It’s Time to Redefine Higher Education

Higher Education is typically defined as “education beyond the secondary level; especially education provided by a college or university.” In recent decades, the scope of high school curriculum and associated testing in the United States has shifted to the very narrow goal of preparing all students for higher education regardless of their desires, interests, skills, or innate talents. This is a departure from the earlier educational practice of including vocational training and home economics in the curriculum alongside more traditionally academic courses.

“. . . In the 1950s, a different philosophy emerged: the theory that students should follow separate educational tracks according to ability. The idea was that the college-bound would take traditional academic courses (Latin, creative writing, science, math) and received no vocational training. Those students not headed for college would take basic academic courses, along with vocational training, or “shop.” Ability tracking did not sit well with educators or parents, who believed students were assigned to tracks not by aptitude, but by socio-economic status and race. The result being that by the end of the 1950s, what was once a perfectly respectable, even mainstream educational path came to be viewed as a remedial track that restricted minority and working-class students.”

~Nicholas Wyman, “Why we Desperately Need to Bring Back Vocational Training in Schools,”

Throughout most of history, vocational training (metal and wood working), artistic instruction (theatre, dance, art, vocal) and apprenticeships for skill-based jobs like plumbing, mechanics, and electrical work were all considered respectable alternatives to academia. This approach recognized the value of individuality and supported the notion that not every young person wanted to, was designed to, could afford, or needed to go to college.

But with the introduction of ability tracking, “higher education” became equated with an intellectually elite upper class which closely associated education with economic success. It also gave rise to competition over admission to private universities, not only for racial and socioeconomic minorities, but for any student who wanted to “succeed”.

Conversely, craft-based, manual, or artistic endeavors became stigmatized as fallbacks to the ubiquitous university education. The mere fact that most states in the U.S. continue to substantially cut or no longer fund this type of skill-based vocational training is proof of a lingering societal bent towards hierarchical learning and a dependence on degrees and diplomas. However, the reality of the current job market no longer supports these attitudes. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, over 53 percent of recent college graduates are unemployed or under-employed; 37 percent of those currently employed are doing work for which only a high school degree is required. Thankfully, the emergence of and need for careers in technology has provided alternatives to traditional study for an entire generation of tech-savvy teens and young adults. Technology giants like Google, IBM and Microsoft Apple often seek out alternatively educated and self-taught programmers and marketing managers for their creative problem-solving and critical thinking abilities.

There is another movement that has arisen as an alternative to university study which revolves around solutions and practices for healing ourselves and the planet. It consists of study programs, internships, workshops, and volunteer opportunities in areas like permaculture, ecology, organic farming, urban farming, meditation and other forms of mindfulness, holistic healing, energy work, alternative medicine (healing with plants), sustainable building, and community structures. These programs also encourage travel and cultural immersion, helping to break down stereotypes and barriers of “otherness,” emphasizing instead the importance of interconnectedness.

Charles Eisenstein, author of “Sacred Economics”, in his essay entitled, Institutes for Technologies of Reunion praises these alternative programs (which both of his college-age sons have chosen) because they “prepare people to participate in a future that is not just an extension of the present, but a different world with different values and different ways of seeing.”

“Programs like these exist all over the world, yet still they are scattered and lack a unifying narrative that might present them as a solid alternative to traditional higher education. Young people must luck into them or know enough to seek them out. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if this kind of education–education in what the planet needs most right now–were more easily accessible? Imagine a worldwide archipelago of land-based institutions of learning for people like my sons, sanctuaries of alternative technologies of earth, mind, matter, and body that are marginal or absent within conventional universities. So much of the most exciting work whether in medicine, agriculture, or social change is happening outside academia, invisible to many of the young people who might otherwise follow them into a career, and lacking the financial support and community of research that could propel them to the next level.”

Eisenstein goes on to point out that, although not yet mainstream, these programs are increasingly sought out by a generation of young adults “who do not fit into dominant models of higher education. The rewards and threats that bring most people into conformity with the old story do not sway them. They cannot be bribed into a normal career. Therefore, most of what conventional universities offer is unattractive to them: both the curriculum content and the form in which it is offered.”

