An Interview with Ben Hewitt

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Let’s start by having you introduce yourself, and your family to us.

My wife Penny, and I, and our two sons, Fin and Rye, ages 13 and 10, live in Northern Vermont. We live on a 40-acre homestead. I call it a turn of the century Vermont hill farm, but not from the most recent turn of the century, because our place is probably what a lot of farms looked like about 114 years ago, back when you could actually make a living off a little hill farm like ours. We have 6 cows, 3 pigs, chickens, a small flock of sheep, and a pick your own blueberry patch. We have a lot of gardens. We grow and produce primarily for ourselves but also grow some surplus for friends and neighbors and extended family. Like most small farms, our homestead is not our primary source of income. I like to distinguish between making a living and making a life, and the farm aspect is not a big part of our financial income, but it is a huge part of what informs our life day in and day out and we have chosen that very consciously. Our primary monied income comes from my writing and speaking. I have written five books now. And the one we are talking about today is my most recently published, called Home Grown. It is a book primarily about our exploits with our educational path for our kids, which most people would refer to as Unschooling. It is not a term that I like very much, but it is the one that most people know, so I seem to keep using it. Essentially, we follow a self-directed, adult facilitated life learning model. There is no formal curriculum and the boys have a lot of autonomy to choose how they want their learning to unfold.

Can you tell us about what led you to be where you are now? Both there in Vermont, but also the choices that have led to how you make your life there?

I was born and raised in Northwestern Vermont, outside the small town of Enosburg. The first six years of my life were spent living in a cabin with no running water and no electricity, an outhouse, the whole nine yards. And then my folks, like so many 70’s era back to the landers, got tired of not having any money and of outhouses and kerosene lamps. So we moved to a house that’s about 15 miles from here, with flush toilets and everything. My parents still live there. My mom grew up on a farm in Iowa, a large scale commodity farm and my dad grew up in New Jersey and was a writer, a poet. Still is, actually. I look at all those factors, and I can see aspects of how I’m emulating my parents, which I think we all do to differing extents, whether we want to admit it or not. I mean, I make my living as a writer and we have created this homestead, though we have stuck it out a little longer than they did perhaps. And I’m scared to death of poetry.

How we ended up here, more pragmatically, is that my wife and I were looking for land. I used to go down to Martha’s Vineyard for the winters. You could live there for next to nothing and make good money working construction, and I met her on a job site down there. She was literally digging a ditch for the sprinkler system, and showed up on the jobsite one morning in the rain, riding a bike with a shovel and pick-axe strapped to it. I was very, very intrigued by a woman who would do that. She already had farm experience, and once we decided that we wanted to be more than just friends, we moved to Vermont. We were looking for land and had very little money and this was the first piece of land we found that we could afford and that met our needs. This was in 1997. With a lot of help from friends, we built our own place and we have continued to build it up around us. Honestly, the house is still sort of unfinished, and I don’t see that changing anytime soon.

You mention that we often, intentionally or unintentionally, end up emulating our parents. Can you talk more about what you have taken from them?

Well, obviously, I look askance at any choices my parents made at all. [Laughing.] But clearly some of it did become ingrained in my DNA. Part of it was not actually the specific choices, but rather the ability or capacity to imagine living and making a life that was a little atypical for 20th and 21st century America. This I have taken from my parents for sure. We have made a lot of choices that don’t necessarily fit with contemporary understandings of success and prosperity, though I am really leery of generalizing, because there are so many versions of the American Dream. Our version is that it is really important to us to remain debt free. We built our house ourselves; we didn’t have a lot of skills, but we learned, we asked friends for help. We did this in part because it was fun to us, it felt like an adventure, but also because we couldn’t abide going into huge amounts of debt. I remember sitting in the mortgage originator’s office and he told us we qualified for a $100,000 loan and we just looked at each other, horrified. We just couldn’t imagine taking on that sort of debt, what it would do to our lives, because it has always been really important to us to have autonomy over our lives and over how we spend our days. So a lot of the decisions that we have made are oriented around wanting to maintain control and autonomy over our lives. And I think, more than the specific things that my parents did or did not do, I saw and learned from their ability to think creatively about how they conducted their lives. They clearly had a capacity to think for themselves in this regard.

There was never pressure from my folks to do a certain thing; I was allowed to follow my own path, for better or for worse, but mostly for the better, though in some ways, that’s only obvious in hindsight. For instance, I dropped out of high school when I was 16 and my parents were very supportive. They were not necessarily pleased, but they did not try to cajole me into something different. And in hindsight, I can see how leaving school for me was strangely an opportunity. It took me off the assumed path, the assumed educational journey, what I now see as a treadmill for so many young people. This is not the case for everybody, but certainly it is for some people, and this traditional educational path is its own trap in a sense. I see the fact that I did not end up going on to college as a liberating experience for me. Because I have been able to afford to be a writer and a homesteader in some measure because I did not have a whole bunch of student loan debt I had to service. You can start to see how avoiding debt and maintaining autonomy and the role of education, they all start to come together for me.

