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Growing Through Self-Directed Learning


We’re surrounded by a society that treats education as a commodity like everything else. Knowledge is thought to be owned by experts who will dispense it to us if we submit to their curricula, and (once we’re adults) pay for their courses.  This packaged education system teaches some valuable things, but it has some inherent problems. It tends to fragment knowledge and responsibility, to promote passive acceptance of the educator’s assumptions and agenda, and to devalue skills which are best passed on outside the classroom, including the manual skills that supply the basic goods on which we all depend.

Even when we decide to learn to do more of our own basic work, we’re often influenced by the commodity view of education.  Visitors to the farm where I live and work are usually interested in living an alternative to the consumer culture, but when they see my brother making and playing instruments or parting out tractors, or hear me talking about how the different parts of the farm support each other or how we incorporated as a nonprofit, they ask “Who gave you lessons? What courses did you take?”  When we say we didn’t take any, they say they can’t imagine doing that themselves.

Self-education isn’t so hard that only a few special people can do it. It just requires looking at learning in a different way. You didn’t learn to walk and talk by taking a course. You learned because you wanted to do these things, and you were around other people who did them, and you kept trying until you got them right.  Most other skills can be learned in the same way. Start where you are. What do you want to be able to do? What do you already know about doing that? What related things have you done? What do you still need to find out? Once you know what your questions are, you’ll have a better chance of finding answers that work for you, with your particular goals and skills and interests.  There are several ways of looking for those answers.

Many skills can be learned through apprenticing, either formally or informally.  Not taking part in a specially designed instructional program, but working (or playing) along with someone else who knows how to do the thing you want to learn. Often the learner has something to offer in these exchanges.

Off-grid living frequently requires a combination of skilled and unskilled work; the apprentice can help with the straightforward tasks so that the skilled worker has time to slow down and demonstrate the more arcane parts of the task. I learned basic farm animal care by volunteering at a regional center for Heifer Project, a hunger relief organization. I tended their garden (which I already knew how to do), mucked stalls, and carried water buckets. In return, they showed me how to milk by hand; herd sheep, goats, and cattle; butcher chickens; plow with horses; assist at farrowing; lance abscesses; and trim hooves. (I got to actually do all but the last two things.) Habitat for Humanity offers opportunities to learn construction and repair skills while providing affordable housing for low-income families. WWOOF (World-Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms) connects experienced organic farmers, from large commercial operations to off-the-grid homesteads, with people willing to work and eager to learn about farming, forestry, scratch cooking, and alternative energy. Many regional organic farming and gardening associations offer similar apprentice programs.

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Such apprenticeships needn’t be officially organized. My brother learned about carpentry and machine repair by working for an older neighbor who knew how to do an amazing variety of physical work but couldn’t do it all himself due to post-polio syndrome. The neighbor enjoyed the help and the chance to pass his skills on, and my brother benefited from the neighbor’s expertise and character.

Other skills can be learned in a similar way. My brother practiced playing guitar alone until he didn’t make terrible sounds, and then he started joining more experienced musicians for jam sessions, playing backup and observing the techniques of the lead players. He’s gotten quite good on the guitar and banjo now, and he’s picked up some pointers for his fiddle playing. Language learning also works well in this way; once you have a rudimentary grasp of the language you want to learn (more about that below), the best way of fine-tuning is to practice with a native speaker. It’s easiest if you live near people who speak the language you want to learn. Otherwise, many websites can connect you with pen pals eager to practice English and give English-speakers a chance to practice in their languages.

You can learn a great deal by reading. There’s a lot of free information available through interlibrary loan and on the Internet. I’ve used both sources to learn how to raise tomatoes and goats, make my own animal feed, cope with anxiety, prepare manuscripts to be submitted for publication, create and maintain a nonprofit corporation, and encourage young people to think critically. I’ve found all the information I could possibly want on these topics. The hard part is deciding which information is useful and reliable.

The most useful information tells me how to do what I want to do with resources similar to those I have. So I look for farming resources by and for small organic farmers or homesteaders, especially by people in a climate similar to mine.  If I can’t find on-topic material that meets all these criteria, I’ll read several pieces that cover different parts of what I want to know and try to combine them. The most helpful book I’ve read on small-scale natural poultry raising was written by a man who farms in Virginia, a zone and a half warmer than my farm in upstate New York.  Many of his ideas about growing feedstuffs and managing litter should work well here, but our hens need more protection from cold winters than his flock does, so for that I’ll stick with the recommendations of our county cooperative extension.

