School Versus Education?

WOODS: Your podcast – what category is it in in iTunes? Do they have an education category?

VEINOTTE: Oh, yeah. There’s actually quite a bit of competition in the education category, because anything that’s like foreign-language instruction or how-to, gets thrown into the education category. I will say, though, that we are the only show that is consistently hitting on schooling versus education and looking at school issues, and not so much delving into all the problems of school like zero tolerance. We did that in the early days of the show and it got pretty tiring. Now we’re spending most of our time talking about what real education is, but also frequently reminding people that schooling, government schooling, is not that.

WOODS: Well, I guess that’s our starting point. Before we can know that government schooling is not that: in your view, what is education really all about?

VEINOTTE: I think education should really be self-directed, intrinsically motivated. It’s lifelong. I think people develop negative attitudes about what they call education because it’s always associated with force and pain and boredom. A lot of adults are left unmotivated to learn more about a broad range of topics because the learning experience of school was so miserable for so many of us. So most importantly, education is lifelong. It’s intrinsically motivated, it’s self-directed, and it’s not something that somebody else gives you. It’s something you have to go out and seek for yourself.

WOODS: That’s important. Education is more than just the time that you devote to formal study; it is indeed a lifelong process. A lot of people say to me: it’s such a shame that when I was in school I learned politically correct history, I didn't learn the things I should have learned, and oh, well, what can I do now? Well, you have your whole life is what you can do now! There are so many things you can do now I hardly know where to begin. But we’ve become conditioned to think of education as something you do sitting in an uncomfortable chair with a built-in desktop and a chalkboard in front of you. Listening to this podcast is a form of education. Reading any worthwhile book is a form of education.

VEINOTTE: Yes, absolutely.

WOODS: This self-directed issue – the response that you’re liable to get, perhaps even from me, is this whole thing that education needs to be child-centered and self-directed, and we need the child to be motivated, and the way you motivate children is to let them pursue what interests them, all seems to make sense. But there’s that nagging feeling that a child just isn’t going to be interested in the multiplication tables, and some things you just have to sit down and do even though they’re painful.

VEINOTTE: I think that’s a very good point. There is real instruction to be done. I think that when you do have those things that need to be taught, you have to let them ride on top of the motivation and enthusiasm of the learner. I’ll give you an example. A few years ago I was working with this homeschooled boy. I was just a facilitator and a guide. He was eight. He was absolutely fascinated by the pseudo-History Channel’s program Ancient Aliens. Are you familiar with the show?

WOODS: I am not.

VEINOTTE: Okay, have you heard of the ancient astronaut theory that thousands of years ago, predating the great civilizations of Egypt or Mesopotamia, aliens came, and they seeded life on this planet, or somehow genetically modified human beings into what we are today?

There are people who take this very seriously, and they go back into the archaeological or anthropological records, and they cherry-pick information that fits that argument. So there is a lot of confirmation bias, there are a lot of logical fallacies. But if you're eight years old, and you're really enthusiastic about the idea of aliens, you’re not really ready to defend yourself against that. And that was the situation for this boy. So he definitely had this high level of motivation to pursue this study of ancient aliens. And the whole time as the facilitator or the guide I was saying, oh, I don’t know, this isn’t good; where is this going to go?

But because he was enthusiastic, I was able to check off things that I thought he really needed to learn. Like, how do you evaluate the evidence that other people present? Andthere were all kinds of scientific lessons about astronomy and archaeology andanthropology that we were able to check off along the way. So starting with something completely silly – the ancient aliens theory – and even if that is a plausible theory, the way they go about presenting it on this show is completely laden with fallacies and confirmation bias and begging the question. But through that silly exploration, we were able to have a meaningful educational experience. So I think the learner’s being motivated is very important, and once you have a curious and motivated learner, the stage is set for instruction to be possible.

WOODS: So are you an advocate of unschooling? Is your view that if that’s what works for people, that’s fine, and if a more traditional, structured curriculum works for somebody else, that’s fine, too?

VEINOTTE: I think it’s different for everybody. I think anyone who wants to do home education – I’ve tried in the last couple of years to get away from the word unschooling because it has “school” in it, homeschooling especially. Only school can do school.

We’re trying to do education. That means something totally different. I think unschooling definitely has its challenges. I can see why people would balk at that, especially if they’re concerned they’re not going to be able to check off what they consider to be essential skills. And there’s no debate about that: some things are essential skills. But I think having that free environment where learners can follow their own curiosity is very important. Remember, too, that even if parents don’t want to control their child or control their curriculum, they have control over that environment. So they can put things into that environment.

This boy I was telling you about: his parents had built this amazing classroom for him, filled with resources and easy access to the Internet and YouTube. So you can create opportunities within a relatively unstructured environment for the learning that you as the parent, or the educator, want to take place.

WOODS: Brett, tell us about the podcast itself. How many episodes do you have so far? You’ve been doing it for a while, right?