I’ve had the opportunity to meet several such young adults at a local WWOOF (Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms) affiliated farm here in Greece, where they come to learn about organic farming and participate in the daily work of planting, tilling, weeding, watering, harvesting, and cooking together. Every one of them without fail expresses the desire to have an authentic experience of the soil and its preservation, to learn skills that can benefit others, and to be a part of something greater than themselves, even for a short period of time. Their language is often surprising in terms of their awareness of the disconnect between what society (and often their parents) want for them and how they feel they can contribute to the world in meaningful ways.

WWOOFers at organic market garden.

Having my children exposed to these types of dialogues and actions and their desire to participate in work like this at a young age gives me hope that one day higher education will take on new meaning. What if, inspired by programs like these and the youth that seek them out, we could redefine the term “higher education” to signify education for a higher purpose? What if, instead of being designed hierarchically, education was seen as lateral sharing and fostered connection over competition? What if “higher” was defined by moral imperatives that encompassed the good of all humankind (and animalkind and plantkind), not just one’s individual career path and monetary success? The more we value this type of learning and the skill sets that go along with it, the greater the chances are that “higher education” will have enormous implications in the betterment of our world.

Excerpt From: Ellen Rowland. “Everything I Thought I Knew: An Exploration of Life and Learning.”

Taking Stock and Making Space in Our Unschooling Lives


We recently made the decision as a family to paint our house inside and out, which  meant emptying each room, going through every single thing in it, and deciding which items really meant something to us and which things we were ready to let go of.

This simplification process isn’t always easy. It can be very emotional, this nostalgic letting go. Because we are inevitably confronted with the fact that we’ve changed,  physically or emotionally, that we’ve gotten older, that tastes or interests have waned or been replaced, that the things we cherished only a few years ago somehow ended up in the back of a junk drawer. We are also inevitably confronted with what we think we “should” keep, what either society, family or our own sense of moral obligation tells us we shouldn’t throw out or give to someone else even though we may no longer want or need them.

It had been about six years since we’d really examined our possessions and the pile of things that no longer fit into our lives was impressive. After my typical nostalgic procrastination of lingering over baby clothes, scribbled drawings, books and old photos (and lamenting several pairs of jeans that hadn’t magically gotten any bigger), the four of us really got to work at weeding through our things.

During the process of de-cluttering our home, I found an unexpected connection between taking stock of our possessions and the evolution that unschooling has taken in our lives.  I became acutely aware of how my children have evolved and how little they need to be happy and fulfilled. Few of the things I had supplied them with at the beginning of our decision to homeschool –things I had assumed were necessary for them to learn and grow intellectually–survived the cut. Expensive text books, science kits, times tables posters, writing guides and math workbooks had all been gathering dust while my children gathered the knowledge they needed and wanted in a natural progression of deep understanding and interest.

Initially those textbooks and other educational material were a reassuring presence for me, a reflection of my own insecurities, of what society deems essential to a child’s education. They had been brought into our home when I was still caught up in the doubt and skepticism that others had openly expressed about our children being able to learn without school. They had stayed on as vestiges of my old way of thinking and conforming. But just like those jeans that no longer fit, I finally had to acknowledge that they, too, no longer held a place in our lives and that it was okay to let them go.

Other things my children were willing to get rid of were a testament to the progression of their learning and their growing bodies and minds. They kept only those things which meant something to them personally, items that furthered their interests, supported their creative activities, inspired play or nourished their souls. My husband and I followed their lead.

What we cherished most turned out to be books-fiction, history, architecture, art. Not surprising for a reading family. We read alone in a pile of pillows on the floor or under a tree outside. We read to each other in bed, on the sofa. Sometimes a book catches our eye and we sit down right where we are on the floor and that thing we were on our way to do gets forgotten. That’s okay, it’s part of learning as we go. And we’re tactile readers. We love to feel the weight of the book, hear the satisfaction of turning a page, smell the history of old books. They are like steadfast friends.

