Some read, some don’t. So what? Some people in the United States read okay, and some read really well. Some read occasionally or only when a task necessitates it; others stay up half the night, tangled in a book. Why does it matter? It’s not like the “merely” accurate readers are getting lost on the freeway or can’t write a check. These days, if they need to know something about history or science, they can whip out their phone and watch a YouTube video. Sure, they’re not reading Proust for fun and they’ve never written a ten-page paper explicating Mrs. Dalloway. Who cares?
Many experts conclude that we shouldn’t. A recurrent theme in critiques of higher education is that it makes little sense to spend enormous collective resources training young people with skills they will never need at work, as economist Richard Vedder argued in a debate in the Chronicle of Higher Education. “A large subset of our population,” he wrote, “should not go to college, or at least not at public expense. The number of new jobs requiring a college degree is now less than the number of young adults graduating from universities, so more and more graduates are filling jobs for which they are academically overqualified.”
Since these people will never need to write a research paper in order to flip burgers, why waste all that educational time and effort?
There are other reasons to ask why the differential attainment of literacy and literate intellectuality matters. The bookish life of the mind is only one small part of the full range of human invention and brilliance. After all, the knowledge and accomplishments of the first 200,000 years of human history took place in the complete absence of literacy. In rural Appalachia today, there are still a few families, like the Hamiltons, whose members have never set foot in a schoolhouse, and yet are highly skilled, knowledgeable, and possessed of keen intellects and vibrant curiosity.
As Ruth Hamilton put it, regarding her decision to keep her children out of school, “Then the Lord told me, He said, they won’t have a lot of book sense. But I’ll make them know how to do.” They can pull a tractor apart and rebuild it, help a cow through a difficult birth, turn standing poplars into a cabin, and can a winter’s worth of food—all without ever having read a single chapter.
I once spent an afternoon with Nathan Hamilton, replacing the clutch in my Honda. We had both repaired a clutch or two before, but neither of us had worked on a Civic. I reclined in the driver’s seat and read a repair manual to see how to proceed. “Step 1,” it said, “remove the transmission from the vehicle.” That wasn’t much help, so I started flipping to the section on removing transmissions. Meanwhile, Nathan was studying the car itself, and soon announced a quicker and easier route than the one in the book, one that didn’t require fully removing the transmission. In that case, literacy went head-to-head with independent thinking, and lost.
Like many people who are not book-educated, the Hamiltons are what we might call practical intellectuals. They apply an expert analytical intelligence to an astonishing array of mostly practical tasks. This is a different set of tasks than the ones tackled by, say, linguist and author Noam Chomsky—but is there any basis for arguing that it is of less value? If anything, the more obviously and directly valuable skill set is that of the Hamiltons. Will the latest version of Chomsky’s generative grammar see me through a cold, hungry winter?
If Nathan Hamilton had been sent off to Phillips Exeter, he might have gained one broad set of skills, but only at the cost of losing the chance to develop a radically different and also valuable set of skills. And note that if he had been sent to the local make-believe school, he would have paid a similar opportunity cost, and received little in return but a crash course in fistfights, crystal meth, and gut-wrenching alienation.
When I was in my late teens and early twenties I worked on a carpentry crew, building custom-designed passive solar homes all over Bear Lick Valley. The crew was a mix of country and bohemian. During lunch, I would find a shady spot and sit with a book, a practice that drew chuckles from some of my fellow workers. One day, a wiry, hard-working fellow called Bones gave voice to their laughter. “Son,” he said, with the confidence of an elder guiding a wayward youth, “ain’t nothing in them books you cain’t learn in the real world.”
Was he right?
Let me be blunt. The make-believe school model, and the endemic semi-literacy it creates, leaves many people in the United States—despite spending many years of their lives in “school”—with outlandishly poor formal educations. Many of the students I work with begin college, for the most part, exquisitely uninformed—unless we’re talking about pop culture. They know who won last season’s Super Bowl. They know the latest celebrity scandals. They can name fashionable brands of jeans all day long, even if they can’t afford them.
But they don’t know how their own bodies work. They don’t know what makes the sun shine, how the moon formed, or why the inside of the earth is hot. They don’t know how carbon dioxide traps heat in the atmosphere; they’ve never even heard of ocean acidification. They can’t name a single recent Supreme Court ruling; they don’t know that John Roberts recently eviscerated the Voting Rights Act. The economic meltdown in 2008? They don’t know why it happened. They don’t know who fought in World War II, or why. They think we invaded Iraq because of 9/11. They are, in short, bereft of basic actual knowledge that matters.
