Our family of three city boys visited their grandmother’s farm this summer in western New York. In the mornings, the adults passed the New York Times and Wall Street Journal across the long kitchen table while sipping coffee and wishing it were Starbucks. By ten, we were usually outside. The ten chickens – only three with names – were fed. The two rabbits, Sam and Matilda, for whom we helped build a fenced-in play area, had been pet and dropped many times in the grass next to the barn.
And the project of the day had begun.
The boys rode ATVs for hours across the countryside. They forded streams, mud splattering their legs and faces and soaking their brand new sneakers.
Lesson #1: Wait until after the trip to the farm to buy new shoes.
They supervised a burn pile that was two stories high. Donning goggles, they sharpened an axe, sparks flying. They spent hours in the rain, water dripping down their noses, with a rented wood-splitter helping to run the machine and load wood into the back of a truck before delivering it to their cousins and local farmers who will heat their homes with it this winter.
Lesson #2: Do not forget the raincoats.
They watched how the farm owners around here can fix anything, from go-carts to tractors they have kept alive since the 1940s. They know exactly how many pallets of wood they need to chop so the family stays warm until spring, which arrives late here. They know how big their vegetable garden must be to meet their needs. Their children witness Dad cutting off the heads of dozens of chickens whose meat will feed them or be traded with neighbors for other necessities. They learn to drive before they turn 16. They can fix anything too.
There is wisdom to that.
It seemed out of place on this farm to be reading newspaper articles about the Common Core standards, how student test scores are falling behind most thriving countries, or how best to educate our children. None of them addressed this “other” intelligence learned on the farm, where kids learn survival skills my city boys miss out on at school. Before the farm, only my ten year old had changed a light bulb.
Lesson #3: Do not discount the skills of self-sustainability.
Educators writing about whether you can teach grit to lower income, urban youth also overlook the grit it takes to work a small farm, to dig out from feet of snow week after week, to hope earth dries out before you lose our hay crop, to trade for necessities, to show up when another farmer needs help.
Lesson #4: It is important to share with your neighbors.
Imagine the teen who has it all – the academic and computer skills of my boys, the grit of a driven adolescent from the city, and the fix-it-build-it know-how of the kid who has grown up on a farm. Or a team of these three different kids working together to innovate, invent, create? Is it not that diversity of experience and knowledge that made this country successful so far?
I believe in setting high standards for young people with the appropriate and necessary scaffolding or support for them to reach those goals. I believe in educating a better-prepared and innovative workforce. But is there a way to embrace and celebrate what we learn on the farm – to build and fix and contribute to a self-sustained life with minimal imports or external services? Is there a way for schools, and eventually companies, to leverage that knowledge for scalable innovation? Especially by bringing the academic and the farmer into the same room so that they can share skills and ideas and learn from each other?
A week on the farm is certainly not going to transform my three young boys from suburban academics who excel at Rocket Math and score high on standardized tests into fix-it-build-it thinkers who can grow their own food, pull a tractor out of a ditch, solve electrical issues at home or heat the house.
Lesson #4: All they will remember are the ATV rides.
But what if they returned to school this fall with a new slate of assignments: repair the school lawnmower, then cut the grass on the soccer field before today’s game?
And then next summer on the farm, after a few hours on the ATVs…