Me: What projects are you currently active in?
I set up discussion groups to help people examine their lives and make personal changes that will benefit themselves and the environment. One course is called Voluntary Simplicity. I am also writing a novel. It's about a busker who believes he is stopping his parent's from an eco-terrorist activity. Actually, it's a comedy since they were not planting a bomb but rather planting a geocaching "treasure" to educate the CEO of a coal-fired power plant. Aside from writing being a lot of fun, it's a great opportunity for me to be a little didactic about the horrors of coal-fired power plants. Decades ago I went to college on a creative writing scholarship and I have never written anything since then, but I finally have something to say. I am distraught about what humans are doing to the planet—we are fouling our nest in horrible ways.
What’s your general philosophy on education?
People are learning machines. Not only are they learning all the time, they can't stop learning. They take in knowledge constantly from observation and experience. Then, if they use it, it becomes a part of them and it belongs to them. Its purpose makes sense to them. No one really teaches a baby to walk or talk. She just tries different things and then some things work and she keeps on doing that and continually adds more stuff. Pretty soon she's making sentences. Then she's using the past tense correctly, running, skipping and jumping, maybe even skateboarding all completely on her own. But why can she do that? It's because 1. She's relaxed. There's no test, no penalty, no threat if it isn't learned. 2. It's her idea. 3. She observes others doing it. 4. And she's motivated intrinsically by the value of the knowledge to increase her freedom and bring her additional enjoyable experiences. What should the teacher's role be? Resource. Advice giver when requested. Maybe motivator. We should be just like the parent who helps by holding bikes or gets training wheels, but basically lets the kid to figure out on his own. Learning to direct, propel, and balance a moving wheeled object beneath him is a complex task and means he can learn anything! The teacher should get out of the way.
We are all relative geniuses compared to what the society and schools expects from us and what they force us to do. I feel impatience when I see rooms full of exhausted, bored kids having to do tasks that are meaningless to them, taught without emotional content or real reasons for useful knowledge. Most of what kids learn that is truly valuable to them could be taught in two hours a day. Kids learn not to care because it seems as though the adults don't really care that they are running roughshod over the feelings of kids by making them sit still and do ridiculous tasks. That's the horrible hidden curriculum lesson schools teach.
How do schools fail kids by taking up valuable time?
Well, we undo kids' confidence first of all. The little kid knows he gets confidence from trying difficult stuff, but we take that away and supply him with meaningless, too easy tasks. Let me give you an example. I think that substantial vocabulary cannot be acquired in a meaningful manner by using word lists. It's a relatively worthless way to acquire vocabulary compared to the thousands of words you acquire ALL ON YOUR OWN WITHOUT HELP. You would do much better to read something a bit out of your league or hang out with someone intelligent and talk about subjects that interest you both. Your vocabulary will reflect your natural exposure. The surest way to get smart is to hang out with smart people. Over and over in studying how people learn we discover that they are influenced mostly by whom they choose to associate with. You are hanging out with someone in the deepest sense when you read because you are sharing his or her thoughts.
At the highest level of educators, say Rousseau and Dewey etc.--- the real thinkers and philosophers of education---those folk always pushed for using the student's own interest. They wanted teachers just acting as a resource guide or mentor. They were big on teachers providing field trips and being supportive of students doing activities on their own. But does anybody act on that? No, educators just pay lip service to those ideas.
When and why did you decide you were going to become a teacher?
