March 26, 2010
Peter's Spring Break Interview or An Unschooled Graduate Looks Back on Life
You guys asked a lot of questions, so this is a pretty long post. Sorry about that! It also skips around quite a bit, since I just answered the questions in the order they came in. Hopefully there is enough of interest in there to make it worth it. With no further ado:
How did the rhythm of your day change from preschool until you went to college?
Well, I've rarely had a set rhythm for the day. There were a couple of years in middle school when we tried to do some sort of daily schooling, but that never consistently happened. As I got older, I got more involved in various extracurricular activities, rather than just sitting and reading all the time. Other than that, it's hard to pinpoint any particular trends.
Mom's comment: Peter doesn't remember a "rhythm" because I always tried to make it as unobtrusive as possible. We had a daily routine, and that included lots of reading, outings, and discussions about what they were learning. But we didn't do "traditional" school that ran by the clock. Maybe that's what he means.
When you were younger, did you focus on many things at once and then specialize when you became older, or are you still interested in doing many different things?
As far as I can remember, I've always had obsessions. They just change on a regular basis. I would be obsessed with codes for a few months, then with some book series or other, then with legos or something else entirely. Right now my non-academic obsession is with tabletop roleplaying games and game design in general, but last summer it was conspiracy theories, and I'm sure I'll move on to something else entirely sooner or later.
This doesn't mean that there haven't been some consistent things. I've always liked fantasy and science fiction, for instance, and I probably always will. I'm also really happy with my college major (History and Philosophy of Science) and I don't see myself losing that focus. I enjoy having something to focus on and become an expert in, while also staying interested in everything else.
At what age did you start to set projects or goals for youself that you'd like to accomplish, be it completing a Lego set to creating a computer program, and were these goals mostly self-directed or did your parents help you along with your projects
This question is somewhat hard for me to answer, because as long as I can remember I would try to accomplish things that I wanted to accomplish. Why wouldn't I? I can't remember any examples of my parents getting directly involved, but I'm sure they did sometimes.
Mom's comment: Peter is the type of person that just keeps going until he's done. He doesn't make a conscious effort or "make a plan" to finish by a certain time. He just goes at it all the time, until he's done. I have to remind him to eat, you know, that sort of person. My other kids are less intensely focused on their interests. We are all different, and that's the beauty of homeschooling--the ability to adapt to each learner.
How does the Christian view of the sinful nature of man relate to "interest led learning." Aren't children too sinful to want to learn on their own? Aren't parental authorities supposed to make sure they learn what they are supposed to learn.
Well, there are a couple ways to answer this. I guess I would first say that if our theology contradicts reality, then our theology needs to change. Reality isn't going to. Interest-led learning works, in my experience, so if our theology says it shouldn't then we've gotten something wrong.
In terms of how to reconcile the doctrine of original sin with interest-led learning, I have a couple of responses.
First, adults have original sin just as much as children do. It seems at least as problematic to give an inherently sinful adult authority over a child as it does to give that child autonomy. This is the easiest answer, but perhaps not entirely satisfying.
More importantly, we need to look at the nature of original sin itself, and see whether the conclusion that children would not want to learn actually follows. Original sin is supposed to be the result of the fall, right? Specifically, man's choice of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil over the Tree of Life, in rejection of God's command. Because of this, man is inherently sinful and prideful, and does not follow God the way he should.
So what is the nature of the fall? It is pursuit of knowledge that man ought not have. In other words, curiosity and the desire to learn are among the causes of the fall, not something eliminated by it! I see no evidence, either in theology or in my experience, that would suggest that sinful humans should be expected to not be curious.
Now, it's definitely true that there is a role for parental encouragement and guidance. Kids aren't going to get things right without someone with more experience and knowledge to point them in the right direction. But the driving force comes from the kids, not from outside.
how do you desire to influence and encourage those in your generation and younger, in regards to education...in different forms and styles? What would you say to them regarding: following their gifting, interests and passions to make a contribution in their families, communities and the nation.
Phew, there're a lot of ways I could answer this question. There is a whole lot wrong with the way we approach education in this country, and it's hard to pick out any specific pieces of advice to emphasize. I would certainly tell them to think carefully about the education of their own children, and to try to encourage and give space for their children's interests in whatever ways they can. (I realize that homeschooling is not always feasible, and that there aren't a lot of good interest-led schools around, so it's hard to be more specific than that.)
If the question is about how people should approach their own education, then my answer would be a little different. I would say to try to find your own interests, and not to assume that institutionalized schooling will teach you everything you need to know. Decide what you want to do with your life, and figure out what you'll have to do in order to accomplish that. Don't assume that you have to do anything just because it's what people always do, but also realize that you may have to jump through a lot of hoops to accomplish your goals. Most importantly, get excited about something, and have fun. None of it is worth it without that.
