In 1979, soon after my youngest son was born at our ranch in Colorado, my wife, Luz, informed me that she wanted to try homeschooling. What? Hold on! I had been a private school teacher; she was a certified public school teacher. I was disturbed, even shocked by her intentions. I had never heard of homeschooling and, like many people, I could not imagine a child growing up without going to school. She knew better.
Luz handed me two books by John Holt, and I soon learned that she was right. Holt showed me that if there is one thing that holds children back as they mature and often turns them against learning, it's schooling -- sitting in unfriendly, often uncaring schools where children’s intelligence and interests are ignored.
For their first several years, children do not need schooling, but nurturing -- the natural care and feeding that most parents provide. As Cass reached “school-age” we remained inspired by Holt's words: “Children do not need to be made to learn, or shown how. They want to and they know how.” We decided that Cassidy would determine what, when, where, how much and with whom he would learn. We never used school books or taught lessons. We answered his questions when he asked and helped him gain access to the real world when he wanted it. We called it unschooling -- no school books, no curriculum, no teaching (unless he asked for it), no testing, none of it. Today, unschooling is surprisingly popular, with magazines and egroups devoted to it.
Unschooling did not mean un-education. It simply meant that we would be aware and supportive of our son's interests and would be paying close attention to his desires for information as well as his gains in essential knowledge. I carried Cass on my shoulders around our town, reading the signs, talking to the shopkeepers, bank clerks and others. He soon was speaking in long sentences and, at four, he could read virtually any book. He proved Holt right; he did not need urging in order to learn. He once told a librarian, "I'm interested in everything."
We did not believe, as schools claim, that it is more important to "feel good about yourself" than to know how to read, write and calculate. The reason is simple: if you can do those things well, you will feel good about yourself, no matter what others tell you.
All through his growing years, people observed that Cass was bright, confident and capable. They remarked, "He must be incredibly smart to have learned so much so young." I could only answer, "Children are born smart. It's just that nobody is dumbing him down." I truly believed that because we didn’t send him to school, he was able to easily acquire all the essentials while he avoided the many negative lessons that schools teach. Our job was to encourage his curiosity and to help him gain access to the world. His life was the polar opposite of sitting in boring classes and being told that his interests are not important.
Cassidy liked responsibility. He earned his own money with jobs he found. He became an expert in dinosaurs and fossils, so much so that the Peabody Museum used him as its Information Officer in the Great Hall of Dinosaurs when he was eleven. He also became a teacher at the Eli Whitney Museum, once giving an “enrichment” class to public school teachers when he was fourteen. He became world class at origami. He took the SAT, and scored higher than half the valedictorians in the state of CT, without ever looking at a school book.
Cass got himself into the college he chose, Hunter College, because it was in the middle of his favorite place, NYC. He lived in his own apartment downtown and took the subway to school. His friends told Luz and me that he always seemed to know the right thing to do. That was when we knew that our experiment was a success, because he had always chosen his own path, instead of being directed by others.
He breezed through – always in the top one percent of his class. He held jobs both in and out of the college; was president of the film society, and graduated Magna Cum Laude. For this one young man, school was not just unnecessary, but irrelevant and, we believe, would have been damaging to his mind and spirit.