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Ethan Mitchell on Mayonnaise, Child-Rearing, Utmost Importance, and Other Questions

I’m sorry for the crickets. We at nbtsc headquarters have been busy reading fabulous junior staff applications and obsessing about the covid-19 pandemic. (We’ve posted a letter on that challenging subject on a new web page.)
But today we are pleased to bring you Ethan Mitchell. Ethan has been part of our NBTSC staff ever since we moved in 2006 from West Virginia to Vermont, taking up residence at Ethan’s own beloved childhood haunt Farm & Wilderness (both he and it being both Quaker and Vermontian). He’s a quiet one, self-deprecating even, but it gradually dawned on all of us that if we listened when he talked, our brains would become a more interesting place to inhabit. Ethan has worked at NBTSC over these last 15 years mostly as an advisor, but in the past few years mostly as a cook. In his other life, Ethan…. well, let’s see – he carves stone, husbands sheep, is partner to Susannah and father to Lucretia, and when pressed sometimes defines himself as an essayist. A few staffers jumped at my invitation to “pick Ethan’s brain,” and submitted questions which Ethan has responded to below.
(There’s also a bonus video at the end.)
Oh and also? Many of us at nbtsc cannot get enough of Ethan’s words, and so we subscribe to his free weeklyish publication, Hebdromedary. If you’d like to partake, begin here.   -Grace
Ethan Mitchell

Blake: What do you now believe, with regard to child-rearing, that your younger self would have never imagined believing?

I want to answer sort of the first derivative of this question. When Susannah and I began the adoption process, I tried to write down my thoughts on parenting. It evolved into a rather long document, which I wound up rewriting completely and then throwing it out. It wasn’t that the realities of parenting changed my ideas much; they didn’t. Rather, I became completely disillusioned with the format of parenting advice, at least for parents of younger children. And that’s a change: my younger self believed that the parents might benefit from some words of wisdom. And today, I pretty much categorically believe that this is wasted energy.

There’s a visceral thing that happens when you are driving on ice and you go into a skid. The guy in the passenger seat is often going to have some words of wisdom to share with you. That’s nice. But what determines your performance, and survival, has a lot more to do with much earlier choices. What kind of car are you in? How fast were you going? What’s the curvature of the road like? Did you shell out for the good snow tires? Are you wearing your seat belt? Are you an experienced driver? Do you tend to remember what to do in a crisis? Is the back seat full of unsecured throwing knives? That stuff is what matters: the guy shouting in the passenger seat, even if he’s shouting very good advice, is pretty immaterial.

I feel like, for people who have the luxury of choosing the moment and context in which they become a parent, there are a lot of ways to deliberately improve the odds of doing a good job. But once you are a parent, at least for several years you’re skidding on ice, and the entire genre of parenting advice is just like the dude shouting “steer into the skid!”

Nathen: Do you have plans for Lucretia and math? If so, what?

Not particularly. We have a lot of math stuff lying around the house, and she likes to play with triangular tiles, as do I. I feel like if she comes at me with (certain) math questions, I can at least get her to the next question. But if she isn’t interested in math, I’m not too concerned. Right now she’s interested in banjos and slime, so she plays banjo and we make a lot of slime.

Brenna: You are someone I would describe as a very successful autodidact and (to borrow a G[race] L[lewellyn] phrase) a “glorious generalist.” What advice/methods/strategies do you have for teen unschoolers who want to learn hard things?

This is sneaky. I don’t like giving unsolicited advice, but you, as a post-teen unschooler, are trying to get me to do so by proxy. I’m going to to address you; if there are any teen unschoolers reading along, hi dudes, make of this what you will.

You ask about people who “want to learn hard things”, but that’s no problem, right? That’s how people normally learn difficult stuff; by having a passionate desire to do so. What’s really hard is to learn something difficult when you don’t care about it so much. I think a relevant issue for many autodidacts is that, left to our own devices, it is easy to focus only on the absolute center-point of one’s interests. To learn everything about Saturn and nothing about astronomy or planetology in general. But to have a deep understanding of any topic requires relating it to lots of other things, some of which—perhaps—don’t grip you in quite the same immediate way. And that’s important: it is the difference between “I’m an acrobat” and “I can do this one trick.”

And I guess my most general advice here is that you have to take a long hard honest look at your own motivational mechanisms, and then hack them. Hacking them is the easy part; there are well-known tools and tricks for that. What’s hard is to really sit down and analyze what makes you tick, since there are many, many voices urging us to be less than honest about what our passions really are and how our motivations really work. And that stuff is very different from person to person, for reasons I want to gesture at in the following question…

Brenna: What is the origin of your deep hatred of mayonnaise?

Actually, I have a natural and healthy aversion to mayonnaise, which is objectively disgusting. You, on the other hand, feel a compulsion to consume a slimy, pus-like “food product” that is traditionally made of emulsified raw eggs, and has caused untold thousands of incidences of food poisoning throughout history, to say nothing of a general decline in culinary quality of life. Presumably you had some kind of early childhood experience that resulted in your fixation on consuming mayonnaise as a “normal” part of your diet. But…this seems important to say…that’s OK.

