LINDISFARNE CAFE - MEMOIR: Raising Evan and Hilary:
Reflections of a Homeschooling Parent
Hilary and Evan at Disney World 1972, the year the Lindisfarne Association was incorporated
and before we moved to Lindisfarne in Southampton, NY
What is a parent to do with kids who want to learn, are smart--and maybe even smarter than their teachers--and are getting persecuted by their fellow students for not fitting into the dumb-it-down culture of modern America?
Millions of parents have now decided that what you do is take your kids out of school and organize an alternative approach through homeschooling. National Public Radio has estimated that there are now over four million families who have chosen to take the time to homeschool their children. The Associated Press more conservatively estimates that two million kids are now in homeschooling. Admittedly, many of these parents are Christian fundamentalists in flight from evolutionary science, but some are intellectuals who are not comfortable with the mass culture of school bullying, sports triumphalism, and the kind of patriotically distorted history that I experienced as a child in the McCarthy era of the 1950s. Since I was a homeschooling parent way back in the seventies, I now like to think of myself as a trendsetter who discovered that homeschooling is a daytime extension--and equally enjoyable form--of bedtime story-telling, as well as a new electronically assisted form of shamanic, mind-to-mind transmission from parent to child, and, surprisingly, back again, from child to parent in a learning process in which the child becomes the teacher.
Lacking the resources of a private income, or the salary of a university professor, I could not afford to send my kids to expensive private schools. I had to lay down a path by walking on the fog-obscured path of the writer that manifested one step at a time from public lectures or modest advances for books, but did provide opportunities for travel in which my expenses were paid by the hosting organization for a conference. On every occasion that it was possible, I tried to bring my kids along with me. This form of economic bricolage is very much the life of the artist, and became my way of life when I decided to walk out on the university to seek another way of life for the mind, heart, and spirit.
Evan in Grindelwald, Switzerland, 1979
There are many reasons to opt for homeschooling: drug use in schools, teenage gangs, school violence and cruel hazing, and a mass culture in which art and science are not valued as much as sports, money, and celebrity idolatry. Sports have so parasitized schools—both public and private—that cultural and intellectual values have a hard time making their way through the halls without harassment. Sports have always been considered useful in building the team spirit necessary for soldiers and good team players in corporations that it is most unlikely that their dominance will disappear any time soon. Indeed, the popularity of televised sports and their merger with the presentation of the Super Bowl of American Presidential politics means that they are as tightly coupled as the Church and the land-owning aristocracy were in the Middle Ages.
The emotional turning point came for me when my eleven year old son Evan was abjectly sobbing over his misery in public school, and then turned to me and said: "If you love me, how can you do this to me?" Looking into his eyes, I could see that this was not the theatrics of a kid trying to play hooky, but the cry of an old soul and brilliant mind trapped in a kid's body and in an institution that hadn't a clue about what to do with intelligent children who truly wanted to learn.
It was then that I proposed to Evan and Hilary’s mother Gail that we take the kids out of school and that I would set up a little school as part of Lindisfarne’s cultural experiment in exploring new directions for education. We did take Evan out of the sixth grade, and he never went back--to junior or senior high. However, when Gail and I split up in 1975, she and Hilary moved back to California, and Hilary, with much pain on her part, returned to the awful world of the American Junior High. All I could offer to Hilary was a “radical sabbatical” in which she quit school for a semester and went traveling with me in Europe. After the death of her parents in California, Gail and Hilary decided to move back East to return to Toronto where we had lived before we set up Lindisfarne in Southampton. Hilary did attend and graduate from High School in Toronto, but Evan because he lived with me in Manhattan, and because I was a stay-at-home writer who could be with him all day and take the time to supervise his tutorial program, never attended Junior or Senior High School. At sixteen, he went off to Amherst College, loved it, and graduated with honors four years later. He went on to get his Ph.D. in philosophy at the University of Toronto and has now returned there to serve as Professor of Philosophy.
As a first effort in escaping the Southampton public schools, I secured the permission from the local school board to set up a Lindisfarne School. We had six teachers for four kids, and Linda Leeds agreed to direct and co-ordinate the efforts of the teachers. Those of us with experience in education took our turn by offering a course in one of the cabins converted into a little brown schoolhouse.
