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Grown Without Schooling
By Peter Kowalke
An adult unschooler interviews his peers to find out what they are doing and thinking now.

Chatting with . . . Brian Walton, Age 27

Brian WaltonKnowledge Steward

Currently, I’m working as the Assistant Director of Youth Services for the Rolling Meadows Library [in Illinois]. On a daily basis, I work the children’s reference desk, purchase new materials, discard old materials and help manage a 13-person staff. I’m frequently involved in helping to write proposals, board reports, press releases, as well as compiling statistics for the state.

When I was a little sprite, I remember being totally awestruck by the idea that there was a building in every town where you could get the answer to any question you wanted – for free. In some ways, I don’t understand how anybody could not be amazed by that, and why there are people in the world who don’t want to be a part of it.

I think that, as a group, unschoolers are exposed to knowledge much more early, and much more closely, than other groups. It makes us hyper-aware of the importance of knowledge and information. I’ve never wanted to be anything else than a librarian.

Connecting the Dots

This is a very challenging time to be a librarian. The Patriot Act has divided librarians. The Children’s Internet Protection Act has divided librarians. No Child Left Behind is beginning to affect the way we work and the services we provide. It is possible that I see these issues more clearly, or at least from a different perspective, thanks to not having come up through a traditional school system. 

These three issues aren’t fully separate; they interrelate, but people who have been trained to think about one subject at a time, to the exclusion of others, can have a hard time seeing that. Some of us choose to voice our complaints with the Patriot Act, under which the government can seize your activity records from the library without notifying you, or we voice our complaint over the Children’s Internet Protection Act, which requires that all public access computers be equipped with filtering software in order to be eligible for certain federally funded grant monies. On the surface, these are distinct issues. What only occurs to some of us, though, is that both laws inhibit your right to access information. So we can end up with two groups, fighting two fights, when we could pool our resources and make some progress.

Unschooling got me past straight-line thinking, I think. I had no structure growing up. I’m sure it was there, but I wasn’t aware of it, and I never felt like I was being herded in any given direction. I never was told not to answer history questions with math. There are times when that approach works. Granted, there are times that it doesn’t, but it’s given me a broader approach to issues.

Hands Off at the Library

One of the things I find most valuable about my unschooling experience is that I tend to be much less judgmental about the way people use my time at the library. Dr. Pat Montgomery [homeschooling speaker and founder of Clonlara School] once told my mother not to worry that I was just goofing off all day. Mom backed off, I turned out okay, and since then I don’t get upset when some child isn’t reading a “good” book, or when he is playing games online instead of doing something subjectively worthwhile.

It practically is impossible for the mind of a child to be completely un-engaged. I see children as learning all the time, and I want to encourage them no matter what their pursuit. How else do we get video game designers, astronauts and revolutionary thinkers?


Library school isn’t necessary for the daily job of being a librarian. This used to frustrate me. I had a lot of library work experience for my age. I’ve been working in my field for not quite 12 years now. And yet, my career was not going anywhere without the graduate degree. It was highly frustrating.

Now, I do think some form of library education is necessary. It doesn’t need to be graduate school, but so much of what is learned there is the “why” of libraries. A librarian is fanatic about privacy. Fanatic. But, it’s in library school where you get an intense understanding of why we feel that way, what the forces that shaped us that way are, and how to explain it to those who don’t yet get it.

On the other hand, my degrees are tools, nothing more. Neither one of my graduate degrees has had a profound impact on my personality. I use them to get the attention I need to achieve my goals.

Shaking the Tree

I refuse to let myself get shackled to “conventional thought,” because I don’t even know what it is. One of the advantages of unschooling was that I was exposed to a thousand new ideas a day, and I didn’t automatically discard one just because it was initially unworkable.

One of the mainstays of any library is the reference section. Books that are intended strictly for library use can’t be checked out, and they primarily are used as a source for basic information. It’s one of my goals to disband that collection in our library, making room for an expanded Spanish section. It runs counter to conventional library wisdom, but in essence the reference section duplicates information that can be found in the circulating collection – or is easily available in digital form.

I think this really ties back into the “no one way” method I used for learning. Sure, we have World Book in reference, but if you only offer one tool, you get over-dependant on it. So, we’re planning on decentralizing that area of the department.

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. This article was published in 2005.

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