July-August 2010 Selected Content
Interviews - Mary Nix
Interview with David Albert
David completes ten years of his wonderful My Word! columns in the September/October 2010 Issue of Home Education Magazine. I asked him if he would participate in an interview and he graciously agreed.
Mary: David, you hold degrees from Williams College, Oxford University and the University of Chicago, yet you state at your website that the best education you have received comes from your children. Could you explain that for us?
David: My children gave me the chance to reimagine, and then redo my own education. I began to examine what I really wanted to know, and how I wanted to acquire the knowledge and skills I desired. My previous education, as extensive as it was, was mostly about the transmission of data to me, utilizing the usual methods of transmission. I was very good at acquiring data, retaining it, and regurgitating it as needed (which I is why I was always rewarded for what I did), but I can't actually say I owned it as part of myself. I am grateful for the opportunities I was given, but my children provided an even greater prospect.
Home education was an opportunity to get to know myself, even as I worked to know my kids. And, in doing so, I came to realize that I myself am a child, or at least there is still a child-like part of me which I had to get to know, to bring up, and educate a second time. Not many people can say they've had that chance, or have taken full advantage of it.
Mary: You are wonderful speaker, story teller and author and you often include your wonderful family in your stories. In addition to writing a new book, what are you and your family up to these days?
David: I'm writing three new books, the first of which, What Really Matters, is about to be published (check my website www.skylarksings.com for details.) My wonderful wife Ellen went back to school at age 47 to become a hospice nurse, and she has truly found her calling. My older daughter Aliyah, now 22, is a third-year Ph.D. candidate at Princeton in musicology and Italian Studies.
My younger daughter Meera (19) is at American University, majoring in business with an international slant and accounting focus, plus lots of Arabic. And music of course - she is playing jazz these days. This summer, she has two internships. The first one is in Amman, Jordan, where she will work with the Collateral Repair Project (www.collateralrepairproject.org), assisting some of the 750,000 Iraqi refugees from the War who live there in pretty desperate conditions. On a side note, we are awaiting the arrival of an Iraqi mother and her 12-year-old son from Fallujah, whose entire family was killed, to make it to the U.S. and come live in our home. Meera returns to the U.S. for three days, and then flies out to south India to work with the land reform organization I have been assisting for 32 years, Land for Tillers Freedom (www.friendsoflafti.org), providing business planning services for our housebuilding projects, and, perhaps, to help start a workshop for the village production of solar lanterns to be used in the new houses. She will complete her four college years with a masters degree and a CPA.
I have started a new foundation - Friendly Water for the World (sorry, we're not on the web yet, but those interested are welcome to write to me - david-at-skylarksings.com ) - to train folks in other countries (and people in the U.S. who want to go abroad) to build biosand water filters, a low-cost home-based technology that can reduce bacterial and viral contamination in drinking water by up to 99%.
(www.cawst.org/en/themes/biosand-filter ) We currently have projects in Kenya, India, and Burundi, as well as training workshops taking place in Washington State. We hope to involve many teens and young adults, as well as retired folks. I am also planting, from seed, my first major vegetable garden in my life (hey, I'm a New Yorker!), and I can barely begin to tell you how much the plants are teaching me. I am still playing the violin in the local community orchestra which I helped found (so they can't kick me out; I have high hopes of someday rising to sub-mediocre), and singing opera when the opportunity arises.
Mary: When and how did your family decide to homeschool?
David: Quite frankly, I don't even remember making a decision to homeschool. I've long looked at school as a poor substitute for a good family, and we have a good family! My wife will tell you that she actually looked at schools, and when we described what we were already doing with Aliyah at four, and she with us (described in great detail in And the Skylark Sing with Me), the local school district was nice enough and honest enough to tell us they had nothing for our family.
