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Blog Archives - September, 2011

Protecting Our Kids From Toxic Chemicals and Toxic Schools September 24, 2011
The Precautionary Principle is a term used by those who work in the field of environmental health. And I think it should be applied to other aspects of life – especially as they pertain to children – such as education.

The Precautionary Principle (which I describe in detail in my book Natural Life Magazine's Green and Healthy Homes) seeks to avoid harm by encouraging caution in situations where there is a strong possibility of harm but incomplete proof. The proponent of an activity or product is responsible for establishing that it will not result in significant harm. In other words, when a product or an activity raises threats of harm, precautionary measures should be taken even if not all the cause and effect relationships are established scientifically – that is, it shouldn’t be made available. The Precautionary Principle is used in many ways. For instance, tornado and hurricane warnings are issued on the presumption that, although full scientific certainty of their paths is not possible, there is sufficient concern to caution people so they can get out of the way of potential harm.

To me, a precautionary approach is just common sense when we’re talking about the well-being of children. However, there are many dangerous products on the market containing materials that can be toxic to children. Many of the chemicals in consumer products have not been thoroughly tested, nor have their multiple and cumulative effects been studied on children, whose smaller size and still-developing bodies might make them more vulnerable to negative effects.

So why do these products become available? Because corporations are in the driver’s seat. A great deal of scientific research – perhaps the majority – is funded by the companies that manufacture or use these chemicals. And there is a long history of obfuscation and covering up the facts, and manufacturing doubt about the dangers of chemicals. Joel Bakan, in his new book Childhood Under Siege – How Big Business Targets Children (Penguin, 2011), puts it this way: “The bias of the current regulatory system – lobbied for by industry and cultivated through its influence – is to wait for full knowledge before imposing bans or restrictions on chemicals.”

But corporate greed is not limited to the consumer products industry. Corporations are increasingly having a negative influence in the education industry, in the same way that corporations have sickened and killed children by denying the dangers of lead poisoning for decades. The testing industry alone was worth three billion dollars in the U.S. in 2008. In his previous book The Corporation (which is now a film), Balkan quoted Benno Schmidt, Jr., a former president of Yale, as saying the potential for growth in the education industry is “almost unimaginably vast”…“bigger than defense, bigger than the whole domestic auto industry.”

Whether the schools are publicly funded or run directly by the for-profit sector, companies make money from standardized curriculum and texts, and from the efficiencies created by rote learning, rigid discipline, centralized control, and longer school days. And none of that helps kids to learn or to think. In fact, as I wrote in Challenging Assumptions in Education, there is evidence that they are all harmful in one way or another.

Fortunately, an increasing number of parents are using the Precautionary Principle to protect their children from the dangers of the education industry, in the same way they try to protect them from toxic chemicals through careful purchasing of toys, personal care products, and organic food. I am often asked why I chose to help our daughters avoid school rather than trying to change the system from within. I always reply that I had enough evidence of potential harm not to risk their well-being while I was advocating for change. That’s called the Precautionary Principle.
Posted:
2011/09/24 8:46 PM

 

Keep Progressing – September 21, 2011
The word “progress” has come up six times in personal conversation and email communication over the past 24 hours. When that happens, I pay attention. One person asked me if I’d heard of the exciting new educational movement called “unschooling.” It’s progress, he said, a big leap forward from homeschooling. Um, yes, I replied, the term has been around for over thirty years, and the practice longer than that. The notion of progress, I thought, is clearly relative. After all, for more than a few years now, I’ve been encouraging people to move beyond “unschooling” and to live as if school didn’t exist.

I guess progress is also in the eye of the beholder. Later in the day, I heard from a woman who said she didn’t like the first issue of Natural Life Magazine that she had received, but she did like the second one a lot. “Keep progressing!” she encouraged, as if progress meant going in the direction she likes.

The truth is, progress is a matter of perspective, as I am reminded every time I hear the business news. According to the pundits, our economy is not progressing as it should – i.e. not growing quickly enough. But the concept of progress in that context could do with an overhaul. There’s a saying (sometimes attributed to Einstein) that insanity is repeating the same behavior and expecting a different result. So maybe it’s time for a new definition of progress and a new method of measuring it – one that factors in environmental pollution, disease, war, and hunger as negatives, and values, for instance, unpaid care-giving work in the home and other volunteer work that happens in our communities.

It might seem like that’s progress by going backwards, or at least back to basics. Many people are being forced to do that these days, to live frugally and do things for ourselves that we used to pay for. We are growing and preserving food, entertaining ourselves, creating our own jobs where none exist in the broader economy, moving downtown from the suburbs to shorten the gas-guzzling commute, etc. Fortunately, progressive ways of thinking like unschooling and living as if school doesn’t exist are preparing us, and especially our kids, for such a future. And it is a future that I, for one, would not call regressive.

