I did not take a traditional approach raising or educating my children. I did this purposefully, because having studied behavioral neuroscience, I was familiar with the biological relationship between stress and learning. Cortisol inhibits memory formation, except in the context of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which I believe may be facilitated by estrogen. This conclusion is based on research I did on ovariectomized female c57/b6 mice and measuring different types of contextual learning with the Morris Water Maze and the Skinner Shuttle Box. Many years after my own graduate research on this, I realize that what Skinner’s “intelligence measure” was really trying to quantify was the effect to which learning through post-traumatic-stress related mechanisms has taken place. As someone with PTSD who has fiddled around a lot with various nutritional and environmental interventions, I'm pretty sure that I am right.
Our current educational paradigm began in the early 1900s and was Prussian in origin. It was and still is highly authoritarian, meaning that it relies on a system of shame and praise to achieve a desired societal outcome without concern for the needs of the weakest members of society. It actually was begun with funding from prominent U.S. eugenicists. They were interested in things like controlling the Native populations in the United States. Education could also be used to assert Christian ideals. There is a lot of dark psychology involved in educational paradigms (thank you, behaviorists - I was a behaviorist!), and those are the mechanisms the state uses to remain authoritative. These are not necessary. Humans are naturally curious and learn without being taught. Furthermore, children are naturally peaceful when they are in a chemical-free and stimulating environment and are well fed with secure attachments to their caregivers. Modern education remains meritocratic because it falsely equivocates potential for learning and grades that are achieved on an arbitrary timeline set by the performance of the average student. This undermines personal curiosity. This timeline is only effective for the middle part of the Gaussian distribution (bell curve) of learners for each age group. This means our educational system is targeted at the average person, and for those below average in any way, it is at the very least ableist, and probably also classist and racist, and that many of us still suffer traumatic psychological effects from this programming. This is one of the greatest threats to our freedom - the enslavement of our psyches to meritocracy. The Native Americans were free until we came here and brought this to them.
Many of the powerful men who have served as leaders in American democracy became figureheads through implementing the rigid authoritarian thinking they had to endure in their own schooling on the people around them, which had the effect of commanding respect for their perceived authority. The current educational paradigm the American populace uses is the result of an approach the wealthy industrialists of the early 1900’s, inspired by the Prussians, implemented to try to make us more civilized. We had to start somewhere, sure, but the model, as intelligence and resources have increased for most people, became outdated a long time ago, and continues to be a way to supply corporations with labor rather than give us the tools to live our best and healthiest lives as a society. This has been disastrous for the mental and emotional health of our nation.
I ended up homeschooling my kids at a time in human history when the fewest number of mothers had chosen to stay home, so even with support groups, it was somewhat of a lonely process. The homeschoolers were a diffuse network, geographically isolated from each other. We would see each other just long enough to share what we had been doing and enduring, because we all had households to maintain. Stay at home mothers up until the 1970’s had support networks of other mothers within the neighborhood, but the next closest homeschooling family from us was several miles away. This means that my children only had each other to play with most days, and that seeing friends or other homeschoolers meant needing a driver’s license. Now, even though most of the country has been forced into a homeschooling situation, so there are necessarily other kids nearby in most neighborhoods, getting together can be impeded by coronavirus. And I thought isolation was a battle before! Isolation might sound terrible, but it does have its good parts, including being able to learn about whatever whenever one wants, without being interrupted. This approach has worked out okay for us so far, but I wish my kids had more freedom and that their friends weren't so far away. This is certainly an advantage of going to a university if one doesn't take too heavy a courseload (Ahem! I'm looking at you, Engineering Schools, and also myself).
We have other friends who took less structured approaches to their homeschooling, and friends who took more structured approaches. In my observations, it seemed like the kids whose parents took a more structured approach exhibited more signs of psychological stress in the form of behavioral and health issues. Mothers using a more structured approach in general were way more high strung, and it was difficult to get them to talk about anything besides their worries. This wasn't the case 100% of the time, but I did hear a theme of chronic fatigue and illness in the other mothers, regardless of their approaches, which maybe just meant that we were overwhelmed. Teaching isn't an easy job. I was very thankful I only had two kids. In many ways I feel like I fell short on my duties as a mother because I wasn't good at monitoring my own energy levels due to being so disconnected from them from so much trauma. I dissociate a lot when my pain is not controlled well or my sensory issues are flaring up, and this happens the more time pressure I feel. Most of the pressure is inflicted by societal expectation, and not anything truly emergent in nature.
