Home Education Magazine
September-October 1999 - Columns
Homeschooler In College Rising Out of Hampshire - Peter Kowalke
The seed was planted by a comment that Grace Llewellyn made last spring. While interviewing the author of The Teenage Liberation Handbook for my bimonthly publication, Nation Magazine, the conversation drifted to the current unschooling frontiers. Grace was very pleased by the ease with which unschoolers could now gain admission to college. The new frontiers for Grace was graduate school; could unschoolers bypass college altogether and still find access to law or medical school? (The need for graduate schools is obvious for heavily-regulated professions like medicine). The idea was immediately intriguing and, I must say, a bit compelling. Talking about and trailblazing frontiers require vastly different levels of difficulty, however. So we discussed the literal interpretation of unschooling in college and its consequences without ever linking the concept to my own possible future.
Four months later, however, that part of the conversation with Grace continued to drift in my thoughts. Everything else about the conversation was a blur, save our digression about unschooling in college. Acceptance into law or medical school didn't matter too much since I had no intention of going premed or becoming a lawyer. Unschooling during the college years had a seductive ring, on the other hand, as well as a stubborn persistence in its logic. Why not unschool in college? What could college bring to my life, along with its hefty price tag, that unschooling lacked?
As an inveterate unschooler, wasn't I also forsaking my educational choice of the past decade by switching to institutional learning when the stakes were at their highest? If unschooling was truly successful and not just another way of doing "school", what was the impetus for betraying my unschooling roots? The implicit message was that institutional education is the penultimate learning aid if done properly. By going to college, I was subtly devaluing my entire education up to that point and announcing that I had succeeded in spite of my educational background - that good unschooling couldn't match good schooling.
Subversive seeds had been planted, but last year I still headed off to college. A change was needed. By my own harsh standards, I felt intellectually dry. Unschooling had grown stale in recent years and it was time to embrace college life and its supposedly life-altering lessons. It was my impression that I had learned much of what unschooling and my family/community had to offer. Dampening ideological objections by attending an "alternative" college without grades, tests or majors, Hampshire College was supposed to whisk me away to a new part of the country (from rural Midwestern Ohio to the culturally vigorous landscape of New England Massachusetts), broaden my horizons, allow me to meet stimulating people and develop beyond that which I could now grow at home.
Largely, Hampshire lived up to my goals. The college had improved on my education as an unschooler by offering 1) improved socialization, 2) group discussion, 3) access to additional opportunities, equipment and facilities, 4) organized introduction to ideas and opinions that might not have been readily apparent from a single perspective, 5) incentive to stay focused and driven as a student, 6) added intellectual depth to topics and 7) regular interaction with mentors who were familiar with the ideas and concepts being studied.
NThe improvements were native to institutional education, however, and that fact did not go unnoticed. As I would write this column each issue, or laud Hampshire's benefits to prospective students, a little part of me would concurrently question the necessity of college. There were definite benefits to attending college, but with a little creativity you could extend all of those benefits to the unschooling lifestyle. College had its detractions, too, such as its price, the separation from family during the school year, the emphasis on competition and the inherent bureaucracy of institutional education. Worst of all, college wasn't very flexible or "organic," to use my own, imprecise complaint. I couldn't exorcise collegiate unschooling from my thoughts.
Part of unschooling's allure rested in my general discontent with college life. Before enrolling at Hampshire, I had spent a few years attending a wonderfully operated and well-supported community college in my area. Despite a great affinity for the college, its traditional approach and associated trappings (grades, tests, pressure, sleep deprivation) required a lifestyle that reduced creative energy and my own personal life rhythm (translation: my work wasn't as good and my health deteriorated). Novelty and my inexperience with classrooms worked as a convenient excuse to cloak a growing discontent with the practical application of the college system. After a few years of college, however, inexperience was no longer an excuse for discontent. What gave unschooling renewed power was the fact that a year of Hampshire, a notoriously flexible liberal arts college, produced nearly identical results as that of the community college. My body and mind felt misused, as if it wasn't meant for college as I had known it. The only positive and truly natural educational setting I knew, the one I used to judge all others, was unschooling.
After much soul searching, I filed for a leave of absence from Hampshire in mid April of this year. To my surprise, it felt like my first real college decision. I was scared and once again vulnerable to educational critiques from hostile believers in the conventional system. Yet, I was also upbeat and genuinely energetic. As I began to daydream in my less exciting Hampshire classes, notepads started to contain lists. Most important was the list of things that I would like to learn. Another important list attempted to address the ways in which I could use both my knowledge of Hampshire and non-institutional learning to craft "the ideal unschooling experience." Other lists followed, too, such as activities and internships that I wanted to pursue, places I wanted to visit and even a list of colleges that I might utilize in reaching my educational goals. As I built lists, it became evident that I was very excited about the prospect of not returning to college in the fall.
Synthesizing the best of Hampshire with the most exciting aspects of my unschooling experience was an understandably exciting endeavor. I was a kid in a toy store, placing all of my favorite memories into a giant cart. Principally, three new twists would be introduced to my newfound life at home - study groups, mentors and a utilization of college resources. Composing the main thrust of my return to self-directed learning would be small study groups composed of homeschoolers and other interested friends. Borrowing a chapter from effective collegiate workshops, we'd pick a topic, find a mentor knowledgeable in the field, build a preliminary list of books and activities necessary to achieve our goals and meet regularly to disseminate and discuss ideas together. Mentors would provide a starting point for research and provide valuable context to our studies. They could also, conceivably, be culled from academia.
While at Hampshire, I got the distinct impression that many professors would eagerly work with students who took a particularly keen interest in the professor's field of study. Interest in the basic tenets of a subject would not suffice (stuff that you could get from a book), but an avid interest in a professor's research and passion could encourage many professors to help students not enrolled in his or her classes. In addition to professors, I foresaw an added utilization of college libraries, computers and equipment, all of which are usually accessible to the unschooler, even if not intended for public use.
Polar to my joy and excitement at unschooling again, however, was a dread that social pressure would be so great that I might relent and cancel my leave of absence once friends and family began to object. Although as a youngster I may have possessed the power to withstand "Where do you go to school, Peter?", answering "Why did you drop out of college?" could very well submarine my self-confidence. College is a major tool for elitism and not going to college gives everyone the opportunity to deny a college perk that I was just starting to enjoy: general respect for my abilities and intelligence.
Not a supremely confident person, I decided to temper the move to unschooling. For now I'm not formally "rising out of college," as Grace might exclaim. To the world at least, I'm deferring the cost of a Hampshire education by completing independent study projects until January (video documentary, some world wide web work, a new magazine and two media-related internships). Around November I'll decide if I should return to Hampshire, embark on a long, continuous stretch of collegiate unschooling or find a line between the two and graduate eventually, albeit on my own terms.
In the interim, I must relearn why I'm a "homeschooler" in college and what that means to me. I think that there is a difference and it must not be glossed over too quickly. The journey didn't end with a choosing of college and career.
© 1999, Peter Kowalke
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