Saturday, January 29, 2011

My Resilient Neighborhood, Part 2 - A Homeschooling Experiment

In my last post, I said that as teaching has become an integral part of my strategy of personal resilience, so it has become the mainstay of my outreach to my neighborhood. I also began to describe my efforts in teaching guitar to some of the kids in my neighborhood. In this post I'd like to talk a little about a few of my motivations for teaching these kids.

Much of what has been written about building resilient neighborhoods has focused on the psychological, relational and social aspects and benefits of building community. So it is that many posts on building resilience have focused on the social power of collaborative efforts such as group cannings, neighborhood block parties, people meeting to sing together, and so forth.

Believe me, I value these aspects just as much as anyone else, and I see their importance. I think particularly of the human element of working with children, and how emotionally stretching such an exercise can be. Anyone who has taught kids (and who has cared whether they learn or not) knows that working with kids can break your heart sometimes – or be the source of some of the best experiences in life at other times. (The anticipation of those “best experiences” is what keeps me going.) I also think of how good it has felt to befriend some of my neighbors – especially those who are not originally from the U.S. – and for us to begin to learn to rely on each other.

But to focus only on the psychosocial or relational aspects of building resilient neighborhoods turns many resilience-building activities into mere symbolism rather than practical actions that can meet practical needs. Therefore I have also focused on the practical applications of initiating an neighborhood teaching effort. I am thinking particularly of a C-Realm podcast I heard of an interview with Jeff Vail back in July 2010, in which he described how the “nation-states” of the world are in decline due to the failure of various “states” (national and sub-national governments) to live up to their social contract to care for their constituent “nations” (that is, the people who actually live within the notional borders of the various “states.”) Of course, we can see that the failure of the social contract between states, especially in the First World, and their constituent nations is due to the hollowing out and wholesale ripoff of these states by the wealthiest members of the constituent nations.

What this means is that the median members of various nations are seeing their standard of living and quality of life being gutted in order to maintain the wealth and prerogatives of the richest members of those nations. Government programs and institutions which were created in order to raise the quality of life of all are now being gutted in order to maintain the wealth of society's richest members. The government's sole remaining claim to legitimacy is that it controls the official, visible market of the official, formal economy. However, the abandonment of median citizens by the state is opening a huge door for the emergence of a parallel, “diagonal economy” consisting of locally-created alternative arrangements for median citizens to get their needs met, or, as Jeff Vail puts it, “...for highly networked groups of scale-free, self-sufficient communities to begin taking care of themselves within the crumbling or increasingly irrelevant auspices of [the State].”

What does this look like where I live? Well, one parent I know told me a few months ago of her concern over the Portland school system's decision to cut school hours and class offerings for her elementary school kids. Social institutions such as public schools have already been largely turned away from providing median children with a real education, and now in many states the small benefit that public schools provide is in danger of being removed entirely due to strapped state budgets. The failure of the State to provide for the education of its median children (i.e., the vast majority of children who are not from rich families) opens a door for local, volunteer-based, grassroots educational solutions.

But the test of a “diagonal economy” or the emergence of local, grassroots alternatives to services no longer provided by the state or its official institutions is that these alternatives must work at least as well as the things they are replacing or supplanting. Otherwise the emergence of a “diagonal economy” or local alternatives is nothing more than useless symbolism. Thus it is that in my efforts to teach guitar, I am actually trying to teach guitar. I aim to make my lessons fun, engaging and relational; borrowing a page from Ivan Illich, I try to create a convivial learning environment. But I also am doing my best to make sure my students know all the chords in first position, how to tune a guitar in standard tuning, how to read music in standard notation, what a time signature is, what a key signature is, how to fingerpick ergonomically so that they don't develop tendinitis, and how to play interesting and challenging pieces.

This is all being done pro bono, after hours, informally, and I think it is the way a lot of people in a lot of neighborhoods are going to be doing things as they seek to meet the educational needs of their own neighborhoods. Moreover, if I can get away with providing a rigorous, technically exact basic education in music in this way, it will prove to me that I can also teach other subjects in this way – necessary subjects like mathematics, biology, basic Mendelian heredity including plant-breeding, small livestock husbandry and other subjects pertinent to a post-Peak future.

This leads to the question of what sort of subjects would make a good curriculum for post-Peak education and how rigorously those subjects should be developed. Although some writers have already tackled this question, I'd like to add my two cents. But not tonight; I've got to practice guitar for a bit.

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