Peter Searby is a teacher, musician, and director of the Riverside Center for Education, a center dedicated to providing boys a new landscape of action where they can learn to become young men of courage and imagination. Riverside is a new educational model that combines active hands-on learning with the great heritage of the liberal arts. His web site is located at: http://www.rside.org/art-of-boyhood/.
Once there walked the storytellers of the Emerald Isle, who taught the young beside hedgerows, in secret places, far from the suspicious eyes of reigning "Educrats." They were the village folklore masters, carriers of story and song. They were the guardians of tradition and wisdom - the kind of wisdom that roots a people's soul to their soil and sows the seeds of timeless truths. When they told the old tales in their lilting voices, under ancient oak trees and quiet hollows, the young ones ran to them to spring into that great narrative of their history. With them they learned who they themselves were, where they came from, and where they could someday go. The hedge school sages of Ireland where the last keepers of folk lore, of the people's story, wandering the byways, bestowing the treasure, sowing seeds in word and song.
In America, there are hedge schools cropping up here and there - informal gatherings, where the young learn how to speak, write, sing, and study. This movement is a healthy reaction to the great monstrosity of centralized education that has been growing for many years in this land. This movement is taking place in the homeschooling communities. Families are yearning for an authentic culture, rooted in their cultural identity, their faith, and the stories that inform them of who they are. Parents hope for a culture, where neighborhoods come to life again, where the front porch culture of old America returns, and we are confident to let our children go out, explore, and learn from the adults who carry in their hearts the lore of our culture.
Many parents are fed up with schools, and the boxy notion of what it means to "go to school." The homeschooling movement is one of the most powerful manifestations of "home rule," where authentic family culture is not separate from education but part and parcel of it. There is an old video of Doc Watson, the famous bluegrass guitar player from North Carolina, playing with his family and friends in their backyard. Doc and Earl Scruggs, the famous banjo player, were masters of their instruments, and yet there they are, playing for fun and for family in the yard for no other reason except that that's what families do: they sing and play music together. They know the lyrics to old ballads, and take time to show the young a lick or two. Doc was known to spend afternoons on his front porch playing, and folks could just walk up and listen, and chat with him. He was a local folklore master.
I have met many families in the Christian homeschooling communities of Illinois, a state that is one of the most liberal (in the good sense of that word) in the Union with regards to homeschooling. I have had the privilege to spend time around backyard fires, in living rooms, on porches, and in their kitchens talking about family cultural renewal and education. I know one family that hosts Irish Music Sessions, where master fiddlers and whistlers play traditional tunes late into the night alongside their younger understudies, and over one hundred people, men, women, and children, enjoy an evening of true leisure. I know another merry meeting of families who gather every other Sunday afternoon in a park to pray prayer together and take part in a potluck dinner.
The rich tapestry of family cultures in such a small area is inspiring. Here many are yearning for a new way to build authentic community in these days of digital relationships, long distance consumer travel, porchless houses, and squareless towns. There are many influences and factors in our pop culture and in our landscape that work against family culture and education, and yet there are ways to rekindle the old traditions.
The hedge schools and home rule of families are re-enlivening culture. Homeschooling is certainly not the only way to achieve this, and there will always be a need for centers and schools that supplement the family. However, it will take a new civilization of cheerful, vibrant, authentic family cultures to change the country, and reestablish the natural link between education and the home.
Like any country, the adult culture tends to seep down into the schools and educational models. When there is not a meaningful and vibrant adult culture, with traditions, coming of age rituals, and true leisure to induct the young into, the young will not grow into this adult culture, but remain stunted in an extended adolescence.
When the Hedge Schools of Ireland started in response to the oppressive educational system of the English, who restricted the teaching of the Catholic faith, the Irish language, and the stories of the people, the adults acted in the most natural way: they began to covertly pass on the traditions, language, stories, and songs of the Irish people through these hidden schools.
When a people begin to lose the narrative of life, they tend to forget who they are and what living is all about. It is then that the storytellers and poets are most in need, lest the young forget where they came from and where they are going on the road of life. C. S. Lewis and Tolkien both believed in the power of stories to give ultimate meaning to our lives. Tolkien especially believed that God chose to save us in a way consonant with our nature, and it is in our nature to tell stories, and to live out an epic narrative in which our actions make a difference, and have eternal consequences. Great storytellers wake us up to the eternal realities that lie beneath the thin veneer of mundane ordinary life, like windows in the walls of our living rooms. They help us peer into a more meaningful narrative wherein we perceive our lives anew within a grander narrative.
One of the most dangerous realities of the current educational system is the great divorce of culture and schooling. More than anything, it is the culture that educates. It is the culture that helps the young come of age, and see themselves in the context of a grander narrative. Family culture is the key to the renewal of America. The homeschooling response to an over-centralized bureaucracy is the same response that occurs any time centralization begins to create an inhumane culture, one that is not rooted in authentic traditions and wisdom.
Where are the storytellers, town musicians, poets who seek to bestow upon the young the treasures of knowledge and wisdom? When schools try to take over family culture, when schools lose a sense of what it means to be human, and what it means to be a happy and flourishing society, they no longer have the ability to lead the young out of ignorance into the great narrative of life. The current attempt by the government and textbook companies to develop a common core is almost laughable. To think that a large group of educrats in a pluralistic society, which a long time ago lost a true vision of the human person can construct a curriculum to suit all families, is ridiculous.
We must work to build a solidarity movement of families, who in their own locales, seek to rejuvenate culture and education. One joyful family can transform a neighborhood. Many joyful families can transform the whole country. New storytellers and poets will arise from the homes and communities of these families, and they will travel along the neighborhoods of America telling the tales that once inspired saints and heroes, and singing songs that enlivened the hearts of weary pilgrims along this epic journey to heaven.
Many of the greatest teachers in the history of mankind began with "Hedge Schools." They walked along the byways of their homeland, gathering disciples, who, inspired by their stories and conversation, felt a fire kindle within their hearts - a fire that changed their lives and the world forever. *