There was one incident, specifically. I was volunteering at a school in Seattle in 1986 where kids were put because they committed crimes. I was assigned to help a kid who had been given a boring book. In the book, there were pages with pictures of objects and then words underneath. For instance there was a page with a picture of a wagon with the word “wagon” under it, etc. Well, the student was probably in about 8th grade but he was given reading material that was at a 2nd grade level, if that. He couldn’t stand how boring the material was and spent his time staring out the window, examining the cars below. So, I went ahead and got different books to read with him. One of them was a story about a car thief. He could relate because car theft was what landed him in that program. I wanted him to have success, so I waited until I got to a part in the story where the exchange was really simple: just a few words or so. I then happened to have gotten something in my eye and I shoved the book towards him. I think that I actually did get something in my eye but also I think things just happen that way, serendipity. I had to stop reading, but he was really into the story. He just started reading: not fluently, but he just went on. He started to get hooked on it. And I got hooked on teaching. Unfortunately, I did my student teaching in a very wealthy school in Bellevue, Washington. I don't think there is even one kid at West Bend half as privileged as the average kid at that school. I had come from a different kind of background, an economically disadvantaged class-conscious background. It was difficult to relate to them.
Yeah, that would be a tough situation. How does that being hindered from interacting with the kids the way you’d like to- as well as trying to create an environment where they can flourish and learn on they’re own- carry on in public schooling. Is it troublesome to have to teach them monotonous material from textbooks?
It doesn’t have to boring, though. A lot of the classic stuff has something about it that can be really interesting. For example, if you have to teach something like, Mark Twain. Mark Twain is really actually good stuff if you can teach it the way it should be taught. But instead, a lot of teachers go on to actually make it boring. I think that the curriculums are usually pretty good its just that you can't teach it the way it should be taught because a lot of the stuff is actually pretty radical and they want you to just slide it by them and sweep it under the carpet. For example, Huck Finn is actually a pretty revolutionary book. It’s about an ordinary kid being way ahead psychologically and emotionally in most situations compared to everybody else. I mean it’s about him being taught that he’ll go to hell for helping out a black person, but then going ahead with it anyway. He's courageous and the book's message is anti-religion.
Yeah, and it’s funny because that’s one of the books that’s on the banned book list that we were fighting here at the library, a couple of months ago. It seems like a lot of the books in the English class curriculum showed up on that list.
Yeah, I think that a great deal of that literature is about things that are actually very revolutionary, but we are always told to steer clear of the ideas being brought up in those books. Everybody’s trying to be objective all the time. See, my real teaching background is in writing and that’s a problem because I’m told that I shouldn’t address the student’s ideas that come up in their writing. I'm supposed to focus on their skills. I think that’s really insulting, though, because when they’re writing something, they usually want to know what you think of what they have to say.
What kinds of things (maybe subjects and skills that actually affect the lives of these kids) are left out from classes and curriculums that you think should be brought up?
Well they have personal development classes. Which you’d think would be teaching kids the same kinds of things that apply to voluntary simplicity. You know, like, teaching kids to step back from the sicker parts of the culture. I think a lot of students would be interested in learning to make better choices for sustainable living. Some would probably love to have survival skills which would give them confidence, knowing they could somehow live if things fall apart. I'd like them to teach true cutting edge technology that has us moving back to the natural. We could be growing buildings, not using resources. Permaculture could be taught. But instead teachers often reward and compliment trivial things like dress or neat penmanship, correct spelling and not substantial ideas. They will say, "I like your shoes." and then they think that's somehow relating.
Yeah, I’ve seen a lot of that. Pretty weird. It seems like mainstream schools have become just another place to advertise major brands and keep up on fads. It’s kind of hard, as a student, to take a teacher seriously when they perpetuate, imitate, and even encourage that sort of silly behavior regarding fashions over ideas. What roles do you think emotion, and its opposite, objectification play in these institutions?
Well, also important to learning is valuing emotion. Just think of your personal experience and how you probably have learned much more by reading library books that are heavy on both content and emotional content. When something is written with passion, it is remembered, Derrick Jensen's work, for instance. That's what you have been led, by the know-nothing establishment, to consider as propaganda—which is just a word for emotion or caring about a subject. Bias is supposed to be bad. Propaganda is supposed to be bad. Yet if you were in an ordinary school you would be expected to read textbooks that are a snooze because they have no---and I mean absolute zippo—emotional content. In that way, schools think they are not propagandizing. Any textbook that doesn't try to use unemotional and therefore anti-thought provoking language in order to seem to be "objective," is considered biased. We all know what "objective" really is. It's the unquestioning of the status quo, which often is later proved to be wrong. In history and government subjects "objectivity" is only the powerful telling the powerless its version of "the truth." Think for how long we thought Christopher Columbus was a hero. Think of how Capitalism is equated with democracy even though they are two very separate things.
