A Peek into a Different World
(Originally published in the May, 2008 issue of Homeschool Horizons)
When people find out I homeschool my children, they are often very curious and ask a lot of questions. Homeschooling is well known, but I guess it is unusual enough to be considered slightly exotic. I understand. All my life, I've been curious about people who live differently than me.
As a child, I noted the various ways other children did school. For example, I was fascinated by Australian outback children who communicated with their teachers through radio, or the Northern Ontario children who attended classes every few weeks in a railway car that rolled into town. I am still drawn to stories from different backgrounds; but now, as an educator, I am more curious about what drives people to educate, rather than how they did it.
One story that I read recently was Chief, by Roy MacGregor. It's the biography of Billy Diamond, Chief of the Rupert House Cree of Northern Quebec in the 70s. In the story, I was especially struck by the important educational decision made by Billy's father, Malcolm. Malcolm Diamond was Chief when Billy was a child. He did not speak English, but he dealt with a lot of government officials. When he detected that he could not trust their translators, he sent his eldest daughter to a residential school. When she returned, he brought her with him everywhere he went, so that she could "Weed the tricks out of the language".
Billy, also, was placed on a float-plane at age eight, and sent to school. Until then, his education had consisted of winter trap lines, goose camps and fishing. The strange world of the residential school was not an entirely positive experience; but the learning, the experience, and the contacts he made there prepared him for further education, and eventually for his responsibilities as chief. He took his turn accompanying his father as translator, and he was the driving force behind the lengthy, intense and controversial negotiations that eventually allowed the Cree people to have a say in the James Bay Hydroelectric project. Later, Billy Diamond successfully established Northern businesses.
Like Malcolm Diamond, we all want to prepare our children to face the world around them, and so we provide them with the learning that we feel is necessary. This is a very practical approach to education. However, I have noticed another, less functional, educational motivation; that of enrichment. It is for the sake of enrichment that we sign our children up for music and art lessons, teach them crafts, and introduce them to great literature. Education can be a way to find out new and exciting things about the world around us, and beyond.
Another fascinating peek into a different world reveals the power of that motive. In A Schoolteacher in Old Alaska, author Hannah Breece describes her early-1900s assignment to set up schools for the Russian and native people in the small towns of Alaska. By her own account, Hannah's purpose was more than just presenting cold facts; she taught skills that, in those days and in that place, improved the lives of the people: sewing, crafts, woodworking, cooking, health, childcare (she taught the adults as well), gardening, and music. Many of these lessons took place outside of school hours; rambling in fields and on beaches accounted for a great deal of the learning. Hannah also established Sunday schools, and community celebrations like Thanksgiving dinners. In one of the places she taught, she noted that after a few months of this kind of input, "The whole life and spirits of the town seemed to be changing for the better."
Hannah Breece was welcome wherever she went. During some of the summer months, she travelled to an interior fishing camp to spend a few weeks teaching both children and adults. Youth from camps that were even more remote were sent there to learn from her and bring the knowledge back to others. As the story unfolds, we get a picture of people who enjoyed their education purely for its own sake, or, as Hannah put it, "They had a thirst for something better than they had known." This education was not intended to change the people's circumstances. It was expected to help them live "…an intelligent, useful and happy life in their own environment."
Although people live very different lives from one another, in the end many of the things that motivate us are not so different. When faced with the need to prepare our children for adulthood, we use the resources around us to give them everything they need to get along in the world, and we do our best to make their lives rich. It is interesting to see that other times and places have responded to these motives in their own unique ways.