Implementing a curriculum without it being inherently discriminatory is difficult and can be antithetical to demonstrating the compromise we need our children to learn. Learning takes place in so many different ways, but a curriculum focuses on just a few sensory modalities, and removes the context of life learning, which doesn’t happen on a schedule. It almost happens by magic, because the context and relevance to one's existence makes the knowledge meaningful. Unfortunately, the social dogma inherent to the educational system because of the removal of secure attachment figures means that relevance becomes centered around trauma, and so we have a cultural narrative in this country that is based on the expression of trauma. This is what happens when individual needs are ignored.
Structured curricula fail to consider that the learner is a soul and not a robot. I got a lot of “I couldn’t do that” from other parents, homeschooling or not, for letting my children be free to do what they wanted with their time. Yes, it can be hard dealing with souls if we are used to operating like a robot ourselves, and society certainly conditions this in us. There were times when it wasn’t easy, mostly due to the ignorance of outside forces which at predictable intervals interrupted all of our attention and flow. These forces, usually people still in “the system,” failed to consider us as individuals with rhythms of our own.
Trusting that learning was happening was easy when we were not required to be muses or “prove” ourselves to controlling and/or materialistic relatives and “friends” who were still in the system. School holidays felt like a brick wall for learning because of the pressure to engage in shallow socialization with the people we know who were usually stuck in the school silo and had been conditioned to speak in a language of material one-up-manship that helps one conform on the playground and the dangerous walk home. It was amazing how entire threads of learning could be abandoned at these times, never to be picked up again. We would often leave these interactions feeling drained and defeated, without hope for the world, because we had taken on the bleak viewpoint of people who had sacrificed their mental fortitude and freedom to the meritocratic economic state.
The school paradigm insists that there is learning time in school and non-learning time in the rest of life, whereas even before the educational system was invented, humans were learning all the time. I think the people we know whose kids were in school never really understood what kind of magic was being interrupted. They were always amazed at how bright and thoughtful our kids were, and the kinds of things they were working on, but didn’t understand that we were essentially a bunch of passionate learners over here, totally immersed in our magical worlds. We need to spend time with people who are interested in the same sorts of things we are, who can ask us thoughtful questions about what we are doing to encourage our growth, instead of living our lives like zoo animals like they have been conditioned to do in "bedroom communities." To most people in the US, a home is just a box people use to recover from work and school, usually in front of a television, streaming them plenty of ad content. I originally published this content on October 20, 2020 (an auspicious day!) but I removed it and decided to edit it. Since then I have noticed that most of my readers are international, so I'm wondering what they're thinking of this picture I am painting of the U.S. When we went on cruises or traveled, everyone wanted to know what it was like to live here. This isn't the portrait you will get from other people. We have some progressive utopian movements in this country, however, which are concentrated on solving the problems of education and authoritarianism.
I understand now that being raised by me would be a lot like having Leonard Hofstadter’s mother for a mom. I really didn’t intend it to be that way; it just happened because I am naturally curious. Also, I had a graduate degree from studying learning and memory. I couldn’t just ignore what I had learned in my studies. I constantly saw evidence of the things I learned being true, although I didn’t understand the significance until more recently as I watched my kids excel in college classes with relative ease after having no formal education. Not that exceptional school performance should be a goal! I still believe they could learn the things they have learned in college in other ways. One of the advantages they have is that they don't take full course loads. We like to keep things easygoing around here.
My approach to homeschooling wasn't trauma free, because there were still a lot of things I didn’t understand, especially regarding my own need for adequate outside support, and how much faith it takes to go against “the system.” Their trauma was different and had more to do with having a small world and difficulty in connecting with others with similar interests in the physical world. But that’s been a problem for me, too, and I spent 23 years in the educational system, so I don't consider school the solution for conscious community connection. Charter schools and private schools in particular cause geographic problems with community cohesiveness that the old one room schoolhouses didn't. Neighborhood schools, however, have the problem of creating inequity on a larger scale. I have seen both poor and wealthy families successfully homeschool their kids, but it took a parent at home and the ability to pay a mortgage with one income to make it happen in the fairest way to the children, who rarely have a say in their circumstances. When the at home parent had a part-time job, I think the children learned how hard it is to balance work and learning, and that it often came at the expense of health. The best situations were when one of the parents had a choice, and if they did take a job, did so for mental health reasons such as wanting to be more involved in the community or develop skills, but this could easily get out of hand, too, if the energy flow was out of whack from unfair employment practices, which was more common than one would think.