Which leads us to your book, and your writing about your life, and your lifestyle. In many ways, being public about these things, you are providing one of those models. Can you talk about what you hope you are showing your children and perhaps showing people who might be searching, looking for this model to inspire and guide them?

It is funny you bring this up. It is something we have been talking a good deal about around here. To what extent are we willing to expose ourselves? I don’t have a problem sharing what I am thinking. And I am not terribly self-conscious in terms of putting my ideas and views out there. I don’t have a problem with people disagreeing with me; I am thick skinned about that. What I am struggling with right now is this feeling of exposure and people looking at me like I am an expert. I don’t consider myself an expert, nor do I want other people to consider me an expert. And I feel very strongly that most people have within themselves the capacity to figure out the best path for them. But they are so bombarded by messages, overtly or more subvertly contained in the media. We are immersed in it, this idea that we are not really capable of determining what the best path is for ourselves. And I think that that is part of what leads people to feel this lack of confidence.

But if I could be so presumptuous as to hope for anything, it is for people to see that there are people out there modelling something different. And not necessarily that they should emulate what we are doing specifically, or aspire to that. That makes me uncomfortable. I think people should aspire to live a life that is meaningful to them. Whether or not they make similar choices, they can see that there are other stories. There are so many assumed stories in our culture. Someone told me recently that I am a story disruptor. And I kind of like that, I can go with that. I do have a skill of fomenting those discussions, provoking and facilitating those kinds of discussions. And I enjoy those discussions. But I don’t like being portrayed as being someone who knows more than others — likely this comes from me not liking it when people tell me that they know more than I do. In my formal education that was something I rebelled against, and I suppose that’s still true.

So instead of educating my readers or the people I consult with or speak to, I like to think about communicating with them. I think about telling stories. What they do with the stories they hear is really up to them.

Let’s talk about the earth that our children are inheriting. The actual soil, but also the mentality of the generation they are entering, and our own generation’s, and how these issues play themselves out with one another.

I struggle with thinking as large as the Earth. I rarely think on that scale. Our lives are really by design small. We have chosen a very place-based life. When I start thinking too hard about global issues, it is easy to become overwhelmed and nihilistic in some ways, at least for me it is. The more I focus my energy in my community and on my family and on this land, the better I feel, because despite my public work, my sphere of influence feels pretty small. I try to be in service to my more immediate community, rather than trying to change the world, which I fear is a recipe for frustration.

The trajectory of humans on this earth is incredibly destructive. Despite all the talk about how technology, sustainable this, high tech that, is going to change that trajectory, it is simply not happening, at least not on a meaningful scale. So there is certainly an aspect of activism in the life we have chosen. We are doing what we love to do, what we feel called to do, but we are also aware of the need for change. And this applies to the way we educate our children and talk about this education, too.

Charles Eisenstein talks about “tiny things that are actually big.” These are the little acts of generosity and kindness – not just toward other people, but also toward the natural world – we can all do on a daily basis. That’s something that’s very motivating for us, to live in a way that allows us to do these tiny things on a day-in, day-out basis. I guess you could say it’s about living in accordance with our principles. That can be difficult, because often our economic interests do not align with these principles.

What you are talking about with us is where you find your feeling of empowerment. And you have decided to start small. There is something about really knowing where you are, which inspires a care for where you are that then can spread outward.

Yes. We live in a culture where empowerment is largely achieved through acquisition of material assets, climbing the socioeconomic ladder. We are taught that the path toward empowerment is financial stability, success, achievement in the workplace or on other stages. Until that message changes, we will never really escape, and will continue to be captive to this destructive growth economy. Clearly there is something really amiss in our quest; just look at the tremendous declines in our physical, mental, and spiritual health. And it goes mostly unquestioned. People aren’t even aware of how captive we have become.

Certainly, this is part of our motivation for following an atypical educational path with our sons – to provide them alternate stories and ideas about success and contentment.

There’s something else, too, which is that I want my children to feel useful in meaningful ways. By this, I mean that I want them to feel as if they are contributors to our family’s well-being in tangible ways. For us, this means they have chores, they help with haying, they help our dairy farming neighbor with his chores. They feel responsible, not just for themselves and toward us, but also toward their community.

It’s funny: We talk so much about trust and responsibility in children, but then we put them in an environment – school – where trusting them and granting them responsibility are essentially absent. I mean, if you want a child to be trustworthy, you have to trust him. If you want her to be responsible, you have to give her responsibilities. It seems so obvious, yet most schooling environments simply cannot accommodate these actions, either because they lack the necessary resources, or they’re afraid of getting sued.

What would you hope for when you look at your children? What do you hope is being passed on or inspired, or that you are encouraging in them?

I think it is dangerous territory to hold out specific wants or hopes for our kids because when we do this, it’s almost inevitable they will disappoint us. Children are always going to surprise us, and I think the more specific our hopes become and the more we hang our own contingent on those hopes, the more often those surprises become disappointment.