Sophie Molholm and Linda Leeds in the little brown schoolhouse 1976. Sophie is now Associate Professor of Neuroscience at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine.
When Lindisfarne had to default on our mortgage for lack of funds, two of the families broke up—mine included—and most of the kids moved to northern California. My wife and daughter were among them, but my fourteen-year old son Evan stayed with me and moved to Lindisfarne-in-Manhattan.
From sitting at the table in the dining hall and listening in on the morning conversations with Gregory Bateson in 1975-76, and then Francisco Varela in 1977-78, Evan decided at the beginning of adolescence that adulthood was more interesting and free than childhood and so he decided to become an adult immediately. Lindisfarne’s program in philosophy, ecology, Asian thought, and the practice of Tai Chi interested him more than school and play, so he had no desire to leave Lindisfarne to return to public education. In effect, Evan apprenticed himself to Francisco Varela and sat in on all his lectures and seminars, and I tutored him in expository writing.
Francisco Varela, Linda Leeds, Gordon Leeds, and Evan Thompson in the Parish Hall of Lindisfarne in Manhattan, Chistmas, 1978. The painting in the background is by Haydn Stubbing and is now, along with two other Stubbings, in the permanent collection of the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York.
I could not offer my daughter the same advantages that came from living at Lindisfarne-in-Manhattan, but when at sixteen she was depressed and dissatisfied with public high school, her mother and I agreed to let Hilary spend the spring semester traveling with me around Western Europe and visiting many museums to pursue Hilary’s interest in art. She would later call it her “Radical Sabbatical.”
Hilary in Paris, 1981
Hilary met philosophers like Henri Atlan in cafes in Paris, and traveled with me and the poet Kathleen Raine through England and Scotland on our way to spend a week on Iona. As we drove through the Lakes Country around Windermere, Kathleen pointed out the window and said: “Oh, look, Hilary! There is where Wordsworth stole the rowboat.” I thought to myself, “Now that is the way to learn English literature!—not in a classroom but in the inspiring landscape with a living English poet.” On Iona, each afternoon, Hilary and I would walk down from Traigh Bhan to Kathleen’s cottage in the fishing village to hear Kathleen read the poem she had written that day. Then Kathleen and I would have what she calls in her poems “whiskey at six,” and Hilary realized that what she had just heard would someday be in a book.
WIT and Kathleen Raine in her Home in London 2001
Traigh Bhan on Iona, Retreat House of the Findhorn Foundation
When Hilary was big enough to push open the door of the Ladies Room, we began having Father and Daughter Days in which I would take her to children’s theatre or museums, first in Toronto, then in New York. On one of these expeditions, when Hilary was nine, we drove in from Southampton to Manhattan to go to MoMA. I thought Hilary would like Van Gogh’s “Starry Night,” but to my amazement, she fell in love with Jackson Pollack and said, “Oh, I could look at this all day!” When we returned home, she took the book of the paintings of Jackson Pollack off my shelf and went to bed with it, as if it were a cuddly Teddy Bear.
Hilary giving a talk at the 1988 Lindisfarne Fellows Conference at Esalen, Big Sur. From left to right: Nena and Bob Thurman, Hilary, WIT, Sandy and James Lovelock
When Hilary returned to Toronto from her Radical Sabbatical, she decided to take the direction of her education into her own hands. The high school she had been attending in her neighborhood had a very upper middle class smug and materialistic culture, so she decided to look at the alternatives. She found the formless and free countercultural schools too silly and settled on a large, impersonal, but multicultural school that was more to her liking. Large impersonal institutions, paradoxically, Hilary felt, offered her the freedom to go her own way, and since she knew her own way, their size and impersonal focus was just fine with her. She graduated from Northern Secondary High School, went to Trent University in Peterborough, Ontario for a year, found it too small and intellectually confining, and then transferred to the University of Toronto. She took an Honours Degree in English literature and won a Mellon Fellowship to the University of Michigan where she completed its Ph.D. program in English. After teaching for a few years at Michigan, she moved to Bowdoin College, where she is now an Assistant Professor.