I have always been keen on finding the gold in existence. Isn't that what everyone wants? It's there, I think, but finding it requires slowing down, keeping one's eyes open, and be gentle with oneself. It's not always easy, for many reasons. Some are our doing, and some were just due to the nature of living on Earth. It's just like the serenity prayer, "Lord, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference." There's a lot more power in one's hands to do this if one has control over one's own attention, rather than having it controlled by bells and whistles. We're actually born with a whole system to help us accomplish the thing we ask for in that prayer, but it gets deadened by the bells and whistles. Ignoring the signals our bodies are trying to give us about energy levels is how we become disconnected from our body's wisdom, which is precisely that Knowing.
It took me a long time to see it, but with my background, as a homeschooler, I have been studying consciousness. Such is behavioral neuroscience, and I suppose you might be able to take the girl out of behavioral neuroscience, but you can’t take the behavioral neuroscience out of the girl. I wanted to figure out if happiness was possible in the context of freedom, because even though we were technically free, we weren’t always happy. Slowing down and introspection were the important ways I discovered why. It turns out that unhappiness is being forced to live other peoples' dreams at the expense of one's own, and never being given time to figure out what ours actually are. Thus, the most powerful thing a person can do to free oneself is become a conscientious objector to mindless busyness, and only engage in intentional interactions.
A major block to happiness for us was socialization because in doing things differently, everyone treats you like an odd bird, and right off the bat, they expect us to be unintelligent. Social things stress me out because of the ego involved. I find a lot of Americans to be focused on stupid things like status, which they revere over both intelligence and compassion. For me, everything has always been about learning, but I think because Status Anxiety is conditioned on the playground and and through advertising, that status orientation is more apparent because of the way people unconsciously default to it for social interactions and how it seems to coexist with a void of useful knowledge. I don’t think most people know when it is happening, but I can immediately, because I get a sick feeling when people become condescending about unimportant things. Not being able to sense these things is actually more of a shortcoming than it is to be “too sensitive” because it is not possible to see one’s own contribution to negative energy. In some ways, the battle for good and evil really is a battle between the sensitive and the uncaring.
I am extremely privileged. I have a place to sleep every night, I have food to put on my table, and I don’t have to work to pay for these things. That is more than most people can say. I have always felt pretty fortunate because of this, despite all of the challenges I have had, because working for other people is difficult. Anyone with half a brain asks “Why?” when an authority says, “Because.” And authorities don’t like that. I was a difficult employee that way. I never wanted to be the unwitting Göring, and I think that happens to a lot of employed people. Asking "Why?" is good because it slows down half-baked agendas. People with power and ambitious non-philanthropic agendas never seem to think that slowing down is a wise approach, or that quiet contemplation might bring better solutions or shine a light on problem areas. We should not enable mindlessly ambitious people if we can avoid it.
When I originally wrote the above sentences, I had a duct hanging out of my ceiling into the center of my studio. It should have been hooked up to the utility room, but whoever finished this basement decades ago decided that fresh air was unimportant. I had been dealing with lapses in consciousness because our furnace and water heater were spewing harmful VOCs into our living space. I was the only one semi-cognizant of what was happening to me for quite a few months, while still having to perform all my duties as a mother during the new pandemic reality. The only way I was able to figure this all out was by slowing down and tapping into my sensitivity. I lost contact with nearly all of my friends while we were struggling with this health predicament because I was weak a lot of the time. This was not only affecting me, but other people in our home, and our pets. Our doctors were not any help. There were no authorities to help me. The most help I got is from a friend who used to be a general contractor who did a phone consult with me in the Spring, and my father who happens to know a lot about HVAC regulations in commercial spaces and how residential requirements are shortsighted.
