Ben Hewitt is well known as the writer of 'Home Grown: Adventures in Parenting off the Beaten Path, Unschooling and Reconnecting with the Natural World'. He's more recently published 'The Nourishing Homestead.' Ben and his wife Penny live on a self-sufficient homestead in Vermont, USA and unschool their two boys.
By Ben Hewitt | benhewitt.net
Interview with Ben Hewitt
What did education look like for you as a kid?
My education was fairly typical. I attended the standard kindergarten through grade school, then into high school. Honestly, I was pretty miserable the entire time: I was very overweight as a grade schooler, and young kids are not kind to fat people. In high school, I slimmed down but was still pretty unhappy. I could never really see the point in it, nor could I understand how most of what I learned was relevant to world beyond.
I had a really good friend who’d been homeschooled for most of his life, and he was building his first house at the age of 15, and that looked really, really good to me. I dropped out of high school when I was 16. I did end up returning to college later in life, where I complete three semesters, before realising I wasn’t terribly fond of that, either.
In your book 'Home Grown' you talk about the notion that even homeschooling families make themselves too busy with extra activities like organised sport. What have been the long-term benefits of being less busy, and how much would you recommend is too much?
This is an interesting one, in part because our now-15 year-old suddenly finds himself wanting to be more engaged in activities beyond our small community. And honestly, I can see the benefit of it, though it brings all those familiar challenges of scheduling, lots of driving (we live very rurally), and so on.
That said, I don’t regret all the years we managed to maintain a more low-key life, in large part because it meant our boys were very engaged directly in our family, on the land, and in our immediate community. I guess that’s the main benefit of being protective of schedule and space. I think those connections will stay with our sons forever. I sure hope so, anyway.
In terms of what’s too little or too much, I really think it depends on the child: Do they express loneliness or simply a desire to be out and about more? I still subscribe to my over-arching point: there’s simply no way to expose children to every “opportunity” in the world, there will ALWAYS be missed opportunities. And I think the ability to just “be,” to really immerse one’s self in one’s surroundings is in itself an under-appreciated opportunity.
As a guy, how did your mates take it when you first explained that your boys weren't going to school?
No issues at all. We live in a community that’s very progressive and understanding in this regard.
When you do speaking engagements, what's the most common question you get, and what's your answer?
I can think of two that come up frequently. The first is the socialisation question, to which I always draw the distinction between being social (having friends and being engaged in the community) and being socialised (being taught to adapt to certain normative). I do want my boys to be social - and they are - but I’m less certain I want them socialised to many of our cultural norms.
Also, I like to point out that our educational path has allowed them to foster some very meaningful relationships with people who aren’t they’re peers, simply because they’ve had the time and flexibility to do so.
The other question is always technology, and it’s a really hard one to answer. Our lifestyle has been helpful in this regard - we’re certainly not Luddites, but I’d wager our dependence on tech is somewhat less than average. I really think its incumbent on parents to create alternatives that are more compelling than staring at a damn smartphone all day. It’s also incumbent on parents to recognise their own addictive behaviour around these devices… don’t forget that kids are learning all the time, just by watching you!
As your boys get older, how do you see the way they learn evolving?
I’m not sure the way they learn is evolving - they’ve both always been hands-on learners, as are Penny and I. I see that our older son has a greater need for peer-to-peer social contact, and also the need to individuate, and we’re trying hard to accommodate that. Right now, he’s going to a self-designed study program at a local high school for two days per week, and it feels like a really good fit. I’m always asking people to not get caught in their educational dogma, and I sometimes have to remind myself of the same!
Do you have any suggestions for being as self-sufficient a "homestead" as possible when you don't have the land?
I think “homesteading” can mean a million different things to a million different people. And it’s certainly not an “all or nothing” proposition. We’re really privileged to have a lot of land - and I try to not forget that - but I also know folks who are doing really cool stuff on leased land, or on friends’ land, or even in their apartments. Also, while most people think of growing food when they think of homesteading, that’s really only part of it. To me, it’s fundamentally about a mindset of thrift and appreciation of and reverence for the land and how it supports us, whether we actually own it or not.
Ben lives in Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom with his wife and two sons, and runs a small-scale, diversified hill farm with a focus on producing nutrient dense foods from vibrant, mineralised soils to feed themselves and the immediate community. He's the author of five books, and is currently working on a sixth.