March-April 2000 - Articles
Interview with David Albert
by Kim O'Hara
David Albert is the author of the recently released book, And the Skylark Sings with Me: Adventures in Homeschooling and Community Based Education. He agreed to allow me to interview him at his home for HEM.
I arrived a bit late, having left two sick kids at my house, but David and his family unanimously assured me that parents automatically get eight minutes delay per kid, and not to worry about it. Then he guided me past the tiny violin (his daughter's first) that rested atop the piano, before we joined his wife and daughters at the kitchen table. Ellen made us tea while I began to talk with David and Aliyah (age 12), who told me she has outgrown "Ali" as a nickname, although her father still calls her that.
Kim - I want to thank you for inviting me to your home. It's nice that I can talk to your family, too, and I'm hoping to see your animals and musical instruments, and Aliyah's telescope, when we finish the interview.
David - Of course.
Kim - I'd like to begin by asking you about your decision to homeschool your daughters. Your methods of homeschooling obviously developed over time, as Aliyah's and Meera's educational appetites became evident. Did your decision to homeschool come about gradually as well, or was that something you always wanted?
David - I think Ellen's decision to homeschool came much earlier than mine. To this day I tell people I'm not "into" homeschooling. I'm committed to providing the best possible education for my children. That has turned out to be homeschooling. It was clear to us at a very early age that for Ali, there wasn't really much that the public school system was going to be able to offer, and we were having such a good time as a learning family. But for us, the decision has not been so much where it happens, as it is about the best way to provide learning opportunities for our children. We're always open to other options.
Kim - You have some unique ways of approaching your daughters' education, and from your descriptions, they don't bear a lot of similarities to the way you yourself were educated.
David - My own educational path... I was a nerd. I went to the best high school in New York City, a specialized science high school. And I went through many years of graduate school. But I was totally dependent on what they taught me, did what I was told and no more. Creativity was crushed. It took me years to recover that. I tell people I'm a recovering school person.
Kids are born with a sense of "seeking." It comes with the territory. It's hard-wired into the developmental process of who they are. Without getting into conversations of original sin or original goodness, I'd say that there's original seeking. I am a Quaker, and that is a Quaker idea. To speak as a Quaker, there's a light within every person, and that flame should be nourished. If you watch your kids, you see it all the time. And so, for the most part, our kids are the leaders in their education. Our job is to nurture that and to provide the opportunities where that light can be fed. And that's the core of what our approach to schooling has always been about.
Kim - Your book is really specific about ages and places and events. As a homeschooler myself, I can't even begin to imagine such careful record keeping.
David (laughing) - I have a "garbage brain"... I didn't write any of it down. I took no notes. When the ice storm hit in December 1996, we were out of electricity for eleven days. I took out a yellow pad. I was not writing a book. As a former publisher, I have written books. I've edited a lot of books. But what I set out to write was a keepsake for the kids. And I actually did finish that, and they have copies of it (before it went into the editing process) stuck in their closets. About the fourth chapter, I said, "Hold it, there's a book here."
Kim - Your subtitle is Adventures in Homeschooling and Community-Based Education, but your book describes travel - to Washington, D.C., and various other places. Would you say that families who don't have these opportunities to travel could still be as successful, just within their own communities?
David - I can speak for Olympia, Washington. Without any question, you can. The community I live in is big enough that there are lots of different kinds of people and opportunities out there, and it's small enough that people know each other and know where to go. However, I'm quite willing to say that I believe you could use these kind of techniques and listening skills and follow-up skills in very small communities and rural areas, or in big cities. I think you'd do it a little differently.
At one point last year, I was giving a talk on homeschooling to a group of folks in rural India. I noted that if you lived in a place that didn't seem to have much in the way of resources, but you had water, there are many things you can study from water. You can study demographic patterns, patterns of natural growth, chemistry, mathematics, precipitation, agricultural changes, and agricultural patterns over time.
I mean, the opportunities will be different where you are. We don't all live in the same place! But the key is, you have your family, and you have your children; you've got 90% of the resources you need for providing the kind of education I write of.
Aliyah - Just a walk in the woods will show you that if you stay by one tree, you can learn almost anything you want to about that one tree. There's this tree I'm looking at right now that has its roots right under the creek, and that's why the creek runs so clear there, because the roots of the tree are holding the mud to the bottom of the creekbed.
Kim - So how long did you study the tree before you realized that?
