Home Education Magazine
September-October 2004 - Articles and Columns
Conversation with Michelle Wilbert: Living life "Close to the Root" - Helen Hegener
Michelle Wilbert is the author of an upcoming book sparking conversation among homeschoolers: Close to the Root: A Handbook of Simple, Sustainable and Earthy Alternatives for Family and Community Life. For information about her book you can contact Michelle at her email address: MLEWilbert@aol.com
Helen: Michelle, let's start out with a little background information. Tell our readers about yourself and how you came to be interested in homeschooling, among other things.
Michelle: I'm married to Benjamin; mother to Stephen (15), Emma (13), Hugh (9) and Mary (almost 3); a community midwife and an unschooling parent. I began studying midwifery and became aware of homeschooling in the early 1980's. I wouldn't have children of my own for a number of years at that point, so it was all kind of academic, in terms of my interest.
Helen: Did any particular event spark your interest in homeschooling?
Michelle: I was a "hippie" homesteader living in the northern part of Michigan when I first discovered Midwifery by finding the book "Spiritual Midwifery" on the bookshelf of the local library. It was an immediate and overwhelming recognition of what was to become my primary vocational calling. My first ideas about homeschooling were formed from early issues of the Whole Earth Catalogue, which had excerpts from John Holt and the Summerhill School, and those folks as well as my infatuation with "The Farm" community in Tennessee where Stephen and Ina May Gaskin ( the author of Spiritual Midwifery) had created a functional, low tech and sustainable community including, but not limited to, a midwifery based maternity and health care system and their own democratically run school.
The thing that was most compelling to me about that was the commitment they had to changing the world! I was impressed by their outreach and involvement in issues outside of their community; it didn't exist solely to make their individual lives better; they believed that they were an experiment in progress and they wanted to show that small, local, sustainable options in every area of life were a realistic goal. The idea that people should make lifestyle decisions that are better for everyone was a new way of thinking for me.
Helen: I think The Farm helped a lot of people look at things differently.
Michelle: It began to make sense to me that how we birth, raise and educate our children, take care of our sick and elderly and ultimately, how we die, should be an integrated thing; kind of seamless. So, I decided on just that kind of life and midwifery was, in my mind, my little part of it. Later on, when my husband and I met, The earliest indications that we were 'meant to be' was the fact that we both wanted to homeschool children so, there was never any idea that we would do anything else, which was a great blessing because no one had to be talked into anything! So, 16 years later, we're still here. We don't spend a lot of time thinking about how we live, but we've come to realize that we do, indeed, do things very differently from most of our friends and neighbors and increasingly, we've noticed that we don't have the same ideas and concerns that much of the homeschooling and midwifery communities have at present. I've realized we're something of an anachronism!
Helen: How is that?
Michelle: As I said earlier, I think that I started out thinking about the potential for cultural transformation that I found in these ideas. Early thinking about homeschooling and midwifery were located within a value system that was home and community centered, democratically oriented, staunchly independent of any ideas of government or public involvement or oversight and really wedded to concerns about changing society for the better and that was true whether people were Christian homeschoolers, hippies or eclectics. They might have had different societal goals in mind, but changing the world was definitely part of the package.
Helen: And I believe it still is for many people, especially old-timers who remember what it was like when homeschooling was illegal in many places and birthing at home was frowned upon.
Michelle: The idea of staying outside of government involvement or interference was so central. Midwifery really believed that childbirth was a normal function belonging to the family that government had no business being involved in. Homeschooling parents powerfully assumed their constitutional right to determine how to educate their children and local communities built up whatever supports were needed for their particular situation. Over the last few years, the values and goals have shifted. Midwives and consumers began agitating for more "professional" recognition and remuneration and have become more medically oriented and encultured, and homeschoolers have begun accepting - and in some cases seeking out - public school "help" with homeschooling, accepting both oversight and input from governmental agencies.
Helen: I believe the accepted term for that is "shifting the paradigm," which means to change the prevailing view of things. Homeschooling used to mean parents teaching their children at home, but now many people would like to see it imply everything from unschooling to public school.
Michelle: Additionally, a real 'culture war' has begun within these communities that is disappointingly contentious and divisive. So many arguments over "types" of homeschoolers or midwives. So many angry exchanges about who had the "better" birth or who has the "right" idea about how to homeschool. My premise and belief is that many, many people either don't remember, never knew or stopped caring about the core values of these ideas.
Helen: "Core values" is a good way to put it. Those would be the founding principles, the reasons why people turned to these options in the first place.
Michelle: Additionally, they don't realize what is being lost or how it will impact them. In a culture where "choice" is a guiding principle, all choices become highly individualized, as in, "If I like it and it's good for me, then it is good." Even if it destroys real freedom in family and cultural life.
Helen: So in effect we've traded personal freedoms for the "right" to choose from among a selection of options - which may not need to be approved at this point, but which are being more and more narrowly defined all the time.
Michelle: The essays in this book are all connected to the theme of living life "from the inside out" and, in reference to the title, staying "close to the root", of home, family, community, God as we understand God and the cultivation of our deepest dreams for ourselves and our world. I write about my frustration with our increasing willingness to be led instead of leading; allowing corporate and private profit pursuits undermine our freedom and integrity. I make strong statements about remembering our history and the history of other similar social movements as a cautionary tale.