Biologist Antonio Lazcano, Hilary, Francisco Varela, Evan behind Francisco, at a festival in Gubbio, Italy during the Lindisfarne Fellows conference in Perugia 1988
Hilary as a graduate student at the Univ. of Michigan, 1992
The recoil of the parent and child from mass culture and mass education can bounce in opposite directions: on the one hand, we can have an intellectual’s longing to withdraw from a debased consumer culture to raise children in a more philosophically and scientifically advanced supraculture, and on the other, a fundamentalist’s religious withdrawal from a secular-humanist, multicultural society into a rigidly controlled rural White subculture. Both of these conditions can cause a parent or a student to be unhappy with mass society and mass education.
As for the social containers of public schools, I don't foresee them disappearing from the face of the land in a “rapture” in which we are taken up into some completely new post-historical state of being. Great waves of immigration to the United States will continue to lift and support our collective societal need for good public schools. Such a need is essential for an open and just democratic society. But at the other end of our pluralistic society, there is another wave of emigration going on in which an electronic American culture is emigrating from the New World to an even Newer World.
Given the size of public school systems and the “America First!” social pressure brought to bear on them, I believe it is unrealistic to think that public schools will be the source of educational innovation and cultural transformation to this Newer World. Public schools will have all they can handle merely to deal with the new waves of immigration and to stabilize safe and modestly academic environments for their students. It is far more realistic to expect innovation and transformative learning to come from new private schools, charter schools, co-housing efforts, Internet and homeschooling alternatives.
Lest I be accused of being antidemocratic, let me present a sketch of my own educational and socio-economic background to show "where I am coming from.”
I was part of the vast postwar movement from the Midwest into Southern California. In 1945 the suburban tracts had not yet been built, there was not sufficient housing for families, and most landlords with apartments did not wish to take in noisy children, so at the age of seven I was packed off to St. Catherine’s Catholic military boarding school in Anaheim, a school that was more like an orphanage or prison than your usual upper class boarding school. I stayed there for two years, summers included, before my parents found a one-bedroom apartment for our family of five, and I was able to live at home and go to a Catholic parochial school.
Neither my mother nor my father was educated beyond the eighth grade, so my socioeconomic background can be described as Irish-American working class. My mother had been “lace curtain Irish,” but she fell from grace and was disowned when she married a divorced Protestant, so the life of my parents in the Depression was anything but middle class. As an Irish Catholic born in Chicago--but whose own mother had been born in Ireland-- my mother was raised in what E. R. Dodds has called “a guilt culture.”3 Traditional Ireland was “the land of saints and scholars,” and in the revolutionary tradition of “the hedge schools” that defied the Penal Laws of the English, learning was respected, even by the poor. But in moving from the Irish subculture of Chicago to the Latino culture of Los Angeles, my mother did not realize that she was also moving from a “guilt culture” to a “shame culture.” In a shame culture, to excel is to threaten the integrity of the group, to cause others to lose honor or self-respect. To appear smart, to identify with the teacher rather than the class of one’s peers, is a violation of group integrity. Excellence is only tolerated in sports, for this form of macho demonstration serves to enhance the pride and self-respect of the group. This cultural predicament is also experienced by bright African-American students, for whom doing well in school is considered “acting white.”
My mother had tried to do her best to help me by once again trying to send me to a private military boarding school in the eighth grade, because just when my older brothers had gone off into the army and navy during the time of the Korean War, my father had collapsed from the incurable disease of sclerderma and had gone off to be cared for in a veterans hospital. She was also worried about me because two years earlier, I had been diagnosed with leukemia and the doctors told her that I would probably die within a year. The osteopathic doctors she consulted for a second opinion took out my tumor in two operations, told her it was a goiter in the wrong place, and hoped for the best. But a goiter it was not, and the primary tumor in the thyroid was left to produce and distribute its malignant metastases.
The 1940s and 50s was not a healthy time to grow up. There was, as there is today, an idolatrous belief in the invincibility and utopian perfection of technology. I remember waking early to watch the sky light up as Man beat Nature to the punch with the pre-emptive strike of an early dawn in an open air nuclear explosion. When the Santa Anna wind blew the dust into the San Gabriel Valley where the cattle grazed, the milk was never destroyed, and Iodine 131 made its merry way through the food chain and into the children’s thyroids, much as it did in the Ukraine after Chernobyl. To make matters worse, there were also X-ray machines in all the shoe stores. I remember twinkling my boney toes in the eerie green light. And to make matters even worse for me, I was given X-ray therapy for my tumor, which only made the cancer more malignant.
