RURAL ROUTES/Margot Ford McMillen

Nurture Thought


Two recent announcements of note: 1) the US Forest Service is preparing to sell more than 21,500 acres of Missouri's National Forest, part of a program designed to "help support roads and schools, provide projects that enhance forest ecosystem health and provide employment opportunities, and to improve cooperative relationships among Federal land management agencies and those who use and care about the lands the agencies manage;" and 2) the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education is getting ready to launch Internet learning for rural kids from kindergarten through high school.

As I wondered how these two things would make an impact on the future of the neighborhood, state, nation, planet, I realized that almost all the kids that I know will feel a negative impact, over the years, from turning forest land into, first, deforested woodlands and, second, subdivisions and strip malls.

And few of them, the good kids I know, will benefit from the money spent on Internet learning. That's because not one, not two, not three, but almost all of them, are being home-schooled. And not by parents who want to find study plans on the Internet.

Home schooling began because parents wanted something different. They wanted, for example, religious-based education. That movement evolved into self-directed education. One self-directed kid I know started working his way through Shakespeare when, age-wise, he was a mere eighth-grader. The language fascinated him. "I cracked the code," he told his mom, meaning that now the dictionaries and Google searches it takes to read 16th-century English are no more daunting to him than the rest of us reading USA Today.

You might argue that reading Shakespeare isn't going to create new medicines or make this kid a rich man, but this is what these parents want: Minds that grab ideas fearlessly, study them, turn them upside down and inside out and make them our own. The ideas can be old as the hills or brand new -- the point is enjoyment of the chase, and, maybe, discovery of a truth.

These parents take their kids, in multi-age packs, to square dances, museums, cattle ranches, national forests, libraries. They want the kids to have lots to think about. As one educator said, education can develop a mind that is "an interesting place to live in," although I always cringe at the "in" when I remember that phrase. Clutter.

Of all the people I know, those who held education in the most reverence were the elders I interviewed in our county in the 1970s, around the area that is now nuclear plant and nuclear plant buffer. There was a community there, called "Reform," with the emphasis on "Re." The school was, of course, the "Reform School."

I first realized that I was in an extraordinary place when I was sitting in a sparse two-room cabin with an old fellow crippled up with arthritis so he could hardly leave his chair. But with the bluest eyes sparkling, his conversation ranged from the mineral content of the soil, which he knew regarding every mineral, to how he kept squirrels, which were a big part of his diet, in a brush pile within an easy shot of his front window to the football team in St. Louis to his enjoyment of Milton's poem, "Paradise Lost." Age and arthritis had changed his life so that he couldn't hike in the woods or work cattle but he remembered huge chunks of Milton, and recited them with vigor, punctuating the last words with his own word: "Sublime."

The neighborhood was crammed with interesting folks. Intellectual by habit as much as by training, when any two or three got together they would pursue and expand on dialogues as old as they were. They remembered Civil War stories and played piano tunes and kept huge gardens. Their lives were interlocked so that each story led to another neighbor like a hand leads to an arm.

And they invented new things. When I commented on one garden arrangement, hexagons of vegetables locked in a pattern, the gardener looked at me in surprise. "It's just geometry," he said, and, indeed, much of the physical world is "just geometry," although we must admire the alliteration. Fencing, quilting, cabinet making.

After a few interviews, I started asking each one about their education, and this is the picture that emerged: Every neighborhood had a one-room school, and all the kids went there as long as they could, until they got big enough to be useful on the farm year-round. Some left school after eighth grade and others left earlier. For the most part, they had enough to run their farms and businesses, express themselves, improve themselves through reading, understand their duties to each other, know their rights and act as citizens -- the objects of an education suggested by Thomas Jefferson and pretty good standards today.

Much of what keeps us in school today isn't education, but mastering the increasingly arcane details of making a living and coming out with a paper that says we will be useful to someone chasing a profit. Those classes won't make us love learning, or even make us intellectual, but the one-room school pushed the habit of thought.

The habit of thought. Increasingly rare, let's nurture it where we find it.

Margot Ford McMillen farms and teaches English at a college in Fulton, Mo. Email:

From The Progressive Populist, May 1, 2006

Home Page

Copyright © 2006 The Progressive Populist