After all, it seems like all our passions, desires, dislikes, and other mental architecture—even something as extreme as your obsession with putting mayonnaise on food and then eating it with your mouth—are very deep-seated. They probably take certain broad genetic cues as a nucleus and then crystallize around early life experiences that are (mostly) so tiny and non-specific as to be undetectable. I am not, for instance, suggesting that you were abandoned in the gutter as a child and only survived because you found a tub of mayonnaise, or anything so obvious. I think it’s much more likely that some complex childhood web of free-associated textures and colors and moments of emotion, none of which would seem remarkable from the outside, ultimately led you to being the disturbing mayonnaise fetishist you are today.

For me, one take-away from this is that the attempt to excavate our childhood for clues to our adult psyche—a popular sport since at least Freud—has diminishing returns. Sure, major trauma or unusual circumstances can sometimes influence people in very direct, obvious ways. But it doesn’t require a dramatic event to shape the geometries of our passions, even in such an appalling manner as yours have been. And a corollary of that, as a parent, is that while I can and do try to shield my daughter from high-octane trauma, it would be hubris to think that this is entirely successful. A myriad of things that emotionally impact her are occurring on my watch, without any planning on my part, and are undoubtedly going to affect her personality. As a very young person, being left alone or getting sick is potentially a significant emotional stress. The things around you and within you in those moments—the sounds, the textures, the flavors, the symbols, the questions, the stories and songs and jokes—are probably going to get repurposed in the architecture of your desires, in many ways. John Watson thought it might be possible, through some future kind of hyper-vigilant, technocratic child-rearing, to raise a child who “never cries or displays a fear response”, and would thus enter adulthood in a perfectly un-traumatized state. That seems so unrealistic to me that it feels silly to discuss whether or not it’s even a good goal.

Apart from being a workhorse metaphor, this is entirely relevant to unschooling, in three ways.

In the first place, 

Grace Llewellyn shares your horrible affliction (we live, after all, in a mayonormative culture) and in one of the first meetings I can remember having with her—this would be in ’06, I guess—she placed a mayonnaise-laced sandwich in the middle of the room, announcing that it had been sitting in her hot car for several hours but she thought it was “probably still OK”. So yeah. Wow. I don’t know what to say about that, really.

In the second place, unschooling rhetoric emphasizes people’s innate passions. We say things like: if you love the banjo, you should study the banjo, and if you hate chemistry, maybe don’t spend a lot of time studying chemistry. I’m very comfortable with this discourse, but I think we have to note that it’s underpinned by a kind of black box: we don’t really know—and pace Freud and Watson and Skinner and the rest of the lot, probably never will know—exactly why people love and hate the things they do. Sometimes, sometimes. But not usually. Nor is it usually true that understanding why you have a given preference allows you to flip some kind of switch in your emotions and change it.

And in the third place, the most popular line of argument for unschooling has been based on a naturalist metaphor: specifically, that is natural for human beings to love learning, and to be passionate about various topics. Non-consensual educators often make the opposite claim: that it is natural for students to resist learning and be indifferent to all (academic) topics. And I can’t help but feel this metaphor is misplaced, in both cases. I know you feel—authentically, sincerely—that it is natural for people to like have an insatiable need for this alleged condiment. I think I can wrap my head around that, although it’s obvious to me that the opposite is true. But where does that leave us? Perhaps naturalism is not such a great metaphor, after all. Perhaps passion and consent are enough, in pedagogy as well as sandwiches, and goodness knows where else.

Nathen: What is of ultimate concern?


The word “ultimate” here is going to trip me up, so let’s start at the top. Werner Heisenberg allegedly said “When I meet God, I am going to ask Him two questions: why relativity? And why turbulence? I really believe He will have an answer for the first.” If you’re asking for a list at that level, I definitely don’t feel qualified to present one. I mean, I could drum up some questions about the Friedmann equations and stuff, but when I meet God, I’m just going to be surprised and embarrassed.

Still, I think I have two top-shelf concerns. Maybe they’re the same thing.

The first is: does math work as well as it appears to, and if so, why? It seems like it’s a mind-game played by one species of apes, probably a side effect of our trying to outmaneuver other species of apes fifty thousand years ago. And yet it appears to describe our universe so well, over and over, in surprising and serendipitous ways. Or maybe we only perceive those parts of the universe that our brains describe well. It bugs me, and feels suspicious, that it is hard for us to envision a universe in which our math wouldn’t work.

The second is: is there more than one mind? It sure seems like it, but that also seems kind of dumb and arbitrary. If there’s more than one mind, then what is the interstitial medium that separates one mind from the next, and assigns each of them to a little slice of the world (in my case a small subset of the forebrain of an ape born on planet earth in 1976)? If there’s only one mind, then why do so many of us experience only a tiny portion of what’s going on?

But. I’m also really interested in the lower shelves. My own bias is to say that the thing in front of you is (usually?) of ultimate concern.

Susannah beat cancer. At one very low point, the doctors told her that she had only a few weeks to live, and we came home to a house with a pile of dirty dishes and a bunch of unfinished paperwork. We both simultaneously came to the same realization. If you only have a few weeks to live, you don’t have to worry about the paperwork. But someone still has to do the dishes. Are the dishes, then, an “ultimate concern”? Is the paperwork? The banjo? Slime? Because all of us, in the end, only have a certain number of weeks left to live.


p.s. bonus content: that time in 2018 when Ethan felt that Brenna should spin around her pottery wheel (rather than the wheel having to do the spinning), and made it so.