High winds knocked out our electricity last night. For a change, we were prepared. Before dinner, we found three working flashlights, and placed them strategically around the house. Bought a new box of matches for the candles, the sides of the old box having become so scratched and gouged, it was rare that at any attempt at a light was actually successful. Disconnected the computers, the TV, the microwave, the washer and dryer, but, after reflection, not the refrigerator. We already had water stored in the pantry.
The wind howled, or so I am told. I would have slept right through it. In fact, I would have been totally oblivious to wild nature's goings-on except that Meera (now 16!) came into our room at 3 a.m. to announce that the wind was keeping her awake. I guess the theory goes that, if she can't sleep, neither should we.
My wife Ellen, she being the much lighter sleeper of the two of us and now wide awake, got up to take the sign off the house, which was banging against the outside wall and was among the sources of Meera's complaint. We had put up the sign prior to the last wind (and ice) storm of almost exactly ten years ago, which kept us without power for 11 days, and was the occasion of my writing my first homeschooling book And the Skylark Sings with Me, composed while sitting on a rocking chair by a woodstove at my next-door neighbor's.
The sign taken down bears the name of our homeschool - "Shantiniketan". I can still remember Ellen and the two girls (ages 8 and 5, I think) preparing the plank of wood, stenciling in the gold letters on a painted green background, and filling them in, and then carefully painting in the flowers in white, pink, and light green below. Two hooks attached to the top, and to the wall by the front door, and we were in business.
Shantiniketan has multiple meanings for us. Literally, in Sanskrit "shanti" can signify inner peace or tranquility; "niketan" is usually translated as abode or garden, a later connotation has it taking over the whole house! The verb root has a suggestion of "knowing". (Sanskrit is an extraordinarily fluid language.) "Abode of Peace" seemed good to us.
Shantiniketan is also the name of the famous Indian school of the arts founded by the Nobel Prize-winning Bengali poet and dramatist Rabindranath Tagore, whose work is much beloved by us. Since we have many Indian friends and adopted relatives, the sign on the house (and in our return address on letters) would immediately strike a familiar, and much-appreciated chord.
And then there are the names of the girls. My wife and I both decided to purge our last names. Hers was, we think, a creation of some Ellis Island immigration agent who felt a need to add some vowels. Mine (long story) was the result of my grandfather's successful attempt to get around fatuous immigration controls. Hardly names worth hyphenating, so we decided to ditch them both. We greatly confused the hospital in Aliyah's case with the last name "Shanti" (her full name means either "Pilgrimage of Peace" or "Peace Arising" in Hebrew/Arabic). Meera, adopted from India, didn't come to us from the adoption agency with a last name, and so it was a little easier to ascribe one (we changed her first name as well.) We still have an interesting time when checking in as a family on plane trips (or most recently, for a hotel reservation where the hotel thought they needed three separate rooms and reservations, one for each last name, just in case.)
The appellation of our homeschool was less important, I think, than the fact that we had one. It was an expression of our commitment to be, at least in this stage of our collective lives, a learning family. Homeschooling was not something to be done to (or on) the kids, nor something that kept them from their play (or to be 'finished' before they were allowed to do the same). Education is simply too important to be confined to the children.
There was never a time in our children's lives that Ellen and I weren't learning in both formal and informal settings. Through her studies, Ellen took up a second, and then a third career, first as a massage therapist/doula, and then as a geriatric nurse. I took up new musical instruments, opera singing, and traveled quite far to continue my study of south Indian music, as well as beginning a new career in public health. We were stretched for time (the dogs definitely would have preferred greater attention, and we never would have won any awards for our vacuuming), and occasionally for money.
We didn't adopt a formal family homeschool mission statement, a practice which nonetheless I heartily recommend. What we did agree on was that we were was a community of learners, all going our separate ways, all of us aiding each other. Sometimes, for any one of us, learning something new was a struggle; sometimes things came easily.
As parents/teachers, our explicit commitment to learning at the same time our kids were growing up created a greater empathy in us for encountering new aspects of the physical world, and the mental space that went along with them, for the first time, to be followed through the necessary inputs of time, energy, and effort, by mastery. I cannot honestly say that the time we devoted to our own pursuits reduced the kids' teaching time, which, for the most part, we would not likely have undertaken in any case.
