Captain Fantastic, Homeschooling, and The Man

Warning: Captain Fantastic spoilers follow!

There aren’t many movies made about homeschoolers, so when one comes out, especially one as glowingly reviewed as Captain Fantastic, I try to see it.

I watched Captain Fantastic last night, and I can see why it’s being praised. Viggo Mortensen is great. The actors who play his six kids are great. It’s beautifully filmed, and there are some wonderful scenes of the family both in their isolated, off the grid home in the forests of the Pacific Northwest, and once they hit the road to attend the funeral of the family’s mom, who’s just succumbed to a long battle with mental illness and committed suicide.

Although I enjoyed the movie, some of it didn’t sit right with me. In the first scene, the eldest son takes down a buck with his bare hands and kills it with a knife while his siblings and father, all of them painted in camouflage black, look on. In a pseudo-spiritual coming-of-age ritual that seems completely out of character with the portrayal of the atheist, science-minded father that follows, dad serves son a raw organ from the animal (I think it was the heart), and declares him to be no longer a boy, but a man. That declaration also smacks of irony when “Stick It to The Man” turns out to be a family slogan, and it’s just one of the incongruities that keep Captain Fantastic from being as excellent as it could have been.

Ben Cash, the dad, is extraordinarily stoic, uses a harsh, military-style approach to conduct his children’s schooling and physical “training,” and makes his radical views clear to his children. He’s also a fierce patriarch who takes his job as a dad seriously, and his kids, for the most part, love and respect him. He clearly loves them, too, and is absolutely devoted to them, so it doesn’t make a lot of sense when, after they re-enter mainstream America by crashing mom’s funeral and doing some other nutty and sometimes dangerous things, he gives in to the pressure of family members who say that for the sake of the children’s well-being, he needs to hand them over to their grandparents.

He says farewell and hops into their home on wheels (a re-purposed school bus named Steve) and drives sadly away. It’s not long before the kids hop out of their hiding places in the back of the bus to show their never ending love and loyalty to dear old dad. Surprise (not)! The whole clan then engages in more over the top antics including digging up their mother’s body, cremating it, and dumping the ashes down a toilet as per her wishes.

Once the dad turned his kids over to The Man, I pretty much let go of any hopes of real character and plot development, and shifted my viewing perspective to Hollywood mode. The ending, however, put me over the edge. Dad relocates the kids so they can be closer to society. They still love to run around in nature and do nature-y things like collecting eggs from their chickens, but now they go to school. The last frame depicts their smiling faces sitting around the kitchen table, eating breakfast and diligently writing in their notebooks or looking at their schoolbooks, while Dad, who’s just lovingly packed each of them a homegrown lunch in a brown paper bag, tells them to come on kids, the school bus will be here soon.

Really? The politically radical, Stick-It-To-The-Man, Power-To-The-People guy has now relinquished his kids to the industrial school complex? Kids who, by the way, have been so well educated they will be leagues ahead of their peers (and probably their teachers), and so bored by the inane curriculum and arbitrariness that school dispenses, that the uncomplicated smiles on their faces would be, simply, impossible.

But, hey, everybody loves a happy ending, and what would an extreme parent who realizes the error (or at least the long term impracticality) of his ways do, first thing, to remedy his children’s lives? Send them to school, but of course.

I think the film wanted to explore questions about the real trade-offs of lifestyle and parenting choices, and the complexity involved in being a parent (a father, actually), and making hard choices. To its credit, it does raise those questions, but it could have delved into them more deeply, at least in the arena of homeschooling. For example, the children’s remarkable knowledge of literature, history, and government, their ability to engage in critical discussion of complex material, and the eldest son’s admission to several Ivy League schools (he applied on the sly), speak to the academic benefits of homeschooling in much the same way that simplistic portrayals of know-it-all homeschoolers winning national spelling bees and math competitions do. Meanwhile, the kids’ complete lack of awareness of popular culture and the eldest son’s first experience with a girl perpetuate the stereotype of awkward, unsocialized homeschoolers. We see very little ambivalence from the children about their lives, save for one younger sibling who feels very much like the token angry child, and a brief confrontation between the dad and the eldest son in which the latter shows the former his college acceptance letters.

Although they could have been more fleshed out, I did appreciate the close family relationships portrayed in the film. Other positives were the unflinchingly honest way the father talked to his kids, and the independence he granted them when he wasn’t acting as drill sergeant. The family music jams were pretty great, and I also liked the daughter’s critical analysis of Lolita, although I could have done without the father prying it from her, and his empty praise of “well done” once she produced it. Still, that scene and others like it clearly show that kids, when given the resources and opportunity, are more than capable of critical thinking at a level we usually associate with much older people. I loved, too, the murkiness of the gender of the two youngest children, and how relaxed and real they were on camera. I read in an article that in one heartwarming scene, the littlest picking their nose was a spontaneous action in the moment. That openness and lack of self-consciousness shows in the film.

