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Home Education Magazine

September-October 1997 - Articles

Interview with Linda Dobson

by Helen Hegener

Linda Dobson's name has long been associated with homeschooling - and with this magazine. She was an early and vocal supporter - in these pages - of the National Homeschool Association. She wrote The first articles on homeschooling to appear in a national magazine: Good Housekeeping. She has been News Editor for this magazine since 1993, and has contributed to several books on homeschooling and alternative education.

Linda's first book, The Art of Education: Reclaiming Your Family, Community, and Self, first published by Home Education Press in 1995, was described by a major reviewer as "A passionate analysis of what's wrong with the American way of education."

A popular conference speaker, respected writer, homeschooling M.O.M. - meet Linda Dobson! Let's start with some background information, Linda. Tell us about your family, a little about where you live, and what you and your family members do from day to day. Introduce us to the Dobson clan!

The Dobson clan lives in the forever wild portion of the Adirondack Mountains in northeastern New York. This environment has created in our kids a deep respect for nature and an incredible devotion to the lifestyle of the area; at this point nThem can conceive of living elsewhere, even though Mom has her sights set on a warmer climate!

Chuck (18) now lives on his own in the neighborhood. His two years volunteering at a local, state-run nature center led to his first employment there when he was 16 and attending community college part time. He's been involved (I mean really involved!) as a volunteer with the local fire department since the age of 14, which led to training and certification as an EMT recently. It's three months later and now he's slid into a full-time job as an EMT with the Olympic Regional Development Authority in Lake Placid, complete with passes to all the wonderful events staged at the Olympic Arena!

Erika (16) has reached the end of compulsory school age! Right now plans are as wishy-washy as mine were at 16, but include car, flexible jobs like Mom's (!) and travel. She volunteers at the library and still has a deep interest in American Sign Language, developed when our support group took lessons and she went on to help the teacher give classes at the adult ed program at the community college. We'll see...

Our youngest, Adam, is now 13. He enjoys his community basketball and baseball teams. He's quite active in Boy Scouts and leadership roles there, and really enjoys his troop's active pursuit of camping. His plans include accumulation of good camping equipment so that he can do more of it on his own.

Right around his 12th birthday the Twin Crystal Rock Shop opened up in town and he was quite taken with the store from our first visit. He's always liked rocks and started polishing them and turning them into jewelry when he was about nine. Anyway, we went back to the store after I saw that light in his eyes, asked about an open-ended apprenticeship, and the owners were quite open to the idea. Adam's been there ever since, spending anywhere from one to three afternoons each week doing everything from dusting to filling treasure bags to tagging merchandise to creating some of the most beautiful, jewelry quality cabachons I've ever seen, both from templates and freestyle. The owners said he's done so much at this point they presented him with a certificate of completion of lapidary work, usually given to folks who take a series of classes with the owners.

Oh, and lest I forget, Adam is learning to play bass guitar, Erika the acoustic guitar. So far they won't let Mom sing.

Gary, who works to support us so I can write, has, fortunately, taken over a lot of the garden work and is never happier than when showing off a prize radish, a tender spinach salad, or (one of his favorite gardening tricks) a cucumber grown into a bottle. (I didn't marry him for his sense of humor.)

As the kids have grown and taken on increasing responsibility for themselves, I've been branching out, looking at community and work with home-educated eyes and seeing it all from a wonderful new perspective. Much of my time is filled with reading, writing and networking about home education. Helen, you know I've been a devout home education advocate for a long time now - that hasn't changed a bit!

There are so many things I'd like to do that I've had to be careful not to overload and try to pick and choose carefully those things that I think are most helpful to the direction I'd like my life to follow. So when asked to serve on the library Board of Trustees, that one I took. The pace and bureaucracy of it all is frustrating, but I'm constantly urging tiny steps in the direction of "library as community learning center."Also, I am pushing the board for at least a programs and community relations committee so more attention and resources can move in that direction.

The other big move was when Adam became regularly involved in afternoon activity in town; I took a part-time job as a legal secretary there. It's flexible enough that Adam's and my schedules can easily coordinate. Not only does this provide "additional economic resources," but it gives me an opportunity to have contact with the community I can't get from our very rural home. A side bonus of all of this is my employer is the attorney for our local school district so I've got welcome access to oodles of legal materials regarding policy, laws, commissioner's rulings, etc. All grist for the mill!

Tell us a little about your family's homeschooling experiences. What approach have you found successful?