VEINOTTE: Yeah, I think we recorded 322 last time. I would say 350 different pieces of audio available on the website.

WOODS: Wow! Tell me how you’re able to talk about this stuff week in and week out and have fresh things to say. What kind of array of topics are you hitting on these days?

VEINOTTE: That’s a good question, because back when I started in 2009 so much of this had built up. I had worked in and around the school system for over a decade, and in the three years prior to doing the podcast, I had been tutoring in the Boston area and in the New Hampshire area in some very competitive public schools. I was doing a lot of SAT tutoring. I was doing a lot of academic tutoring. And I found myself in a lot of meetings in the school with teachers and parents and guidance counselors, really biting my tongue and not saying the things that I wanted to say, not identifying the problems that I felt needed identifying about the school system generally.

So when I started the podcast in 2009, I blurted out I feel like the first 20 episodes: what my problems were with school, what I believed to be the hidden lessons of school – obedience, conformity, and as a result of that, a kind of political or philosophical or intellectual apathy. I wound up doing a big series right out of the gate about understanding politics, because I wanted people to understand that I wasn’t pursuing political solutions. I didn’t believe in the idea that the public schools could be reformed. We did a series on how kids are made to feel defective if they can’t conform to that environment of school, and some of the consequences of nonconformity, and how students could protect themselves from that. But after I did about 100 episodes, I said, okay, enough, people get it. School is bad. It’s right in the title of our show. Let’s start talking about what education actually is. So we move from there into more in-depth theories about history. We have had an ongoing series about solutions and alternatives. We did a big series last year about productivity and better organization. We’ve done a series about logic and looking at top media examples of people abusing logic or ignoring it completely. We did a show about Bill Maher, for example, who has this very popular HBO show, and we went through episodes of his program, which stands up to the rest of television as a pretty intelligent debate show, and we looked at the fallacies that they use to make that program possible. We did a series on the triviummethod of critical thinking: grammar, logic, and rhetoric. And we even did a series that I was really proud of this past year on the six pillars of self-esteem, which is based on a book by Nathaniel Branden.

And along the way, wherever we can, we’re always discussing homeschooling, home education, unschooling, and providing suggestions for that as well, talking with people who’ve done that. I’d like to be doing more of that, but I do try to check in periodically and say, hey, remember to consider these things as well.

So the show is very broad. I think it’s a soft sell – this idea that school sucks, especially since we’re trying to do reach high school and college students. They come to us already on our side. I don’t think there are a lot of people between the ages of 16 and 20 who feel very differently about school, and I hope the show has provided a kind of window or doorway into the philosophy of liberty. I came to the philosophy of liberty by understanding theproblems with the school system and wanting to investigate that more. So I am hoping more people will do the same and have this valuable introduction to this philosophy – the work of people like you, Bob Murphy, Jeffrey Tucker. They’ve all been on the show at one point or another. But we always bring it back to schooling versus education, and that’s the niche we’ve carved out.

So there’s plenty of work that we can do. I’ve gotten to a point now after 300 episodes where as long as something is educational, I would be willing to do a show about it. I do stay away from current events. I try to make the shows kind of timeless. But if I think it has educational value for my audience, I will definitely prepare a show and put it out.

WOODS: What are some mistakes you find home educators making?

VEINOTTE: I think unschooling can become a kind of unparenting where some people are just completely hands off with their children. I’m not a parent myself, and I say that over and over again on the show – and people who are critical of some of the things I say remind me of that frequently. So it’s difficult to look at what other people are doing and have specific criticisms. But just because you're giving this hands-off approach as far as education is concerned, I hope that doesn't turn into a hands-off approach as far as parenting is concerned. That’s one caution that I have. Or even addressing the concern that you brought up earlier: not understanding that there are some essential skills that might require, even if it’s more subtle, some form of instruction from an educator. Those are the two that come to mind.

WOODS: Those are very good. I know very successful examples of homeschooling. But there is also, I think, an unreported underbelly of really unsuccessful examples. Now, that’s not to say that it would be better to send them to the government indoctrination factory. But I know of a lot of cases where “homeschooling” really means nothing happens. And it’s not even that they have a philosophy of unschooling. It’s that the mother has a lot of children, she’s totally overwhelmed, and the father feels like it’s his job to go and provide materially for the family, so it’s up to the wife to do the homeschooling. She can’t possibly keep up with it. She’s expected to do the house and a million other things. So the result is: nothing happens.

This goes on far more than people realize, because we all keep hearing that the spelling bee champion is a homeschooler, and the statistics for college admission are very good for homeschoolers. But there really is this problem out there of completely overwhelmed parents.