And then there was smoking. Everyone smoked everywhere. In my family of five, the other four members all smoked in the confining space of our one bedroom demi-bungalow. Not surprisingly, I developed asthma and had difficulty breathing. So with a sick husband and son, and two children off to war, my mother had a lot to contend with. Since she had to work in an office, and did not want me to be home alone, she sought out yet another military boarding school, Urban Military Academy in Brentwood. For a year I went to this private school, where world history was taught by the Headmaster, a Ph.D. who had taught European history at U.S.C. He insisted on running his eighth grade class as he had in university, and I loved it. It was wonderful to be treated as an adult, and I was fascinated with his more human approach to European history. The nuns in parochial school had certainly never told me that Popes had mistresses and children, or nephews that they would make cardinals at thirteen, my own age at the time. I excelled in the class and became an honor student. But the school was not in central L.A. where I lived, but in wealthy Brentwood. My school friend was the only other bookish student in the class, one who delighted in history and happened to live in a mansion overlooking the Pacific Palisades and had a weekend horse ranch in Santa Barbara.
The author at age thirteen, at Urban Military Academy, Brentwood, California
Invited to be his house guest, I was stunned by the luxury of having a room of my own, by the strangeness of a bathroom with a bidet, by the unreality of being driven to the movies by a chauffeur in a Cadillac limousine, of being driven to a birthday party at Douglas Fairbanks’s house, where the Firestone children threw ice cream at the others in a spoiled rich kids’ food fight-- creating a mess they expected the servants to clean up. At dinner in his home, I was disoriented by being served exotic dishes, such as barracuda, on silver platters offered by a butler and a maid. I had never even experienced a middle class life of having a home, a dining room, or a bedroom of my own, and I certainly knew nothing about the protocol of dressing for dinner, so I showed up in the formal dining room in my playclothes of school T-shirt and chinos--much to the disapproval of my colleague’s mother. I continued to annoy her as I developed a fierce attack of hay fever at their horse ranch in Santa Barbara and spent an entire weekend sneezing violently-- and feeling mortally ashamed, as only thirteen-year-olds can.
My mother had meant well, and had simply not wanted me to be a latch-key kid when she was away at work, but she could not keep up with the costs of the school, even though the headmaster tried to encourage her to pay by informing my classmates, in front of me, that she had not yet paid for my uniforms or the semester’s tuition. Her social experiment lasted only one year, and for the ninth grade I returned to a Catholic high school in south central L.A.
At St. Agnes High School that year, when I was fourteen, there was a pretty girl in my history class who I liked, and she responded to me flirtatiously, but also liked to compete with me in class. One day, we were given some national machine-scored test in world history. She smiled at me, offering to race me through the course. Stupidly, I responded, and finished the whole test at half-time. When the marks were returned a week or two later, the nun made the mistake of letting the class know that I had gone off the charts, receiving an impossible score higher than the hundredth percentile. I had only missed one question out of 100. The girl was livid, as she saw she could not compete with me and even come close.
Although she had flirted with me, she could not afford the loss of face by associating with the likes of me, and she had already chosen as her boyfriend a Mexican who was head of the Latino teenage gang that ran the school. So in her state of rage, it was a simple matter to aim her boyfriend in my direction in revenge for her loss of face. It became impossible for me to go out to the schoolyard at recess and lunch, and impossible even to continue at that high school. Fourteen-year olds did not pack Uzis in those days, but they did carry switchblade knives. At St. Agnes High I was risking eternal damnation by reading Candide in the ninth grade, and risking death by daring to go out into the playground, so I transferred to Los Angeles High, and although I was terrified to attend a large public high school of 2400 students, it was at that time a fairly safe if un-intellectual school. In the McCarthy era, intellectuals were held in contempt and ridiculed, but not attacked on the playground; it was as if we were untouchable perverts against the natural order of things—teenage popularity, sports, cars, and money. I was often accused of being un-American and communist simply, and rather ironically, because I had read Emerson, Thoreau, and Melville on my own and quoted them in class. “Whoso would be a man, must be a non-conformist” and “To be great is to be misunderstood” were among my favorite quotes.