Eclectic is the only word I've found so far that even comes close to defining our approach to homeschooling. It often seems like no approach at all, but more like "a happening." Instead of forcing anything, as I did in those awful early, "school-at-home" days, now all I can say is homeschooling just happens, kind of like our approach to housekeeping.

Chuck went to kindergarten in New Jersey, and that was it with school for us. Fortunately, Phil Donahue was smart enough to have John Holt on his show about that time and the rest, as they say, is history.

Gary was instrumental in bringing out the confidence and trust I needed in myself to pursue this route, at the same time rightfully foreseeing that his self-employment would pretty much preclude his involvement in day-to-day affairs. Without question I wish he had been more involved which leads me to strongly urge all dads to get just as involved as they possibly can. The act of homeschooling is definitely a growth process, in very real ways a growing "away from" many of the ideas, habits and thought patterns most of us grew up with thanks to our common government school experience. Gary has always been an alternative thinker, so with effort on our part we've managed to stay together mentally, emotionally and spiritually on this journey. But I see the potential for problems in a relationship if one spouse spends too much time outside of this growth process. I think a couple could begin to live on totally different wavelengths. This potential for problems also exists in those cases where Dad "plays" principal, or administrator of sorts. Administrators administrate the status quo; they don't grow.

Our hope in homeschooling our children had much more to do with "who" the children would become rather than "what" they would become. This was always clear to us from the very beginning and seems quite apparent in both our older children's lack of desire to pursue an "academic life" - they're both eager to get out and "do." I admit this has caused some consternation for me on days I'm not thinking straight, you know, "I should have made them do more of this" or "music classes should have been mandatory," but they seem happy and confident in all the decisions they make for themselves. In a world filled with people who do things they don't want to do and don't even know why they're doing them, I take that as a measure of success - on their part.

I'm confident in their ability to find out for themselves whatever they may need to learn in the future, or to pursue the appropriate schooling should they find it necessary. In the meantime, I see the results of a very different kind of learning, one that it is still hard for me to express in words. Eclectic homeschooling has provided them with a deep connection to other people, a strong empathy is the only way I can put it, a connection quite important in their lives. Their principles and morality strongly guide their life decisions, even if this creates disharmony. They're good at reading people, which I think has served them well in everything from choosing role models to knowing who to avoid. They're just nifty people - interesting, nice, funny, smart - plain good people I enjoy spending time with.

Good people... that sounds like a high recommendation for homeschooling!

Several years ago you had an article published in Good Housekeeping - it was The first major media pieces on homeschooling. Would you tell us a little about how you land ed the assignment, and what was it like writing for such a big-name publication? Didn't they include photos of your family?

Wow, you're digging up ancient history now. I think I landed the assignment because I was a neophyte and didn't know new writers weren't "supposed" to query the mainstreamers, particularly about alternative education!

Writing for Good Housekeeping was like writing for any other magazine - deadlines, edits, rewrites. But I didn't get the final edited version until the issue was already being printed, and I wasn't happy with it. All the salient points were gone and I felt the final version was disappointingly watered down from slightly political to feel-good. The trade-off was that it brought homeschooling to the attention of a lot of readers at a time when many folks still didn't realize homeschooling was legal. I received a lot of letters - for years - from parents thanking me for introducing them to homeschooling. In the end I'm gratified the article contributed to the "cause" the way it did.

The photo angle was a little different than other publications. They asked for pictures, we took some and I submitted them, but the editor only used one - none of ours were of kids sitting around a table! The editor called to say she'd send a photographer. I did my best to steer him away from the "around the table" shots, but he still snapped the table and chalkboard shots. I remember triple-checking that all the words were spelled right before I'd even let him do that!

Your book, The Art of Education, has hit all the recommended homeschooling booklists, and many mainstream lists as well. Can you talk about it a little? Where did the inspiration for your writing come from? How did you learn so much about the state of American education? Did anything in particular contribute to your uncanny sense of what's wrong with American schooling and what we as individual families can do to improve the situation?

I guess I'm what some affectionately (!) refer to as a Type A personality so I probably set about homeschooling with the same vigor and intensity that I would set about doing anything, and that included reading and studying as much about education as I could. But as I got further and further into homeschooling and as I read more and more about education, I saw that what these books were saying was completely irrelevant and, in most instances, downright antithetical to what I was observing about how and when and why and where the kids learned. It became clear very early that what they were calling education was, in fact, something else. So I let the kids and instinct guide our journey, but continued reading, following education in the news, and simply observing all these things that were passing for education and discovered they were nothing of the sort. They were schooling. They were programming. They were conditioning. They were horrifying. But they sure weren't education.