With all the extraneous stuff that no longer serves us either given away, recycled, or tossed, we find ourselves surrounded by what we love and care about and what is truly useful to us. Being able to see those things clearly and have easy access to them has also cleared our minds and consciousness of old patterns and habits. I’m certain that over the coming years, as our family of four continues to grow and change, more things will be added and subtracted. But they will be chosen carefully and reflect a learning and living philosophy that more closely resembles who we are as individuals and as a family.

In the meantime, we’ve found more space to work, play, create and breathe. We intentionally left one shelf in our bookcase empty.  It’s a freshly painted reminder of the endless possibilities ahead.

A Big P.S. and a de-cluttering tip:

  • This is not meant to be a judgment of textbooks or other standardized learning material, or of those homeschooling families who choose to incorporate them in their individual learning philosophies. It’s about talking to our children and listening to ourselves, taking a close look at what’s working, and letting go of what isn’t in order to make space for new things to come into our lives, literally and figuratively.

  • I am not a clean freak. Nor do I like stark rooms or dainty meals (which would account for the jeans that don’t fit). And I love a good mess, which is always a sign of creation. However, taking the time and effort to simplify our belongings had a profound effect on our lives in several ways. First, it made us more aware of our consumer habits and the impact we have on the environment when we purchase unnecessary or cheaply made, disposable items that, if not recycled, end up polluting the environment.

  • Secondly, taking stock of our possessions ultimately led us to take stock of our lives and make some simple changes like taking electronics out of the bedrooms so we sleep better, and organizing our shared office space and the kitchen in a way that made sense for everyone.

  • Getting rid of or storing things we didn’t use on a weekly basis allowed us to really see, have access to, and appreciate those things that we value the most. As a result, our house has seen a focused, creative burst and a slowing down to enjoy peaceful moments at the same time.

  • Going through our possessions can also remind us of the personal changes we want to make as well as the things we’ve accomplished and the goals we’ve attained. Sometimes we forget that we are not static! Move things around as a reminder of that.

  • Lastly, this process took a while for our family, and patience was crucial. But my husband came up with a great technique for helping us de-clutter. When we were hesitant, rather than threatening to get rid of things, we each put ten items that felt important to us in a separate space (our garden shed) for one week. At the end of that week, if we couldn’t remember any of the ten things without looking, or if we decided we could live without them, they went. What remained were the essentials we needed and sentimental things we loved. This is a respectful and effective way to let go of things we are holding onto for the wrong reasons. And it empowers each family member to individually make the final decision about what stays and what goes, which fits right in with our unschooling philosophy.

Right Under Our Noses: the Virtues of Dry Toilets


untitled illustration of two cats by John Lennon

untitled illustration of two cats by John Lennon

I remember hearing a rumor many years ago that the rather eccentric Yoko Ono shared the litter box with her cat. I don’t know if it’s true, but apparently she claimed it was a better way to deal with human waste than flushing gallons of wasted water into a septic system and that the resulting melange could eventually be used as compost to grow vegetables. She claimed that if we weren’t careful, water would become precious and perhaps even scarce. She was concerned about the environment way before it was a hot topic, which of course, at the time, placed her in the category of alarmist, tree-hugger, hippie and in the minds of many, just plain crazy. I myself didn’t give the rumor much credence. I did however succumb to a vivid mental image of this petite, almond-eyed woman squatting over a litter pan while humming “she came in through the bathroom window”, much to the dismay of the feline patiently waiting it’s turn.

