As much as formal standardized education tries to turn it into a science, life, and the continuing human development which in my opinion is one of life’s most compelling narratives, is really more of an artistic endeavor. It is at its best the creation of a compelling narrative based on the uniqueness of a person’s soul and the life’s context that soul is unfolding and evolving in. It is not so much about following a procedure developed and “perfected” by others, or emulating another’s life successfully lived. It is more like a mural, ballad, novel, television series or other story told, reflecting the unique voice of the artist and their unique playing of the hand they are dealt.
According to Wikipedia, “science” is…
A systematic enterprise that builds and organizes knowledge in the form of testable explanations and predictions about the universe.
Whereas “art” is defined as…
A diverse range of human activities and the products of those activities.
Modern society has been all about science and its organization of knowledge in the form of technology, industrial practice and social engineering. We identify experts who develop the best practice and then we create an institution to share that expertly designed practice with others. If the governing bodies of a society think a best practice is particularly compelling and effective, we may attempt to apply it universally, even possibly mandating that everyone follow it for their own good, or at least for the common good.
This approach has successfully brought us a stronger “Commons” that we share, including transportation systems, communication systems, electrical grid, civil services and government, public health and safety, and much more. All these shared assets generally facilitate our lives and allow us to make our own choices within parameters of not causing injury to others. In a democratic country like ours, even government and police are not supposed to be about directing our lives, but about maintaining the “playing field” and keeping it level, otherwise safe and appropriately groomed.
But as part of our Commons, I believe that our public education system, with all its standardization, regimentation, and mandated participation, has crossed the line from facilitating to directing the development of young human beings. It is attempting to apply the expert derived best practices of social science and industrial practice to directing the unfolding of millions of unique human souls during thirteen young critical years of their development.
It’s all about an increasingly regimented view of formal education, K-12 and college, now pushing back into the preschool years. Parenting in this industrial developmental context is all about stage-managing each step in this 20-plus year process. As formal education has become more and more about required subjects learned at designated ages (if I’m building a California mission it must be fourth grade!) the other aspects of young life are being regimented as well with lessons and other formalized tutoring and training.
But human development is not a manufacturing process done on an assembly line stretching across those twenty-plus years of childhood, youth and young-adulthood. It is an iterative feedback loop of observing the world, synthesizing those observations, beginning to engage the world based on that synthesis, observing the consequences of that engagement, and again synthesizing and choosing, and so on. The story that emerges is not so much like a business chart of quantitative measurements of the same factors year by year, but a unique narrative of an emerging soul, witnessing a multi-faceted world and uniquely responding in a way that no one else necessarily would or could.
Looking back at almost six decades of my own life I have come to the conclusion that those endeavors that contributed most to who I have become were self-initiated explorations and projects done mostly or entirely outside of any formal educational setting. Painted as it were from my own imagination on a metaphorical blank canvass rather than being products of an externally mandated paint-by-the-numbers exercise that characterized most of what I had to do at school. Nine developmental threads emerge from my own life, some intersecting or even launching from my formal education experience, but mostly pursued outside any context of formal education or lessons. Threads that are summarized here, but described in more detail in previously written pieces that I provide links to.
My parents always believed that life at its best was an adventure, not always happy or successful, but at best a developmental narrative worth living and retelling. My experiences travelling with my parents and later on my own initiative were critical in the development of my own agency, ethical compass, and my own approach to each new chapter of my unfolding life.
Traveling thru space is a metaphor for one’s journey thru time, and in this regard my parents were great mentors in their love of travel. It was not just about the destination (and sitting bored but patient in your seat until you arrived), but the adventure getting there and safely back home again. It involved loving and learning the logistics of strategic planning, purchasing, map reading and distance calculation, tactical decisions in the moment, overcoming obstacles, disappointments, making mid-course corrections, and a variety of other skills.