What it did afford our children were models of adults continuing our knowledge quests. I don't think it can be emphasized enough how rare this is in a school-based culture. In school one may find good teachers or poor ones (in retrospect, I am hardpressed to know with any degree of certitude which were which), but what I never experienced until I got to graduate school (from the little I can remember) were teachers actually learning anything. Information came from their heads as from the noggin of Zeus, where it had been placed by some essentially magical process wholly hidden from us. School far more resembled a military training ground, with directives received from on high and carried out without question, in a process entirely opaque to me. I was a good soldier, with many medals pinned proudly to my breast, which made me even less likely to question the wherefore or whither of this extraordinarily arcane educational enterprise than my seemingly less successful colleagues, who saw through the game much earlier than I was ever capable of.
Homeschoolers often ask me about subject matter, and those who know me know that I usually respond with the equivalent of a long-winded shrug. I love classical education, in many respects had one myself, and, in the elaborate schema conceived of by Martianus and Cassiodorus respectively in the 5th and 6th Centuries Anno Domini, the trivium (grammar, dialectics, rhetoric) and quadrivium (arithmetic, music, geometry, astronomy/astrology) were indeed highly suitable for the training of medieval monks (and today, perhaps for smattering of their professorial successors), filling their minds (and time) with the remnants of Latin (and a tiny smattering of Greek) lore. It kept the aspirants out of trouble (or at least in theory it did) and away from contact with a fearful and undoubtedly evil world of nature, the only price to be paid being that inherent distrust of direct observation and experimentation likely (with other factors) set back the course of western science and philosophy about 800 years until rescued by Islam. (I'll have to store this away as the subject for another column or I'll never finish this one!)
Doesn't matter much, though; just as a millennium ago many folks weren't cut out for an exclusively male medieval monkhood, lots of highly successful human beings today wouldn't have benefited much from an education organized around the trivium/quadrivium either. Nature values diversity in caring for the evolution of the species.
* * * * *
It is the day before Christmas, and I am completing this essay in Florence, Italy. We are visiting Aliyah, currently a third-year student at Smith College and double major in music composition and Italian studies. Aliyah is now pretty fluent in the local language and customs, and makes an excellent tour guide and translator, though she is put out by my fractured attempts to order calzone with the proper pronunciation (for me, it rhymes with Frank Malzone, third basemen for the Boston Red Sox during the late 50s/early 60s, but even mentioning that piece of trivia is likely to get me in trouble.)
And today, as promised months ago (and which had me doing serious work at the gym), Aliyah and I climbed all 414 steps to the top of the Campanile, the impressive and ebullient tower of white marble, pink porphyry, and green serpentine next to the Duomo, designed and begun by Giotto in the early Trecento (14th Century - no, that's not an error). Wonders never cease - I presumed this would be an impossibility when I tore a calf muscle rather severely about a month earlier while in training for this exercise. But a little huffing and puffing, and there were we, looking out over the magnificence of Aliyah's temporary home (which has been justly characterized by a friend of ours as an adult version of Disneyland.) I'm not even sore! (though let's wait until tomorrow morning…)
Around the base of the Campanile (also home of a folletto, an Italian goblin - for the story of "The Goblin of Giotto's Tower", go to www.sacred-texts.com/etc/tl/tl11.htm), Giotto designed and Andreas Pisano carved the Attivitá Humane, the Activities of Humankind, the substance of a curriculum of living. These include Necessitas - those activities of earning a livelihood to keep body and soul together, Virtus - the occupations of the civil and political life, and Sapientia - the realms of intellectual speculation and artistic creation. These culminate in the figure of Daedalus, not a symbol of denatured and disembodied academic pursuits, but an embodiment of the ceaseless striving associated with the best of human aspirations. These, to my way of thinking, are the guideposts to an education worthy of the name, that which ensures full participation in family, community, and civic life. Make sure that your homeschooling family incorporates all three and, rest assured, you'll have nothing to worry about when it comes time for your children to climb their own tower, or to build one. Giotto says so.
We leave for home in two days, and Aliyah is off to Athens and Crete. I'm not allowed to be jealous (but I am anyway - ah, to be young again!). I know this essay isn't going to be published until March, so from our family to yours, this will have to serve as a belated