We have two cats here in Africa and no litter box, because, well, they go outside in the dirt. However, we do have what is known as a dry toilet system. This would be the moment, if you are feeling uncomfortable, to hit the back button on your computer and see what your other Facebook friends are up to. I won’t be offended, I swear. However, if you are even slightly intrigued, you might learn something. American culture, in particular, has placed a big taboo on any reference to the fact that all living things eliminate what they eat and drink. While browsing the children’s literature section in Barnes and Noble while pregnant with Jamie, I remember being shocked at seeing a book called, “Everybody Poops,” not because of it’s contents, but because someone finally had the courage to write about it. The need being served by this book– to help children understand that the process is nothing to be ashamed of– is indication enough that somewhere along the line, we dumped (no pun intended) our bodily functions into the “we don’t talk about that . . . EVER” column and it has stayed there. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not espousing bringing it up as a topic at cocktail parties or rotary club, I just want to share what I’ve learned about the entire cycle as it relates to energy.

Those of you who are familiar with our project in Senegal know that we live bill-free in a house constructed with earth, get our water from a well, our electricity from a wind-turbine and solar panels, and grow our own organic vegetables. We’ve recently added a chicken named Ratatouille and a turkey named Gusteau to the picture, but not for consumption purposes. The chicken gives us eggs and the turkey acts as a natural anti-pesticide, spending his days picking at termites and other predetors to our produce. He occasionally steals a lettuce leaf or two, but we forgive him this. Although they don’t have much personality, I’m not ready to raise poultry that will end up on our table. I still prefer to purchase it from our local chicken farm. Much to my surprise, when I didn’t know what to make for dinner the other day, Sunny very plainly said, “why don’t we eat the chicken.” She’s five and understands perfectly where her food comes from, which could easily lead me down another path or up onto my soap box with another topic, but let’s get back to dry toilets.

Joseph Jenkins wrote a book, first published in 1995, called “Humanure” in which he details the virtues of dry toilets (see link below). The title itself may be off-putting, but the concept is simple. You place a receptacle, ok, a bucket, under a standard toilet seat (he gives you the plan for building it) and when you’ve done you’re business, you cover it with a layer of saw dust, straw or any other natural material. When the bucket is full, you place the contents in a compost retainer (also detailed in the book) and layer it with food waste, i.e. fruit and vegetable peels, egg shells, coffee grinds, plant trimmings, anything biodegradable. The only stipulation is that you don’t use dyed toilet paper. After about a year, enough time to allow any toxins or harmful bacterium to dissipate, you have one of the richest composts imaginable with which to grow organic produce. I skimmed the book cursorily when Richard first suggested that we adopt this system (since we don’t have running water, we didn’t have much choice) and promptly threw it at him while launching a tirade about the numerous ways in which he has ruined my life as I knew it. When we moved into the house, I was told I had two options: I could walk outside in the brushland and hide behind a bush, if I could find one, or I could try the dry toilet system. To his credit, he built a handsome throne of concrete, spent a fortune on a lacquered wooden seat and promised to be the “emptier.” To the unsuspecting eye, it looked like every other toilet, minus the handle and water tank. We used a mix of peanut shells and millet shucks as our choice of coverage. To my begrudging surprise, there was only one pungent odor eminating from our bathroom–it smelled like fresh ground peanuts. We’ve been using this system for almost a year and, like most routines in my life, it now seems natural. Richard laughs when he hears me touting the virtues of dry toilets. Once addicted to creature comforts, I am now, you might say, a convert. In general, our project has opened my eyes to an array of “green” choices, some I was already familiar with, others completely new to me. Read on.

We recently called in a specialist on renewable energy, Pierre-Jacques, a frenchman who has lived and worked in Senegal for the past 26 years. We needed help finding a way to power our cold production, having considered both solar and gas-powered refridgerators, and wanted a professional opinion on which was the most energy efficient and cost-effective. After he asked us a myriad of pertinent questions and toured our house, he said, “you’ve had the solution all along, right under your noses. You just haven’t been harvesting it properly.” He went on to explain that by placing our dry toilet waste in an air-tight cistern along with a small percentage of cow, pig or horse manure, we could produce enough methane to power a full-sized refridgerator/freezer and our gas oven! He said this so matter of factly and non-chalantly that I asked him to repeat himself. “Sure,” he said. ” It’s called Biogas. I have all the plans because it’s what we do at our house and I can tell you it works.” By running gas tubing from the cistern to the two appliances, we can produce cold and heat by recycling our waste. He went on to explain that by “harvesting” the methane, we were also preventing it from dissipating into the environment, which is what happens when it’s placed in an open-air composting unit. I immediately thought of all those problematic cows out there in the world shamelessly releasing their gas into the universe and wondered aloud if there wasn’t a way to harvest it. Imagine the energy problems we could solve! Pierre-Jacques laughed, but explained that, in fact, China, India and Brazil are already doing it, on a large scale basis as well as individual (see attached link). The best part about his suggestion is that our composting efforts won’t be lost because what remains in the tank after the methane is distilled can be emptied periodically into our compost, making use of all the elements of the system.

