The Internet and My Tale of Two Crises

The Internet is our most dynamic new societal institution, developing quickly over the past 25 years from “Web 1.0” (providing static web pages with existing content) to “Web 2.0” (providing interactive environments for building connections between people, facilitating other societal institutions, and the “marketplace of ideas”). I think this is a good example, a good metaphor, for the direction we are moving (and should continue to move) in our entire society and its institutions, from top-down dissemination and control, to a more egalitarian exchange between a circle of equals.

Trying to look back thoughtfully on the last 25 years of my own life (my years coincidentally as a parent) it is clear that my own direction, my own development, has been caught up in the development of the Internet, including my own transition from being generally a spectator of change (beyond parenting my own kids) to more of an agent of change (at least in a small way). I would say that I owe a debt of thanks to the Web, and I want to briefly tell that story.

Setting the Stage

In January 1986 our son Eric was born. I was starting the final year of classes towards my second college degree in Computer Science (having previously gotten a degree in Speech in 1978). My partner Sally was the family breadwinner, three years into her job working in operations for the UCLA fund raising campaign. After a couple months maternity leave, she had returned to work, and I (at that point not working outside the home) had the blessing of being Eric’s primary caretaker during the day (except for the hours I was in class). Three years later our daughter Emma was born, completing our nuclear family as it is today.

Sally and I had met each other and had a history of activism together in the early 1980s working for the National Organization for Women on the campaign for the Equal Rights Amendment and other efforts towards women’s equality. As such, we were comfortable being agents of change, but in 1986 that work was behind us and we were looking at our path forward together as parents with regular jobs to make enough money to pay our mortgage and support raising two kids. Both Sally and I had grown up attending regular public schools followed by public universities and we had no sense that our kids paths would be any different. We had at most a cursory knowledge of education alternatives beyond conventional public and private schools and not even an inkling that this area would become a major focus of our lives.

We were aware enough of child development issues, that when we were looking for a preschool for our kids, we avoided all those focusing on “pre-academic” prep in favor of one we found in the Yellow Pages (of all places) that advertised “developmentally appropriate curriculum”. So we met and liked the schools owner and director and decided to enroll our kids in her program. Eric and Emma seemed to thrive in her school, and since she also offered the early elementary grades and we had the money to continue to pay the fairly reasonable tuition, we kept them there for their early elementary years, transitioning Eric to public school in fourth grade and Emma in third.

It was in public schools where our kids began to run into problems, particularly our son Eric, who (to make a long story short) was a smart kid who participated actively in class but pretty much refused to do homework on his own time after school, preferring to focus on his own interests exclusively. Knowing little of the full spectrum of education alternatives (including homeschooling) and the concept of an “auto-didact” (a self-learner like Eric), we sent him to an educational specialist and went through the IEP (individualized education plan) at his middle school. The wisdom of these experts was to use rewards and punishments and practice “tough love” to encourage, cajole, reward and if necessary coerce Eric to do his homework and go with the program.

Nothing worked, and by eighth grade we had a very unhappy kid that I left crying on the curb most every morning in front of his middle school as I drove away, and I could feel the trust between us that was the centerpiece of our relationship beginning to slip away. I felt like I was becoming his truant officer disguised as his parent.

All this narrative to set a context for a growing sense of hopelessness on what to do with our son Eric, who had even gone so far as to write “Fuck Math” (as his only answer) on the State of California standardized eighth grade math test. None of the resources we had available to us, through our son’s school, family and friends, Sally’s connections with fellow therapists had any wisdom beyond rewards and punishments, tough love or very expensive private schools (that we could not afford).

Except for one resource that maybe saved our son Eric, and our relationship with him, from a complete train wreak… the Internet.

Our Web 1.0 Experience – Helping Our Son Eric

Both Sally and I, being very computer savvy, were early subscribers to Prodigy in the late 1980s, with its proprietary network, and its access to the “World Wide Web” (as it was mainly called back then). We soon discovered various online discussion groups, and Sally in particular, having a penchant for and experience doing research, quickly learned how to surf the web for the wisdom and other resources that might be found. Among other things, she found the Alternative Education Resource Organization (AERO), joined, and participated in an online “listserv” (forum) where people from all over discussed issues related to educational alternatives.