My dad was the quintessential “daytripper”, loading my brother and I in the car and heading off in one direction or the other not necessarily knowing where the day’s journey would take us, but exploring any interesting venue or fork in the road along the way. A good day’s journey might include an interesting park or miniature golf course, a quirky diner for lunch or bakery for donuts, a back road rather than the main highway. One way or another making the map within say fifty miles of our house come alive in three dimensions. One could experience all the sorts of dilemmas and decisions in the fairly low-stakes context of a journey close to home, while perhaps pretending the stakes were much higher.
My mom loved to engineer the longer journeys on always a very modest budget. By train sleeping compartment to her parents’ at Christmas. By putting down the back seats of our station wagon and outfitting the space with daybed or air mattresses, blankets and pillows so my brother and I had our cozy cocoon to cross country from the Midwest to the Atlantic ocean. By trading houses and cars with a couple in England for a summer so we could explore that country but also have the experience beyond the tourist of actually living there. Seeing places that made the broader map come alive, along with aspects of human history and literature tied to these places.
Having witnessed and participated in the work of my parental mentors, I launched into my own travels in my youth and young adulthood. First my own day trips around my hometown on my bicycle with the promise I’d head home when the streetlights came on. The most compelling a ten-week backpacking adventure thru Western Europe with plenty of twists, turns, adversity, and unexpected discoveries. All this helping me develop the courage, agency and autonomy to set off as a young adult to start a new life two thousand miles from home in the megalopolis of Los Angeles.
For more details, see my piece “Unschooling in the Art of Travel”.
As a young kid I was transfixed by the ethical dilemmas posed by the character of Captain Nemo in 19th century sci-fi writer Jules Verne’s great stories 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and Mysterious Island. Nemo’s futuristic submarine sank warships sending many sailors to their deaths in the name of trying to end the human practice of waging war. This obsessive and ethically ambiguous attempt at social transformation was grist for my imagination play with plastic soldiers and a shoebox crafted into a submarine. I so resonated with Nemo’s zeal, albeit misguided, as a radical activist for change.
Later in my teenage in a real world context my mom got involved in activism around opposing the war in Vietnam which led her into local politics. I went along for the ride with her as my mentor witnessing her advocacy and politicking at cocktail parties and other venues in my very politically active and progressive hometown. As a Democratic party precinct chair she involved me in her work, having me make canvassing calls and sending me out on my bike on election day to knock on doors and remind previously identified Democratic voters who had not showed up at the polls yet. I soaked up the kudos I got from older types impressed that such a youngster was politically active. On the flip side, I also developed a thick skin when I got an occasional angry response to my canvassing calls. “Which party I vote for is none of your damn business son!”
Hearing lurid stories about anarchists and other revolutionaries in an elective Modern Russian History class my senior year of highschool, I was also witnessing my mom’s own development as an activist for women’s rights. I was brought in to a circle of my mother’s feminist friends that became mentors to me, particularly her friend Mary Jane, whose brilliance and radical zeal made her, at least in my thinking, a real world rival to Nemo or the Russian anarchist Bakunin. Allowed into this circle of bigger-than-life activist women, I accepted feminism as my own cause, deliciously unorthodox due to my gender, as other teens might resonate with religious beliefs.
My “thesis” in this line of study was my own involvement in the women’s movement as a volunteer and later paid organizer for the National Organization for Women in my new home of Los Angeles. I got the chance to employ, expand on and add to all the skills I had previously learned or at least witnessed, coordinating volunteers, organizing street campaigns, fundraising and doing local media as a spokesperson for the cause.
For more details, see my piece “Unschooling in the Art of Social Transformation”.
My foray into the classic “arts” was in theater. If “all the world’s a stage”, then there is nothing better than collaborating with others as a youth to mount a number of ambitious theatrical productions to give one the courage and agency to take on all the challenges of life. The productions I was involved in during my later teen and young adult years were so much more significant to my development than anything I was learning in school during that time.
Unlike conventional youth theater groups where adults perform most of the leadership roles – directing, producing, choreographing, and designing costumes, sets and lights – I was involved in a unique group where I and my young peers wore most of those hats. Even for the biggest musical, with over fifty children and teens in the cast, the director might be just fifteen years old, and the choreographer thirteen, with set, costume and lighting designers teens as well. And even though there was always at least one adult present (usually the company’s founder and executive producer), the “brain trust” for any given show was a circle for the most part of older youth.
