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Turning for home - Bridget McKenzie

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I am writing this on the eve of the winter solstice, the astronomical turning of the year. It has been a year for turnings, on a world scale; turnings which I have found reflected in my closest circle, my home.

I have been led by personal circumstances to a deeper reflection on the nature of home, sharpened by this being a year when so many people lost theirs. On a global scale, the loss has been extraordinary, whether it is caused by austerity measures and debt, or by extreme storms, earthquake and tsunami, floods, nuclear leaks and industrial spills, destruction of indigenous habitats, land-grabbing, war or famine. All of these stories of events or attitudes leading to homelessness are shocking. One figure that made my jaw drop in disbelief was the estimate that 320,000-400,000 American teenagers face homelessness every year on account of being gay.[1] As a parent, that hurt. If so many parents, in the country we depend on most to lead us towards global peace, could show so little love to their own dear children, what hope is there? Sometimes, I have felt like despair.

Although I have been a parent for 11 years, I have never felt so fully a parent as this past year. It felt like a year of transition to the second half of a life, because I have had to grow up and deal with some difficult situations. One of these is too difficult to write about, but relates to that common experience, the shift of becoming parents to our parents. The other, my daughter’s refusal of school and our propulsion into the role of home educators, has been both a difficulty and a blessing. It has meant a more full-on kind of parenting, and with it a fuller awareness that learning is much more about home than is generally assumed.

It has meant a turning in my relationship to schools, with which my life has been tied up. Like most of us, there were two decades of being schooled. Then I spent a further two decades working with schools, in cultural learning programmes, a career which included periods as Head of Learning at the British Library and education officer at Tate in London. Yet even after all this experience, home schooling has opened my eyes.

I had always seen a division between home as a place of comfort (if you’re lucky) and school as a necessary ‘outing’, a place that prepares you to go out into the world. I still see some truth and desirability in the way school stages this outing. However, I have also come to think that learning defined as ‘learning to work out there in the world’ is a framing that is both unhelpful and untrue.

For a start, the dichotomy of home and work embedded in our culture is incredibly damaging, and does this damage not least because it seems so innocuous. The idea of separation between home and work is responsible for increasing isolation in communities and for the loss of status and confidence of many people with home-based lives. The belief that we must travel to work has led to the escalation of transport, with cars and planes the biggest feeders of carbon emissions and its infrastructure eating up our land and our peace.

The home-work dichotomy might be acceptable, if work were not what it has become. When most of us push off from home into the world of work, we enter an industrial system that is antithetical to the living world. We enter places that are abstracted from our planet home, represented in the dislocated nature of workplaces and effected in the systematic commodification of the planet’s resources.

The terms ‘home’ and ‘work’ are too bland to match the damage done. Ivan Illich uses a better opposition: the vernacular and the industrial.[2] Vernacular production is homespun, sufficient and habituated. This model admits the home as a place of production (as well as reproduction), as a place around and through which communities thrive without centring on ‘wage labor’. Home is not just the place that shelters us, but the farm, workshop or village and the circles of people with whom we trade. When he was writing about this in the 1970s, Illich imagined that two-thirds of the world’s population might be spared dependency on industrialisation; we are well past that dream now.

Conventional schools and education systems fail to critique industrialisation or to imagine alternative ways for people to thrive. Schooling becomes a process of hardening your heart, so that you can hurt the living world by becoming a fully fledged producer and consumer, and so that you can cope with being untied from home. When schools also ‘deliver’ curricula of empathy, social justice and earth sciences, the effect is to generate cognitive dissonance in thoughtful young people.

Thoreau wrote: ‘Age is no better, hardly so well, qualified for an instructor as youth, for it has not profited as much as it has lost.’ I’ve become more keenly aware that good learning is a process of intergenerational exchange. Often forgotten is the value of exchange from younger people to adults. Adults nurture by expressing willingness to grow through the insights offered by children and young people. Younger children open us up to grow because they believe they have all the time in the world to play, to take notice and be mindful in the moment. Conversely, teens and young adults touch us with their urgency, because in coming into world awareness they notice how short the time is before their youth comes to an end. Also, some are very aware that the stability of our world is coming to an end, and some question why school is not preparing them for this future.