VEINOTTE: Yeah, that’s a really good point. I’m surprised that anyone in the second decade of the 21st century would still be trying to do this with the family as an island. There are so many great resources for networking with people in your area. One of the things we’ve talked about frequently is setting up some kind of cooperative where people can share the duties of teaching or monitoring or setting up activities. I can imagine that being terribly overwhelming for one mother or one father with multiple children, trying to have some kind of home education environment without any help from anybody else. There’s so many resources out there for home education in many states. It’s different from state to state. New Hampshire is obviously pretty friendly for home education, but there are definitely ways to get connected with people in your area to share ideas. Even if you can’t come face to face with people there are resources online. I can see how there could be a high level of burnout for a parent, and kids just wind up in front of a video game system – not that that’s entirely uneducational; depending on what they’re doing, I think there’s a lot of value in that, or there could be a lot of value in that or in front of YouTube or, God forbid, in front of the television. I could see how that could happen.

I’m hoping on my show to reach people who are planning on becoming parents. My target demographic is really about 16 to 24. I want high school and college students, and I want people thinking about these things long before they become parents. People have certainly written to me and said: it was because of your show that I took my children out of public school. I feel like that’s an accomplishment. But quite honestly I also feel a little worried sometimes: that’s quite an impact to have, and I hope those people I don’t know, and whom I never talk to beyond a couple of email exchanges, really thought this out, and really had a plan of action before they did this.

That was one of the reasons I wanted to even get away from talking so much about the horror show that government school is, because I didn’t want to force anyone’s hand, so to speak. I wanted to talk about what real education is, the value that it has, different approaches to doing it, provide some curricula for self-study, for home education. But I absolutely agree with the concern that, yes, there probably are a lot of people out there who are not providing an education or not setting up an environment where their children are seeking education for themselves.

WOODS: There are two reasons I would want to ask you about New Hampshire in particular. One is that you have personal experience there. But secondly, New Hampshire is not a state that’s just chosen at random on this show. New Hampshire is the heart of the Free State Project, and there are people no doubt out there who are on the fence about whether or not they should commit to moving to New Hampshire. So I would like you to give us a sense of what specific sorts of resources have developed around, for example, the Free State people who are living in New Hampshire—no doubt many of whom are interested in this kind of education. What are they doing among themselves that would be interesting to our audience here?

VEINOTTE: Well, I can speak from personal experience. We were able to set up just a small cooperative. It didn’t last very long because people went in different directions, but when I was working near the state capitol a couple of years ago, we were able to set up some continuous art groups. There was a school, actually, that was set up called the Scholars Academy that had a real Free State presence and actually got a lot of financial support from Free Staters that went on for a few years, and I think eventually it dissolved because the directors of the school wanted to convert it into a charter school and get state funds instead of having it privately funded, and a lot of interest waned pretty quickly.

But there are people just working together in small groups – play dates where people bring their children together. I’m not super-connected to that, but I would like to see a lot more of it happening. I’ve seen, as I said, some examples of this in the past, but I think the good thing about this is your neighbors could be very like-minded. So even if it’s a problem, people are getting more and more worried about things like Child Protective Services. I think that’s just as important as people getting together and having an art group, that there are like-minded people nearby in case you have a problem as a result of what you're doing.

WOODS: Would you say that the biggest stumbling blocks right now to more and more people embracing a home-based education, or just something other than the typical government school form of education, are external restrictions by government, or cultural frowning upon this form of education, or would you say they are more internal, coming from a lack of self-confidence – e.g., I’m not sure we could pull it off, I don’t think we have the resources, we’re not wealthy enough? Where do you think the real obstacles are right now?

VEINOTTE: Well, I think a lot of those internals that you mentioned are determined by externals – people saying: I can’t do this. I am not qualified. We both need to work. I thinkthat kind of thinking results from external pressures. Most people don’t leave the schoolsystem thinking they are capable of teaching anybody. And they are happy to depend on this system. I would even think they’d want to tell themselves a story about the goodness of the system because they need to put their kids someplace 35 hours a week while they go to work to earn the money they need. So I’m completely sympathetic to all of the hesitations people might have about pursuing home education for their own families. I really think it’s both. I think there is a lot of economic pressure on people, and most home education environments involve at least one parent staying home multiple days out of the week. That’s very difficult to do today. And of course, yeah, I think people feel like they’re not qualified to do this. This is something that has to be done by experts.

So really, it’s both. I hope through the show that people hear stories about others who’ve done this and others who want to do this, or even young people who have gone through the system, who’ve been home educated, and they get some success stories, and that builds confidence or it shows them at least that, yes, this is something that is possible, and there are ways to do this even with all the external pressures of the world today.

It’s very hard for me to speak on external pressures that are related to the government because it’s really so different from state to state. New Hampshire is pretty homeschooling friendly. I mentioned that I worked with this boy. I had to check in with his school district periodically. They were extremely flexible with me. They were happy that we had created this environment and that learning was going on. They did not give me a very specific checklist. There was no periodic testing. The person I dealt with directly from the school was really happy that we had come up with a milieu that was helpful for this boy. I know in some states it’s very difficult. We hear these horror stories of parents being arrested, and their children are – they’re saying the children are truants because they haven’t gone through all the hoops that that state has set up to make homeschooling difficult. So the pressures are more extreme in different places around the country, I think.

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