I was always fascinated by the idea that Abraham Lincoln had educated himself. When the children were young, and I would plant seeds of learning with them, it was ultimately they who taught themselves. This happened with both reading and rudimentary mathematics for my children. I did not drill them on these things for weeks on end; I simply gave them the basics of the consonants and vowel sounds, and numbers came as a part of life. It actually blew my mind how simple it was. They both tested into college math with a few weeks of preparatory work with their Dad. My son did this when he was 14 and tested into College Algebra, and my daughter who had not done much computer programming was still able to test into College Math for the Liberal Arts at age 15, which should give her all the math most people might encounter on a daily basis in this life, but also enable her to move on to College Algebra in the future if she likes. I believe the way math education has been implemented in schools is a major way class divisions are reinforced; if one waits long enough, math is easy to learn for most people, but if they are punished for their failures in keeping up with the performance of same age peers, they can be discouraged from ever feeling smart enough to learn it, which is what happens. Because my daughter had not done much formal math, she lacked confidence when she was first studying for the math placement test. Her Dad is highly intuitive, though, and an excellent mentor, so he had a good sense for how much she could handle and when to stop that really accelerated her learning process and confidence. This is actually what he gets paid to do, and I see why. He really loves it, too. It was neat to see that it worked so well for our daughter, because for so long we thought it was just our son who had natural abilities. My gut tells me that most people do.
My daughter has always been very secretive about her learning process, and in this way, she has been my teacher. She did not want my help learning to read and was resistant to most formalized instruction, when I initially tried that route. I think she was about 5 years old, maybe close to 6, when she revealed her cards by suddenly reading something out loud. We were all surprised. I asked her why she had been hiding that she was trying to learn to read, and she told me that it was because, "She didn't want to be told that she was doing it wrong." I assume this has to do with me trying to correct her pencil grip, which is very different, but does not impact her ability to make art well beyond her years or communicate effectively with others. She is extremely protective of her learning process, and I had to exercise a lot of trust in her. People were always talking about how smart her brother was, so I think she was worried she wouldn't compare, and that made her more secretive. It was frustrating when people did that, but I suppose that happens a lot to older siblings.
As a homeschooling mother of this daughter, I became a student of life learning, with the hypothesis that organisms are inherently life learners. I tried to pay attention to what kinds of things seemed to interrupt that process. There were some hard lessons in that regard, because stress, chemicals and food high in polyunsaturated fatty acids all block brain frontotemporal metabolism of glucose, and these things are ubiquitous in society. I purposefully tried to keep our home free of these things because of their negative impact on health in general, and I did not at the time understand how critical that would be for my understanding of the learning process. The frontal lobes of the brain which are crucial for learning are the most energy-demanding parts of the human body, where executive function, empathy and the capacity for internal reward are stored. They are the first areas to lose glucose and oxygen when the body is put into catabolism. Ability to focus under these conditions becomes difficult.
I used what I liked to call at the time the Amazon.com Rabbit Hole method of homeschooling. The book selling system they have is unparalleled with regard to understand what's out there with respect to content. The review system is pretty great. However, I am trying to move away from using Amazon when I can due to their unfair labor practices and use Alibris instead. I have mixed feelings about Barnes and Noble, because they were so bad for independent retailers. But besides creating an awesome catalogue of human knowledge, they were also an important provider of 3rd space to our community, as can sometimes be the role of bookshop. I paid attention to what my kids were interested in, and I procured books and other materials related to what I thought they might want to learn next and kept them in the house at their immediate disposal. I introduced the materials to my kids, but never used any sort of manipulation to encourage use. Some things they never looked at, but the information was learned in other ways, regardless. I felt like it was important to have books and other objects to spark curiosity in our home. We don't live within walking distance of a library, and it didn't make sense to have the kids dependent on a ride to the library every time they wanted to read a book. Plus, it is possible to get books inexpensively from used sources, and honestly, a lot of what I bought isn't available at my local library, anyway. I have a penchant for out of print titles which are still relevant, for one thing. I like reference books, too, which tend not to be available for checking out. Sure, much of this can be found on the internet, but not in any real depth. And it is nice to have some things to look at that aren't inherently stressful from being blue light flickering at 60 Hz. Books are certainly less expensive than buying brand name clothing to play the peacock game in school.