This brings me back to the word inherit. I am a little leery of it. What I want to do is to try to provide my kids with an environment and a connection to the earth and to their community, and a sense that their lives are in their own hands, and their contentment and gratification is in their own hands. And that’s about it. And I see lots of examples of them doing this, often pretty far outside the contemporized norms. They don’t go to school, they don’t have the same expectations for what they should own or revere, the things that have become very common in modern 21st century first world societies. I am glad for that, in part because it means we don’t have to grapple with the influence of these things on our lives, but also because it is evidence to me that they are living their own stories.

I have to admit that I don’t think too much about what I might leave behind for them. Another word that makes me feel kind of nervous is legacy. I want to inhabit this particular time and this particular moment as much as possible, but I try not to think a whole lot about what I want my kids to become or do or be. Or about what I’m going to leave as my legacy.

All you hear is that college is more and more important, higher education is more and more important, our kids need to be able to compete on a global stage. We are losing sight of how beautiful and simple life can actually be. Simple may not be the right word; maybe peaceful is the better word. I really feel like that. And I feel as though education, and our assumptions around what constitutes a proper education, is a large part of us losing sight of this.

You know, maybe my boys are going to decide this is all bunk and head to the city and get high-powered jobs in finance. That will be my next big challenge, and I will be okay with that. It will be a surprise, but not a disappointment. At least, I hope not!

One more thing. I don’t want my kids to be merely happy along their journey. “I just want my kids to be happy” feels to me like a shallow interpretation of what life can be. Maybe it is just semantics but I am a word person so I tend to think words are important. Happiness is one aspect of creating a meaningful life for oneself but it is certainly not all aspects. I want to give my sons as many tools as possible for them to find a meaningful life for themselves, and to define what is meaningful to them in their own way. And being happy is only one piece of this. When I think of all of the experiences I have had that have made my life feel as rich as it has felt to me, some of those experiences have nothing to do with feeling happy. Sadness has played a part. Grief. In some cases, maybe even anger, though I’m never sure how productive that is.

Let’s talk about this assumed educational path.

We are so socialized to the assumption that the path toward a successful life includes higher education. I think one of the reasons (and there are a lot) for this is that, at this time, very few of us have models that are showing us any differently. We have multiple generations now that have lived with that assumption, without thinking terribly hard about it. Penny and I feel so fortunate that we had, throughout the context of our adult lives, so many good friends and mentors who have modeled for us that there is a different way, or many different ways, to create a meaningful life for oneself. And, wow, how grateful we are for that. We happen to live in a geographical and demographic area where you can still find those models. Not that Vermont is the only place this is happening, but it seems as though these models are becoming increasingly rare. They don’t just land in your lap. They certainly aren’t being held up as examples in most mainstream media.

Also, it seems to me that compulsory education is about making children learn. I like to distinguish between making them learn something, which is what compulsory education does or tries to do, and making room for learning to happen. It sounds a lot alike, but I don’t think we spend nearly enough time making room for learning to happen and way too much time making learning happen.

Making learning happen is putting a kids in an environment and telling them what and when and how to learn. And truthfully, all the extra curricular activities and all the homework that goes hand in hand with school leaves children with very little time to learn outside this context. Making room for learning to happen acknowledges the truth that learning is natural. Kids learn. It is what they do. We cannot stop a child from learning, although we can make them dislike it if we try hard enough. As every parent knows, the best way to get a kid to hate a particular food is to tell them that they have to eat it. To make eating it compulsory. I think learning is very similar in that regard. I don’t think we recognize any more as a culture how natural learning is. For children and adults. But the reason we don’t recognize this is that most of us went through that same process of being made to learn and being told what we had to learn. We learned a distaste of learning. We learned to not have confidence in our ability to self-direct our learning. This is not true for everyone, but it is for a lot of people. And the more I talk about this, the more I realize how true this is for many, many people.

It is interesting when I ask people about points in their life that felt most meaningful to them. The life lessons they have learned, moments that have felt rewarding, productive, and meaningful, these moments have never been in school. That doesn’t mean that everything that we learn in school is useless, but it does beg the question about all the hours that we spend in school. For my book, we calculated that by the time Finlay was 12, he would have spent 10,000 hours in school, not to mention the 44 hours of screen time per week for the average American teenager. That tells me we don’t value our children’s time enough, maybe because we don’t value our own time enough.

Don’t get me wrong: There are a lot of really great people who come out of public education. But I do think compulsory, standardized schooling makes it more difficult to imagine different stories about how to create a meaningful life, because there are so many assumptions embedded in our contemporary education model. And it therefore becomes more difficult for children and parents within the system to imagine things differently when they are immersed in that model. Not impossible. But challenging.

What are your hopes for your readers here and for those reading your books?

My hope is that people start asking questions, of themselves as much as anything else. That seems attainable. That people begin to recognize that there are people out there finding meaning and satisfaction in a way of life that is very grounded in place, and humble in terms of what it asks materially. Some of the things that have been the best decisions of my life are the things that have cut straight against the grain of what is generally assumed by our culture. It is really interesting that the times when I have radically veered off the presumed trajectory, in a way that in the short term might have seemed really radical, risky, and misguided, ended up being the most rewarding decisions of my life. I hope people read my stories and ask themselves questions. And then find their own path.