The dynamic of young people collaborating with, leading and mentoring each other, not constantly deferring to an adult overseer, is powerful, and something I think many people reading this may not have experienced. There is a high level of agency you develop in that sort of situation that I don’t believe can be equalled in any environment where adults are running the show.
I can bear witness that it was transformational for me, a shy kid with low self-esteem, having the opportunity with a period of several years to design and set lights, design and build sets, direct, produce, stage manage, and even adapt a novel, Lord of the Flies to the stage. Overcoming the limitations of my shyness (i’m still shy but it doesn’t stop me from doing things I really want to do) I also eventually went on stage as an actor, even playing leading roles in musical (singing and dancing) and non-musical productions.
By my highschool years I had spent over a decade trying to learn in this conventional instructional paradigm in school, but it was not until my deep dive into theater that a much richer more collaborative, more self-directed approach to learning and development was revealed to me.
For more details, see my piece “Unschooling in the Art of Theater”.
My fascination with the tactics and strategies of war and historical military conflicts was first inspired by my dad telling stories about his participation in World War II. But in my continued ever deeper exploration of historical military simulations I developed all sorts of knowledge about history, geography, strategy, systems theory and systems design. I believe the last three of those items gave me a uniquely rich skill set I’ve used over the most recent two decades in my career as a systems and business analyst. A skill set that has truly allowed me to pursue this career working “smarter not harder”, not being a slave to the job, and being instead an active and involved parent co-raising our two kids in partnership with their mom.
Starting at age nine with “D-Day”, a simulation of the Allied invasion of France in World War II, over the next decade and a half I probably played over fifty such games representing warfare from antiquity thru the war in Vietnam. Playing enough different games, a person can develop an expertise about which ones are better wrought, including why and how. Over the years of my youth and young adulthood, I spent several thousand hours playing such games, either solitaire or with my fellow “game nerd” friends. Time other peers spent dating, socializing, playing sports, studying, or other pastimes.
A well wrought historical military simulation board game involves the synergy of an elegant game “system” (represented by rule booklets, tables and charts) that informs how you maneuver “units” (game pieces representing various military formations) on a visually engaging and accurately rendered map representing the geography of the battle or larger campaign.
An elegant game system’s written rules, charts and tables provide an abstract model that simply but fairly accurately reflects the factors that had to be considered and/or manipulated by either side during the conflict, including a certain degree of unpredictability (usually a die roll) within the logic of probability (consulting a chart matching that die roll with other calculated factors to determine a result). Depending on the game, its scope and time period, those factors can include quality and diversity of forces, supply, weather, morale and attrition, tactical or strategic initiative, economics and industrial production, technology and technological innovation and diplomacy. The system might also simulate the real-time back and forth of a conflict within a turn-based game where the various sides take turns moving their units.
Thousands of hours immersed in this “hobby” (enjoyable and engaging time spent by choice rather than dictated by others) led me to developing an expertise in the components of a well conceived and well wrought game system, and contributed uniquely to my own ability to use models to represent other systems, in my case, business systems.
For more details, see my piece “Unschooling in the Art of War”.
At some point in a life well lived a human being takes control of their life and begins to chart their own course and direct their own continuing developmental narrative. For some of us that can begin happening in our childhood. For others not until well into our adulthood. Some of us may never have that opportunity or at least may never take advantage of it.
Both my mom and dad were free spirits who made a conscious decision to raise me contrary to the prevailing 1950s norms of parental direction and control of children. This manifest initially in their creation of enriched environments for me to play in, and then stepping back and letting me create and direct my own imaginary worlds within those venues. So within the context of those environments – a basement with toys, a yard with trees to climb and a dirt pile to play in, a best friend’s house next door, and a small park across the street – I created my fantasy worlds and invented and directed my narratives within them.
