Thursday, March 18, 2010

Unschooling, Collapse and Emergent Culture

Whenever I read another report about the ways in which schools in the U.S. are becoming more controlling and coercive, I try to remember something Eckhart Tolle wrote in Stillness Speaks:

The dysfunction of the old consciousness and the arising of the new are both accelerating.  Paradoxically, things are getting worse and better at the same time, although the worse is more apparent because it makes so much 'noise.'

The current system of conventional compulsory schooling makes a lot of noise. Whether it's the re-working of a failed national policy or the absurd politics of textbook content or the crime of doodling on desks, what happens in the schools reverberates through our culture in ways that make the system seem so monolithic and all-consuming there appears to be nothing it does not ultimately touch.   

Kind of like the Roman Empire in its day.  Or any empire, for that matter -- an analogy that reminds me of another author's work, and makes me hopeful, actually, in a perverse sort of way that you anti-civ folks might recognize.

In his 2005 book, Collapse, Jared Diamond makes the point that civilizations often go from peak to collapse relatively quickly.  Empires, in particular, tend to be "noisiest" -- to borrow Tolle's term -- at their peak, when they are using up the greatest amount of resources at the fastest rate and extending their dominion to its farthest reaches.

School -- that all-consuming empire -- penetrates so deep into our culture, and so far into our cultural mindset, that it's helpful to remember that all that cacophony erupting from the current system masks some joyful sounds coming from a different quarter.  

  • The first Autodidact Symposium, held last week in South Carolina and organized by adult unschooler Cameron Lovejoy, offered an inspired three-day glimpse into the world of young adult unschoolers who are beginning to make their way into, and make their mark upon, the world.
  • The upcoming Life is Good Unschooler Conference in the Pacific Northwest continues to draw increasing numbers of new and returning unschooling families each year.  
  • Small regional gatherings, like ARGH in Eastern Tennessee, MUGs and SMUG in Virginia and Montreal, respectively, and the big Rethinking Everything conference in Texas, bring together the families and individuals who are making those joyful sounds, whose lives reverberate with those joyful sounds, who are reaching out and finding one another and creating lives and livelihoods that have pretty much nothing to do with that seeming monolith known as school.
As Diamond argues, the seeds of an empire's ultimate collapse are sown early on, though it may take generations for the over-extension to play out, so that by the time signs of collapse become obvious it is so far along as to be pretty much inevitable.

There seems to me a certain inevitability about the collapse of our current system of compulsory schooling, though I suspect it will continue to raise a racket for some time to come.  Meanwhile, it's gratifying to see and be a part of an emergent culture that's making a different kind of noise, something that sounds to me a lot more like music.  People's music.  Yours and mine.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Some Thoughts on Getting Stuff Done

Spring made a showing in these parts this week, and it's about damned time.  My cave has become small and crowded and I've been restless.  And grumpy.  Yes.

But I've nearly finished a new book project -- a zine I've been putting together for the past couple weeks.  Details to come. [update: this project got sidelined after much consternation.  I'll probably have another go at it this summer.]

* * * * *

A few weeks ago I posted a review of sorts of Seth Godin's latest book, Linchpin, in which I suggested that the business ideas he expressed in it were surprisingly compatible with unschooling (though I don't know his  position on unschooling, or if he even has one).  I've long felt that way about his writing, which is one reason I read his blog.  Yes, it's a marketing blog, and that framing gets in my way sometimes, but if you approach his stuff without any preconceptions you'll find he's really writing about living deep and well and fully and on purpose.  All stuff I'm into in a big way.

Anyway, there's a part in Linchpin where he writes about how he gets so much done (a dozen books at last count) and he reveals his secret is doing just one thing at a time.

Yeah, okay, as revelations go it's not exactly Earth-shattering, but still.  

One thing.

Reader, I'll be the first to say, just one thing is not my style.  I'm a three-to-five projects at a time kind of gal.  But you know, sometimes it's good to reconsider one's style.  So for the past several months I've been trying out a different style and working on just one thing -- mostly -- for the duration of the month. With deadlines.  Real ones.

In January I made an art bra for a charity auction.  In February I painted canvases for a show that went up March 1st.  This month I created the zine.

And I'm hooked.  As in, convinced.

Here's why: this one-thing-at-a-time idea eliminates that debilitating sense I often have of never finishing anything.  It's a false sense, since in reality I finish all kinds of  stuff, but it's also true in that I never get to rest in that moment of completion because I'm always juggling other things that aren't finished.  And since some of those things might never be finished -- because I don't give myself the time to either finish them or make a well-considered decision to let them go -- I'm in a perpetual state of incompletion on all fronts.

Which is exhausting.  As you probably know, given that we all tend to do the juggling thing.

Now I know that, in an existential sense, life itself -- Big Life -- is just one long perpetual state of incompletion. I get that. But creative projects are not so much Big Life as they are life's brain-children.  Heart-children.  Soul-children.  They have a gestation period, and then they need to be birthed.  And the ones that just get transferred from one year's "stuff I want to do" list to the next tend to drain off the very life force that's needed to get them out into the world.  

If you know me at all, you know I'm not into getting stuff done just to be getting stuff done. Productivity in and of itself is overrated.  It's factory-thinking.  I'm not a factory.  But creating the stuff I really want to create?  That kind of productivity matters.  So I try to choose my projects with care.  And given my propensity to juggle, the forms they take -- the books, the canvases -- can occupy space in my head for a very long time.  The zine, for example, has been on my list since last summer.

Had I not assigned it its own month, with a hard deadline -- a shipping date, Godin would call it -- it could well have remained on my list through next summer.  Or forever.

Instead, it's in print.  And I get to have my moment of completion before I launch into the next thing.  And that, dear Reader; seems to be making all the difference in the world.

That, and Spring.

Anyway, this is a long way around to saying that most of the energy it takes to juggle a bunch of projects goes into the juggling, not into the projects.  And while it makes me feel like I have a lot going on, having a bunch of balls in the air turns out to be far less satisfying -- and far more stressful -- than standing on the pitcher's mound and delivering one ball into the catcher's mitt at a time.  And then another one.  And then another one.  And then the inning is over, and I can sit in the dugout for a bit and watch the crows in the outfield before getting up and doing it again.

And yes, that's a baseball analogy, in honor of Spring Training.

And Spring.

And crows.