Learning Machines

Santafe.com - September 19, 2012

"Kids are little learning machines..."

Northern New Mexico suffers no shortage of resources for people seeking an alternative lifestyle. Actually, alternatives are the norm, here, and this whole becoming a parent thing has me wondering how our society got to a point that we prefer to consume—even education, well-being, homes and food—than to do, regardless of the influence inherent in relinquishing control. It’s a choice, as my new mentor and friend Scott Randolph would say, either to program or to be programmed.

My family went up to El Rito last week to have a look at a greenhouse on the property Scott shares with his wife, Alita. Grandma Catherine wants to build her own for winter growing. Scott and Alita have four acres, on which they grow food primarily to self-sustain, but they also recently built a terrace garden for medicinal herbs they intend to sell, primarily locally. Though they own the water rights, Scott tells me that the rights have never been “proven,” which simply means that he and Alita have to show that the water is going to good use. Once they have, they’ll never have to do it again.

Scott is a musician, disc jockey, educator, artist and builder. Alita is also a musician and artist, and she’s a gardener for a big estate. They have a son about Melina’s age, and they home-educated him for 10 years, before he asked to go to school. Their desire for sustainability stems from a belief, shared by the author and farmer Wendell Berry, that food that has to travel hundreds or thousands of miles is not only wasteful, but unreliable. They live off very little income, so they develop the property when they can afford to, which Scott says has made it possible for them to learn from the process. He’s certain that if he’d built it all at once that he’d discover in the end a number of things he would have done differently.

As I’ve come to believe about many of our recent encounters and experiences, Mel and I met Scott and Alita, now, out of the need for cosmic harmony (Mel has actually known them for some time, but hasn’t seen them since high school). We’ve been making decisions over the last six months that some of our friends and family don’t understand, which starts to get pretty lonely. Take our choice not to immunize or circumcise Baby Shae: They worry about polio, cite anecdotes of tight foreskins and utter cultural mantras like “A boy’s penis should look like his father’s.” The difference between them and us is that we’ve done our own research. We’ve read books and websites and we’ve spoken to people who have walked similar paths.

The official information works hard to convince us that it’s universal. The child development books, for instance, try to convince us that every child grows at the same rate. When we told Grandma Catherine that Baby Shae had started crawling at just four and a half months, she said, “No, it’s not possible,” because the child development books say its not possible until nine months. Then, we showed her and she was dumbfounded. It’s not her fault. The information is so contradictory and one-sided that one doesn’t know whom to believe. Mel and I do not assume a ritual or procedure to be correct for us just because the culture has been doing it for decades or centuries—that would be habitual or dogmatic behavior—so we do the research and in the end, make our own decisions, which tend to be within reach of our of initial gut reactions, anyway.

Scott says that he and Alita planned to send their boy, Ned, to school when he was eight or nine years old, but they wanted him to have a chance to learn about himself and his interests first. Schools judge students on how well they retain certain blocks of information, and as a result, kids end up learning from each other how to think and act, which might explain obsessions with video games and designer clothes. Mel and I want to home-school Shae, I tell him, but we’re worried about how much extra work that might create for us. He said that the point isn’t to duplicate the school at home, but to give Shae the opportunity to explore.

Kids are little learning machines, he says, so it’s not as important what they learn as how—they need the encouragement and room to follow their interests. Today, Ned is a student at the University of New Mexico on a program that provides exemplary New Mexican students with tuition, fees and books if they maintain a certain grade average. Yet, he’s considered dropping out because he’s bored. He had a lot more fun with his dad building a neighbor’s house than sitting in a classroom to fulfill a requirement. “He enjoyed doing something real,” Scott says. “He enjoyed making something.”