Yet if you read a real historian or biographer, you feel their passion. They won't try to be falsely "objective," although they will try to prove they are right. That sort of thing seldom makes it into the classroom. And when it does, it's treated unemotionally. Most children say their first word about something to which they attach emotion. My daughter's was "Hot!" when she burned her hand on a light bulb. She expressed herself and learned to speak language because she felt something emotionally.
Children are deep thinkers when emotion is involved. When we buried our dog, my son was two going on three. A week later, I asked him why he was crying. He said, "I know I won't know myself anymore when I am dead." Sartre couldn't have said it better.
What effects do you think industrial schooling programs have on a young person’s creativity?
Well, um, really it starts right away. Nursery school. Kindergarten. The regimentation begins. This whole idea is pounded into their heads that they’re not special, so they’ll have to be in a classroom with 30 or so other kids and be doing the exact same thing at the exact same time. My daughter was fortunate enough to go to one of the original alternative schools. The kids there provided much of the direction. We could be learning from kids about how to perceive and experience things for example. I’m worried a lot about the fact that our aesthetics are so ruined. For example, we’re taught to think that a dandelion is hideous. A little kid could teach us that that just isn’t true. They’re spraying these chemicals all over to get rid of them. I even have people who pass through the courses of the whole Voluntary Simplicity thing and even after all of that, they’re still obsessed about their lawn. It’s pitiful. But that’s just the sort of thing we could be relearning from kids: that these things we call “weeds” actually have their own beauty and that we need to appreciate them and change ourselves, accordingly.
But instead of making the choice to listen and to love like the children do, they set up systems in order to break the will of these children who in turn forget the beauty of everything that was once so obvious to them. And this is called growing up in our culture. It’s ridiculous.
Yeah, even if they’re not doing something aggressive towards the kids directly, they will eliminate certain things and then praise certain other things. You know, everybody likes to be appreciated or receive praise, especially little kids. So the selective praising is sort of a bribe and it encourages them to join into the big normal world (whatever normal means). It’s very unnatural.
How does that tie into life outside of school?
The problem is everyone wants to keep a job. Because we have to pay for food and shelter, we're doomed. It doesn't have to be that way of course. We spent so much on the Vietnam War that we could have bought every family in the U. S. at that time what would be the equivalent of a 150,000-dollar house today. I think it cost 10,000 or 15,000 back then in 1966. It's unfortunate that teaching is a job and not a calling for so many people. Kids could learn in apprenticeships or else the schools ought to be much more capable of motivating students. Recent studies are showing that animals, even birds, have abilities to do basic arithmetic. Yet in one study Harvard students who had just received PhD’s in math took the identical test 3 months later and all of them failed it. Why is that? Could it be that to keep knowledge we must use what we learn? And if we must use knowledge in order to keep it, why not wait until we have to use it to learn it? Why have students doing tasks to learn what they won't recall a year later? Some people will tell you it's about developing thinking skills. But we are always thinking. Yes, we do build increasingly complex neural paths in our brains when we work hard on a difficult mental task. But we can do that on something we're interested in just as easily as something we really don't care about. In fact, if I have to force myself to do it my mind is probably going to keep drifting away from the task and I will begin developing bad habits alien to concentration and inhibit the growth of those neural pathways.
Sadly, the most important thing is what is valued in our lives outside of school. If you grow up in an environment where books and learning of academic matters are devalued there will be difficulties for you with education. You will have to find a way on your own to learn what you need. It will be a more difficult task for you. We as a society have to find ways to make learning joyous and truly equitable.
