I recently had a conversation with Kim, which started in the comments of my last knitting post, continued by e-mail, moved into a post of hers and so on. It got me thinking. I thought I’d share those thoughts.
At various points in knitting discussions, folks get on to the relative merits of process and product. For example, I knit lace largely because I enjoy the process. I think Ted does, too. But since I have started knitting lace, I have found a use for the product. I now wear shawls. And have given shawls to people as gifts. (Ted is clearly all about the process. He stores his shawls. In the freezer.) So while I knit lace primarily for the process, there is still some part of me that needs to see a use for the product. I suspect many of the knitters who claim to knit certain things because they enjoy the process also find some use for the product. Certainly the reactions to the shawls in Ted’s freezer suggest this is the case.
But if you go and read Kim’s post (I’ve put the link in again to encourage you. I’ll wait.), you will find someone who knits purely for the benefits of the process. She has yet to produce anything wearable. She claims not to be able to produce a decent washcloth. And yet she eloquently explains why the process is enjoyable and she keeps knitting. I encouraged her.
How many times have you been brought up short by someone who is horrified at the cost of the yarn for a sweater (or whatever) that you are knitting? Their comparison of the price of the yarn (and perhaps the monetary value of your time knitting in it) with the price of even good sweaters from the shops seems somehow to miss the point. And yet would you recommend that Kim buy nice, even expensive, yarn to knit with? I’m going to guess that there are limits to the value we place on the process.
We live in a society which values that which can be bought and sold. Commodities. If it does not produce a commodity, it seems that our work is worthless. Crazy, even. Thus the incomprehensibility of handknitting a sweater when a perfectly good one could be purchased for less. And the difficulty for even knitters to comprehend why one would knit something beautiful and then pack it up and store it safely where no one can even admire it much less get any use out of it. But to spend money on yarn and spend time knitting to produce something that even the producer doesn’t think is beautiful or useful? Completely at odds with the culture of commodification (otherwise known as capitalism).
Kim and I have not found each other because we are both knitters. Kim’s is not on the regular round of knitting blogs. No, Kim and I both homeschool. And these issues of process and product are also germane to the homeschooling discussions in which we both participate. Homeschoolers just don’t call it that.
Tests. Grades. Certificates. Credentials. These are indicators of the commodification of education. Listen to our politicians talk about education and you will hear a lot of talk about job skills, employability, and so on. And education policy (in most western industrialized countries) is being driven by this conceptualization of the value of education in terms of its value in the job market. And what matters in the (job) market is what can be measured and traded. Knowledge gets reduced to those aspects that can be given a dollar value.
How many young people have you met who expect that their university degree will earn them a higher salary? Is it the knowledge they gained in the process of earning that degree that they think will do this? Or is it the certificate (a product)? Having taught in a well respected university, I can tell you that there are many young people out there who think that the knowledge they might gain in the process is largely irrelevant. And many older people, having worked with younger degree bearing colleagues, who will agree with them (albeit resentfully).
This commodification of education has led to ever increasing “accountability measures” to ensure that the money the taxpayer (or parent in the case of private education) is paying is delivering a product worthy of the investment. A product that can be traded on the (employment) market. A commodity.
At the same time, the scope of what is taught is shrinking. Art, music, physical education, and the like have all become “luxuries”. When children are having difficulty reading, social studies time is shortened to make more time for the teaching of reading through drills and exercises. The fact that social studies might require reading and that the material might be a more interesting (and thus more motivating) way to practice reading becomes nonsensical.
As homeschoolers, we are often asked how we know that our children are learning. Or even how we know that our children are learning “the right things”. People are amazed that my province does not require me to follow the provincial curriculum guidelines or have my child tested when others are tested. Of course, we often wonder if our children are learning anything, too. But things happen in our lives that reassure us usually in sort of random ways. We converse with our children and the depth and breadth of their knowledge bcomes apparent.
But our children do not have grades or certificates. Products that can be traded on the (employment) market. It is tempting (and perfectly normal) for homeschoolers to look for means of comparing the product of their process to the product of other forms of schooling. Sometimes we try to redefine the terms of that comparison to value education differently. And there is some value in this comparison.
Some of us make arrangements to make sure that our children get the appropriate certificates so that they are not disadvantaged in a society which requires us to turn our knowledge into commodities. And some of us (depending on geography) are required to have our children tested or to submit portfolios of their accomplishments. Often, the process makes us realize how little of what they know is validated by tests, grades and certificates.
But homeschooling is about much more than the product. It is about the process. There are non-educational benefits to homeschooling that just cannot be compared to other forms of education. And there are things in this process that we value that cannot be commodified. Heck, I have difficulty articulating them sometimes. But the intrinsic value of the process makes the whole thing worthwhile, even if most of the people we meet think we are crazy.
We are also asked how we know that we can teach our children. The teaching certificate is the only recognized currency in the commodified education market. Without it, how can anyone be sure we know what we are doing? This despite the fact that many people are willing to admit to knowing several properly certified teachers who are incompetent. Some of us are lucky enough to have met uncertified teachers who are brilliant. But how do you measure that? And how do you put a dollar value on it? You can’t.
I recommended that Kim buy whatever yarn she most enjoys knitting with so that the process is as enjoyable as possible. If she feels she is being extravagent, she should not think of the value of the product but the value of those benefits that the process brings to her — calmness, the ability to enjoy sitting with others waiting for her children’s swimming lessons (or whatever activities) to finish, concentration. Unfortunately, those qualities do not normally have a dollar value. They cannot be commodified. People will still think she is crazy to knit. And she’ll never be able to explain it to them.
Edited to add: Today’s post at Paradise Found makes a nice companion to these thoughts. You might want to check it out.