It was not until I went off to school at age five (I tested out of kindergarten and went directly into first grade) that I encountered a very different world where adult authority figures, that is teachers, would be managing my time and activities and directing my development. Though I was shy and compliant with my new minders, and did my best to go with their program, I was never comfortable with the school environment, and always rejoiced at the end of the school day, the start of the weekend, winter or spring break, and best of all, the beginning of summer vacation each June, when I could fully resume my self-directed life.
My hometown of Ann Arbor Michigan was a small town containing a large university and that homogeneous friendliness and human scale that made its streets particularly child friendly. Starting from age five on, my parents let me walk or ride my bike the three-quarters of a mile to and from school, play in the park on my own across the street, or visit my friends’ houses in the immediate neighborhood pretty much on my own recognizance. By age eight or nine, having demonstrated my ability to negotiate my immediate environment, they let me pretty much go anywhere in town I wanted as long as I returned home “when the streetlights turn on”. Thus the bulk of my activities outside of school were completely self-initiated and self-directed, including my participation in Little League baseball.
As I have documented earlier, school continued to be more and more problematic for me, becoming so stressful during my middle school years that I was constantly getting sick as a means to stay away. I finally found relief during my high school years, finding new self-directed activities in a unique youth theater group and a circle of fellow war game nerds. By my senior year of high school, blessed with lax attendance policies at my school, I was able to apply my now extensive self-direction skills to my classes, only attending the boring ones as much as needed to not fail.
At age 18, having had this extensive experience managing my own life, it was no great stretch for me to plan and execute a ten-week backpacking trip through Europe, mostly traveling on my own. And then with that odyssey under my belt, five years later leaving my hometown on my own and moving to Los Angeles.
For more details, see my piece “Unschooling in the Art of Self-Direction”.
My own life’s exploration of gender and gender roles perhaps began with my naked encounter with my fellow five-year-old neighbor and best friend, and the revelation that though one very small part of our anatomies were different, our underlying souls were not that far apart. Later, in the pressure cooker of age-segregated elementary and middle school classes, we collectively wrestled with the conventional rules of engagement between males and females, with no one beyond our ignorant peers to shed any thoughtful light on the subject. Looking back, I was profoundly intimidated by some very discomforting experiences and became completely gunshy (despite my growing heterosexual libido) to engage in any relationships with my female peers beyond being platonic friends.
The silver lining of this cloud of timidity was my subsequent development of great platonic friendships with a number of my teen female peers, building on my original connection with my five-year-old soul mate. I spent a lot of time listening to them and what made them “tick” within the “men are from Mars, women are from Venus” social construct of our society. I became very comfortable with their perspective and was able to apply that learning to engagement with my parents’ generation, particularly my mom and her female friends. As my mom continued to struggle with her divorce from my dad, I became her chief confidant and was accepted within the larger circle of her female peers.
My mom and her friends were channeling their own personal struggles with the men in their lives into involvement in the feminist movement of the early 1970s, and I resonated with the logic of their evolution to a more egalitarian approach to those rules of engagement between men and women. So much so that I embraced feminism as my own cause, as other older youth might conventionally embrace religion.
Eventually I left the nest of extended family in my hometown of Ann Arbor and moved from my relatively small pond to the much bigger one of Los Angeles. The initial circle of community I found there included a number of male peers who were gay, and though my own libido was tuned to women, my gay friends and acquaintances seemed to have a much more compelling approach to their maleness than most of the straight men I had encountered in my life. Though my own sexual orientation was unchanged, I adopted aspects of this learning of their more self-revelatory approach in my own presentation of my persona going forward.
As I had felt at home during my older youth within the feminist circle of my mom and her close friends (whom I dubbed my “feminist aunts”), I found another such community in Los Angeles when I volunteered for the local chapter of the National Organization for Women and became deeply involved in the group and its campaign to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment by the June 1982 deadline. My work in the movement introduced me to a new cadre of strong women, including a number of lesbian women as close friends and associates. Experiencing them as fellow human beings (and not queer freaks as much of conventional society still stereotyped them) I finally began losing connection with the “men are from Mars” expectations for my own gender and instead continued to find more common ground with these activist women, ultimately learning to move beyond the constraining limitations of conventional notions of gender.
