3.19.2012

Interview with Blak Boles, College Without High School

An interview with Blake Boles, author of College Without High School and co-founder/founder of the Unschool Adventures and Homeschool Leadership Retreats programs for teens:

Q: You encourage teens to drop out of high school? Is that correct? Who is your target audience? A specific age range?
A: I do encourage teens to drop out of high school--but only if they have plans to replace high school with something better. Grace Llewellyn, author of The Teenage Liberation Handbook and director of Not Back to School Camp, introduced me to the term "rise-out". If you think of the prospects for your adult life on a vertical axis, then "dropping out" is a negative, while "rising out" is a positive.
The point is not to run away from school but toward an education. John Taylor Gatto rams that point home in his many books, essays, and lectures--that school and education are very different things. "Can you give yourself a better education than school?" is the real question here. If the answer is "yes", then by all means, drop out. Typically the teens ready for this transition are ages 14-16 (when high school ridiculousness approaches a maximum), but the school-versus-education realization can happen at any time.
Q: I can readily admit that I would have been receptive to this message when I was in high school. Even though I didn't encounter any encouragement to drop out, I did eventually drop out at age 16, despite having been on the honor roll. High school seemed pointless and a waste of my time, especially since I planned to go to college. I didn't see the correlation between high school and "the real world," even though everyone said there was one and it was necessary. Do you think many teens feel this way?
A: The problem is with choice. Algebra may indeed help with "the real world"--I use algebraic problem solving techniques all the time in my personal and business lives--but if the student doesn't have some significant choice in taking or not taking the class, then the time is worse than lost. These teens are getting directly trained in following orders against their will, which is social conditioning fit only for unfree political and economic systems.
Even when "it's in their best interest"--and it's always "in their best interest"--stripping a teen of real choices and consequences inflicts a deadly handicap. I'm not talking about throwing booze, drugs, and condoms at teens in the name of risk-taking. To understand what "the real world" actually demands, teens need to get out and be a part of it, in ways that go far beyond high school-sponsored community service. Only once they've made the choice to pursue this programming internship, or assist this biologist, or watch their friends excel while they sit bored playing video games, will they find the motivation to undertake hard learning challenges that high schools try so hard to instill.
It's interesting that you found high school pointless "especially since [you] planned to go to college." I wrote my book, College Without High School, specifically because virtually everyone considers high school necessary for getting into college. After I started working at Not Back to School Camp in 2006, I met dozens of teens who had gotten into college, from state schools to fancy private liberal art colleges to Ivy League universities, without high school diplomas or genius-level SAT scores. This knowledge--that you can get into pretty much any college without playing by the rules--is scarce. Most intellectually-motivated teens find high school purposeful only because of college. You figured it out early. What kind of world is possible when more families figure this out? The answer titillates me.
Q: When people imagine a high school dropout, I suspect they think of a future in gas station pumping or similar. You have encountered a number of drop-outs? Do they tend to fit the stereotype expectation?
A: I've met absolutely zero drop-outs that fit that stereotype. The unschooling parents with whom I work are dedicated to the educations of their children, and no such parents would leave their teen without transferable job skills or a work ethic.
That being said, the demographic of "drop-outs" with whom I work have predominantly middle to middle-upper class income. These families have the resources (often after much scrimping and saving) to take the road trip, or buy the books, or finance the international travel that brings out the best in their children. So again, the principle is not "drop out unconditionally", but "leave school if you can give yourself a better education than school." Some of this "if" is financial, and some of it requires only a willingness to try new ideas. I have no doubt that dropping out of school can lead to the gas pumping stereotype if the supportive family element is lacking.
Q: How do you define unschooling?
A: Unschooling is the valuing of adventure over schooling. An "adventure" is anything that is related to your interests and requires a large amount of learning in a small amount of time. "Schooling" can be replaced with the word "career" or "institution". In this way, it's a very inclusive definition. I've met just as many adults who've found happiness and meaning through unschooling as I have teens. (I consider myself one such adult.)