Reliability is harder to judge. I seek material from different perspectives, with a preference for pieces written by people who have hands-on experience, who write clearly, and who don’t make statements that seem obviously false. When I studied history as a homeschooler, I read primary sources from whatever period of time I was studying—legal documents, letters, diaries, newspaper articles, and the like. This gave me some understanding of the basic questions and conflicts of the period, of the facts of life that people agreed on, and of how their backgrounds shaped their differing views. I’ve found the same approach useful with how-to materials. When there’s not consensus, I experiment (carefully) and so develop a sense of which sources of information are frequently accurate. Once I have identified a few trustworthy sources, I scan them for references to other sources and investigate those. For example, once you’ve reliably gotten good heirloom seeds and advice from a company, you may want to look at the books they offer first when you decide to branch out into raising a few chickens.

One you’ve done background research, you’ll probably find that you still have specific questions left unanswered, and you’ll probably want to ask for advice.  I’ve done this on Internet forums and also by directly contacting people I consider knowledgeable.

The questions about usefulness and reliability that apply to books and Internet articles are even more important with regard to Internet forum advice. My family has gotten some very helpful responses from various sites; we’ve also encountered some information that looks fairly bogus to us and some bitter arguments between opinionated folks.

In some situations, I prefer to ask someone whose judgment I trust. I’ve often been surprised by how willing these people are to share their time and knowledge.  When I was studying economics as a homeschooler, my mother spotted a newspaper article reviewing a book that had just won the Nobel Prize in economics. I got the book from the library and read it. At my mother’s recommendation, I also wrote to the article’s author thanking him for the review, mentioning some questions the book had raised in my mind and asking if he had time to recommend other books.  We corresponded for two years. Since I moved to the farm, a nearby veterinarian and accountant have been generous about answering my questions over the phone or via email for no charge.

A little basic thoughtfulness makes it more likely that you’ll get helpful answers.  It’s really important to have a clear question. “I just don’t get this” is discouragingly vague and requires a lot of time and guesswork on the other person’s part. “I can see these arguments for putting this type of income on line five or line eight on this form; which do you think is more appropriate?” or “Do you know of any possible dangerous side effects to this alternative remedy I’ve read about?” call for relatively quick and specific answers and demonstrate that you’ve cared enough to do some research on your own. It’s only courteous to ask for help in a way that acknowledges that the other person is busy and may not have time to answer your question, either immediately or at all.

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You can learn a great deal by actually doing the thing you want to do. In some cases, this is risk-free and you don’t need to prepare. I wanted to learn French so that I could read Victor Hugo’s novels; I tried a French textbook, but I had no interest in learning to say “I have lost my hotel key.” My mother got me to try reading French children’s picture books from the nearest city library. Between the pictures and my dictionary, I could figure out what was going on, and my vocabulary expanded quickly. Then I read Dumas’s swashbucklers, which had a lot of action and fairly simple sentence structure. Soon I could read whatever I wanted to.

If you’re learning to build or grow something, you’ll probably want to do research first to save yourself the frustration of wasting time and resources. There will still be things you can’t know ahead of time–questions about which experts disagree and questions that won’t occur to you until you’re in the midst of the work.  That’s all right. Sometimes you’ll guess right, and the rest of the time you can learn from your mistakes. It’s important to be willing to admit your mistakes and not be too downcast by them. It’s also important to keep an eye on the things you think you’ve completed so you can see if anything is going wrong. (We loose-stacked our first batch of hay when it was insufficiently dried and realized our mistake when the pile began to smoke. We forked it all back out before it actually ignited; some of the hay on the outside was salvageable, and we never made that mistake again.) It helps to keep good records, though it may take a while to learn which records are useful.  (Our home cheesemaking was fairly hit-or-miss until we learned the importance of tracking acidity with a pH meter.)

Self-education can do wonders for your competence and confidence, but it’s also important to know when you really need expert help. My brother learned a lot about carpentry by experimentation, but when it came to wiring, he worked with an experienced electrician until he was sure he knew what was safe and what wasn’t. I can handle routine goat health care, but when we had a goat in painful, protracted, non-progressing labor, I called the vet. She disentangled the kids, pulled the first one and had me pull the second one so I’d know what to feel for the second time around.  As these examples suggest, even when you need an expert to help, you can sometimes follow them around and learn from them so that eventually you’re the one the neighbors call in when things get difficult.

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