Friday, June 15, 2007

Questions About the Job We're Doing Raising Our Kids

Barbara Kingsolver, an author that I've greatly enjoyed in the past, has written a new book, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, about her family's rather drastic move to a small farm where they have tried to eat locally and produce as much of their own food as possible. I haven't read the book yet (although I'm planning to), but I've read several reviews that have intrigued me enough to put it on my "to read soon" pile.

The most recent review I read contained the following statement by Kingsolver, "The worst thing you can do for your species is raise helpless offspring. And our society is doing that. We've convinced ourselves that being able to manage a Web site is more important than knowing how to grow food or cook it." ("The New Frontier," Rebecca Barry, More, May 2007, p.42.)

That statement is both appealing to me and repellant to me. (For the sake of this post, I am assuming she was quoted accurately.)

The statement appeals to me because I do feel that it is extremely important for all humans to know how to grow and cook their own food, as well as to know many other practical skills. I also feel that it is extremely important that we all know and understand the biological principles behind healthy food and about our position within a (hopefully healthy) ecosystem. Raising competent, knowledgeable offspring is extremely important for the survival of any species. It only takes a generation or two or three for competence and knowledge to be lost, sometimes irretrievably.

On the repellant side, one of my problems with the statement is the concept of "helpless." What constitutes "helpless"? Is "helpless" different in our modern society than in a more primitive society? And what should constitute "competent, knowledgeable"? I know that our definitions of "helpless" are different for our own society than they would be for a "less advanced" society. Should those definitions be different and, if so, in what ways?

However, the biggest problem I have with Kingsolver's statement is the designation "the worst". Is raising helpless offspring "the worst" thing one can do for one's species? It's certainly bad, but is it "the worst"? What would be worse than that?

For some reason that I can't quite fathom, this is bugging me. I've rewritten this post several times, often being drawn into elaborate arguments with myself regarding the above questions, but I think I'm just going to put the questions out into the blogosphere.

Any ideas or thoughts, anyone?


Anonymous said...

I totally disagree with that premise. Although, at least she is saying that raising food is worthy, not some other antiquated business crap.

I may have to read that book to disagree with it thoroughly. Here's a counter point to that synopsis, though.

Well, crap, I can't even do it in a shortened manner.

Proposition A: The sum of human to this point is irrelevant or damaging. New knowledge and skills should not be pursued. Only the "natural" basics of survival, procreation, eating, and shelter have any value.

Proposition B: Human achievement and knowledge are worthwhile paths of progress, and must be continued if we are to rise out of the possibility of self-destruction. The evolution of the human species, culture and thought is going to continue to accelerate, and may even take different branches. No one human being can, even now, keep a good handle on all the knowledge available, and the rate of information production is increasing.

As I see it, the only way that Ms. Kingsolver can make her claim is if she subscribes, in no small part, to proposition A. I myself am a believer in proposition B. If you accept all or even part of proposition B, than it seems to me that teaching kids how to interface with information super-saturation in a reasonable manner is actually one of the most important skills that they can have, and that is what the web is evolving into. There are things that must be done to be learned, but the whole advantage of the arc of human progress is that we have figured out how to transmit enough knowledge to be somewhat functional without having to make all the mistakes or do all the experimentation perfectly. A child who knows how to surf the well and how to LEARN from what they're surfing will be able to bootstrap themselves into someone with a good chance of growing food. Yes, there are problems that will arise, and things that must be done to be learned, but with knowledge sharing and collaboration, even those problems are less insurmountable than attempting to do it on your own.

Books like this, lamenting the fall of culture, or naturalism, or whatever, are generally written by people who do not wish to live in the real world. Yes, it would be nice if everyone would place nice, have no more children than it took to replace themselves, only cared about sustenance and a good lifestyle, yada yada. That is not the human condition, and won't be for the foreseeable future. Idealists have two choices: they can either divorce themselves from the world they do not like, and go live on a sustainable farm and feed only themselves, and thus NOT help the rest of humanity, or they can seek to find way to help bring humanity forward to a place where their vision has more chance of coming true. This latter option can only be exercised if the idealist understands that their vision will NEVER come true, but believe in the value of working towards it in the real world.