What I know about how people learn, I learned in classes at both the University of Washington and at Concordia University. So it is possible to learn things of value in a classroom. However, even though most teachers at least hear about the idea of freedom as relating to learning, they don't apply it. They go right on doing what has been done before even though it doesn't work very well. That, we all know, is the definition of insanity because it's crazy to keep repeating what has been done when the results are dismal.
You were talking about being influenced by something that a horse trainer friend of yours said to you. What was the phrase, again?
He said, “Watch what most people do, and do the opposite”. At first I was taken aback, to be honest. But after a while I started watching the things people were doing. I can’t say that I’ve incorporated that completely into my life but I try to remember it and to look at things and ask what are people doing with their lives? For example, being obsessed with taking care of their lawns. I have a prairie and a permaculture yard in which I grow wildflowers, nut trees, oaks and berries, the opposite of the lawn, the hostas and annuals. My neighbors used to think of my yard as full of “weeds”. I have the birds and butterflies and over the years they have seen it evolve to be more interesting. They are into quick results. I'm willing to wait 50 years for a magnificent slow growing oak. Doing the opposite takes energy, time and spirit. If the average person sends their kids to school for an average of 30 hours or so a week, maybe some people want to think about home schooling. If everybody’s buying their kid an X-box or whatever for Christmas, maybe you want to take your kid to the mountains or something, you know. Just something that will be a good experience.
Yeah, by doing something that they can hold onto and grow from. So, how do you think courses like U.S. History and Economics affect children’s ideas of the world and what it has to offer?
Well, one thing that’s very disturbing about these American schools is that the classes barely mention any other way of life or any other economics system other than capitalism and western culture. Geography and economics are very basic as taught in American schools. They leave out so much. economics should be about the real value and true cost of things, including the profit motive.
Do you think those classes have any affect on the political standpoints students will take later in life?
Well, I don’t really worry about that too much. I don’t doubt that conservative politics surround kids at home, at school and in this community, as conservative as West Bend is. But, I feel that if those kids go to college they will discover that the ones around them that have different answers to more difficult questions, and continue to question the right things, are the type of people that you and I would be able to relate to and probably agree with their position. That makes it easy to change or at least be more open. My husband, for example, who is now very radical in his thinking, was pretty conservative when he was younger. I think that the kids will often make a swing because they realize something’s wrong but they’ve just been listening to the answers of those people who are worried about taxes and things like that. See, nobody in these economic classes ever talks about how back in the 50’s, when people were making over a certain amount of money-I forget what it is, maybe 100,000 a year or so-were being taxed 90 percent. 90 percent! And you always look back to those years like wow! Those were the good years…but they never talk about that.
Yeah, and you know it never seems like they want you to ask those questions. I remember being in certain classes like that in school and asking more “out there” questions and then being completely shut down or ignored by the teacher. It was really frustrating and sort of demeaning. But then I realized why they don’t want to talk about those things and that frustration quickly turned to resentment for this system. Anyways, how do you, as a substitute teacher, teach subjects that you’re encouraged to teach in a selective way or to at least make the system look good, even if it means ignoring the truth.
Well, I really don’t worry about watching what I say anymore. When I’m in long-term sub positions I’ll just come out and say, “well your teacher and the rest of society think this, but I’m gonna tell you what I think”. That sort of covers us both. Whenever I talk about a point of view I try to challenge them and ask them, “have you ever really thought about this, though?” I try to build my case but also give them an idea of different takes and positions on the subject are. For instance, when I taught English and I had to teach Animal Farm I could tell them about Orwell and what he really thought and that he was a socialist. It’s a little more complex that it’s usually presented.
And school never really brings up how catastrophic of a situation we’re all in right now. Sure, there’s an environmental science class or two, but still the teaching is very selective and that same “go green” mentality is perpetuated with all the kids thinking that a shorter shower and new light bulbs will save the planet. They make sure to show An Inconvenient Truth, but, of course, they never talk about how things are so messy and why it shouldn’t be this way.