Aliyah (smiles) - Well, actually, I realized it just now, in thinking about it.
Kim - I'm wondering how your daughters feel about having their lives opened up to the world like this.
Aliyah - Great!
Kim - You like being sort of famous, huh?
Aliyah - Well... not particularly.
Kim (teasing) - Maybe you're already renowned enough in other areas that this doesn't make that much difference?
Aliyah (smiling) - Yeah... that's what I was going to say.
Kim - Of all the things that you do that you get attention for, which of the things are you most proud of?
Aliyah - My composition, definitely.
Kim - What do you write music for?
Aliyah - Voice mostly; that's what I would prefer to write it for, although I do do instrumental. I wrote a piece for Christmas - originally an assignment from the Academy of Music Northwest. But it grew into a lot more than that, setting to music a poem by Kahlil Gibran, for voice, two violins, and a piano.
David - Can I talk about the Academy a minute? This is the example of where our approach to schooling is different. Conservatories of music are usually looking for these top players, and then they're going to give them a well-rounded education so they can send them on to college conservatories. That wasn't our aim at all. What Ali needed was essentially the music theory and information that was necessary to expand her world today, not when she goes to college, not for a future time. They had the kind of stuff that she needs now, for her own quality of life. It took a while for the people at conservatory to get this around their heads, that we don't know whether she's going to become a composer someday, and that's really not the point...
Aliyah: I want to.
David - ... or an instrumentalist. She could. Whether she'll do that and also be a wildlife biologist or something else, I mean, we don't have any idea! But we knew this was something that she needed now, and it took them a while to get their heads around that idea, that we weren't educating for The Future. Finally, they accepted her, and she's doing great.
Kim - I imagine a lot of people will wonder if your kids come by all this naturally or if it was the environment you provided that helped them achieve.
David - It's interesting that people are still asking that. From a scientific perspective, that question disappeared ten/fifteen years ago. We now know an enormous amount more than we did, say, when I was in college, about the hard-wiring of the brain and in-built developmental patterns. We know so much more about the role that good mothering (mothers who listen and respond to their children, and talk to their children, and provide nurturing experiences for their children) has on the actual biology of the brain. Joseph Chilton Pearce speculated on this in the 70's, and most of his speculations turned out to be correct: that, in fact, it is most scientifically valid to think of nature and nurture giving rise to each other. We can actually see that there's a feedback loop between the environment and the genetically-based biological processes that develop; with brain scans, we can map them. We can count the number of neuron firings and the number of neurons that develop. We can see the actual effect on children's behavior. Many of us are going back to the education that we ourselves might have received in the 60's or 70's, but from a scientific perspective, the nature/nurture question has been superseded.
Kim - So you're saying that nature has very little to do with it?
David - No! I'm saying that you can't separate nature from nurture and vice versa, that they are mutually interdependent, and it is literally true that the right nurturing environment affects the biological component of the way children function.
Kim - What do you see as the purpose of education?
David - In the book, I talk about what I'm hoping for my children. I have fantasies about my children like anyone else. I think all parents fantasize about their kids, and I think that's perfectly okay. But I look more deeply at what I hope for my children: I hope that they'll be able to exercise freedom responsibly. I think being able to do that in a family and in a community where they are valued and where they find value, leads to human happiness. In schools, you often hear from the principal: "Well, if you expect to have freedom, you have to learn how to act responsibly," and I almost want to scream when I read something or hear something like that from a school administrator, because responsibility has no meaning without freedom. If children aren't provided choices and taught how to exercise free choice from the very earliest age, they don't learn how to exercise freedom responsibly. And when you deprive people - whether children or adults - of their freedom, you shouldn't be surprised when they act as if they are unfree - whether in passivity, slavishness, or rebellion.
Kim - So that, from your perspective, is why schools fail?
David - My perspective on schools is not that they're failing, but that they work. They work precisely the way they are intended. The schools teach our children to become financially and emotionally dependent upon our current economy for both their work and for their self-esteem. The schools teach them to be emotionally and educationally dependent. And they are taught that they are to gain their self-image through material goods and services. They even rate schools according to how much "stuff" they've got in them, rather than the quality of the interchange that's going on between teacher and child. The schools work precisely the way they're intended, and the result is precisely what is intended. Our corporate society gains workers who are docile enough to do what they're told, and it gains in social control.
