Turning of the year

It’s the eve of the winter solstice, the turning of the year, the New Year on Earth’s terms and what for me increasingly feels like the real Christmas.

It seems odd to look back over the year because it seems impossible that it can already be over. I could swear we’ve only come as far as March. If I really have experienced enough of it to be able to box and name it, its name is Transition. On a personal level, it has felt like a year of transition to the second half of a life because of the need to grow up and deal with some difficult, although partly positive, situations. My work as director of Flow has taken a new direction as we have set up Flow India. (Deficit cuts have hit the UK’s cultural sector but growing demand for international-style cultural experiences in India is keeping us busy.) My mother sunk deeper into dementia and my parent’s marriage collapsed. My daughter rejected her transition to secondary school and so I had to become a home educator with my partner.

This last has brought a transition into a deeper kind of parenting, and with it a fuller awareness that learning in general is much more about home than generally assumed. I had always seen a division between home as a place of comfort and school as a necessary ‘outing’, a place that prepares you to go out into the world. This year I’ve realised that learning defined as ‘learning to work out there in the world’ is an unhelpful and untrue construct. The dichotomy of home and work that is embedded in our culture is unhealthy because it increases isolation in communities, reduces the confidence of those with home-based lives, increases our perceived needs to travel for work and so on. At root, the trouble is that when most of us push off into the world of work, we enter an industrial system that is other than the living world, somewhere abstract from our planet home. With this enforced dichotomy, conventional schooling becomes a process of hardening your heart so that you can hurt the living world and so that you can cope being untied from home.

After two decades within schools and then two decades working with schools, home schooling has been an eye opener. I’ve become more keenly aware that good learning is a process of intergenerational exchange. Often forgotten is the value of exchange from younger people to adults. (Also, it’s about interdisciplinary exchange but I’m focusing on age exchange for now.) Adults nurture by expressing willingness to grow through the insights offered by children and young people. Younger children open us up to grow because they feel as if they have all the time in the world to be mindful and playful. Conversely, teens and young adults touch us with their urgency because in coming into world awareness they notice how short the time is before their youth and the stability of their world may come to an end.

It’s clear to me now that we learn best in and thrive most from home and with a goal of making your home a place to thrive in. By home, I don’t mean only the place that shelters us nightly but the wider world that can be explored freely. The typical judgement is that we must put children in schools because, by a great majority, their homes are not fit for the kind of thriving or learning that will make our nation competitive. So, we build schools because we are also building workplaces that are not-home. More workplaces are disconnected from reality in the sense of human intimacies within a local ecosystem. More schools now resemble these alienating and disconnected workplaces. In turn, our alienation through the normalisation of industrial workplaces has led to a situation whereby many homes are not optimal for thriving. Parents are working outside of the home or growing inequality means that homes of the long term unemployed or the most deprived can sometimes tip into places of abuse for children. Families have become too isolated from one another so the idea of co-parenting is now almost unheard of in the mainstream.

I’ve discovered that home schooling is a good deal more possible even for working parents than most imagine, if you can set up co-operative co-parenting networks and very small schools. Still, home-based education will remain a minority choice and schools will continue to be built in their thousands across the world. So, if schools must exist, they need to ‘come home’. To do that, they need to give more attention to nurturing more intergenerational learning. They need to enable much more exploration of our planetary home, the wider world. Rather than banning displays of affection, and increasing discipline, they need to structure spaces, groups and tasks to breed intimacy. School could become a resource for making both your private home and common home a place for thriving.

I’ve not said much yet about the extraordinary events of the year, but they have been a stimulating backdrop for my thoughts about home, thriving and learning. The question I wake up to every morning is ‘what about our children? How will they live with this?’ The fear that threatens to keep me awake each night comes from the ever-harsher biting of climate change impacts with more  severe droughts, forest fires, forest diseases, storms, floods and in turn rising food prices which are a major but unacknowledged cause of current discontent. The unexpected speed of these impacts has led many scientists to believe that 2C is no longer to be considered a safe limit for rising temperatures. Although 2011 has seen the first full agreement on the Kyoto Protocol in 20 years, this supposed good news is bad news because climate action is largely deferred to 2020. No actions can now prevent a 2C increase, so the climate realists’ question is now: How can we act urgently to prevent rapid feedback effects, a temperature rise of 4-7C and the annihilation of most vertebrate species? In fact, very few people with any influence are asking this question, so it feels unlikely at this moment that there will be enough urgent action. I don’t want to say that it IS unlikely, but to express that it feels unlikely.

I’m not suggesting that we need to turn our attention to our families and our parochial lives in order to solve the big global problems. Transition actions towards sustainable living that are focused only on the domestic and the local might have been relatively impactful on a global scale if it had been mainstreamed thirty years ago. It is too late for this alone to give us hope. It is too late for any one kind of action to give us the necessary hope. However, it is essential for us to live in hope and to take action.

One strand of thought I will pursue in 2012 is about what we can take from long cultural histories of homeliness, horticulture and parenting, and how can we best scale up what works. How can we rethink all our institutions of state and industry as homes, or safe places for intergenerational and interdisciplinary exchange with the goal of a thriving home world?

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