Anonymous said...

PS: I want some pictures taken with the new camera.

Gaia Gardener: said...

Well, at least I didn't choose a premise that left you feeling ambiguous!

I think what Ms. Kingsolver is trying to get at here is that there are certain basic forms of knowledge that ALL of us must have to enable us to try to live in a way that doesn't destroy the ecosystem underpinning us. (And "living" here may simply be having the understanding to make an informed choice about a political decision or even about a food choice - understanding the wider ramifications of how those choices are affecting the health and longevity of the individual and the planet.)

While as adults we all obviously won't be able to grow our own food or even to cook it, I do think she's right that all of us should, at some point in our education, actually have to learn the basics of growing and cooking our own food through hands-on labor. Only through actually tending food plants and seeing how fragile they are, only through getting your hands dirty and putting some sweat equity into it will many people begin to comprehend their reliance on healthy soil, healthy water, a healthy climate, etc. as the true source of their food and their personal health.

I also think that it wouldn't be bad to require that all adolescents have to visit a packing house to see that the meat in the grocery store comes from living animals that have to be killed to feed us. I can guarantee that watching the process from start to finish would be memorable.

While I know this doesn't pertain to you, personally, too many people in the "civilized" world truly believe that their food comes in sanitized plastic packaging from the grocery store, that droughts or water shortages don't affect their lives, that "the only good bug is a dead bug", that they can spray a horrific poison to kill a "pest" and not have it affect their own body. They think that Modern Technology has somehow made us independent of basic biological principles. They think that there will ALWAYS be fresh produce and meat at the market and clean water flowing freely from the taps.

So I don't think that Ms. Kingsolver is trying to say that we all need to move back into the Stone Age. I DO think that she's trying to say that too many people - and the younger they are, the more likely this is - who don't really comprehend how reliant we all are on the biological processes of life.

Now, is that lack of comprehension on the part of the youngest generations the "worst thing" that we can have done for the future health of our species?

All it will take will be a couple more years, give or take a decade or two, of current environmental policies for us to find out first hand.

Almost no matter what we do to the Earth, some forms of life will survive. (Cockroaches come to mind.) The questions for me are, "Can humans ultimately survive what they are doing to their planet? And if they do, will it be at a level of existence that we truly want to live in?"

Anonymous said...

The premises that you lay out there I can certainly agree with, though of course the logistics of that operation are at best difficult.

However, your premise is hardly mutually exclusive to also knowing how to use the web to gain gain and share knowledge. The quote you've used makes it seem as though the author thinks the two are mutually exclusive.

Of course, I've thought for years that we ought to condense our high school curricula down to 3 years or so (Same amount of information, less time. We could do it by getting rid of our ridiculous agrarian school calendar.), and spend one year of high school doing community service type activities in an environment far different from the one you've gone to school in. So urban kids would go to the country, and vice versa. THAT would be educational.

I wish we could get flip, shelly, joe, theresa, et. al to join our little blog discussions.

Gaia Gardener: said...

I like that idea! (Although it might be rather hard to accommodate all of the urban kids in the country. And truthfully, many rural kids don't know much more about gardening/livestock than urban kids do.)

I didn't take Kingsolver's original statement to be mutually exclusive - other than that focus on the internet/web often seems to preclude more basic activities such as gardening.

I agree totally about wishing others would join in, but I'm just glad that you and I can get some fun discussions going!

Anonymous said...

Well, they may not know much more about, but at least they've been exposed to it happening, from what I saw back in high school.

And you could always add some kind of minor local community service component to graduate your high school that would fill it in. Or have everyone do a 6 urban/6 country rotation. I mean, the possibilities are endless.

And I haven't read the book, but her quote sounds mutually exclusive.