Some of my desire to create a rich environment was due to the Rat Park studies on addiction, which are covered by one of my favorite thinkers, Dr. Gabor Maté in his book, In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts: Close Encounters with Addiction. Rats raised in enriched environments ignore addictive substances, even when they are freely available. Rats raised in sterile environments become dependent on addictive substances. A healthy environment for a child to learn is a cabinet of curiosities, not a real estate magazine spread.
My husband and I have been swimming in uncharted waters with what we do for more than a decade, which can be kind of scary at times. Nobody has answers for us, because nobody else lives exactly the way we do, especially not the people in our extended family with whom we have spent most of our time. At times I understand where they are coming from, but it's when I'm not feeling well because I was exposed to a chemical or haven't gotten enough rest. Early on when I was convalescing I watched some videos on dementia and learned that people with dementia have difficulty with lack of organization. That's interesting because what some people do to make other people be neat and orderly is pretty demented.
When our house is at its messiest, there are half-read books laying all over the place, electronics stuff we inherited, and there are socks everywhere owing to the fact we often take our socks off wherever we are and forget them, and our smaller dog finds them fun to bury in strange places. (We now only have a small dog and a rabbit, but at the start of the pandemic we had two dogs, a rabbit and a guinea pig. The dog and the guinea pig were elderly and had also experienced the poisoning). One time when we had another unschooling family over for a playdate, one of our guests found a dead bird the dog had hidden in the sofa, and he has brought baby rabbits inside, too. Sometimes we think he is a cat wearing a dog suit. For a long time, I had too much because of gifts people gave us, on top of what I felt was thoughtful strewing. It was a burden. My husband has only one functioning eye, so most material curation falls to me. If it comes in the house, it only goes out one way, and that's through my effort. I'm sure it was the same way for both our mothers, and I know it's the same way for our sisters, so I am not sure why we kept buying things for each other. I kept asking for it to cease. In any case, our home is definitely lived in, not a place we just come to sleep or convalesce. We have entered a new phase where there are musical instruments scattered about, and these things bring us joy. The kitchen table is often covered with items we've brought in from elsewhere and don't know what to do with, or projects we are working on. It doesn't really bother us, but we don't tend to use the table, because we eat in the kitchen.
Over the years, people rarely found anything to pick on about the kids themselves. Our kids were always reported to be “well behaved” around other people. In most folks' eyes “good behavior” just means not showing emotion, though, and that concerns me. None of our family members were really “kids should be seen and not heard” kind of people, thankfully. But none of them knew our kids well enough, especially for the amount of time we spent with them, to know their real feelings about birthdays and holidays. If they had, they would have known that the kids often can't think of what they would like, and that they are worried about having too many things, and about our planet. Our extended family did not understand that somehow even with all the clutter in our home, our kids still learned they have an important role in saving the planet that they take seriously. My daughter sent us this video of kids asking Diane Feinstein to support the Green New Deal, and you can see the senator deploy a narcissistic attack on them, characteristic of the older white women in this country. Ms. Feinstein and the Boomers like her refuse to see how their perceived entitlement to respect despite their cruel behavior is the worst example we could set for the future, and they can’t seem to stop themselves. It’s like if they listened to Bob Dylan and smoked a little weed back in the day, they consider themselves some sort of moral authority. Ms. Feinstein obviously can’t see that her thinking is inadequate for the dire situation her refusal to accept blame has brought upon her children and grandchildren's world. My own efforts to communicate this to our extended family were rebuffed in a similar manner. Our siblings never really told us if that was what the grandparent relationships were like with their kids. We conveniently never saw what their kids got for Christmas, because they got to have private Christmas celebrations with the grandparents, whereas we did not.
Regarding unfair and ignorant moral authoritarianism in parents and grandparents, my husband had experienced some stigma about playing computer games and Dungeons and Dragons as a kid, which made him pretty angry with his mother. I think she is still very closed minded about those things. I had more than a base level of understanding of the computer because at one point I was pursuing a minor in computer science, so I felt like it was important. Both of our kids were drawn to the computer, after their Dad started working from home, probably because of his constant use for work. It didn't make sense to stigmatize the very thing that was paying the bills, and since more and more people were needing to understand the computer to do their work, it made sense to encourage their competence. My kids spent a lot of time on the computer and now they like playing Dungeons and Dragons. I think it was difficult for many people to recognize these sorts of activities as educational, but they very much are (not that things have to be educational!).