Again, I view school as the alternative. No civilization in the history of the world before ours subjected virtually all young people ages 5-18, and who had not previously been convicted of any crime other than being young, to compulsory imprisonment in cellblocks populated by individuals of the same chronological age, deprived them of basic human rights (even the right to go to the bathroom!), and imposed autocratic rule in the workhouse, and bureaucratic control beyond it in determining what activities and routines they would be compelled to undertake. Whenever I think of public education, I imagine a cross between an enforced 13-year-long session of Simon Says and the movie Cool Hand Luke. This may be a stage in the evolution of human endeavor, but it is surely one I would have been happy to have missed, and certainly not one worthy of my voluntary involvement.
Mary: You have written four books on homeschooling, you speak on the subject at conferences, and write two different homeschool columns. What do you consider to be the biggest challenge that faces a new homeschooler?
David: I think the biggest challenge facing all homeschoolers is dismantling the inner school (the title of my next book after What Really Matters) - purging the images and expectations of what learning is all about based on our own individual and collective experiences of "education." School is more than an institution, and more than what happens in the classroom. It is a chronic disease that bleeds resources and vitality from our communities, corrupting them in the process, and which more often than not prevents us from imagining ourselves as, let alone being and becoming, the free people we were meant to be. And it is a challenge to do the best we can not to pass the school disease along by contagion to our children.
Mary: What was the biggest challenge your family faced as homeschoolers?
David: Learning to listen really well, and to trust what we were hearing. And learning to take the "school" out of homeschooling, and replace it with our image of ourselves as a learning family.
Both my wife and I entirely recareered, among other reasons in order to make our new learning adventures possible. That of course had its ups and downs, but we have been repaid many times over.
Mary: What do you think surprised you the most about homeschooling?
David: I was surprised at how adept my children were in telling us what they needed in order to continue and enhance their own journeys of self-discovery, if I just attuned myself to watching and listening really, really hard.
Mary: What was the best advise you were given when starting out homeschooling?
David: Either I've forgotten, or I don't remember any. Really! When we began, for the most part we (and that includes the kids) didn't hang out much with homeschoolers, but with social activists, musicians, nature lovers, and Quakers (with many overlaps between them).
Mary: What is your best advice for new folks starting out now?
David: Just do it! Great Nature in her abundance has provided you with everything you need to know. And you will quickly find out that your children are great teachers. I like to believe (like many philosophers before me), or think it at least worth considering that our individual and wholly unique children chose us specifically as their parents for a reason, and it is our job to figure out why.
And if you ever find yourself particularly stumped about what to do next, how to respond to your children's needs, how to make their learning sing, and how to move to a higher plane, or kick it up a notch, just figure out what they would have done in school, and do the opposite. It works about 90% of the time. Try it - you'll like it. When it doesn't work, you can pin it on me. I will accept the entire blame, though none of the responsibility, for ultimately, as homeschoolers, that is what we have chosen to do for ourselves.
Finally, remember that by the time you are thinking of starting out, you already have!
Mary: In addition to editing and publishing many books, you have written three homeschooling books: Have Fun. Learn Stuff. Grow. Homeschooling and the Curriculum of Love, published in 2006; Homeschooling and the Voyage of Self-Discovery, published in 2003; and And the Skylark Sings with Me: Adventures in Homeschooling and Community-Based Education, published in 1999. Could you tell us about your newest book, What Really Matters, and how it came to be?
David: The book is a series of dialogues I have had (and continue to have) with former Brown University Associate Dean Joyce Reed. In the'70s, Joyce homeschooled five kids on a mountainside on the Big Island of Hawaii, without electricity, telephones, washing machine, running water, and access to only a tiny community library. Her five children are now very accomplished adults, having all graduated from fine colleges, founding high-tech companies and other businesses, and all continuing on their learning quests.
We decided to explore our own educational backgrounds, and the experience of homeschooling with our own kids, to try to find out what was really important, and what just got in the way, and both exploring and exploding current educational mythologies along the way.
It was a joy to write, and I hope we have revealed some of the unique possibilities that homeschooling presented to us, even as we go about our own journeys of life learning. My hope is that the book will help many take a step back, and begin to see things with new eyes.
© 2010, Mary Nix