Q: You designed your own college major? That sounds very unschooling friendly. Has that served you well? Do you recommend it? How does a student go about designing their own major?
A: In 2003, after putting in my 12 years at California public schools, I was a sophomore at UC Berkeley. I was majoring in astrophysics, which I initially found fascinating (especially when I took classes with Professor Geoff Marcy, the forefront leader in extrasolar planet discovery), but then I hit quantum mechanics. Suddenly I realized that real-life physics research required a whole ton of weird math that didn't stoke my curiosity in the slightest. As I pondered this problem, a friend handed me a John Taylor Gatto book. I devoured it ] in three days and immediately delved into whatever "recommended books" that Amazon suggested. A few weeks later, after discovering Grace Llewellyn, The Sudbury Valley School, John Holt, and Summerhill, I decided that I had to study this stuff full-time.
Initially Berkeley gave me trouble--they wanted to shoehorn me in the Interdisciplinary Studies Department, which wouldn't accept most of my astrophysics units--but I was persistent and they eventually pointed me to the hidden "Independent Major" program, where I could design my curriculum from the absolute ground-up. With the sponsorship of Marcy and another professor, I did so, and in the process learned about all these tricks for individualizing your college experience, like independent study, senior thesis, teaching your own class, and exploiting pass/no pass units. Those two years were an intellectual feast. They provided a bedrock experience of passionate academic study that have fueled my personal study (my informal "grad school", as I think of it) ever since. So, yes, I recommend it, unless your major is already meeting your biggest intellectual curiosities. Some colleges like Prescott and Reed are highly design-your-own-major friendly, but at most other schools you'll have to dig around, push and prod. In my experience, the college that has no individualized major program is highly rare.
Q: Tell me about Unschool Adventures and Homeschool Leadership Retreats. What can these programs do for teens?
A: I created these programs primarily to serve the needs of the home/unschooling teen community, secondly to be self-employed, and thirdly to fulfill my long-time dream of working only in outdoor & camp-like environments. At Not Back to School Camp I saw how broken-hearted the campers were to go home after a blissful 1 or 2 weeks of camp. They deeply desired more opportunities to connect and adventure with other unschoolers (I use the term inclusively for all sorts of "relaxed homeschoolers").
I had lots of practice in running a wilderness summer camp and had done a fair bit of international travel myself (always to great personal profit), so I decided to start Unschool Adventures, which would offer exciting and purposeful international travel for unschoolers ages 14-19. After our first trip to Argentina for 6 weeks (with a group of 9 teens), I was totally sold. Everyone had a blast, we stayed safe, and we learned and grew a ton. In November 2009, we did a 4-week Novel-Writing Retreat, and I recently returned from a 7-week Australia trip. The next trip is going to Argentina, Chile, and Peru for 7 weeks in late January 2011, with the purpose of practicing a ton of Spanish, doing homestays in each country, and enjoying a smorgasbord of activities like tango, climbing, surfing, and farm-stay, ending with Machu Picchu.
Homeschool Leadership Retreats arose from my observations of two very different camp environments: Not Back to School Camp, with its focus on acceptance and creativity on one hand, and Deer Crossing Camp, with its "get tough" wilderness leadership program on the other hand. I had seen dozens of (high school) teens profit immensely in confidence, attitude, and competence from the Deer Crossing leadership program, but many had trouble applying the leadership tools back in their urban context. Not Back to School Camp was an incredibly supportive atmosphere for teen unschoolers, but at the same time it didn't "push" teens in the structured way that made Deer Crossing so effective. There was an untapped happy medium in there somewhere, and Homeschool Leadership Retreats resulted from this observation.
Currently the program is based in Ashland, Oregon, and offers two retreats, one for ages 14-18 and the other for 18-20. The mission of both is to teach unschoolers to become more effective self-directed learners, primarily through the internship model. Each student goes out into the safe & vibrant Ashland community and attempts to create one or more short-term internships, mentorships, or volunteer positions for themselves with local businesses, university-affiliated individuals, or non-profits. At night I run highly hands-on, 3-hour-long leadership workshops that provide tools and principles (following the Deer Crossing model), and during the day students pursue their internships in an unstructured but staff-supported fashion (following the NBTSC model). The debut retreat is running in May, and I recently moved to Ashland in order to research and prepare for the retreat. It's going to be a total blast!
Blake Boles - Unschool Adventures - Homeschool Leadership Retreats

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