What are his thoughts on his experience of homeschooling while a teenager?
It was pretty great. I got to do all sorts of things my peers couldn't, like working at a professional theatre during school hours, or listening to college lectures online while playing video games. There are so many more opportunities when you don't have to spend half your life in a school building.
Have you found that your fellow students at Chicago take learning seriously? Has anything about the university surprised you, either pleasantly or not?
UChicago is wonderful. Certainly not everyone takes learning seriously, but enough of them do that we can have a pretty amazing community. In fact, in my dorm we started a lecture series for the express purpose of letting us share our academic obsessions with each other. (Most of them are online on YouTube; I've given one on pre-Copernican astronomy, and one on “Being and Time” by Martin Heidegger.) The level of academic intensity at UChicago, or at least among my circle of friends, is pretty excellent.
That said, there's a pretty substantial number of people there who aren't that way, and UChicago is known for being extraordinarily nerdy, so I'm sure it's different at other places.
The one thing that occasionally surprises me is how I have a very different perspective on learning, even among such brilliant and motivated people. I'm constantly seeking out graduate workshops and conferences to attend, and finding time to read books on weird subjects that come up tangentially in my classes. I get the impression that a lot of my peers still think of their classes as the main way they get an education, which seems obviously wrong to me.
(Of course, there are exceptions to even that. I have a friend who is already doing original research in mathematical logic, and who was also one of the founders of the lecture series I mentioned. There are some amazing people at UChicago.)
What would you advise a teen who's drifting, who doesn't have any passion that drives his learning?
I would be very skeptical of the claim that he wasn't interested in anything. Everyone has interests and passions, it's a part of being human. The problem comes when those interests are discouraged or labeled as “uneducational” or even “dumb”. I would encourage him to find what he's actually interested in, and to pursue goals relating to those things. There are so many potential careers, many of which are pretty unconnected to the academic path. The world is an interesting place, and I'm pretty confident that everyone can find their own niche.
If that doesn't work, and there's absolutely nothing that excites him at all, then I would suggest that he needs to be exposed to a lot more things. Find organizations doing interesting things, even if its something he's never done before, or find internet resources on whatever topic seems vaguely interesting. Act in a play, take a woodworking class, write for a local publication, work at a soup kitchen, get a ham radio license, take up boxing, learn how to make websites, or study ancient Asian religions. Something will eventually keep his interest.
Of course, this might not work if there is some deeper reason for his drifting. If there is some underlying emotional disorder, then that needs to be addressed first. But assuming that is not the case, I'm pretty confident that the world is interesting enough that something in it will catch his interest.
Peter, what role does technology play in your education, and how has that changed over the years?
The internet is amazing. You can find resources on just about anything you can imagine. Whenever I'm interested in a topic, my first stop is Wikipedia, which is a great way to get a general overview. If I want to dig deeper, there are plenty of places to do that. UC Berkeley has a bunch of college lectures online. Through my university, I also have access to all sorts of academic journals online.
Over the past ten or so years, the internet has really come into its own. But things are still changing. I am excited to see what sorts of resources will be available in ten more years.
Do you have any recommendations for a parent who worries where the line is between 'education' and 'game' in terms of technology? Is there even such a line, to your way of thinking?
This is a very interesting question. I think that you can definitely say that some things are “more educational” than others, so I wouldn't want to claim it was a meaningless distinction. But I would also suggest that it may not be obvious how things fall into each category. Building the social skills to be successful as a crew leader in Puzzle Pirates might well be more useful than anything a kid could learn from a textbook.
Because of this, I would definitely err on the side of letting kids follow their interests. If, despite this, it still seems like kids are wasting most of their time, then the best solution is probably to present them with other things that capture their interest. Trying to stop them from doing what they want to is going to be counterproductive. Instead, show them more educational things that you think they might enjoy. Finally, realize that it's fine for kids to waste some time. Even at college I occasionally just need to take a break and do something mindless for a while.
Do you feel that homeschooling prepared you well for post-secondary studies: are there a couple of particular strengths it has afforded you?
Definitely! Probably the biggest one is simply that I'm not burned out. I still have the energy and motivation to take school seriously, whereas many of my peers stopped doing that years ago. In addition, it's given me the ability to be self-motivated, as I mentioned earlier, and find opportunities for myself instead of just waiting for them to happen.
Another advantage is that I had the opportunity in high school to really start preparing for college, especially in the areas I'm interested in. I'm finding a lot of the introductory classes very easy, because I had already covered the basics on my own. There aren't any philosophy classes at the local public school, but with my interest-led education I was able to get into some pretty advanced philosophical topics before I even went to college.
Are you experiencing any 'weaker' areas that may have been a result of homeschooling- areas that you'd encourage other families to work on?
