Locus Focus: Take One Hundred and Eight
"Our success," Sir Ken Robinson has said, "is always synergistic with our environment." As an education adviser, he was likely talking about schools, although he is best known for a talk in which he explained how they kill creativity. But if we've learned one thing from last week's trip to 1940s Monongahela, learning and thriving don't need artificial structures to coax them out. Never underestimate a good unschooling setting.
And now for a cover that the impeccably artistic Stilwell will never forgive me for . . .
Hill Country Texas, 1866
by Leigh Greenwood
"[Jake is] driving the boys too hard," Ward said . . . "They're exhausted. Somebody's going to get hurt."
"He's not driving them at all. They're driving themselves . . . This herd is all Jake has. It stands for everything he hopes to have."
"But the boys."
"It's much the same with them. They never had a chance until now. Jake's success will be their success. I don't mean the money, though that's important. When they get those steers to Santa Fe, and they will get to Santa Fe, they will have accomplished something nobody can take away from them. They won't be useless orphans any more, and they'll owe it all to Jake."
It was really this Leigh Greenwood novel, and not any of John Taylor Gatto's books, that inspired this month's Unschooling Challenge. Reading Jake made me think that all teenage boys should go on an old-fashioned cattle drive, as full members of the crew, before they can consider themselves fully educated. I'll bet that most of them would agree to it, too! =P
When school teacher Isabelle Davenport brings eight orphaned boys to West Texas to find them good homes and ends up on Jake Maxwell's ramshackle ranch, she hits the jackpot . . . though it takes her a long while to realise it. The boys, ranging in age from fourteen to eight, get it immediately. Within two days of camping out near his empty corral, the older ones catch the horses they find near the creek and start roping and breaking them. They're not all experts, but they manage. And when the desperate Jake offers them a chance to work as his cowhands, they sense that saving his ranch will also help them to save themselves. (Not in the Pelagian sense, but you know what I mean!)
It may be the solution to all their problems, but it's not the easy way out. Jake, Isabelle and the boys still have to deal with some farmers who greatly dislike ranchers and who aren't afraid to murder children for a claim to the land . . . with Comanches and Apaches who aren't too happy with the white and black men who have been moving out west . . . and of course, with the ornery steers themselves. In other words, no more than what a bunch of unschoolers can handle! Those who don't know how to ride get on horses for the first time; those who have never held a gun learn how to shoot when rustlers attack; and those who have never touched hard liquor learn, to their great discomfort in the morning, why it's a bad idea to get your courage from a bottle. =P Even Isabelle, who has never had to cook a full meal in her life, learns how to prepare beans, bacon and biscuits while on the trail!
But perhaps the best part of the story, from an educational perspective, comes after Jake is temporarily incapacitated and the boys have to work out a way to survive in the wilderness without him. That the novel doesn't turn into The Lord of the Flies at that point is a testament to Jake's abilities as a teacher, although he'd never describe himself as one. It also makes a great case for typical Western settings as one of the best environments for shepherding boys into manhood--a standard that our own schools have been failing to meet for a long while.
Question of the Week: If you could live your childhood over again in another place and time, where and when would you go?
Image Source: Jake by Leigh Greenwood