Grown Without Schooling
By Peter Kowalke
An adult unschooler interviews his peers
to find out what they are doing and thinking now.
Chatting with Laura Brion, age 24
I’m one year out of college, working part-time as the music director for
a small Episcopal church near Providence, Rhode Island. An anonymous
member donated money to hire a music director for eight years – m – to
develop the currently small music program and make it an exciting part
of the community, something the church might be known for. So, I’m in
the wonderful and difficult position of being hired to shake things up,
to rethink things, to get people excited about new ideas.
Music was a major part of my life for most of my childhood. I started
piano when I was nine, and I began playing a small organ for a small
church when I was 16. I didn’t actually know how to play organ when I
was hired to do this. They just knew that I was that kid in the area who
played nice piano. I figured I easily could learn, and they were willing
to put up with my learning process. So, I played with them for three
years before I went to college. Then, halfway through school, I switched
from piano to organ formally.
Towards the end of my four years in college, I remember telling
friends that I was looking forward to graduating so that I could start
learning again. In part, I was joking – I certainly learned a lot in
college, and many of the debates I’d had or witnessed in classes were
much more informed, probing, and productive than they might have been if
I weren’t in such an intentionally-created educational setting. But I
certainly meant part of what I said, and since I graduated, I’ve been
trying to grab hold of the loose ends that college forced me to leave
hanging and return to a more haphazard, let-me-drink-from-the-fire-hose
approach to learning.
The main advantage of the fire-hose approach was how alive I felt,
living that way. Everything was allowed to be exciting. I might not have
delved very deeply into many of the interests I developed in childhood,
but I could at least enjoy them to some degree rather than being told
that I just couldn’t fit it into my semester schedule.
I want to do a better job of combining the approach I learned from my
childhood as an unschooler and the structured one I learned during my
time in college. Neither one alone will get me where I want to go in
terms of intellectual or career development.
As amazing an experience as it was, college forced me to define
myself—or made it easier for others to define me based on the four or
five classes I chose every semester. Although my school is known for
encouraging students to explore diverse subjects and take an
interdisciplinary approach to learning, too many students considered
themselves to be “science people” or “humanities people,” and thought
there was a vast divide between the two camps. As an unschooler, I
hadn’t grown up thinking I was an “arts person” or a “humanities
person.” I just was me, Laura, the botany-loving, piano-playing,
Morris-dancing, newspaper-reading me. Now that I’m not constantly being
told “You – yeah, public policy and music girl, you,” I can get back to
being me again. I feel silly that I let this get to me.
Right now I’m volunteering at a community/student radio station,
working on a show about children’s books. I’m playing in a gamelan (an
Indonesian music ensemble). To continue learning about traditional
Western music, I’ve joined a local choir that presents concerts with a
small orchestra every few months. I’m also starting to get involved in
urban/community agriculture, which is something I’d like to stay
involved in long-term; so far, I’ve done a little volunteering for a
local land trust that runs several urban agriculture programs, and for
that work I’m starting to study calculus and review the botany and
geology I learned in college.
I feel incredibly lucky that I can have my cake and eat it too as far
as my job is concerned. I’m not making loads of money, but I’m making
enough to meet what I consider to be my basic needs. And, the time that
I gain from only having a part-time job is worth an incredible amount to
me. I have the time to be me, to read, to think, to talk to friends for
hours, to walk instead of taking the bus, to turn my wall into a
ridiculous collage of a frog (well, I haven’t done that yet – I’m still
collecting green, blue, and brown paper).
Having a job where I only work 20 to 35 hours per week is central to
my plan of rekindling my unschooler perspective. The lifestyle I had as
an unschooler was too good to give up. So, by both luck and design, I’m
returning to that lifestyle now.
Peter Kowalke grew without schooling. He is a journalist and
the producer of “Grown Without Schooling,” a documentary about grown
homeschoolers and the lasting influence of home education.
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