Nathan Hamilton, having escaped make-believe school, is not bereft of factual knowledge that matters. But when it comes to book learning, he’s in the same boat as my students. He doesn’t know much science or history. He’s curious about such things, and will ask me about them—but, without reading and writing, it’s hard to go deep enough into the intricacies of a difficult topic to really learn it. His information about politics and current affairs comes from right-wing talk radio. Ronald Reagan, in his mind, is a hero, because he knew how “to talk tough and be tough.” But Nathan doesn’t know anything about the Reagan administration’s actual policies.
None of what I am describing here is an Appalachian thing. It’s a class thing, which means it’s everywhere. Surveys and polls all around the country uncover the same elemental lack of learned awareness. For example, even after a doubling of scientific literacy over the past 20 or 30 years—probably owing largely to increased college enrollment—only 20 to 25 percent of Americans are “scientifically savvy and alert,” according to Jon Miller, a scholar who studies public awareness of science.
“American adults in general,” Miller has found, “do not understand what molecules are (other than that they are really small). Fewer than a third can identify DNA as a key to heredity. Only about ten percent know what radiation is. One adult American in five thinks the Sun revolves around the Earth, an idea science had abandoned by the 17th century.”
Apparently, if you want to hide something, just put it in a book.
This lack of factual awareness is easy to describe, readily quantified through surveys, and has a kind of gee-whiz shock value. I introduce it here mostly as a convenient index for a more important and harder to measure outcome of failed schooling. A lack of familiarity with the basic contours of history, geography, political economy, science, and so on, while important, is only one component of a broader set of skills, capacities, and interpretive habits that often go missing when a person is weakly literate.
The best overall term I can think of for this condition is a-intellectualism. One of the outcomes of make-believe schooling is that lower-income kids are much more likely to wind up not only with weak literacy but rendered permanently disinterested and divorced from sustained intellectual self-development—which has profound effects that not only impact individuals, but reverberate throughout society.
I remember standing at the edge of the Pacific Ocean one night on the Yurok Reservation, upon the sandbar where the Klamath River pours into the restless surf. We were hunting lamprey eels; like salmon, lampreys migrate upriver to spawn. Taking a break, I rested the eel hook over one shoulder and walked up the steep slope of the beach, to where my stepsister stood watching the stars glitter in the sky.
We were both about 16. She had grown up attending make-believe schools near the reservation. When a shooting star drew its glowing fingertip across the night, she asked, “How are there still so many stars, when they’re always falling down?” Oh, I thought, that’s cute. She doesn’t know that shooting stars are just grains of space dust.
A couple of years later, when she got pregnant with her first child, she didn’t know what fetal alcohol syndrome was, either. Would it have made a difference if she had? Maybe she still would have partied with her unborn son—but she would have known that she confronted a choice. With subsequent children, she did know, and chose to limit her drinking while pregnant.
In this case, Bones was right: you don’t have to learn about fetal alcohol syndrome from a book. You can learn about it in the real world.
This leaves us with a mystery. In Bear Lick and the surrounding areas, with the exception of an extremely determined and innovative teacher here and there, it was all make-believe schooling when the local hippie homesteaders were children. There were no Phillip Exeters. How did they become so literate? Why was their path different from the more common, a-intellectual one traveled by Caleb Hayward, Seth Halpin, and so many others?
For a few homesteaders who grew up in wealthier places, the answer is straightforward: they had access to higher-quality schools. At the same time Caleb Hayward was dropping out to work at the sawmill, a bohemian homesteader-to-be named Dylan Graves was attending an elementary school full of scientists’ kids in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, an entire town built from scratch in 1942 as part of a sprawling nuclear weapons research complex.
Dylan’s mother was a college graduate and his father a chemist recruited by the Manhattan Project. He grew up in a world of affluent professionals, isolated from the surrounding Appalachian countryside. After high school, he headed to Carleton, a top-ranked liberal arts college in Minnesota—taking, almost as a matter of course, a route into young adulthood that never even crossed Caleb Hayward’s mind.
Most counterculture homesteaders, however, did not attend high-quality schools, and it’s these people who generate the mystery. How did they become intellectual?
A few, with little adult help, find their way in a kind of real-life, pedagogical Horatio Alger story. Raised by working-class grandparents in small-town Kentucky, a future back-to-the-lander named Dean Jefferson stumbled upon a Stephen King novel when he was 12 and fell in love. Soon, he was pedaling his bike to the library to check out more—not the only story I heard involving a library and a bicycle. As a teenager, pot and rock ‘n’ roll led him to a biography of Jim Morrison, lead singer of The Doors, and Morrison’s own voracious readings led him to an interest in philosophy and interlibrary loan, and, eventually, to Berea College.