When my daughter refused her secondary school, she explained it with a picture of herself refusing to enter a narrowing tunnel of time. Outside the tunnel, in the future, were skyscrapers and riot police. (This was a few weeks after the August riots in London. We had watched the plumes of smoke and helicopters from our kitchen window.) She said that the world is going to get more ‘modern and violent’, that the tunnel of school would not protect her but crush her identity and stop her from doing anything to make the world better. She taught me something, as I knew then that if the world is going to get worse, I want to enjoy more time with her while it is still good. Rather than trusting that school will prepare her to cope with being untied from home, I want her to feel bonded and to appreciate home in its fullest sense.

I remain professionally interested in schools and have a firm belief in the positive role they can play within their communities. I am excited by the best kinds of schools that aim to be centres of sustainable localities and by teachers who aim to nurture free-thinking individuals. If one such school was available to us now, we might not be home schooling.

That said, I have an emerging conviction that we learn best in and thrive most from home. Moreover, I believe that the main goal of education should not be to produce successful individuals, but to make your home (including your wider community and planet) a place in which you can thrive. These two related beliefs are very abnormal. The normal judgement is that we must put children in schools because, by a great majority, their homes are not fit for the kind of thriving or learning that will make our nation competitive. So we build schools because we are also building workplaces that are not-home. If reality is actually constituted by intimate exchanges between humans and other species, within ecosystems, then workplaces bear no resemblance, and make no contribution, to that reality. The Academies and Building Schools for the Future programmes have produced hundreds of new or revamped school buildings that are sponsored by corporations and resemble their sponsors’ disconnected workplaces.

In turn, the alienation resulting from the normalisation of the industrial workplace has led to a situation whereby many of our homes are not optimal for thriving. Parents work outside of the home, for too many hours. Growing inequality means that the homes of the long term unemployed or the most deprived can sometimes tip into places of abuse for children. Families become too isolated from one another, so that the possibilities of co-parenting are now almost unheard of in the mainstream.

I have discovered that home schooling is a good deal more possible, even for working parents, than most imagine: especially if you can set up cooperative co-parenting networks or very small schools. Still, home-based education will remain a minority choice, and schools will continue to be built in their thousands across the world.

So, if these schools must keep coming, let them ‘come home’. To do that, let them give more attention to nurturing more intergenerational and differentiated learning, beyond the fixed age cohorts which make assessment so efficient. Let them enable far more imagining of possible futures, including both the vernacular and the industrial, rather than presenting labour for consumption as the whole of reality. Let them structure spaces, groups and tasks to breed intimacy and exchange, rather than banning displays of affection and imposing harsh discipline. Let them guide and trust young people to manage their own learning, and to learn more flexibly from home or in places of community creativity. More like this, school could become a resource for making your home and wider locality a place for thriving.

Throughout 2011, I woke up to a variation on the same question every morning: ‘What about our children? How will they live with this?’ The recurring nightmare of this question comes from the harsher biting of the impacts of climate change. Rising food prices and hunger linked to climate are a major but unacknowledged cause of global discontent today. This is so little acknowledged that Barack Obama made only one public reference to climate change in the past year. The unexpected speed of these impacts has led many scientists to believe that 2C should no longer be considered a safe limit for rising temperatures. And while 2011 has seen the first full agreement on the Kyoto Protocol in 20 years, this supposed good news is actually bad news because it delayed climate action to 2020. No actions can now prevent a 2C increase, so the climate realist’s question has become: How can we act urgently to prevent rapid feedback effects, a temperature rise of 4-7C and the annihilation of most vertebrate species? Yet very few people with any influence are asking this question, so it feels unlikely at this moment that there will be enough urgent action.

This is the context in which we educate. I am not suggesting that we need to turn our attention inwards to our families and our parochial lives in order to solve the big global problems. I am saying that we need to open up our definition of home and value the vernacular. Actions on a local, domestic scale to transition towards sustainable living might have been relatively impactful on a global scale, if they had been mainstreamed thirty years ago. It is too late for this alone to give us hope, yet hope we must.

In 2012, I have to preserve my sanity by trying not to ruminate on the question ‘What about our children?’ Instead, these are the questions I will pursue: what are the consequences of homelessness? What can we take from long cultural histories of homeliness, horticulture and parenting? How can we best scale up what works? How can we rethink all our institutions of state and industry as homes, or safe places for intergenerational and interdisciplinary exchange, with the goal of a thriving home world?

  1. Center for American Progress, ‘Gay and Transgender Youth Homelessness by the Numbers’, 21 June 2010 - http://www.americanprogress.org/issues/2010/06/homelessness_numbers.html
  2. Ivan Illich, ‘Vernacular Values’, Co-Evolution Quarterly XXIV (Summer 1980), 22-49.