Yeah and it’s all put into a week or two. They think we can all just go do our little personal environmental stuff and have Earth day and that’s all going to do something big. All of that is confined. The class should devote the entire lesson on teaching the kids, oops! We’ve got this big mess here and we need to get busy. What did we do wrong and what can we do about it? How can we stop doing what we’re doing now? You know, it’s sick, the way that we confine these kinds of ideas to after school meetings of a couple people in some empty classroom. I know some of those teachers and I know that they know what’s going on. They know what kind of work I do, and really, they think it’s great. But sometimes, it seems like they feel it’s not as important because it’s not scientific or objective. I don’t understand that. But unfortunately, the setup for denial is so convenient in this country and a lot of people don’t understand what’s going on. A lot of the middle class or better off probably can’t see the crisis that we have to face. They think these problems just happen far away and they happen because the system hasn’t been fully integrated into those areas yet to start working it’s magic.
How do schools cause a disconnect from our environment?
Schools teach people not to live. First, we take youth and we tell them not to move around too much, "Sit still! Don't leave your desk." That's denying them their bodies' natural desire to be mobile. We do it because we are trying to control them and there are too many people in a classroom. Then we tell them to be quiet and listen. But do we actually listen to them? So we teach them, your thoughts don't matter. Don't speak out. Then when we teach them to write, we don't address their ideas but rather the mode of expression, how they organized it, how they handled mechanics, etc. as if their ideas were of no significance. Then when we have this run down, belittled, non-active person, schools feed them salt, sugar, simple carbohydrates and reconstituted meat full of preservatives that sap all their health. Finally, we make them get up at an ungodly hour even though we know that teenagers cannot concentrate early in the morning. And after all this torture we send them home with meaningless busy work to make sure they don't enjoy themselves.
We sell off any natural areas and pave over other land surrounding the school, leaving only grass playing fields so that the outdoors seems like an empty place where there is nothing to do except play with a ball. And we take these students once a year to a nature center or on a biology field trip and in that way convince them that nature is something to value as a mere once a year activity. That way, they will know that they can go outdoors on their annual vacation when they are working in industry, or for a bank or insurance company. We do show them movies about nature. It's okay to see nature in school as long as it remains two-dimensional and you can't breathe it, eat it, touch it or hear it sing.
What if whenever the society needed someone to study something that no one wanted to learn about, they got paid to do it? What if almost all learning could only be a joyous experience like the first time you rode your bike?
Yeah. Personally, I feel that---if not always, at least now at this point of catastrophe---all of the classes that are taught in schools should be intertwined and based on what will improve the state of the planet and what will make us, as human beings, happy. Anyway, my last question is (and this is kind of a vague one so feel free to answer it as you wish): what kind of world do you want to see and how do you think we can work with education in order to make that world a reality?
Well, I’d like to see a world of community. Community must include creatures and plants and sky and water and soil. I feel that you can begin with family and then move on to your neighbors and start forming networks. I liked what Wendell Berry said which was, “ Go meet the neighbors you can’t stand." It's time to do that hardest thing: Be neighborly, even to jerks. Honestly, I have a hard time with this idea but I know it's right. It's easy to relate to people you like. But my neighbors, the majority of them seem to be obsessed with their SUV’s and snowmobiles and keeping their lawns nice. Some of them are really involved in the churches but don't seem especially kind or happy. Despite that, I think that it’s important to try. Otherwise I'll never be able to say to them, "Hey, have you read Endgame? Do you know what's happening? What is our neighborhood going to do?"
As far as education? Well, there’s a great book called “Summer Hill” by A.S. Neil. He began a completely independent school where the kids were free to come and go and he only asserted himself when the kids had questions. He just stood back and allowed them to learn. I think that it’s a great idea and, again, that we could all learn so much from the kids. If we listen, they will tell us what we could to in order to help each become the best person possible. They already know freedom. But when you have kids all seated in rows, learning to not use their spirit and their energy, they’ll grow up to be the same as everybody else. They’ll grow up to be unhappy and confused and they’ll think that they’re really supposed to not use that spirit and that energy; they’ll think that and internalize that so that it dictates the rest of their lives.