Some years after we’d completed the job of homeschooling our daughter, Amber, I asked my wife, Ann, her recollections on how we’d come to make such an important decision in our only child’s future. I learned that Ann’s recollections were almost completely different from my own. At the end of the conversation, we agreed that while our paths had been different our final destination had been the same. We realized that homeschooling Amber was consistent with our somewhat unconventional, even contrarian approach to life that had up to that point worked pretty well.
My own path involved a couple of conversations with two other contrarians, Daniel Quinn, and Ocean Robbins. Not long after Amber’s birth, as a freelance writer, I created Project Purpose: “To write and publish articles about people and institutions whose lives and missions are dedicated to a bold and inspired purpose or vision.” Quinn and Robbins were two of the purposeful people I interviewed. Both made a significant contribution to my advocating homeschooling Amber.
Quinn, an American writer, cultural critic, and former publisher of educational texts, is probably best known for his novel Ishmael, which won the Turner Tomorrow Fellowship Award in 1991 for an unpublished work of fiction offering creative and positive solutions to global problems. (The award was worth $500,000, the largest single sum ever awarded to a single work of literature.) I had the honor of interviewing Mr. Quinn a few years later for an article that appeared in The Sun. One of the questions I asked in the interview was how do your views articulated in Ismael apply to our society today? How can we apply this information to education, for example?
Quinn replied: “People say, ‘Oh, but there’s so much more to learn in our society.’ Yes, but do children actually learn it? When we give them a test to find out how much they actually know, we find they know very little. Yet if a child grows up in a household where four languages are spoken, that child will learn four languages. So there is nothing wrong with the learning capacity of children. If they have access to information, children can learn anything they want.
“If preteens, for example, get into computers, they can learn how to defeat national-security systems. They don’t need to go to school to learn that. They sit at their computers and teach themselves. This is the way learning takes place in tribal societies. Children have access to everything there. And if children in our culture had access to everything we have, they would learn it all. The best part is, if they learn things because they want to, they never forget them.
“Our educational system doesn’t trust our children to be able to learn, even though we are learning machines; we are genetically designed to learn. This is our greatest success as a species. We don’t need to force children to learn, or put them in a prison-like environment.”
About that same time I interviewed homeschooled Ocean Robbins, the son of activist John Robbins and author of Diet for a New America. A few years previous to my interviewing him, sixteen-year-old Ocean had joined with eighteen-year-old Ryan Eliason in founding YES!, Youth for Environmental Sanity, a nonprofit organization, formed to encourage young people to get involved in making a positive change in the world. During the interview Ocean paraphrased Mark Twain: “I couldn’t let school get in the way of my education.” It was a passing comment that resonated strongly with me and sealed the deal. Ann and I would homeschool our daughter.
I’ve never regretted that decision even during times when we stumbled in the process. For example, fairly early it became clear that Ann’s teaching style didn’t mesh all that well with Amber’s learning style. They butted heads numerous times before we figured out that my more organic, learn by doing approached did work well. Still, Ann played a key role as our homeschool principle and chief administrator making sure all the critically important details required to homeschool a child in the state of North Carolina were met. Ann was also our chief planner when it came to our family trips which were no longer just vacations but were now learning opportunities for Amber. Such field trips became an integral part of Amber’s educational curriculum.
Did we make the right decision to homeschool Amber? To answer that question I need only look at Amber who is one of the most loving, grounded, and savvy young women I’ve ever met. So, while we may have muddled through the education process at times, it all seemed to turn out well in the end.