Through AERO and other Internet research, Sally began discovering work by a number of outside the box educational thinkers like Alfie Kohn and John Holt. Holt in particular made a very good case for homeschooling, something we had heard about but was generally associated with fundamentalist Christian families that wanted to avoid the secular “indoctrination” in public schools. Holt’s case (along with others’) was good enough for Sally and I to marshal all our courage to go against the conventional wisdom of our non-Internet world (including friends and family) and pull Eric out of school in the middle of eighth grade in favor of homeschooling him. It was an anxiety ridden time for us, wondering if we might in fact be dooming our son to perpetual ignorance and minimum wage jobs.

But the Internet resources and online community that Sally had found helped us get through, and after a difficult transitional year of “deprogramming” (which Holt and others had indicated would probably happen) Eric began to relax, get his feet back on the ground, and return to his natural auto-didact self, focusing his time pursuing and learning about the areas he was interested in. It all worked out in the end for us and Eric. He’s now 25 and a successful adult. (See my pieces on my kids’ unschooling story.)

I think it is fair to say that the Internet played a major role in saving us and particularly Eric from a metaphorical train wreak. Besides the expletive on the math test and having to leave him crying on the school curb each morning, he had started exhibiting other acting out behaviors, and I can only imagine the loss of trust in our relationship with him if we had continued to force him to go to school through his high school years. Let alone how a high school would punish a student with failed grades and more who refused to do most homework.

Our Web 2.0 Experience – Helping Me

In 2005 I reached age 50 in the midst of what I now look back on as a significant midlife crisis of sorts. Our kids were now older teens and our parental role was significantly diminished. My mom, now living with us and five years into increasing dementia (she died in 2006), weighed heavily on my partner Sally and I. I was putting my hours in at my “day job” as a business systems analyst, spending time with Sally the kids and her family, and volunteering as a Sunday school teacher at my Unitarian-Universalist congregation. I was also slowly destroying my health playing games on our computer often until 3am in the morning when I had to get up at 6am the next morning to go to work. I felt like I was putting in my time keeping my family going and then medicating the stresses of life by eating too much and staying up into the night to have my “own time”. I was burnt out.

But among my other computer activities, I started to participate in the email discussions on the AERO listserv Sally had discovered. I had now read several books Sally had found on homeschooling and critiquing our school system, and had several years now of our son’s homeschooling experience under my belt. I joined the discussion on the listserv about educational issues and found myself writing more and more and developing a voice as a supporter of “unschooling” and a proponent for what I called “many educational paths”. My Internet activities led to me attending several AERO conferences and making even deeper connections with other activist people in this area.

Without the Internet, I would never have discovered any of this, or had the opportunity to write, have an audience (even if it was only a couple dozen people) and find my “voice” as a writer. In 2008, at the urging and with the help of our son Eric (now a happy 22-year-old adult and budding entrepreneur with more Web savvy than me), I got my own URL (www.leftyparent.com), a WordPress blog template and I started to write and blog in earnest. As I framed it in one of my first blog pieces; since I was now past 50 and “over the hill”, I no longer had to fight gravity and could attempt to share whatever wisdom I had gathered from the first five decades of my life.

I took advantage of a layoff and five months severance pay to spend every day forcing myself to write (rather than hunting for a new job), until I got to a point where there was nothing I wanted to do more. Even when I did finally find a new job and went back to work, I did everything I could to structure my week so I would have two or three days devoted to writing. I am still following that path today.

As before with finding a different developmental path for our son Eric, I found my own path on the “Web 2.0” Internet. No longer just a consumer of other people’s opinion and expertise, I had a venue to put my own attempt at wisdom out there for others to consider. And as with Eric before, I can only speculate (and really don’t want to) where I would be if I had not found this outlet for myself and my own aspirations.

That’s my tale for today of the evolving life in the Information Age and the budding 21st Century. My counter to those who say that all the web is good for is wasting time schmoozing on Facebook or surfing porn. My hope for an accelerating human evolution as we meet the challenges ahead for our species.

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