Process vs. product

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.

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8 thoughts on “Process vs. product

  1. Wow, thanks for putting it so well Jove. I knew there was a connection between knitting as process and homeschooling, but I couldn’t quite feel out that link, which you did superbly. I agree whole-heartedly. Now back to that dropped stitch issue I’m working on in the ugly socks…

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  2. Wonderful post. I got a great chuckle out of your beginning because I love to leather carve, but I very rarely start something that isn’t already planned into a project. Unless I know what I’m doing and who is getting it, I just end up spinning my wheels. (0f course leather carving is the opposite of knitting, I do it all by myself and am apt to bite off the head of someone who tries to talk to me once I get going.)
    I also wanted to say that I love the way you’ve tied the knitting to homeschooling.

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  3. I tend to waver between both ends with my knitting. I only recently have become fluid enough to make items worth using and wearing, yet the process soothes me. I have just ventured into making baby blankets and some clothing, because the yarns and patterns are so cute. I have nothing to do but pack these away for a decade or so and hope one of the kids wants to use them. Yet, I love giving handmade gifts, that took time and effort and thought for the intended. It is so much more personal than spending a few quick minutes in a store and picking off a rack. Once my skills are better, I do not think I would worry about the cost factor because the enjoyment makes the cost irrelevant; but I would want to wear the items.

    I waver as far as education as well. I do think some tests and papers are part of a well rounded education, and studying difficult subjects develops a good work ethic. Though I hate having to report to the state with portfolios, but have learned to make them into a sort of yearbook of our “learning adventures.” I fill them not only with tests and papers, but pictures of trips and booklists and projects. The kids enjoy looking back on prior years and talking about what they learned and did.
    I totally disagree with the trend toward degrees versus education. Scout is choosing a school because it will give him great opportunities to learn WHILE getting the degree he needs to teach at the university. The journey is the key!

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  4. Excellent post – thanks for pointing me here and for the link.

    My “what defines success” post certainly ties into exactly what you are saying about the *product* being the most important aspect of home education, and later, life in general. The excellent job title, or high paying job, or prestigious post becomes the product that defines success. And those who choose to skip traditional livlihoods end up without a product, therefore making them not traditionally successful.

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  5. We were talking about the “value” of yarn at Rhinebeck and how we measure the cost in time spent with the yarn, not always the finished product. So 3500m of laceweight which may be very expensive needs to be rethought as many many hours with challenging patterns and beautiful finished products which makes it all worth while, even if it ends up in the basket with all the other lace we don’t wear very often.

    I really appreciate how you tie this to school and work. I think that’s finally what made me decide not to be a professor. It’s all about the measurables–the grants, the publications, the great course evaluations and not about the learning and research and being in a climate where the process of learning (for me and students) is valued for it’s own sake. Sure there needs to be some form of assessment, but it is becoming so rigid and unforgiving and corporate that I just don’t want to be there.

    I’m finding the other real challenge is for my children in public school–helping them balance doing what they are supposed to do with loving to learn. I probably won’t ever homeschool, but I do appreciate learning about how to subvert the system when I can.

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  6. Steph – yay for system subversion. 🙂 A book you might like is Geurilla Learning: How to give your kids a real education with or without school. It’s not a specifically homeschooling book, and it does have plenty of ideas for working around the school system.

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