So, like the Natural Life reader said, let’s keep progressing…but let’s also redefine the word. E.F. Schumacher, author of the book Small is Beautiful, warned it won’t be easy: “Any intelligent fool can make things bigger, more complex and more violent. It takes a touch of genius – and a lot of courage – to move in the opposite direction.”
Posted:
2011/09/21 5:12 PM

 

Living (and Learning) at the Edges – September 17, 2011
All my life, I’ve operated along the borders of things, at the edges. When I was a child, it was called the sidelines by those – like my mother – who wanted me to be more participatory and less thoughtful, when quiet meant getting into trouble. I remember as a young child being scooted back to bed when I was discovered perched just out of sight in the darkened kitchen listening to the adult conversation. I remember as a young teen sitting along the wall at dances because that was where I met the most interesting people…those who were happier to chat than to stumble over each other’s feet (or grope) in the middle of the floor. Sometimes, I was called “snooty” and thought to be standoffish. So I went through a phase of trying to be in the middle of the action, forcing myself to do things designed make me popular. But at some point, I realized that I was more comfortable (and still had friends) at the edges. My view of edge sitting continued to evolve when I met and married a man who also inhabits the edges, who, in fact, is often at the leading edge, and doesn’t care if it’s lonely or even premature.

Over the years, I’ve learned that the edges are a good place from which to observe, and observation is one of the things that writers do a lot of. But I’ve also learned that borders are lively places, where some of the most interesting stuff happens because change is part of their definition. In the course of editing Natural Life Magazine, I discovered Permaculture, where edge habitats – borders or transition areas between ecosystems, such as forests and grasslands, for instance – are recognized as the places where there is the most diversity. Edge species are often more flexible, resilient pioneer species, and sometimes even so hardy as to be invasive. This 1994 article from Natural Life Magazine describes it well, I think. The author even suggests that humans are an edge species.

I do know that unschoolers / life learners are an edge species. We mark the transition between school thinking and living as if school doesn’t exist. That puts us at the lively, leading edge, crossing the border between old ways of thinking and new ways of dealing with a changing world. It’s not for the faint of heart, but it’s exciting. Edgy, you might say.
Posted:
2011/09/16 3:21 PM

 

Homeschooling Research: Fish Climbing Trees – September 13, 2011
There’s an Albert Einstein quote: “Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will spend its whole life believing that it is stupid.” I thought of it as I read a tiny new Canadian study (overview is here) comparing schooled kids to homeschooled and unschooled kids.

Thirty-seven homeschooled kids and an equal number of schooled kids between ages five and ten were volunteered by their parents to undergo standardized testing. The kids taught at home performed better on standardized tests than kids taught at school. That’s not news, although the researchers did correct some flaws in past research methodologies. They also recognized that there are different philosophies among the homeschool population – but only two: structured and unstructured, rather than the continuum along which most families move.

The twelve unstructured homeschoolers did poorly on those standardized tests. Of course! Those fish in a tree-climbing competition were bound to lose the race. The question for me is: Why were they involved in the first place? The whole premise of “unschooling” is that learning happens as a result of the learner’s interest, rather than somebody else’s agenda or timeline, and doesn’t rely on testing or accountability to anyone but the learner. The researchers do give a nod to that, wondering if “the children receiving unstructured homeschooling” might eventually “catch up or surpass their peers given ample time.” But they don’t say if they want to study that. (Nor do they say if the unschooled kids were coached in testing writing techniques, which is important, since testing tests test-taking skill as much as anything.)

Such studies happen because academics believe that academic achievement – that is, the best performance on standardized tests – is desirable. These particular researchers define the goal of both schooling and homeschooling as “accelerating a child’s learning process.” Although they make much of the fact that “very few independent (i.e. nonpartisan) studies have focused on the academic achievements associated with home education” and that their study “was conducted by an independent research body that has no ties to homeschooling organisations,” they don’t understand that they are not “nonpartisan.” They work at academic institutions that are obviously biased toward, well, academic institutions. Like school.

I will be happy when someone designs a study using unschooled kids as the norm and figures out how to measure schooled kids against that. I’m not holding my breath; there’s too much money at risk in the school industry to have someone prove schools don’t need to exist.
Posted:
2011/09/13 3:45 PM

 

Food and FellowshipFood and Fellowship: Feeding Our Bodies and Souls – September 12, 2011
As the pace of life increases and the need for efficiency rules, it seems that the culture of eating is one of the first things to erode. But fast food restaurants nurture neither the soul or the body. Easy-to-prepare packaged food numbs the palette. Solo eating on-the-run dulls the art of conversation. And heaven forbid anyone takes the time to offer hospitality to their increasingly distant friends and family! However, for many people, discontent with speed and its dangers have spawned the Slow Food movement. At the same time, the increasing cost of food and our troubled economy are causing many people to look for ways to economize. The result is a re-energizing of food buying clubs and batch cooking clubs, which nurture the culture of eating by sharing the tasks of shopping and cooking with others in our communities.