Just as I suggested readers do in The Art of Education, I thought long and hard about my own 13 long years in the government school system. That was an awakening. It made this whole dichotomy I was uncovering personal; they did it to me! And that made it important not only to uncover what occurs in the name of education, but to expose it, to do everything I can to shine a light on it and say, "Folks, look at this! Think about it! Your kids are so innocent and you decide what happens to them!"

I don't think I have an uncanny sense of what's wrong with American schooling. Observe, observe, observe. The unjustice of it will, particularly with all this Goals 2000 and School-to-Work garbage, soon jump up and smack you in the face! I have to turn your question around and ask, "how can anybody not see it?"

This is where the inspiration for writing The Art of Education came from. From talking with kids big, little, and in-between, from looking into the purest, sweetest young eyes and seeing everything that's good about humanity there, from watching over the years as the kids who attend school lose the light, the sparkle. And it's condoned and accepted without question by the adults they most trust, and the adults the trusted adults trust.

When it came time to write The Art, it was like a volcano eruption. I couldn't get done fast enough with other obligations to sit down and work on it. I couldn't get the words down on the computer fast enough. I would fall asleep at night thinking of more things to say and better ways to say what was already down on paper. I wanted to make sure that if I never got to write a book again that I would use this opportunity to the fullest to shake up as many sleepy minds as I could.

I've been made well aware The Art of Education did not sit well with some of those who see things differently than I do. As I was writing it I knew sections of it would close the doors to, shall we say, some of the more lucrative market opportunities. But I had to be true to what I see and feel and put it all on paper despite this, and trust that the book could open up parents to at least consider this quite different view of what's going on in schools, the economy, politics and government, and society in general.

I'm happy The Art of Education seems to connect with teens, at least many of the teens I know who have read it. One young man recently exclaimed to my daughter, "Your mom is so right. She nailed the game exactly. I've thought these things for a long time and figured there must be something wrong with me because nobody else I know sees it. I'm going to homeschool my kids, no question." I can't tell you how deeply a comment like that touches me.

I should think it would! That's what most authors strive for - a book that touches a chord within their readers.

Changing the subject, you're News Editor for this magazine. Can you discuss a little about how you keep track of all the homeschool happenings around the country? Do you depend a great deal on reader contacts or do you search out articles on your own?

With the next issue "News Watch" will be five years old, can you believe it - and I enjoy working on it as much now as I did the very first time. Trying to keep track of homeschooling around the country is The most challenging and rewarding things I've ever attempted. Files - there are files stuck everywhere there is room for files in our house. In filing cabinets, in boxes, in drawers, under the bed, you name it! I sometimes get requests for information, from people doing research or involved in court cases or other important matters, and so far I've been able to put my finger on what they need.

When I first started writing News Watch I had to do a lot of digging for information, in part because readers weren't yet in the habit of sending articles to me, but mostly because even just five years ago there wasn't as much written about homeschooling, particularly in the mainstream press. But the timing of News Watch was impeccable, because within a year I wasn't digging for material anymore.

You bet I depend on readers, and Home Education Magazine has some of the greatest, most sharing readers in the world! While I can't possibly cover everything I receive these days, I want everyone to know I read it all. I'd like to encourage more folks to send materials, no matter how insignificant a reader may think a local article is. And just because an article hit a major publication readers shouldn't think somebody else already sent it - stick it in an envelope.

We now have regular contributors, folks who for a long time have steadily, faithfully sent articles. I can't take the space here to list everyone, but you know who you are and this hug's for you! You're terrific - doing a great job - and News Watch is here because you care!

Having monitored homeschooling news for the last several years, how do you feel about some of the trends we're seeing such as increased public school involvement through specially designed "homeschooling programs," increasingly restrictive curfew laws around the country, and the federal government's new interest in education and child development?

You know, sometimes I feel like we homeschoolers must be the only ones monitoring the homeschooling news. Some of these articles and reports have moved beyond the "isn't that strange?" slant and contain some of the very simple education truths discovered by homeschoolers that could help the greater world of education. But these truths are ignored over and over and over again.

The simple reality is that behind all these programs and laws and "federal government interest" is more control over individuals' time, money and children. As I said in The Art of Education, parents have got to wake up and reclaim responsibility before it's too late, if it isn't already.

And "the federal government's interest in education?" Legally the federal government doesn't have an interest! But it's getting a big fat foot in the door through oxymorons like "mandatory volunteering," with the money attached to the carrot of "volunteering" for Goals 2000 programs, and now the President has the nerve to go on record saying national standards are not federal government standards - and he said it with a straight face!