I do mean to suggest that we return to our collective first, best visions for birth, homeschooling and family life illustrated by people who sacrificed a great deal to pass it on to us; the Albany Free School Community, The Farm and Stephen and Ina May Gaskin, Joseph Chilton Pearce, Pat Montgomery, John Holt and John Taylor Gatto and certainly, the Home Education Magazine staff!
There are so many more! They held in common a vision of a radically transformed world and offered tools, ideas and ideals that we should still be aspiring to. We have to reclaim the vision and integrity of our pioneers in the work of creating a family life committed to the natural order of things; our communities need our healing example of home based birth, life, learning and death.
We need to show clearly that human scale options exist, are practical and economical in both scale and application and lead by living in freedom, integrity and peace. We have to claim this rich heritage we have and live it out with gusto!
Helen: And these are the themes which led to your writing this book?
My book rose out of these concerns. It contains some of the recent history of homebirth, midwifery and homeschooling in this country with a focus on the early guiding principles and values that inspired the "first generation" to implement them. I have interviewed some of those people for their views on my concerns and I have put to them, and myself, the simple question, "why does it matter?"
At the end of the day, we need to answer that question for others and ourselves. Does it matter if we birth at home? Why? Does it make any real difference if we homeschool our kids? What do we hope we leave as a legacy in 100 years? A free and noncompulsory educational "life" (not system) for all? Women who can give birth with strength, dignity, empowerment and autonomy and then mother fiercely, compassionately and with the confidence and competence that such a birth confers? Fathers who commit, contribute and support? Children who learn in freedom and peace, accompanied on the journey by the people they most love and trust and who believe in them in return?
Helen: Those are good and important questions.
Michelle: My book attempts to find an answer to these questions, or at least to pose them. It outlines some of the challenges, cultural and personal, that we find when we live our lives so "outside of the box." I hope to give a little gentle advice for some special challenges to maintaining our independence from medical, social or governmental interference.
Helen: But what about those readers who, for whatever reason, just don't feel they need to be independent of these forces?
Michelle: My book is grounded in the idea that living life from the inside out, "close to the root," rather than the other way around, the cultural norm, can be done and has real value to everyone. I always write to educate and inspire -- it's for midwives and parents, homeschooling communities, individuals and families who may be looking for answers and who really want to know why they should at least consider these things. It's for my own kids and family so they'll know that yes, I really did think about all this stuff before heading down this path!
Helen: While we were working on this interview, you wrote in an email to me: "In discussing this with people online, it seems that everyone wants encouragement and something to use as a 'north star,' which is, in essence, what I want this book to be."
The idea of having a north star, a guiding principle like those you mentioned the early homeschoolers and midwives having, might be a new concept for some of our readers. Could you explain more about the idea behind finding or developing this perspective?
Michelle: The idea or concept of a "North Star" or guiding principle is that we have to identify a value base or set of principles that serves as infrastructure for our lives. When you have that, every other decision connected to whatever it is you're doing becomes easy. Without it, you're easy prey for every 'new' concept, idea, product or service that comes down the pike! If we define homeschooling (and I do) as "parents learning at home with children, independent of government input or oversight, participating fully in the life of family and community" then the question of participating in a 'public school' offering or public or for-profit cyber school isn't going to need to be considered because, by definition, it falls outside of your value system. Your 'north star' is, simply stated, your truth and values and what is absolute for you.
I'm often so taken aback by people who say things like "well, I don't really believe in public school involvement in homeschooling but my friend is doing it and she really likes it so....." And, you know, so what? Does that option exist within your comfort level or no? If it's truly outside your value system, you will only create more uncertainty and misery for yourself and your family by trying to fit it in. The concept of a "north star", as I use it in the book, is simply an invitation for people to acknowledge and respect their own, deepest truth and make sure their actions reflect that.
Locating one's personal "north star" requires the answering of one question in response to any prospective decision: does this choice reflect my highest values? So, in other words, "are you who you say you are?" and will your choice affirm that to the world? It sounds simple but we live in a culture that works in direct and powerful opposition to the very idea of principled and independent consideration of options; a consumer culture depends on confusion and insecurity to make the sale!
The major changes I've seen since becoming involved in this lifestyle has been that homeschooling parents are becoming increasingly focused on "expert" advice or council about what to do with their children as homeschoolers and are leaning less on their own resources, which is a real change from the values base expressed at the beginning of this movement and is not, in my opinion, a healthy reversal.
You know, when I talk about homebirth and homeschooling having the potential to save the world; I really mean it! If we can represent a truly different path, ordered by an identifiable set of values and live them out with some coherence and integrity, people will take notice and perhaps, in time, see the beauty and strength in what we do. That means being uncompromising about rejecting ideas that aren't part of our stated values and I think we're not doing that so well.
I've heard a number of people say things like "Isn't the fact that someone wants to "profit" from the ideals of homeschooling or midwifery by offering cyber schools or creating for-profit, medically run birth centers a good thing? Doesn't it mean we're having an impact?"
Well, yes, we're having an impact but the values base is commercial, not cultural. If someone can take your values and figure out a way to personally or corporately profit from them, you've sold out or been bought. Are you who you say you are? You and your family are your 'North Star'!
© 2004 Helen Hegener
September-October 2004 - Articles and Columns
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