Saturday, November 12, 2011

Why We're Not Saving for Our Children's Education

I always say that, as our children are unschooled, they make their own educational choices, and may choose at any time to go to school. They may very well decide to go to University, as most of their family has, for generations. But we're not outrightly encouraging it. That will be their own choice, and we'll support them in however they make it.

Taliesin exploring Fort Worden, in Port Townsend, May 2011
RESP's: The Value of Learning Then or Now
The Government of Canada (or is that the Harper Government?) will match a certain amount of any money which we put into RESP's for our children. BUT, should our children decide not to attend one of the specifically accepted institutes for higher education, they will be required to return that money to the government. So, yes, we could take a gamble that indeed has very little risk, for the potential benefit of having many thousands of dollars returned for our children's university education, should they decide to go that route.

But what is the cost of that gamble? The cost is that we must sacrifice the opportunities that the money we might invest could otherwise provide for their education NOW. We have very little to invest, to begin with. And we feel that it is of greater value to their lives to save that money and spend it on a family trip that will allow them to get to know their family in Europe, as well as to spend time there, broadening their understanding of different languages, cultures, and technologies. The month-long road-trip that we made this past June was probably the greatest educational experience we've ever provided for our children. In addition to the expected learning that we gained from visiting different communities, cultures, museums, etc. we also gained an intrinsic basic understanding of the geology, humanity, and ecology of the US West Coast. We gained an intrinsic understanding of the meaning (and non-meaning) of borders, of politics and pop-culture, of distance and quantity of space, time, and resources, that we never could have achieved by studying in a classroom. The month-long trip cost us about $3000.00, and we'll be paying it off for at least a year to come. But was it worth it? Absolutely!

Mama has a University Degree
My own parents spent about $25,000.00 -- a great deal of their own investments -- putting me through two years of art school, in the Netherlands. I learned very little at that school, and ended up leaving with an Incomplete. But I don't think my parents really understand the return I got on their investment. What I learned from living in the Netherlands on my own, from getting to know my family, there, from speaking another language, and from having to make ends meet (I created jobs for myself to supplement the money they gave me) was probably the second greatest single learning experience of my life. I came home to Canada, but that experience, and my knowledge and understanding of that other part of the world informs every day of my life here, and expands the value of the experiences I have, here. My parents' investment in my education really was of enormous benefit to my life, but not in the way I expected, when I first registered for the school.

I did return to college in Canada to study biology and English, and then to University to attain my degree. And luckily, because I worked during that time, and was also supported by my husband, do not have any student loans. But that degree has done nothing for my career. I chose to have children, and that, after all, has been the single greatest learning experience of my life. Now all my work (artistic, community, etc.) is about mothering. My mother, my children, and my community have been my teachers, as well as the many authors and speakers I've chosen to inform myself with, over the internet and through books. And finally, I feel as though I have value. I am aware that my art finally has value, too, since it's about mothering, and therefore I'm finally creating from a place of deep understanding. And I can absolutely say that I learned none of this in school, but that the money my parents put into my education -- living overseas -- made a great difference, indeed.

Global Depression and the Future of Education -- A Film Review
I just watched a video (unfortunately named College Conspiracy - watch it here), put out by the (US) National Investment Association, which explains some of the (global economic) reasons we've decided not to keep RESP's for our children. Generally, the current system of high tuition, crippling student loans, and standardized learning (as opposed to individualized community-based learning, where students learn within the community they wish to serve) is unsustainable. In addition to this, I believe that the predictions of a coming global depression are well-founded, and that such a depression would not only radically change the structure of higher education, but that anything we may save, or the value of that money in general, is at extreme risk, if stored as RESP's. In fact, even if there is no depression, I would like to see radical change in our education systems, and that kind of change does not happen by first fitting into the existing system. That kind of change is happening already, as so many of us are rising up with new movements such as unschooling, and creating the world we want to live in.

So the College Conspiracy film is interesting, and worth watching despite a few sweeping generalizations, but I want to point out some specific ideas I really disagree with:
1. That we should invest in physical gold and silver because it will be the only thing of value in the coming depression. 
Well, since when are gold and silver valuable? Value is created by need and desire. I believe that there will be need and desire for food, shelter, and compassion. But better than investing dollars in agriculture, construction, and humanitarian services, we can give up entirely on the notion of financial investment (if there's a global depression, our money will be value-less, anyway), and invest in our own personal education. We can LEARN, and we can build community. After all, in the absence of money, knowledge and skills are the new currencies, and community is our school.

2. That online degrees are the answer to the inflationary college degree scenario.
In the film, Gerald Celente of the Trends Research Institute suggests that online education can and should take the place of classroom education, for its cost-saving benefits, and the ability to reach more people, more easily. I hate to say it but I think this is shallow. It assumes first of all that a degree will be useful, and secondly that mass, standardized education is valuable. Above I say that knowledge and skills are the new currencies, but if we all learn the same facts, while staring at our Skype interfaces, how are we adapting that knowledge to the specific applications where its needed in our communities? We have to get out there and apply it before it has any value. Sure, there's a certain amount of information that will be usefully learned, this way, but much more understanding will come from our interaction in community. And if we go out into our communities to learn, instead of sitting at home with our laptops, then I think we'll be learning much more of what is really important for us to know.

So the College Conspiracy film just doesn't go far enough for me. And then the whole thing disintegrates into an ad for the National Inflation Association. Or perhaps it was that all along... this is one hell of a long advertisement. NIA does claim that its goal "is to help as many Americans as possible become aware of the disaster we are rapidly approaching", and also that they "are not investment or financial advisors". And yet, they are giving plentiful investment advice.

Sadly, NIA falls short of its stated goal by failing to actually escape the money trap. Although they interview a farmer in this film, and he discusses the value of real employment, with an anecdote about his grandson chopping firewood, the film never really explores that aspect of the economy. Neither a cheap online college degree nor gold and silver investments will help a society that has lost touch with the provenance of the fundamentals of human life: food, shelter, and compassion.

This Is Why We Are Unschooling
The pillars of our children's education are their involvement in the world around them: they have a deep understanding of their natural surroundings, ecosystems, and the provenance and value of their food. They are involved in the maintenance of our home and community. They are involved in their community's politics, festivities and conversations. I believe that the education we're giving our children, which is rich in understanding the physical world they live in, how it works, and how they work within it, will be the cornerstone of their ability to lead a life of value. With that upbringing as their strength, we trust them to make their own decisions on how they will seek and learn the skills they desire to participate in their world. This may include University, trade-school, apprenticing, travel, or any number of other participatory activities from which they wish to learn.

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