All these trends you point out - government school programs for homeschoolers, kid curfews and increased federal government meddling - are pieces put in place to work along with an even more dangerous trend: School-to-Work.

First it was the same schooling for everyone. Then it changed to the same behavior and attitudes for all those "good little workers" with the "individual" completely lost along the way. Now we see the implementation of programs that could effectively turn children into true economic resources and little else.

Cottage Grove, Oregon started in the '9495 school year when the first group of Certificate of Initial Mastery students went into the Certificate of Advanced Mastery Program. It's reported they are presented with six career strands - six! - and students choose one for their 11th and 12th grade studies in order to receive a diploma/CAM certificate. All those important child labor laws are tossed aside as fifth graders are allowed to "work" because Oregon is an "Ed Flex" and "Work Flex" state.

Interestingly, Oregon isn't calling this "school-to-work," and neither did New York's education commissioner Richard Mills when he recently announced his proposal to "mandate" students pick a specialty "in addition" to a core curriculum.

And in case anyone thinks I'm just being paranoid, remember we were given a glimpse of these maneuvers back in '93 when Secretary of Labor Robert Reich told us, "Certification would be voluntary [there's that word again!], but individuals who failed to take or pass the tests could find it hard, perhaps impossible, to be hired for better paying jobs."

When all these puzzle pieces are assembled you don't get a picture of the Liberty Bell. You sure don't get a picture of free, happy people. How could human beings be happy living out a birth-to-death script written by others?

I know it isn't home educators' jobs to protect fellow citizens from their government. But the truth is homeschoolers are some of the most vigilant parents around today. They have acquired invaluable wisdom in educational matters and don't take it as "fact" when newspapers merely write headlines for the educrats' own press releases - then print them verbatim.

I think we need to become the Paul Reveres of education, raise a ruckus and stir parents out of their sleep, not just for the sake of those still suffering through all these programs but for our own children as well.

Our homeschooled children are not going to be "economic resources" with Certificates of Mastery in their pockets, that is certain. But they are going to be surrounded by and work with - and sometimes for - these economic resources, and that's only if many doors aren't automatically closed to them.

Our kids may not be in government schools, but that alone doesn't guarantee they will escape their wrath. Our children are and will continue to be indirectly affected by them. We need to share the wealth of knowledge we've acquired with all who will listen, and figure out ways to get more parents to listen. For all the children's sake we have to move beyond satisfaction with our personal situation. And soon.

The job will become more challenging, I think, because the National Education Association will be putting a new "spin" on government schools, employing powerful suggestions from the public relations firm they hired to polish their image. The firm suggested, among many other things, that the NEA stop looking as if reform is happening to them and start setting out ideas to look as if they're leading the way. Since teachers are more respected among the U.S. population than union leaders or spokespersons, they will be used to spread the message of better schools.

It's manipulation, pure and simple, but the NEA has money and political clout and they will use it. It's all smoke and mirrors, but before they're done they'll have many parents believing improvement is happening, even though the substance of NEA's work remains intact beneath a new, highly polished surface message.

We homeschoolers don't have the money or political connections of the NEA, so we have to look at what we do have. We have 1) knowledge of what works and 2) a good number of homeschoolers. If we have around 750,000 homeschooling parents, and all of those parents could use one hour per week to do something to advocate homeschooling, simple things like write a letter to the editor in response to education coverage and mention homeschooling, put together a homeschool information night for the community, be a presence at the country fair, you get the idea.

If we look at homeschool advocacy in these terms - each of us doing a little - suddenly our lack of money and political connections doesn't matter. We can accomplish wonderful things without any single person getting overloaded - and we can do it from the comfort of our homes and communities and in the enjoyable company of our friends and families! It's doable!

This is where my hope lies for our children's future. Our lives as homeschoolers are incredibly blessed. It's time to share those blessings with others just as far and wide as we can.

You're a featured speaker at the 20th Anniversary Celebration of Holt Associates/Growing Without Schooling, the new publisher of your book, The Art of Education. Can I assume you're excited about this opportunity?

But of course, and for so many reasons! I learn so much every time I present at a conference. The energy of homeschoolers is infectious, so I always return home ready to work even harder. But this particular conference will be an opportunity to reconnect with old friends and meet many new ones. Kyoko Aziwa, who is working hard for homeschooling freedom in her country, is even coming from Japan and visiting with me for a few days afterwards! Twenty years of homeschooling and Holt Associates is really something to celebrate. I'm thrilled they invited me, and I'm glad The Art of Education is now part of their collection of books on home education. &copyright 1997, HEM

....(articles list) | columns list)

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