For more details, see my piece “Abandoning Mars for Venus and Beyond”.
Metaphysics & Religion
As a kid growing up in a secular humanist university town with parents who were not religious at all, I wrestled with whether or not to believe in god. Later as a young teen, inspired by reading Ray Bradbury’s great intro to metaphysics, Dandelion Wine, revealing the magical side of ordinary life (at least from a kid’s perspective), I began to look for and embrace the interaction of that realm (aided perhaps by smoking marijuana) with my day to day life in my hometown. The learning was that life happens at many levels.
As an adult, though still not believing in god, I got involved in a Unitarian-Universalist congregation and participated in its lay leadership, including serving as the president of its governing board. As a result I learned a great deal about religious practice (without ever having any formal theological training) including the logistics of running a congregation (and beyond that an entire denomination) and the ability to lead various types of worship services myself. This led me to a general interest in the history of religious thought and practice and a deeper understanding of how much that thought and practice has contributed to the rest of human history, something I believe that gets short shrift in the history we learn in school.
Though much of this informal learning was done outside my youth and young adult years, so not what people might typically think of as unschooling, I think it is appropriate to call it out. When you are into the self-initiated learning, autodidact “groove” there is no arbitrary cutoff date for deep and even remedial learning, and I consider my failure, in my own youth, to grasp the significance of religion and religious practice in what makes the world “tick” a gap that needed such remediation.
Most people on this planet use some sort of religious belief or practice to help them lead what they see as a “good” life, often against very difficult circumstances of poverty and/or lack of privilege. To be ignorant of that, and not able to frame my own secular humanism as some sort of ethical framework, made it uncomfortable for me to engage in any sort of metaphysical discussion with the majority of people “of faith”, limiting my effectiveness as a thoughtful person and agent for change.
For more details, see my piece “Unschooling in the Art of Religion”.
My story around learning to write is one of frustration in my youth and early adulthood, with writing assignments in school contributing to my disability, and the revolution in electronic communication technology, first the personal computer and then the Internet, which paved the way for me to overcome those previous hurdles. Again, most of my learning was done as an adult, outside the conventional “schooling” years, when I finally had access to an audience and enabling technology to overcome my innate handicaps.
I was born with a very capable and creative what some would call “right-brained” or “non-linear” mind which has a natural antipathy to thinking sequentially. But arranging one’s thoughts in a linear progression is what writing is all about, and in my youth I struggled with that skill, always loving to have written something but disliking engaging in the actual writing process. I was much more comfortable displaying my narratives as a tableau of toys and other arranged artifacts on our big unfinished basement floor.
School generally added to my frustration around writing for two reasons. First of all I was often assigned something to write about that did not interest me, like doing a state report in fifth grade. I chose New York, but procrastinated until the last minute, and my dad the English professor ended up writing half of it under the guise of offering to type my awkwardly handwritten sheets full of erasures and cross outs.
Second was that what I wrote had no real audience, just the teacher, who was not getting any joy out of experiencing my narrative but was just critiquing my content and mechanics. Maybe if I could have written stuff for me peers to read, things would have been different, but the bad habit I learned was to suss out and then write to my teacher’s explicit or implied rubric, the minimum amount needed to fulfill my understanding of the assignment. More damage control than joyful expression.
It was technology that changed everything for me when it came to writing. My mom, always the brilliantly facilitative parent, bought a portable electric typewriter from JC Penny’s that she let me use as well. Having taken a typing class in summer school, I started typing some of my high school writing assignments after writing them longhand. While still hating the act of writing, I so loved having written a nicely typed page, relative to my awkwardly scribed handwriting, but still the problem remained of having a real audience.