There are a lot of really smart people who work at schools, who design schools, who carry out schools, who fund schools, and who fund the graduate schools of education. And when you have all these smart people doing things, in my experience, you shouldn't assume that they're failing. You should assume that they're succeeding, and look at the product, and assume that's precisely what was intended.
That's not the future I hope for, for my children. That's a completely different purpose in learning than what I see for them, independent of any content. A lot of homeschooling literature that I know of focuses very heavily on the content, and mine is organized by content areas too. But to focus on the content, or the curriculum, or on how kids are doing relative to other kids, is to miss the point.
Kim - In your book, you talk about a conspiracy. Do you really mean a conspiracy?
David - Yes, I mean that quite specifically: It's people working together to try to withhold information from other people, and in this case, from children.
It seems to me, when I reflect back on my own school experiences, there were essentially three ways of doing business - three unspoken principles - which characterized all of my schooling.
First, children are to be taught a content not of their own desire. You might be reading a book in the morning and want to continue after lunch, but the teacher says you have to do math after lunch. Or "Third-graders are all going to study Eskimos this year." Even though there's a person sitting next to you from Japan, and you'd really like to know about Japan - no, you're going to learn Eskimos. It makes you totally dependent upon somebody else for the content.
Second, children are taught on a timetable not of their own making. You may decide that you really want to be able to figure out the height of neighborhood trees, and hence, you need geometry or trigonometry now, but it's not developmentally appropriate, or age appropriate, or it's not what they teach in second grade, or whatever. Again, it strips you of that kind of independence, and that kind of freedom to learn.
The third principle is what I call the "Pump and Dump" theory of education. That idea essentially is that information flows in one direction, from the teacher's head to your head.
If you look at the the curriculums of graduate schools of education, that's essentially what those amount to: what you teach, when you teach it, and how you're going to move the information from one place to another. That's it. That's the total curriculum of graduate schools of education these days. And they teach you how to operate strategically within that, in order to get your desired results.
Kim - So that's why you call it a conspiracy?
David - Yes - a conspiracy to withhold information from children. When a child says, "I really want to learn about the people in my class, where they're from and what their families are like and what their religions are like," and the teacher, following the curriculum set forth by the school board or the state board of education, ignores this and instead does Eskimos, it's a conspiracy. You're withholding information, without any input, knowledge, or informed consent on the part of the children themselves. When a child asks to learn something that is not thought to be "age appropriate," and they say, "Well, when you get older, then you can learn that," it's a conspiracy to withhold information. And then finally, the "Pump and Dump" theory of education is also a conspiracy, because it assumes that the only information worth having is what's inside the teacher's head.
We know from raising our children that all three of these principles are wrong. I don't care whether you've had your kids in school for twelve years or your kids have never been in school. When you sit around the dinner table and have a decent conversation, you immediately see that those three principles are not correct. So why is it that we have a system that maintains them? I'm suggesting that the system wants to have them. The system is not failing; it has an intent, and it succeeds at what it does.
Kim - David, in your book, you seem to carefully avoid telling other people how to homeschool, giving instead an account of how it worked for you. Do you have any advice for homeschooling families?
David - Listen to your kids. That's number one. You don't need my book or anyone else's book to find out how your kids learn and to figure out how you can learn together as a family. Second thing would be, I believe in a strong focus on the family. That's The problems with teaching in schools: The information flows one way, in an environment that is essentially loveless. We consider ourselves to be a learning family. The things that's interesting about my book, if you look at my endnotes, is they're almost all books that can be read by the parents, not by the kids (though I wouldn't keep them away from the kids if they're interested). There are plenty of curricula out there, if people want that for their kids, and tests. They don't need my book to find them. My question is: How can I excite the parent's imagination, because if the parent is interested in learning and seeking and doing, the child will be too. My notes are heavily focused toward A) what families can do together, and B) what will excite the parents' imagination about learning, so their children will be excited too.
Kim - You stopped the book at Aliyah's tenth birthday, intentionally, to avoid, as I perceived it, luring the readers into evaluating your success at homeschooling by whether or not they entered some prestigious university.
David - You got it! There is nothing intrinsically more important going on at Yale, educationally speaking, than is happening in my backyard.
Kim - But still, after reading your book, most of us feel like we've come to know your family, and I was wondering if you might consider writing a sequel.
David - Haven't thought about it. You know, I have a lot of other things to write... but then, who knows? I mean, this one wasn't planned as a book either.
Aliyah - We need another ice storm!
© 2000, Kim O'Hara
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