Extreme stories of charismatic, domineering fathers who run the roost seem to be a theme in movies about homeschooling families. Surfwise and The Wolfpack come to mind. Those were documentaries, and in my opinion, are both better films than Captain Fantastic. It doesn’t have to be the case that watching adults and young adults raised in unconventional circumstances speak candidly about their lives is more effective than watching fictionalized characters, but in these instances, at least for me, the documentaries presented richer stories. As much as I’ve liked these movies and as much as I admire Viggo Mortenson’s portrayal of Ben Cash, I’m a little sick of the controlling father shtick. For a less sensational, more nuanced choice, I recommend the film Off the Map. Although the family it portrays is also living off the grid, at least it has a mom with a real voice.

While it isn’t the job of any film to be representative of a subgroup of people, when all I see in the movies is portrayals of homeschoolers as people with extreme views and lifestyles, or occasional cameos of homeschoolers as religious zealots or unsocialized buffoons, it gets a little tiresome. Maybe someday, filmmakers will Stick It To the Man enough for us to get some different kinds of homeschooling stories.



Making our own kind of music

Every so often I hear people ask the question, how do you unschool music? How do you learn music without lessons or instruction?

First off, unschooling doesn’t mean you can’t have a teacher, use instructional materials, or undertake any other kind of traditional study. By the same token, those methods aren’t necessarily required to learn music. The trick is to foster appreciation for music, support whatever involvement in music your kids choose, and keep the joy and creativity in music making alive.

All four of my kids are musical in different ways. Kid one leaned toward the singer-songwriter world, number two embraces traditional folk, number three is a devoted jazz fan and vocalist, and number four likes classical best, although she also enjoys playing klezmer with her dad.

Below are some ideas for how to nurture musical intelligence in your kids.

Exposure First and foremost, expose your kids to many different kinds of music. There are plenty of excellent recordings made expressly for kids. By all means, enjoy them, but play other music, too. As young children my kids loved Bob Dylan, Beethoven, The Beatles, Queen, other more obscure bands, and many kinds of ethnic music. Don’t just listen to music around the house, go hear live music, too. I really can’t overestimate the importance of exposure to music. My daughter is a perfect example. Our kids regularly attended classical, folk, and world music concerts, but we didn’t go hear jazz very often, or listen to it much at home. That all changed when somehow, Ella Fitzgerald found her way onto the family mp3 player when my daughter was 11. She fell in immediate, absolute, obsessive love. Within months she had listened to and learned Ella’s entire canon, mostly by taking her CDs out of the library, and today is an accomplished, primarily self-taught jazz vocalist.

Modeling If you want your kids to learn about and love music, do it yourself. My husband is a musician, so our kids witnessed the joys of making music on a regular basis, as well as the necessity of practice. I’m an amateur singer and the kids listened to me practice choral music they later heard in performance. Even if you don’t want to pick up an instrument or sing, you can still model music appreciation through listening and enjoying music yourself.

Make music together Since learning to listen is one of the most important aspects of making music, this is pretty important. One of the things our family did when the kids were little was sing in an inter-generational chorus. We also performed in inter-generational theatrical productions. If those kinds of commitments are more than you can handle, try seeking out (or organizing) low-key events like sing-a-longs, or folk, blues, or jazz jams. If classical music appeals, there’s plenty of simple chamber music your kids can try with you or some friends. Ditto for rock and roll.

Find mentors No matter the undertaking, whenever my kids felt passionate about something, they found a mentor. With music, there’s no reason that person can’t be a teacher, especially if your child asks for lessons. All our kids took lessons on various instruments at one point or another, and were free to quit if their interest waned. Sometimes mentors are more like idols–masters your kids might never meet but nevertheless become huge influences, much like Ella Fitzgerald was for my daughter. My son found some of his musical heroes on YouTube, mandolin players like Chris Thiele and singers like Tony Cuffe.

A word about practice This is a controversial subject, especially for unschoolers who might feel that “making” their kids practice is anathema. Because our family takes financial commitments like music lessons seriously, and because my husband, as a musician and music teacher himself, understands the vital role of practice in playing music, we did require our kids to practice as long as we were paying for music lessons they wanted. This doesn’t have to be a rigid endeavor. Since the lessons were chosen by the kids, practicing mostly happened naturally, but if it didn’t, we discussed the issue and negotiated agreements that worked for all. How practice works is going to look different in every family, but the key thing is to not squash a love of music by forcing the issue.

Resources Make instruments readily accessible to the extent it’s possible. If you can get your hands on a piano, guitar, or any other instrument, have them in your home. Inexpensive wind instruments like recorders or penny whistles are great to have around, and easy to play. Don’t discount percussion–rhythm is a huge part of music, and real or makeshift drums can be loads of fun. Whatever instruments you collect, let your kids experiment with them freely. Make CDs, records, downloaded music, or whatever technology you use to listen to music accessible, and offer a wide variety of music. When you go to the library, check out music in addition to books. Be musically curious, open-minded, and experimental, and most likely, your kids will be, too.

Have ideas or stories about unschooling music? Please share them in the comments section!