Pomona College, Claremont, CA
After the hell of St. Agnes High, the purgatory of L.A. High and two more operations for cancer of the thyroid, I went on to the intellectual paradise of Pomona College, where I was admitted as a maverick who did not fit into their usual SAT formulaic profile. In my senior year, I received a Woodrow Wilson Fellowship for graduate study at Cornell. Pomona College was both emotionally and intellectually fulfilling, but grad school was a grind—more a form of hyper-professional training than education, but, in truth, Cornell did everything for me that a grad school is supposed to do. The English Department was small and personal, and the professors pretty much knew every graduate student by name. Nevertheless, the first year was depressing, and after one more operation in the summer break—my fifth for cancer of the thyroid--I thought about dropping out, but decided that the best way out was to get out as fast as I could by finishing. When I passed my oral defense of my thesis, I was told by the Registrar that I had set a record by finishing the requirements for the M.A. and Ph.D. in three years.
Cornell University and Lake Cayuga. Ithaca, NY
My dissertation was accepted for publication by Oxford University Press and is still in print forty-six years later. In the "publish or perish" culture of academe, the fact that I had five articles and a book from my graduate school work empowered me to receive job offers from Cornell, Stanford, MIT, and Pomona College. I chose MIT for my first academic position because I wanted to live in Cambridge and preferred to teach in an interdisciplinary Humanities program rather than in the more narrow confines of an English department.
MIT, Cambridge, MA
I am offering these personal anecdotal remarks simply to indicate to other parents that I have experienced the cultural extremes of education in America, and to indicate as well that my commitment to an intellectual elitism comes from an economically deprived person’s desire to escape poverty and violence for a world of culture and commitment to excellence.
For a specific program of homeschooling, one should consult my book Transforming History in which I outline an evolution of consciousness curriculum. This curriculum can be easily adapted by the parent for homeschooling. Public and private schools go from kindergarten to grade twelve, but I would suggest that homeschooling and “high school” should stop at age sixteen. This is an idea that I proposed in 1974, but that more recently Dr. Leon Botstein, the President of Bard College in New York, has put forward in the aftermath of the shootings at Columbine High School. Dr. Botstein feels that collectivizing teenagers in large groups during the years from sixteen to eighteen is asking for precisely the kind of trouble we have seen, and “that high school is a failure not worth reforming.”5 Sixteen year olds, Dr. Botstein argues, belong in the company of adults where they can be socialized to an adult life through training on the job as apprentices, or, if they are naturally inclined intellectuals, as students in colleges and universities. In my 1974 work, Passages about Earth: an Exploration of the New Planetary Culture, I argued that there was a naturally oscillating cycle of periods of Homo Faber and Homo Ludens, and that the years from 14 to 21 were definitely under the spell of Homo Ludens.
Homeschooling should stop at age sixteen and at that point the student should go away to a good liberal arts college, or engage in some experiential program of work and apprenticeship under a mentor other than his parents or former tutors. After receiving my program of homeschooling, my son went to Amherst at age 16 and graduated with honors four years later. I was able to homeschool my son because I worked at home and could be with him throughout the day. Thanks to personal computers, many parents, and not simply writers, now work at home, so the possibiliites for homeschooling have increased. However, even if one is in the privileged position of working at home and can take on the responsibility of homeschooling as a parent, it is still wise to try to work in association with others, either through co-housing or collaborative efforts with friends and colleagues. If suburban parents can get together for Little League, soccer, Campfire Girls and Boy Scouts, then they can also do the same for philosophy and science. But if one is a parent who must leave home to go work at an office or factory, then homeschooling is not a realistic option. Under these circumstances, it would be better to choose a private or charter school if one wishes to have an alternative to the public school system.