One difficulty of parenting is knowing that your kids may be smarter than you are. Maturity is being able to admit it. I speak from personal experience when I say this. Anyone who is a parent has been outsmarted by their children. Education in logic and reason causes a person to question authoritarian motivation, which can be especially frustrating for people who consider “good parenting,” an authoritarian dictate rather than a humanitarian endeavor. Good parenting is patient and adequately supports the questioning mind, rather than blindly applying fear-based control mechanisms as a defense against being outsmarted. Raising effective citizens requires modeling good listening and compromise, not acting like Diane Feinstien did when challenged. If an elected official cannot respond graciously to the requests of their constituency, even the youngest and most powerless ones who may not have the right to vote, they are not of the right mind for public office. Our elected officials are supposed to be public servants, not corporatists. A society can be judged by how it treats its weakest members, and if we are electing people who ignore the weakest members of our society, then we are failing ourselves as a society.
Breaking the glass ceiling was great for white women, but it wasn't without its costs. The second wave of feminism the Boomers worked so hard to support in order for women like me to have the choice to work is inherently racist and failed to consider the impact on the children they left behind. Women of color from that era never even had a choice about working, so not much was done to free them, and they may have lost necessary working opportunities to more privileged women. This had the terrible effect of raising the cost of entry for People of Color AND youth into an already expensive world. Not to mention, their children had to go into that world less well adjusted than they might have been without those attachment wounds. I cannot claim credit for this idea; I read it when I was doing research for my writing on white privilege and how liberal white women are often a barrier to progress. Truthfully, besides other forces that led me to be a homeschooling mother, I felt that our family had enough resource-wise, and I wanted whatever job might be available to me to be available to someone who actually needed it to feed themselves. I do not need anyone to pay me for my entertainment to justify what I have done, although it might help my husband actually be able to retire sooner. Similarly, I was put off by wealthy white people demanding special services for their gifted children in public schools because they couldn't take it upon themselves to figure out what their kids need. I know working women who live with a lot of guilt for their choice, and now the Universe has brought this sad reality to the forefront of our consciousness by showing us that systems simply can't replace good parenting.
I feel that societal failure to support parents is one of the primary ways generational trauma is perpetuated in American society. Without support for good parenting, parents are left with the skills left to them by their parents, which may not be that great. We all just went through a pandemic, so we better understand the kinds of forces our great-grandparents were living with during The Great Depression and we can now see how being abandoned by society impacted our own families. On both sides of my husband's and my families, we had grandparents who were orphaned by parental illness during the Depression, creating great hardship during their childhoods. I do not think men and women were meant to parent in isolation, but that is essentially what Christianity and capitalism has made us do, leaving the family unit and children in particular more vulnerable to the psychological effects of social darwinism. A family unit needs to hold together through thick and thin, but that can become difficult when the parents lack support or their relationships with their children are undermined by competing interests, whether they mean to be competing or not.
I saw an article today that millennial women are deciding that they don't want to be mothers. This is a big deal, and it is the result of not taking better care of women and children. This job is not glamorous; the stress of just having to feed kids is a lot and takes a lot of my time and energy. Hillary Clinton wrote a book about it taking a village to raise a child; I am guessing she had a lot more support than I did to be able to accomplish what she did outside of parenting. That being said, I actually had a lot less stress than people whose kids were in school, because much less of my attention had to be focused on schedules and bureaucracy and keeping the kids "in line." This is an important way that the educational system works against parents by increasing their workload beyond the great job it already is. By requiring conformity to an average, the educational system makes it difficult for parents to allow their children to be comfortable with who they are. The intent is to make an orderly society where people know how to wait in line, but it doesn't take 13 years to learn that. It just takes a family or community with good examples and support for parents. Why does this feel like a pipe dream? Is it because it's impossible when kids are locked up in a concrete bunker away from both family and community? Maybe it takes longer in that environment.
