Saturday, July 17, 2010

Day 198 - The Fair

My kids are way into 4H.

What is 4H? Obviously you weren't born in a barn.

Let me explain...

There was a time, not that long ago, when farmers were sole proprietors of a small family business that was run more on hard work and luck than know-how. They were a mile or more from neighbors, and usually had to make do with what they'd learned from their parents and an old almanac.

4H was an ingenious way to teach and spread best practices for farming and homemaking. Kids would learn the best way to grow corn, what makes a good bench, how to make tasty biscuits, the proper manner to raise yummy bacon in the form of a pig, and other useful skills and knowledge.

They would try to apply these lessons on their own, sometimes experimenting with slight modifications, bring the results to the fair, and see how they compared to their peers.  Hopefully, they'd also learn some ways to improve. Sometimes they'd be asked to teach others how they'd gotten their results.

It was very wholesome and extremely valuable to the American farm industry and the farming community.

[steps up on soap box... uh-oh, I smell a rant a-comin' on...]

Today, 4H is an exercise in anal retentive judge baiting. The small farmer is gone, sold out to, or forced out by, the big farmer, who in turn sold out to the mega-farmer.

The techniques for good farming are well known, scientific, and universal. Farmers learn their trade in college, or from their corporate overlords, or from the internet. The farmer's wife isn't home knitting or baking, she's the corporation's CFO or the town's pediatrician.

Rather than passing along tribal wisdom for the sake of helping the community as a whole, 4H is now about playing the game.

Projects are judged meticulously. And not in a good way. Things that kids have painstakingly worked on for weeks are marked down for the smallest missing detail or the tiniest misinterpretation of the directions.

And worse, mechanical, anal, OCD-driven adherence to and mimicking of accepted technique is rewarded over creativity, beauty, imagination, and tastefulness. Were they 4H projects, Michelangelo's David would be marked down for being a little too big, and Da Vinci's Mona Lisa would be judged by it's brush stroke patterns.

The kids aren't learning to apply what they know, or to exercise their imagination and creativity. They are being trained to conform.

A project gets Grand Champion one year. The next year, a third of the projects will be ever so minor variations on that exact same project.

And then there are the projects that are so obviously not the work of a 4th grade boy who can't cut along a straight line, trying photography for the first time.

These are not kids learning, experimenting, striving to do their best. It's parents pushing their kids to score big ribbons but trying to play the game, to guess what the judge will favor.

If reminds me, just a bit, of the toddler beauty pageants where parents dress up their young girls in ridiculous dress, hair, and make-up, blatantly parading their children as fantasy versions of themselves.

4H has lost it's way.

I would love to see 4H move to a zero-tolerance policy on parental involvement on projects. Don't let the parents do the projects (many do), or even help with the projects (other than helping the kid understand the requirements). Don't let them touch the projects, even see the projects until after they are done. And don't judge them, because there's no value in it. Display them all. If the kid's got talent, it'll show through without a big ribbon hanging from it.

Let the kids do their thing, express themselves freely, and have some damn fun.

[Steps off soap box... rant over.]

All of my kids had numerous projects and they all did very well. Sure, they got lots of blue ribbons, but what I mean is that they learned a lot and they were proud of what they turned in. I am immeasurably proud of them.

And for what it's worth... my daughter's cake did not win Grand Champion, or Reserve Champion, or any type of Champion. But, in my humble opinion, it was the most beautiful cake there.* And thankfully, she could care less what she got on it.

Good running,

*The Grand Champion was, in my opinion, a gaudy, over done, though technically flawless, huge piece of crap.

Numbers: 1.7 miles with The Duke riding along on his bike.