Monday, October 4, 2021

Climate Catastrophe: How an Unschooling Mindset Will Help Us Persevere

My brother, Adrian, paddling in wildfire smoke at Tum Tum Lake, British Columbia, Canada
photo by Kristina Calli

Last summer, amid smoke and fire, drought and various ecological die-offs, came the news about the UN "code red" climate change report, which is likely to be the last such report written before we go beyond the 1.5° of warming that will put an end to life as we know it, if we don't take drastic action, NOW. At the end of the report, CBC played a clip of Greta Thunberg saying, "Today, it will probably be quite popular to talk about the climate crisis; tomorrow it will not be popular anymore." I knew she was right, and I can't let that happen. The day after that report came out, I had to do a text search on the CBC website just to find the report from the day before. It had been eclipsed by reports of covid, bitcoin, defamation lawsuits, and the health status of movie stars.

And why not? It's easier to care about individuals than our vague and vast communal future. Easier to care that one local person lost their dog in a fire than the millions of animals currently burning just inland from us; people losing their homes and farms and futures. Unless we know them personally, their stories are just part of the mesh of disaster that we look away from. Because we're overwhelmed.

Overwhelm is reasonable. It's acceptable to look away; to protect our mental health. But it's not acceptable to ignore the crisis. So what can we do? I've been asking myself. The answers are also so vast and vague: We know we need to consume less. We know we need to divest from fossil fuel industries, or for those of us who can't afford investments, to simply question the ways we support those industries in our daily lives. Can we live more locally? Can we consume more locally? Can we eliminate foods and products and activities that depend on fossil fuels or other ecologically devastating industries? Those things are easy, compared to the big things--big things like the medical system and school system; our centralized cities and global industries; all the huge systems that are interdependent with not only the fossil fuel industry, but our rampant capitalism that feeds it. We have to move towards a post-capitalist, decentralized society, and that is not at all easy. Just the thought makes me feel overwhelmed and powerless. I'm only one lady with a crippling disability. I have one hard-working partner, and two kids, and I care most about my own little household. How am I going to save the world?

Then I realized that as parents we DO have power in how we educate our children. In places like where I live, we have legal options to home-school--with an unschooling philosophy if we choose--which helps move us away from the centralized society we currently have that supports the status quo. That moving away from the status quo is exactly what we need to do, and not only does home- or unschooling physically remove us from the status quo of mainstream brick-and-mortar schools, but it prepares our minds for a new paradigm. In fact, many of the concepts integral to unschooling will help us move in sustainable directions, even when used in schools. Unschooling is more of a lifestyle or mindset than it is a pedagogy. It's the mindset that we gain through this kind of living that will help us build and thrive in the new, post-capitalist society. Let me explain:

What Is an Unschooling Mindset?
Unschooling is the practice of allowing our children (or ourselves) to move, grow and learn exploratively, independently from the capitalist notion of "school". Sometimes this looks like bucking the school system altogether, and living a free-range life, engaged in whatever interests us; developing similar skills and understanding as school-going people, but organically. Sometimes, unschooling involves various parts of the school system, as they benefit the learner or the wider community. My unschooled children both attended school programs for a few years, when those programs (or social situations) served their needs. But we accessed them with an unschooling mindset: to use what works for us, in whatever way best serves us, and to skip the rest.

Wait--skip the rest? Isn't that kind of arrogant? Or isn't that missing out on all those things that our kids need? After all, the people who built the school's curriculum know better than our kids do what's important to do and learn, right? Amazingly, generations of unschooling families have discovered that, while unschooled kids may learn and grow on their own schedule, they generally meet the same milestones as the school-going population at similar times. The reason is that those milestones (and curricula) were indeed made thoughtfully, based on the natural progression of learning, and age-appropriate activities. Not all kids will be inspired by all of these things at the same time, but on the whole, there's a predictable progression of skill acquisition, throughout childhood. So, unschooling kids who follow their own innate interests tend to choose and acquire the same skills at similar times. As an parent of unschoolers who has often been teaching my kids' peers in classrooms, I've frequently been amazed to witness this phenomenon.

What Does An Unschooling Mindset Have to Do With Post-Capitalism?
Moving to a new way of living, societally, will require us to have flexible minds. It will require us to be agile in our thinking; to creatively solve problems we never expected, and to move forward courageously in situations we're unprepared for. All of those things are habit to the unschooled mind.

Unschooling, whether at home or at school, means taking each experience as it comes, with a deep awareness of personal and community needs. At home, we look at the options the day has presented to us, and follow our instincts and current assessment of needs to determine what will best feed us on this day. We learn organically, in a needs-based prioritization, and hence develop the skills that will best serve us, in the moment. Maybe we don't learn to read when we're five, but when the need to read arises, maybe at nine or ten or twelve, it's easier to pick up the skill, because our current needs and prior experiences have prepared us. 

In a school that supports an unschooling (or self-determined) mindset, the teacher presents an activity--the one they feel will best serve the majority of students--and the students who are unschooling through school will assess the activity and determine independently whether it merits their participation or whether they might better benefit from working independently on something else. There are democratic schools all over the world that function very well in a scenario just like this. Students in these schools are empowered to work towards their own best purposes, and in doing so, empower each other to do the same. Students in unschooling groups, democratic schools and other similar programs are accustomed to assessing and providing for their own needs, as well as to determining their own engagement in the greater community. Hence they're also accustomed to keeping cognizant of the community's needs. Fast forward to a post-capitalist society, and these same students will find it easier to assess their own needs and meaningfully engage with their communities. When we are no longer told how to engage by schools, corporations, and capitalist-funded media, we're going to need to figure those things out for ourselves.

That takes courage now, and as climate disasters become an increasingly large part of our lives, our need for courage and ingenuity will only grow. I think about the man I heard interviewed on the radio after he watched his parents burned alive, while they hid in a ditch and a wildfire burned through the town of Lytton, British Columbia. Now he has to pick up and carry on; to find meaning and purpose in a world that will never, ever be status quo for him again. I think about the (now former) principal of the Stein Valley Nlakapamux School who fled her home at the onset of that same fire. She and dozens of other evacuees ran for the school, and her first thought was to make sandwiches for incoming people, because it was dinner time. Before she could finish preparing the food, the fire had jumped the river and they all fled north again, to settle in Lilloet. The people of Lilloet, themselves on evacuation alert due to a different massive wildfire, took the Lytton evacuees and housed and fed them. With courage and agile-thinking, everybody in this horrible situation stepped up as needed, in the moment. Interestingly, the Stein Valley Nlakapamux School is one of those forward-thinking schools, working to equip students with courage, community values, and self-reliance. It didn't surprise me that the first thing their principal did when arriving at the school as an evacuee--her home burning down just a few miles away--was to make sandwiches. Thankfully, the school was one of the few buildings spared in that horrible fire, and it also doesn't surprise me that now, with the town still under a state of emergency, they have begun the year with online learning, and offered up their building as a relief and gathering centre for those working to rebuild. That is agility, courage, and creativity in action.

We don't have a choice about becoming a post-capitalist society. Either we change voluntarily right now, or the now-commonplace storms, floods, fires and pandemics will drive our capitalist society into the ground. You know what will be left after that? People. Maybe with few habitable areas or resources to speak of, but there will be people. And if those people are prepared with an unschooling mindset, we will persevere.

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