I was in a documentary once which also had content related to the MIT Digital Media lab and Mimi Ito’s research on digital learning. She had come to the frustrating conclusion that only ten percent of children who use digital media create content. Much of my writing is dedicated to exploring this question, since we are a house of creators. There are factors at every level (it is sort of like a fractal) but a major social factor is that society places value on forced socialization and pressure to conform. I think this keeps us from really knowing ourselves, and also from being brave enough to express ourselves truthfully. I think it keeps us in a constant state of comparison to others, focused on things that don’t really matter, and leaves us in a default state of being mindless consumers. I’m saying this because I didn’t really know who I was or what was important to *me* until I really spent some time alone. In hanging out with other people, it’s just too easy to adopt their values to be accepted, rather than feel secure questioning the status quo. There are many psychological reasons this happens.
I know from my own experience that the journey to finding what one loves to do is more about the journey than it is about picking a particular destination. Additionally, the different levels of education have different goals. Kindergarten through 12th grade is about learning the basics, which can be done with or without the structure of formalized education. College is about developing reason and identifying a study path for life, and graduate school is about exercising that reason to help broaden human knowledge.
A family friend with a doctorate in Egyptology who is now involved in online education programming for a large school district once asked me if I was worried about the children having “holes” in their knowledge. Having a nearly doctoral education myself, and fairly certain that I do not know everything, I asked her if it might be possible that even with a doctorate, one may have some holes in one’s knowledge, and that it is impossible to know everything. My knowledge of African geography is abysmal. I don’t know much about economic theory or trucks. I know nothing about appraising antique buttons. I know this educator was worried about the kids knowing relevant things, and I am confident all of us are missing some of that knowledge. We can never know what we don't know. Luckily, as long as we are still alive, we can learn. It is never too late.
No matter what one studies, there is always something else one could learn. It helps if one is the type of person to see learning as the meat of life. This is how I raised my children, but it does present a different problem. They can easily burn themselves out when taking classes, because they are trying to make the most out of the experience. My son and husband have such high standards for themselves that they can actually give themselves physical health problems. We learned while our kids were doing online college that both kids study intensely and thoroughly, not because they are worried about the grade, but because they want to completely comprehend the material. I have no doubt they will succeed in whatever they do, as long as it doesn’t get in the way of being able to take care of their physical and psychological needs. I think this caveat applies to most students and needs to be considered by university administrators when they create courses of study that do not give time for health. I have thought about approaching the Dean of the School of Engineering to see if they could let my son take engineering classes while not being an engineering major, or allow him to create an internship-based course of study part-time, which would allow him connection with the people studying the topics. But those are just my ideas, which take into account both his need for reduced stress, and his need to grok. Trust me, the kid needs to grok. He loves to talk about what he learns in his classes.
There is no course of study for someone who just wants to be an inventor. Their Dad and I often talk about the soul sacrifice one makes to go into engineering at the expense of losing the nourishment of the liberal arts. The liberal arts are very much a study of human consciousness, and choosing to avoid learning about consciousness is to choose to be unconscious. We need our technical people to be conscious, because they are the people who design solutions to society’s problems. We need technical people who can communicate abstract ideas well and consider the broader implications of their inventions.
Threats to consciousness are everywhere, owing to a pervasive ignorance in society to the damages of status-based culture and materialism to our very wellbeing. Volatile organic compounds, formaldehyde, toluene, trichloroethylene and styrenes are all linked to short- and long-term cognitive deficits in animals and humans. After exposure to these compounds, metabolic activity is suppressed in the frontal and temporal regions of the brain creating difficulties in accessing such “higher” cognitive functions as executive function, time, empathic ability and reasoning, which help contextualize memories. Cortisol has the same effect when experienced chronically. These metabolic stressors can also produce problems with auditory and language processing, leaving the chronic sufferer unable to communicate or understand their own emotions. It is this state that triggers a fight-or-flight response, and it is the projection of previous traumatic experiences onto the situation at hand that determines the organism’s outward behavioral response. If there is no escape from the stressor in sight, and the organism remains in a state of low metabolism, it will choose a fear-based response. It is in this way that compassion, learning and metabolism are related.
Hans Selye characterized the Generalized Adaptation Syndrome in abused and neglected young animals. The animals he studied showed significant underdevelopment of the endocrine and other organ systems. There are very real physical and long-lasting effects of chronic stress in childhood, so it doesn’t make sense that as a society we continually subject our youth to a stressful educational system and polluted world, rather than trying to nurture their natural growth and support the people trying to raise them. I wish our politicians and educators understood these things.