Culture is a shared system of values, and no child can be healthily raised in a parentally-controlled isolation tank, so play groups, and clubs for activities will need to be arranged to supplement any homeschooling program. If one wishes to escape the competitive and aggressive subculture of sports, then one can substitute group classes in Tai Chi or Aikido, music and dance school, or the wonderful classes that many art museums now offer for children. In our particular case, since we were living in New York, Evan and I took advantage of the city, even though in the seventies, New York was at a low point in terms of grime and crime. My son studied Tai Chi in Chinatown, took intermediate recorder lessons in Greenwich Village, studied classical Greek at the Greek Language Center on 57th Street, and sat in on the lectures on science and philosophy given at Lindisfarne by Gregory Bateson and Francisco Varela. If he felt that he needed a more intense course in science or math, then he took an adult night school course at N.Y.U., where high school level courses were offered for adults who did not want the embarrassment of having to go back to an actual high school and sit in class with teenagers.
With a resident staff of twenty-four living communally, Lindisfarne functioned as a co-housing experiment, so there were many adults around for my son to interact with as he participated in the house-cleaning chores of keeping the communal institute going. For my part, I gave him formal instruction in the research and writing of term papers, took him on research trips, and brought him with me on any public lecture or conference talk that I was asked to give. I reasoned that if a blacksmith’s son learned a trade by watching his father, then my son could learn my trade by watching me.
Evan, Francisco Varela, Hilary, and Nancy Todd (with her back to the camera) in Gubbio, Italy. Evan gave his first public lecture at the Fellows Conference in Perugia, Italy, 1988
To complete his homeschooling experience, I asked Evan to do an Honors Thesis to bring his studies into some sort of personal synthetic vision. Because he had been studying New Testament Greek, Evan chose to write on the philosopher Heidegger and the idea of the logos. When I showed the finished thesis to our Scholar-in-Residence Francisco Varela, I remember the look of astonishment in Cisco's eyes as he looked up at me from the couch where he was sitting.
"Shit!" Cisco exclaimed, "Evan shouldn't be able to write like this at fifteen!"
Cisco was one to talk, since he had studied Heidegger with the Jesuits in Santiago, Chile, and gone off to graduate school at Harvard at 19. The two had a lot in common besides being scholars in residence at Lindisfarne-in-Manhattan. And this commonality would continue to grow over the years as Evan became first Varela's student, then his research assistant, and finally his colleague and co-author of The Embodied Mind.
When, years later in 2002, I was recuperating from open heart surgery and too weak to be able to be the proud papa to attend Evan's keynote address at the Mind and Life Conference with the Dalai Lama at MIT, I thought, as I watched the videotape, of how after Evan's graduation from Amherst I told him that my graduation present to him for his B.A. in Asian Studies was that I would take him with me to meet the Dalai Lama at conference on science and religion at Alpbach in Austria. Clearly, the homeschooling of Evan at Lindisfarne had been what he knew he needed when he cried out so tearfully to me to get him out of the hell realm of public school.
Evan presenting research findings in Cognitive Science to the Dalai Lama at his home in Dharmasala
for the Mind and Life Conferences. 2007.
But the most important thing to keep in mind about homeschooling is that the parent must take much more time to be with the child than a normal working parent does. The parent must not only take the time to tutor the child, but also provide occasions for group play and association with neighbors or neighborhood institutions. If one is raising a child in rural circumstances, then nature itself provides other sorts of opportunities, and on-line courses with museums can help if one is not in a position to take the subway to the Metropolitan Museum. With the resources of the World Wide Web, homeschooling is now much more of a practical alternative than it was a decade ago. Nevertheless, the most important element is still the home, and if the parent cannot take the time to be with the child, then the Internet certainly cannot make up for the loss.
Many spiritual philosophies, in differing religious traditions, claim that we take on a body to experience a world of love and compassion. If we lose the body in collective systems and networks of data-processing, we can lose compassion and become intellectually cruel and economically insensitive. We forget that it was through the body that our child was brought forth, and we forget how to be with another in a sense of presence that enhances our feeling for the meaning of life. Like "the hungry ghosts" of Buddhist philosophy, we become wraiths--grey shades whose lives have been parasitized by computer and cell phone--and do not realize that they are dead and are only haunting the places of life. Homeschooling is one way for a parent to move from a career to a way of life in which the child also becomes the teacher and opens up for the parent a new path to compassionate understanding.
Hilary and I in Camden, Maine 2009
Father and Son Opening Talk for the Lindisfarne Fellows Conference at the Sufi Seven Pillars Academy New Lebanon, NY, 2011.