I was curious about the person to output ratio. In other words, would the four of us be able to produce enough methane to keep the appliances running constantly? Pierre-Jacques, who spouts out statistics and technical information with the finesse of a poet, told us that output is usually proportional to the needs of the family. However, because I like to cook and entertain for others, we’ll add a small percentage of animal manure to augment our methane production. We’ll be installing our new system in a week or two and I, for one, don’t care how the fridge gets cold, I’m just looking forward to popping open an ice cold beer!

I’ll admit that our project is an extreme one. Not everyone is willing or able to implement what we’ve done, particularly a dry toilet system. But here in Senegal, we may be able to at least raise awareness and at best provide solutions to real energy problems, not to mention financial instability for a population that suffers from extreme electric bills, frequest power outages and the high cost of gas. And of course we hope that those who can afford the “tradtional” methods will want to go natural because of the environmental benefits. Who knows. For now, it’s actually fun being a part of this crazy project of ours. After all, it really is a working lavoratory . . . I mean laboratory.

Measuring a Year




during construction

during construction

It’s been a year since we came back to Senegal to live. A date on the calendar, August 12th, tells me practically that this time has passed, but I perceive it more in the details of our ordinary life: the length of Sunny’s hair, the height of the banana trees in our yard, the changing light of a season returning with it’s own frank announcements– the rain, humidity thick on the skin, green, everywhere, green soothing over the fissures of a typically parched land. The scent of mangoes, hanging heavily from trees along the roads, tells me the rainy season has circled back around. Mangoes the size of a child’s forearm, with the fluid aftertaste of coconut and pineapple. They are plentiful and cheap and find their way into almost all of our meals.

I sense the passage of time in the ease with which I walk through the village where we live, if not quite looked on as “one of us,” I am by now a familiar face, “one among us”, not African, but no longer a stranger. Seynabou, Maty, M’Baye. There you are. We know each other. “Nengadef, How are you?”

Mbour fish market (Gulpoppy, Nov 2007)

Mbour fish market (Gulpoppy, Nov 2007)

I frequent the fish market, which once terrified me, with its long, crowded, narrow allies, navigating through rain puddles, blood-soaked ice crates, discarded heads and scales, tangled fishing line with shards of lures. I am no longer shocked by the potent, briny smell, the din of loud bargaining over waves crashing into the port just beyond, shouting over tables, fish passed over heads, flapping sea water. Who has carp? “Madame Americaine,” someone is tugging at my sleeve, “come, come, urchin, monkfish, carp, pas cher.” Women crouched on low, rickety wooden stools, expertly gut and fillet my fish before I can count out the now familiar papery bills. I pick out the coins, recognizing them by color and weight. I thank the vendor in Wolof and move out from under the rusted tin roof into the hot sun, pushing past on comers and barefoot children selling plastic bags. It is my last stop before the bakery to get bread and my canvas bag is now heavy. This has become a familiar, natural routine. I don’t think much about our surroundings, our daily lives, and this also tells me that a good deal of time has passed, that our lives have settled upon us. Then there are the subtle negatives of absorbing time. The talibes, the young boys who beg for alms and food to pay for their religious education–when did they stop tugging at my heart and become a common detail in my day? At what point did I begin to regard the many sellers who approach me with their wares as a nuisance? It takes a year.

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