Our family doesn’t spend a lot of time on current events. There is no television service; it is nearly impossible to listen to the radio amidst the din of kids and dogs; none of us could find the time to sit still long enough to read a newspaper before it was needed to light the fire or the grill; and our available computer time is limited. Bob tries to keep up-to-date by listening to podcasts on the tractor, and much of my news is, admittedly, filtered through him.
I’ve read written criticisms of our homeschooling efforts that suggest our family is sheltered and naive, but there has been conscious method behind our oblivion. It is not that Bob and I fail to care about what is happening in the world around us. We care a lot. And we want our children to care, too. Perhaps it is true that bombarding our daughters with headlines and stories beyond their sphere of influence will lead the outside world to perceive them as erudite. They could potentially impress adults with a level of worldly knowledge beyond their years. But in our view, that doesn’t necessarily create caring citizens. We want our kids to be passionate about the world in which they live, and to feel empowered to act within it to make things better. Thus, current events, in our family, start with an intimate knowledge of the seasons, and the factors that influence our food and wildlife. My daughters don’t see the nightly news, but their first-hand experiences on a family farm give them a pretty firm grasp on climate change, pollution, habitat destruction, basic economics, the banking system, and the importance of proper stewardship of this earth.
Our concern about excessive exposure to news media for our children is that it can carry them down the spectrum from empathy toward apathy. In our opinion, too much bad news without the filters of maturity leads to despondence. Despondence leads to apathy. Apathy leads to cynical adulthood, and I think cynical grown-ups have a harder time bringing about positive change.
But that doesn’t mean we intend to block out everything in perpetuity. And when the recent issue of Smithsonian showed up in the mailbox, we were all curious about the lead story: The Hunt for Africa’s Most Notorious Elephant Poacher. I read it aloud to Bob over a cup of coffee in the early morning hours last Saturday, before we headed out to set up our stall at the market. Deciding that now was a good time to start introducing more global concerns in our education, I chose to read it aloud again to the girls after dinner that night. Supporting me in this experiment, Bob refrained from jumping up to do dishes, and stayed seated at the table.
The article was rife with tragedy, but broadly covered many current intertwining world events. Fifty thousand elephants traversed the interior of Chad 50 years ago. Today, less than two percent of the population remains. To satisfy the hunger of the ivory trade, entire elephant herds are being mowed down by the hundreds with AK-47s. The proceeds have gone, among other places, to finance the Janjaweed in the ethnic cleansing of Darfur.
That’s hard stuff for a ten-year-old and a seven-year-old. It was harder still for Bob and me to watch their despair over this story. There wasn’t a dry eye around the kitchen table. We read about the guards who had taken bribes to help the killers identify migratory routes; about the villagers and subsistence farmers who willingly assisted the poachers, happy to keep the elephants out of their crops, and to find a source of free meat.
I read on as the story delved into details about covert operations and arrests. But I was interrupted.
“The trouble is, they need to learn how to cook an elephant,” Ula blurted with sudden enthusiasm.
I lifted my eyes and joined Bob in giving her a brief disapproving stare. I resumed reading. The story unfolded with more descriptions of the warring between the poachers and the rangers.
“And the fencing systems,” Saoirse interrupted. “I mean, they need to look at the villager’s fencing systems.”
“…Because if you know how to properly cook an elephant,” Ula continued her own intellectual thread, apparently unmoved by the parental disciplinary glare, “then you should be able to kill just one, and you should be able to get a lot of meals out of it.”
I was losing my listening audience. Fast.
“Because what are the villagers supposed to do, if they are losing their crops?” Saoirse, who had lost some prized melon seedlings to our flock of guinea hens earlier this summer, was on her own tangent.
“I mean, think about how much bone broth you could get from a single elephant!” Ula was on a role. “And shooting them like that with those guns — That’s not good. They should really be doing it with a spear. Because that’s a lot of meat they’re wasting.”
I glanced across the table at Bob. He was holding his head in his hands. This current events lesson was failing. Fast.
“Well, they shouldn’t be killing the elephants at all!” I retorted to Ula.
“Why?” Ula challenged me head-on. “I mean, they have to eat, right? Well, no one could eat 250 elephants. That’s not right. But they could do a lot with one elephant. I mean, think about the size! Think how much meat they could take off it! And then, they could make a little something nice with the tusks. But I wouldn’t just use the tusks. After I made broth from the bones, I’d probably make something nice with those, too.”
“And how can those villagers farm if the elephants are allowed to just wander through?” Saoirse added.
Homeschooling is a work-in-progress, I comforted myself privately. I closed the magazine and tossed it aside. Bob was shaking his head as he began clearing the table. This hadn’t played out as I’d hoped. Where had I gone wrong?
My mind mulled this over for the next several days. As I walked my dogs each morning, I kept repeating these words to myself: Apathy versus Empathy. Apathy versus Empathy. Did Ula and Saoirse fail to care about the elephants?
No. They had grown deeply distressed about the plight of the elephants. And Saoirse’s comments about the fencing systems made sense to me. But Ula’s comments about cooking the elephants disturbed me. How could she hear about all that destruction, and then focus on the proper technique to kill and cook an elephant?
I was nearly home from my walk yesterday after puzzling through this for a week before I finally understood the obvious. Our family raises and slaughters beef, chickens, pigs and sheep to live. Saoirse’s and Ula’s understanding of the world around them is that people must eat to live. And eating requires two things: protecting the livestock and crops from perils, and killing. The massive killings were, beyond a doubt, upsetting to them. However, those few short lines about the villagers and subsistence farmers were not something they could easily gloss over. Here was true empathy: by virtue of their own daily experience, they were able to identify closely with those other people.
There was no question that they were far from apathetic about the elephant poaching in Africa. And as I replayed our family dialog, I realize that they were truly empathetic. They were horrified about the ethnic cleansing in Darfur. They cried over the elephants. But they were also concerned about the sustainability of the villagers and the farmers. Unlike their short-sighted mother, who was only hoping to spark empathy for elephants and knowledge about current events, they had gone one step further. They were using their own life experience along with their ability to think critically. They were not seeing the solution to the problem in terms of international laws or policing efforts, which was the scope of the news story. They went beyond and worried first and foremost about making sure people’s and the elephants’ needs were met.
Maybe the current events lesson had not gone wrong. Maybe it went very right. Saoirse and Ula had found the component in the story that they could understand and relate to, and they forced me to think deeper about the problem than I originally had. As I mentioned earlier, homeschooling is a work in progress. And hopefully, after they’ve worked with me for 12 years or so, my kids will finally get me properly educated.
This essay was written by Shannon Hayes of Sap Bush Hollow Farm — farmer, homeschooler and author — whose weekly Tuesday Posts are supported solely by the sale of her books and family farm products. To receive a link to each Tuesday Post in your email, enter your information in the space at the right of this page (scroll up). To support Sap Bush Hollow Farm and these writings, please check out the hand crafts and farm products in our online store, or come see us at the farm, or at The Round Barn Farmers’ Market in Holcottsville, NY (the Catskill Mountains). To buy books, check the titles in our online bookstore, or check out the ebook titles available directly from the author here. All Shannon’s titles are also available through the major online booksellers, as well as through your local independent bookstore.
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