Sunday, August 22, 2010

Earl Gary Stevens on Post Secondary

As children grow into their teens, some families worry that continuing with home education might be closing the door to college. They wonder if independent learning is more suitable for little kids than for teenagers and perhaps not very practical as a prelude to college admission. While college may not be the best choice for every person, none of us wants to eliminate the option for our children.

There exists a myth that the only way for a young person to be accepted into college is through building a record for compliant behavior in a secondary educational institution. This myth was exposed for many of us when David and Micki Colfax wrote about their boys being accepted into Harvard on the strength of their own efforts and on the lives that they had put together for themselves, as described in Homeschooling for Excellence.

When David Illingworth, senior admissions officer at Harvard, spoke to Maine families attending our statewide home education conference some years ago, he assured them that even Harvard does not require a high school diploma for admission to a degree program. He suggested that Harvard was more interested in the lives of home educated kids and in how they presented themselves than in whether or not they had high school diplomas, documents which are not extremely rare.

Since then we have read many accounts of young men and women being accepted into colleges and universities on the strength of their independent learning and the interesting and productive lives they have led. We are accustomed to seeing letters in the home education media from admissions officers encouraging home educated kids to apply to their colleges. In fact, as more than one admissions officer has stated, all else being equal, many colleges tend to choose homeschooled kids for their motivation and for the diversity that they bring to the campus community.

Admission requirements vary. Some institutions require SAT scores, and some don't. Practice SAT exams are readily available in bookstores along with advice on how to prepare. Some institutions less prestigious than Harvard may require a general equivalency diploma, while others will not care. Depending on what colleges you may choose the prerequisites will be more or less extensive. But the critical thing to know is that anyone who truly desires to go to college can do so without benefit of scholastic records and without help from public or private school educators.

I did it 30 years ago as a high school "dropout," and it has gotten easier since then. I was one of those bored kids who throughout my time as a public school student was always getting into minor conflicts with teachers and administrators over my lack of effort and my indifference to schooling. I finally dropped out in the 10th grade after years spent watching the clock, falling asleep, being the class clown, staring out the window, and daydreaming. But a few years later when I tried a couple of college courses I found that it was entirely different from compulsory schooling. I could arrange my life as I pleased, take what interested me, and get treated respectfully. I enjoyed campus life, and I continued on to earn a degree. It was not a big deal, even 30 years ago.

It did make me wonder though. If I could all but ignore school for so many years, dismiss the final three grades of high school entirely, and still do well in college, what was all the commotion about? Now I know. It is about jobs and control and jealously guarded prerogatives. Anyone can bypass this with confidence, especially these days when so many others have paved the way. In order to do well in college you need to be able read and you need to want to be there. It may not be all one might require for an advanced degree in physics at MIT, but it is enough to start you on your way.

Kids who don't live far from a college can learn to relax about it and demythologize their thinking by looking into signing up for a course under open enrollment. My son, Jamie, and many others in our support group between the ages of 9 and 16 have taken college courses. They earned real credits that can be applied to a degree upon matriculation or, in many instances, transferred to other institutions similarly.

I can't stress enough that college courses do not require a high school background or any special training in academics. Over the past three years Jamie has taken history, art, Latin, psychology, and public speaking in the University of Maine System. We were "unschoolers," and Jamie had never been given an academic lesson in his life before taking his first college course. When he found he needed to know grammar for his Latin course, he learned grammar along with the matriculated students in his class who had forgotten much of it from high school. Some people have wondered if Jamie and these other kids who take college courses are so unique that they are not a practical example for others. This is only another measure of the power of the mythology that educators have promoted in our society.

There are other issues which may make decisions about these matters more complex. For instance many academic and sports scholarships are available only to bonafide high school students. There may be a variety of personal and practical reasons for a family to utilize a secondary school in preparation for college instead of doing it on their own. I hope, though, that the primary reason is not fear of shutting the door to college. If college is your dream, the door is open, and you can get there in your own way.

The above essay, by Earl Gary Stevens, was originally published in the Talk About Learning column in the July-August 1997 issue of Home Education Magazine.