I wish I had a little more experience in math and the hard sciences. That way, I could have started with higher level classes instead of taking the more basic ones. It's really difficult (for me at least) to learn math and hard science without someone to teach it. So, I would suggest that if other people have the same experience, then they should consider taking a few math/science classes at community colleges or even local public schools.
Mom's comment: He took one semester of Physics at the community college when he was a high school senior, and even with home schooled math, he placed into second semester Calculus at college.
Are there any other homeschooled kids in your program and, if so, do you observe particular strengths/weaknesses in these people (as a result of their being homeschooled?!)
There are a surprising number of homeschoolers at UChicago (a testament to how successful homeschooling can be!). It would require a very long and detailed post to tease out the similarities and differences between all of them, but on the whole I think they support my general claim about the advantages of homschooling. The one trend that I think I see is that the kids who had the least pressure and structure and the most encouragement and freedom do the best. That might just be me confirming my own biases, though.
I am constantly feeling the tug between interest-led learning and parent-guided (more structured) learning, and wondering which is better preparation for life. I'd love to know what Peter thinks -- whether following his own interests resulted in enough balance in his education, and whether he was able to push himself, challenge himself, beyond his natural inclinations.
My answers to the previous questions are pretty much all relevant to this. I want to answer the last part specifically, though.
What does it mean to ask whether I was able to “push [my]self … beyond [my] natural inclinations”? Why would I even want to? The most fulfilling lives are ones in which natural inclinations are followed rather than stifled. Sure, you have to stretch yourself to accomplish your goals, everything won't come easily, but it should all be in pursuit of your own goals and your own inclinations.
Was my education balanced? Of course not! I know a lot about philosophy, psychology, the conceptual (as opposed to mathematical) parts of science, Christianity (especially post-Reformation), theatre, filmmaking, and several other things. I know almost nothing about woodworking, sign language, music composition, Shintoism, higher mathematics, horseback riding, or any number of other things. This is simply a part of being a finite human being, one incapable of knowing everything.
The difference is that the list was generated by my own interests, rather than the graduation requirements of my school. Which means that all of those things are relevant in some way to my life! Instead of learning about things I would promptly forget after I graduated, I've spent time learning about things that I care about and plan on pursuing further later in life.
I'm wondering how you have found managing the college workload, keeping to the college's learning schedule, and keeping up your grades. Coming from a "good" public high school, I was totally overwhelmed my first year at a rather selective college, and frankly I worry about how my son will do in the college atmosphere. Always learning, but definitely on his own schedule. Any advice?
I haven't had too many problems, personally. It was my own choice to go to college, and especially to go to such a difficult one. Therefore, I am motivated to do well. If I weren't prepared to pay the costs, why would I have done it in the first place? In addition, I'm not burned out. I'm still motivated to do well, since I haven't been doing this for the past thirteen years.
I'm not sure that my experience in this case is universal. I read pretty fast and am able to get by with a pretty reasonable amount of free time, and I don't know how I would react if that weren't true. But it definitely shows that homeschooling is not necessarily a disadvantage for doing well in college.
Was it a difficult transition from the freedom in learning you experienced to the lecture based learning of college classrooms?
It depends a lot on the professor and the class. Sometimes I feel like I could teach myself better than the professor could. Other times, however, I really appreciate the brilliance and experience of my professors, and really enjoy the chance to share the benefits of their knowledge. Actually, it's pretty similar to the way I approach books or websites or any other type of media. The only difference between a bad lecturer and a bad book is that I have to deal with the lecturer for a little longer.
I'm sure it would be different if I didn't want to be in college at all, or if I didn't get to choose what classes to take. In that case, it would be difficult to pretend to care about something that didn't interest me. But since it's something I'm choosing to do, I actually look forward to the chance to listen to lectures by people who know more about a subject than I do.
On the social side, did you ever feel that you missed out on things such as proms, dances, sporting events, etc?
Definitely not! I feel like I had a lot more opportunity to be social as a homeschooler. The public school idea of socialization seems to be to attend classes you hate together and then attend generic school events together. Instead, I got to do community theatre with a host of interesting people of all ages, learn how to actually dance, and generally just socialize with the people that interested me in ways that interested me. In addition, I got to do all the ordinary public school things too, since I was friends with a lot of the kids who went there. I even took my girlfriend to the public school prom. It wasn't particularly exciting compared to the English Country Dances we went to a couple times (and even hosted occasionally!), or to the college ballroom dance class I took, but I got to do it.
(Sports are a little harder, since it can be hard to find sports leagues that aren't connected to schools. That's actually the main reason my sister Melissa goes to public high school.)
If you made it this far, thanks for reading, and thanks for all the great questions! Good luck with your educational endeavors.
All of the written content and photographs on yarns of the heart are protected under copyright. But feel free to link my content to your blog anytime. I love connecting around the net! And if you have any questions, just contact me at yarnsoftheheart [at] gmail [dot] com. Thank you!