It was that same year I got involved in a youth theater group and took my deep dive into play production. So deep, that after suggesting our group do the novel Lord of the Flies as a play, I ended up agreeing to write the stage adaption. Even when the normal boredom and frustration with writing set in, I was driven to finish because all my peers in my theater group were thrilled at staging this dystopian classic, and I loved my sudden celebrity as playwright of sorts, and did not want to disappoint them. So driven, I abandoned writing longhand first and then retyping, teaching myself to compose directly (though still awkwardly) on the typewriter.
Ten years later it was the computer revolution, and in my work as a staff person for the National Organization for Women’s ERA campaign, I had access to the first generation of IBM PCs to do all my writing of instructions for volunteers, phone bank scripts, and fundraising letters to our members and supporters urging them to contribute their time and money to our campaign. Now I had a definite audience for my writing and clear feedback from that audience in their ability to execute my instructions or respond to my fundraising appeal by sending in a check. And now using a word processor rather than a typewriter, I could “build” a page of text in a more non-linear fashion, cutting and pasting and reworking rather than having to go start to finish. This was transformational, and I was suddenly at least beginning to enjoy the actual process of writing.
The final blessing was the Internet, which changed everything for me. I got involved in several online forums around parenting and education where we discussed interesting issues, taking turns posting emails to the group “list”. Eventually my computer-savvy son convinced me to try this new thing called “blogging”, and here I am today, four years later, pounding out perhaps my three-hundredth essay to share with the small audience for my blog.
For more details, see my piece “Unschooling in the Art of Writing”.
Listening to My Greek Chorus
Most of us have mentors along the way that share wisdom that gives us guidance in directing our lives. Certainly for me my parents were mentors, particularly my mom through my teen years. Also my “feminist aunts” and a couple teachers along the way, including the director of the unique youth theater group I participated in.
But beyond these more obvious mentors was a compelling popular music culture of the the 1960s and 1970s, which given its ubiquitous presence on the radio or played on record players and stereos, became a musical “Greek Chorus” for my life, playing a significant role inspiring or even guiding my development.
It started with reassurance from Petula Clark of the promise and possibilities of adult life in her hit song “Downtown” to a shy ten-year-old wrestling with low self-esteem whose parents were divorcing. It continued with thoughtful musical narratives and even sermons from the likes of The Beatles, Diana Ross and the Supremes, and a spectrum of other musical artists who were challenging the ethical framework and conventional wisdom of the culture.
As one stellar example, I believe Harry Chapin’s haunting cautionary ballad, “Cat’s in the Cradle”, about a dad who never had time for his young son leading to that grown up son not having time for him, had a profound impact on me (and an entire Baby-Boom generation of fathers).
As a larger body of profound work, growing up near Detroit Michigan in the 1960s we listened to CKLW AM radio playing The Supremes, Smokey Robinson and other Motown artists. Theirs were tales of the trials and tribulations of love, loss and survival in disadvantaged urban communities lacking my white middle-class privilege.
And then the range of folk and rock musicians of the 1960s encouraging us to transform society, with their anthems echoing Eldridge Cleaver’s famous quote, “You’re either part of the solution or you’re part of the problem”. I took that to heart and have spent most of my adult life trying to imagine and make manifest being part of the solution, while also taking note of more nuanced commentary on our generation’s agenda from the likes of Bob Dylan and The Beatles.
For more details, see my piece “Unschooled by my Electronic Greek Chorus”.
My Unique Tapestry
These developmental threads, weave together to create the unique tapestry of my life, an effort by a shy soul to learn how to navigate this incarnation. Leveraging the early development of self-direction and incorporating the lessons of travel on Earth’s physical geography to a lifetime’s travel through time. Using the metaphor in my youth of presenting a play to an audience to learn how to present myself authentically and engagingly to the world. Making meaning of my life by borrowing some of the metaphysical practice of religion, listening to my “Greek Chorus” inspiring me to engage in social transformation, and finally learning to employ the written word to document the attempt and any lessons learned.
A work hopefully of at least some degree of artistry that is the compelling narrative of a life lived and shared with others through the various relationships of family, friends, co-workers, comrades, audience, etc. A life that in my opinion is particularly compelling because it is of my own design and not guided by following some conventional previously designed best practice. A work of art rather than of science.