds in the ground, harvesting, attending livestock births, standing in the fields at dawn casting their shadows upon our sustenance. There seems to be some reason we don’t want to compensate or think about these hardworking people. In the grocery store checkout corral, we’re more likely to learn which TV stars are secretly fornicating than to inquire as to the whereabouts of the people who grew the cucumbers and melons in our carts.

Much as Michael Pollan did last year with his Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals, Kingsolver urges us to rememember that we are what we eat and reconsider what we put in our mouths. Kingsolver does it by eating locally and tending her own patch of earth as lyrically as she writes.

Which reminds me of this article, on farmers who write, from last week’s New York Times (I think it’s a pesky Times Select story, so if Bug Me Not doesn’t work, email me and we’ll sort things out). To even things out, here are some free recipes from the Animal, Vegetable, Miracle website.

Now off to the farmers’ market with you!

* Also in the package — thanks, Pop — and on the go at the moment:

The Fight for English: How language pundits ate, shot, and left by David Crystal, inspired, as you can no doubt tell, by Lynne Truss’s Eats, Shoots & Leaves

The Unfinished Canadian: The People We Are by Andrew Cohen