Last semester our son Jamie, 14, took a 4-credit Latin course at the University of Southern Maine. He had never in his life participated in a classroom, studied anything called a "subject," read a textbook, or been exposed to formal grammar. Although he loves to read, he had no experience in being a "student." Linda and I have often been asked how it could be possible to ignore schooling and all things schoolish and still expect that college will be a viable choice for Jamie. We didn't expect a demonstration quite so soon.

Why did Jamie choose to take a college course? I believe because he saw it as a kind of adventure and because he wanted to sample what it feels like to be a university student. Why a language? Partly because the playing field is level. Most of the students in his class knew what he knew about Latin: absolutely nothing. Why Latin? He had spoken with some people whose opinions he values and from that he felt that a knowledge of Latin would help him better understand the structure and roots of his own native language.

As Jamie settled into his Latin course, we made many discoveries.
We found that:
  • Grammar can be learned at any age once a person finds a use for it.
  • One does not need years of training in order to get out of bed for an early morning class.
  • Study skills can be learned and put to work by anyone who needs to have them.
  • Years of formal preparation for college are unnecessary. Anyone who reads fluently and is motivated can succeed.
Not that he didn't experience difficulties. With each passing day the work became more complex, and there was more to remember. Jamie's grades began to go down. When he failed a big exam he clearly realized that he needed to learn how to study more efficiently. The attention to detail that is required in a formal academic setting was unfamiliar to him, and it was a challenge. He worked on this, and soon he began to do better.

Speaking of grades, since our family has never thought about grades or any other mechanism of schooling some of our friends wondered why Jamie would care about grades now. It is because part of Jamie's adventure as a university student was to collect 4 credit hours for the course by getting a passing grade. I wasn't uncomfortable going from never considering academic measurements to being supportive about earning a grade.

But there are dangers. I feel that attention to grades and grade point averages is addictive and that these considerations should be handled with caution lest they begin to overshadow other more important goals. It is easy for a family to begin thinking of the grade as the sole measure of success. Isn't a "B" better than a "C" or an "A" better than a "B?" As long as one is trying for an "A" in one course shouldn't one try for an "A" in all of them? Isn't it good to earn a high grade point average, even better to earn one that is perfect? This line of thought can turn into a preoccupation that leads the unwary scholar far afield from his or her original passions and purposes.

We have enjoyed listening to Jamie's anecdotes. He reported that one morning before class when students were huddling together to put the finishing touches on an assignment, a young woman burst out with, "I don't believe this: a fourteen year old who never went to school is helping us with our homework!" We have also found that he has silenced the lecturing from well-meaning people who feared that his lack of schooling would forever close the door to college. Such fear is difficult to maintain if a person is already there.

Like Jamie, home educated kids all across the country who are interested in college are discovering that in many institutions they can register under open enrollment without waiting for a magic age or for a document which states that they have been officially prepared. In our support group alone three other kids between the ages of 10 and 15 have recently taken college courses in Japanese, electrical engineering, and geology.

I have noticed that some people who learn about the work and the accomplishments of these kids want to deny the applicability for others by claiming unusual circumstance: These kids must all be absolutely brilliant, and therefore their examples are useless for the rest of us. But that's not so. Jamie isn't somebody you might read about in a tabloid, solving calculus problems in his head while simultaneously performing Bach on the piano and playing chess with a dozen opponents. His achievement is a result of his willingness to participate and work.

What have we learned from all this? I still don't think college is a sensible choice for everyone. For some it is superfluous; for others it is very important. As time goes by, Jamie will figure out what it means to him. His Latin teacher asked him to come back and participate in her Latin II class for the spring semester whether he registers for it or not. His mom and I smile at this; we know what she means. One thing is certain. Jamie knows that he is perfectly capable of earning a college degree if he wants one, and he sees that there is no need to train for it in a high school. Many other independent learners are making the same discovery. All the doors are open.

The above essay, by Earl Gary Stevens, was originally published in the Talk About Learning column in the March-April 1995 issue of Home Education Magazine.

One of my favourite Earl Gary Stevens quotes:

Sometimes, in spite of my efforts, I am mistaken for a leader and expected to act in a leaderly fashion. I beg off by saying that even after a half century on earth I'm still trying to get a handle on managing my own life, and do not yet feel capable of managing anyone else's. It sounds like modesty, but it is really self-interest. I notice that, in general, leaders have less time for things that are important like gardening and fishing, and they spend too much time arguing on the telephone, which can't be good for their digestion.