Collective food buying and preparation can address all kinds of social, economic, and nutritional barriers. I got interested in food buying clubs in the mid-1970s, when our family co-founded a small local food co-op. But it wasn’t until 2003 when the idea of organized group cooking hit my radar. As I researched an article that appeared in Natural Life Magazine’s May/June 2003 issue, I learned about the history and diversity of what are often called “community kitchens.” I learned that English monks in the sixteenth century would cook together as part of their daily ritual; for Sikhs throughout the world, cooking together in large communal kitchens is part of temple life; and that North American aboriginals have always created and shared meals in their ceremonial gatherings. And I remembered my mother making and canning fruit pudding with her church group as a fundraiser when I was a child in the 1950s. The modern community communal cooking phenomenon seems to have started a few decades ago as a grassroots movement in Latin America, with activists organizing thousands of community kitchens to help low-income people prepare healthy food inexpensively.

Some community kitchens have a social service bent – renting public or semi-publish space to prepare donated food for street people, train unemployed people to become cooks, help the elderly or disabled to eat economically and well. Some act as business incubators, offering specialty food processors, farmers, and caterers a relatively inexpensive place to license food processing activities. Some are formal non-profit organizations, some are affiliated with service organizations or municipalities. There are vegetarian kitchens, kitchens for new moms, and kitchens that cater primarily to psychiatric consumer/survivors. Still other groups are just informal gatherings of friends who come together regularly in each other’s homes or a local community facility to cook and learn new skills from each other. Other groups meet weekly to prepare a week’s worth of food to take home to their families, or once a month to cook in batches and share among themselves in order to stock their freezers and lighten the daily load for busy parents. And some groups work together only in the fall to preserve produce or before Christmas to bake cookies.

What they all have in common is the desire to save money and time, eat healthy food, have fun, and build community. Those goals are shared by the author of a new book that my company is proud to have just published. Food and Fellowship – Projects and Recipes to Feed a Community by Andrea Belcham is the second book in Natural Life Magazine’s Green Living Series. More information is here. And an excerpt is here.

There’s something about buying, preparing, and sharing nourishing food that encourages us to communicate with each other, while slowing down and enjoying both the food and the company...and sometimes even launching social movements.
Posted:
2011/09/12 2:58 PM

 

Secondhand Ambition – September 6, 2011
This morning on the radio, I heard that “Kids aren’t born with ambition.” It was one of those annoying “parenting minute” advertorials – a paid subscription advertisement from a mainstream parenting magazine masquerading as sage advice. Parents were instructed to assign ten tasks to their children during this school year. Then they are to observe which of them interests the kid and then pressure the kid into ambitiously cultivating those interests. Unfortunately, that manipulative pressure has a good chance of destroying a kid’s basic interest in a topic, let alone any enthusiasm and energy (i.e. ambition) she might have had about pursuing it.

Of course kids are born with ambition! They are driven, right from birth, to accomplish things – to get from one side of the room to the other in an efficient way, to find the words that will make people understand their needs, to feed themselves and tie their own shoelaces, to climb ever higher on the playground equipment. Ambition is the strong desire to work hard to pursue something you want or need.

But what the parenting expert I heard on the radio was talking about involves second-hand “ambition.” She was referring to the need schools and most parents have to get kids to do their homework, to turn in neatly written essays using pre-packaged templates, to pay attention in class, to study subjects in which they have no interest, to do well on tests, to focus on some kind of pre-determined-by-adults goal of material “success.” A kid who balks at doing those things is said to be lacking ambition.

But what’s happening there is that the adults’ lack of respect for human nature in general and for their kids in particular is resulting in a turn-off of ambition. Kids are told they’re not ambitious enough because they don’t share the goals that adults have set for them. They lose their self-esteem because boredom and disinterest in inauthentic situations results in their being told they’ll never make anything of themselves. They become passive followers because they’re never allowed to make decisions for themselves. Paradoxically, adults who fail to respect and trust children’s own needs and interests destroy their motivation.

This is actually not surprising because most adults have never seen a kid who has been respected – either because they have overly ambitious and untrusting parents or because their parents struggle to respect themselves let alone nurture and respect their children. Perhaps someday there will be enough life learners around to demonstrate to these adults what happens when children are allowed to remain motivated by their own interests, passions, and goals.
Posted:
2011/09/06 4:39 PM

 

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