Elijah Amaro took an even more unusual route. Raised in a non-reading household in Atlanta, he hated school and was soon channeled into “dropout prevention” classes. “All the teachers I had,” he recalled, “they could care two cents about us. They pretty much knew if we stayed we’re goshdarn lucky and if we left pretty much 95 percent of us were gonna end up in jail or dead.” He didn’t so much drop out of school as drift away into the streets. When a helpful adult suggested that he apply to college, his response was emphatic. “I was pretty much like fuck school man, institutions suck. And she was like ‘If you change your mind, I’ll get you an application,’ and I was like, yeah, fuck you, I ain’t gonna do no school.”
But all along, he loved to read. “Even when I was burned out on high school,” he said. “Even when I was smoking pot, I went to the libraries. I even became a book thief for a while, ganked books.” Then, after a few months of sleeping under bridges, he and some other street kids thumbed a ride to a Rainbow Gathering in Ocala, Florida—and he found his university. For many alienated young dropouts like Elijah, the Rainbow Family functions as a kind of mobile, distributed, alternative school.
The larger gatherings have actual libraries where you can trade in a book you’ve been traveling with for something fresh. The books can be pretty far out, Elijah said, with “anything from biodynamics to yoga, dumpster diving, you name it. Ram Dass, hippie-dippie books, Native American books, astrology.” They might have been far-out, but they kept him reading, kept him thinking, and kept that part of his mind alight. Eventually, he did go back to school, earning his bachelor’s degree from Berea College while living in his little cob cabin in the woods.
But most bohemian homesteaders, unlike Dylan Graves, didn’t get to attend a high-quality school. That’s not the common answer to the mystery of unusually literate homesteaders. Nor did most of them hoist themselves to book learning by their own bootstraps, like Elijah Amaro. The answer, for most, is that they encountered literacy at home.
Take Cody Shulyer. The damaging early schooling he endured pangs him. “I feel like I probably could have accomplished more in my life,” he said, as we drove home from Lexington, “if I had a better elementary education. I kinda had to teach myself how to learn and teach myself how to research—I didn’t have any of those skills by the time I got to college. It really hurt me. I really regret it.”
But this impact, while real, was limited by one crucial thing: every afternoon when he stepped off the school bus, he opened the door into a literate household. Sometimes he and his mother lived in run-down cabins where you could see daylight through gaps in the siding. They stayed for a time in that big farmhouse, the Hippie Museum, a place so “swarming with people,” Cody remarked, “you never knew how many housemates you actually had.” But in all these spaces, no matter how poor, the walls were lined with milkcrate bookshelves full of well-worn paperbacks.
When he was 12, Cody sliced his knee with a drawknife and spent much of the summer straight-legged on the sofa. He started with what he could pull off the shelves: Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land, The Immigrants by Howard Fast. Soon his mom bought him a subscription to the Science Fiction Book Club—with no nearby library to bike to, getting books in the mail was a godsend—and he read his way through scores more. The Lord of the Rings, more Heinlein, The Chronicles of Amber, Isaac Asimov. What was missing in school, he found at home. Even though he laments what the make-believe schooling cost him, it ultimately didn’t hold him down; he is one of the most ferociously well-educated people I know.
I heard this story over and over: I didn’t get much out of school, but I was an avid reader at home. Elizabeth Brower, a homesteader in her seventies, is from a rural Appalachian family. She is one of the few individuals who seem to be genuinely and equally at home with both country and bohemian homesteaders, although she is definitely liberal in her political and social attitudes.
Partly this cross-border comfort is because of her welcoming and gregarious personality, but it is also because she was able to provide for herself, through reading, a level of literate education that was unusual for rural eastern Kentucky. When the first non-local back-to-the-landers began to move into her part of eastern Bear Lick in the mid-1970s, she was immediately drawn to their educated company.
Neither of her parents had experienced college, and her father had dropped out after the eighth grade. “I didn’t read until I was 13,” Elizabeth told me, “and then my bookworm neighbor gave me To Kill a Mockingbird, and it just changed my life.”
I asked what she meant by that phrase, “changed my life.”
“Of course reading changes your life,” she replied, like I was dense. “If you can’t afford to travel in a car, you have to travel with your mind.”
Libraries and bicycles. Milk crates crammed with paperbacks. Bookworm neighbors. These are the tools that allow children to overcome make-believe schooling. Among my Berea College freshmen, perhaps the strongest predictor of whether or not they have a reading habit is this: on their birthday, and for Christmas, and to mark other occasions, did an adult family member—mom, dad, Uncle Jim, Mamaw, anyone—give them books as gifts? If not, they probably don’t read. So, for the final exam, I don’t give them a test. I walk them to Berea’s lovely used bookstore and buy each of them a book.
From Shelter from the Machine: Homesteaders in the Age of Capitalism by Jason G. Strange. Used with the permission of the University of Illinois Press. Copyright 2020 by the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois.