When I was growing up, I did not go to school aside from a semester of 9th Grade at an alternative school. Because I spent so little time in formal learning, I have never lost the joy a child has about learning something new. I consider it a poor day when I haven’t learned something new. I think the difference between what I do (learn for long-term knowledge) and what standard school does (study to take a test, or to produce short-term knowledge) is important to notice.
Although I didn’t have nearly any formal schooling, I did take the SATs (Standard Achievement Test) and the CATs (California Achievement Test) at 5th, 7th, and 9th Grades to see if there was any gaps in my knowledge. At 5th and 7th grades, I was behind in some categories (mostly math). At 9th Grade, I started going to a private alternative school in order to get my high school diploma, but then took the CAT, which showed me at a 12.9 on everything except for a 12.7 on one category — 12.9 is the equivalent level knowledge of a high-school graduate and since I, at 9th grade, had the same knowledge level as high school students who took the test, I didn’t feel I needed to continue on my diploma journey.
I had taken a Spanish class, which did help when our whole family took a trip as part of the Peace & Dignity Journey (commemorating 500 years of survival of the indigenous peoples) to Mexico for 3 months. I do remember how, about once a year, I would go to the library and borrow a math textbook and for a few weeks go through it until I was sick of it. That was one of the few things I did, not because I was interested in it but because I felt, due to past test scores, that I was lacking in knowledge. I did grow to love geometry as I could use it for real-life situations.
Free-Range Children, Unschooling, and Homeschooling
I remember reading a book about an alternative, "free" school, Summerhill, a last resort for troubled youth in England that had no formalized set schooling program and the youth could take whichever classes they wanted or take no classes, as they so desired. The book followed an extreme case of a student who would get up every morning, grab some food, and go out on a boat fishing every day. He actually “graduated” with next to no formal schooling. We wouldn’t think of this as learning but he got very good at fishing and later used the focus, dedication, and perseverance that he learned fishing to get a college degree.
When I was growing up, not going to school just meant truancy, but now with the large pressure of the Christian homeschooling lobby, not going to school is becoming more common and accepted. In Tennessee back in the day, the only requirement that I know of was one of your teachers — usually your parent — had to have gone to college. I don’t think back then they even had to have graduated from college.
It wasn’t until I was in my early teens that I realized that my way of learning through doing was unique and so I started reading about free-range children, unschooling, and homeschooling through authors, such as John Holt, and the Alternative Schooling movement.
Cultural Learning and Self-Education
To be a good student, all that I needed was to be able to read well. I was actually a late bloomer and didn’t learn to read until I think was almost 6 years old. Part of that was my parents regularly read to us (later, the older ones read to the younger ones) and our family spent 7 months in Israel, where I had to learn to interact in a whole new culture and language. Once I started reading, I couldn’t stop.
The downside to learning later in life is I did not learn to read phonetically (sounding out words) but rather memorizing words, which can make it difficult if I come across a word I don’t how to pronounce. After doing a radio talk show www.YourCommunitySpirit.org now for 17-plus years, I have covered up this defect by either skipping the word or trying to read it wrongly or replacing it with a synonym.
Usually when I am reading out loud, I realize as soon as I have mispronounced the word and correct myself. The upside of this type of reading is I can speed read. When I read to myself, I don’t see letters but rather words, and so I can glance at a sentence (like you would at a word) and I have read the whole sentence. When it describes a scene, I can glance at the paragraph and usually the scene is visual in my mind.
My siblings and I learned by doing — by “interning” at the feet of our elders — by learning from the makers. I read and studied whatever I was interested in and decided when I was 15 that renewable energy is my calling.
My sister loves horses, so she would read about them, educate herself to treat them medically, and write about them, which lead to a farrier degree, a vet tech degre,e and then an RN degree. All of my siblings have graduated college: my brother with his PhD, in spite of having no formal education — we all took a college entrance exam. Myself, I am double NABCEP (North American Board of Certified Energy Practitioner)-certified, which I am told by my friends who are engineers and NABCEP that the NABCEP test was as hard to take as their engineering test. My proudest moment was when, after I was an emergency adjunct professor teaching solar at a college for a semester, I was asked to apply to be a full-time teacher there.
I still read two or three books a week and watch no TV (as I consider it a time waster, although I watch one show a month on the internet). My love of reading has distilled in me high levels of knowledge on a myriad of subjects. I still love reading and learning.
Books are readily accessible, and kids will study and read about their interests. It is even easier now to read and learn with internet access.
Aur Beck has lived completely off-grid for over 35 years. He has traveled with his family through 24 states and 14,000 recorded miles by horse-drawn wagon. Aur is a presenter at The Climate Reality Project, a fellow addict at Oil Addicts Anonymous International and a talk show co-host at WDBX Community Radio for Southern Illinois 91.1 FM. Find him on the Living Off Grid, Really!?!?Facebook page, and read all of Aur's MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.