Thursday, April 29, 2010

Unschooler Jessica Barker: "Redefining Success."

Jessica Barker is a lifelong autodidact based in North Carolina. Her blog is

Going against the entrenched mainstream belief that to have a successful life you have to get higher education, can you define your idea of what success means?

Through my blog I have discovered that "success" is quite a touchy subject. In this day and age it is very hard, even as an unschooler, to break through or get around what mainstream society preaches as "success."

The standard, at its core, seems to be college = wealth = success. College means you get into a high-paying job (whether or not you actually like it is irrelevant); wealth means you make tons of money at this high-paying job, therefore having the financial capacity to own signs of wealth, such as nice cars, a big house, etc. As an unschooler, this confuses me, which led me to want to redefine "success" in the first place.

To sum it up, I like to simply say, "success is what you make it," even though it's rather cliché. As an individual, there shouldn't be obligations to only see yourself as successful in the way the rest of the world defines the word. It's understandably difficult, though; no matter how much we say we don't care what other people think, we do, especially when it comes to big things like life choices. It's just the way we are made.

However, overall people will respect you more if you are feeling successful in your own way, whether that is by going to college and becoming a CEO, or by bypassing college and starting up a small gym downtown. Being successful is you doing what you want to be doing, in my opinion.

For me personally, success is very progressive. I don't just aim for some vision of success further on down the road, when I am 28 and run 3 online businesses, work as a seasonal naturalist, and spend my spare time recording music or whatever; I see myself as successful in whatever I am doing at the time.

I'm not a professional concert pianist, I just started taking piano lessons last year; but I consider myself a successful piano student because I am learning exactly what I want to learn and I am at the exact point I want and need to be in my lessons right now. And the same goes with everything in my life. So, to me, success is accomplishing exactly what I want and need to accomplish at this specific time in my life.

Are you working at things that bring satisfaction as well as $$?

At this very moment, not wholly. My job I have right now as a customer service/office admin is more of a means to an end, although that is not to say I am not learning from it, because I am. It is also a very mobile job, so I can take it wherever I go and I don't have to ask for vacation time. But other than that, my source of money at this present moment is not bringing me loads of satisfaction; however, I am thankful that, at this time, it provides time and money for me to find satisfaction in other areas.

Besides that, at this time I am focused more on learning. I am "only" 19; my mainstream counterparts are in their Freshman and Sophomore years of college right now. This is a wonderful, ideal time to be learning and discovering further what I want to do in life, all the while living in the "real world." My primary interests are animals, wildlife, nature, alternative education, writing, and music.

Right now I am doing a self-study project on chinchillas, volunteering at a local wildlife center, doing a marketing internship for Homeschool Leadership Retreats, writing my blog, "Life Without College," taking piano lessons, and I even have some spare time for performing with a local improv troupe I've been on for 4 years, and reading and writing.

I am also going to be volunteering next month on the inaugural Homeschool Leadership Retreat in Ashland, Oregon, as a mentor, lackey, dishwasher, and anything else the leader, Blake Boles, decides he wants me to do or learn.

These things are bringing me great satisfaction, and, again - I feel successful as I am right now in life. That doesn't mean I am not looking towards the future: to the contrary, I have many plans to both further my learning in my areas of passion, and eventually make money in those areas.

Tell us about your educational background and the pros and cons of an unschooling lifestyle.
I was an "unschooled homeschooler," if that makes sense. My parents wanted me to at least do the basics of math, reading, and writing; they only really had to "make" me do math, and I would read and write till the cows came home.

But I had a lot of freedom to pursue my own interests. I could often get kits and books through curriculum companies, and then I would take ballet and drama classes, read books from the library, and watch TV. Those were my forms of "learning intake." Output often was in writing, playing, painting, performing, and talking with great enthusiasm.

The pros of unschooling, for me especially, are the freedom of time and the freedom of pursuit. I have a feeling that, if I had ever been put in a 9-3 school environment, I would have died in so many ways. I would have no time to imagine and create, and no motivation or energy to pursue anything beyond what was being forced down my throat for the majority of my day.

I am extremely self-directed, and, frankly, I like to do what I want to do, when I want to do it. Of course, it's not reasonable to apply that to everything in life, but when it came to learning in my "grade school" years, my curiosity and love for learning were able to flourish and grow because of the freedom I had.

I could spend two or three weeks finding out everything I possibly could about snakes; my mom suggested I write fact pages and draw pictures, and of course that reinforced my learning. And that, of course, has led to me getting to work with snakes on a regular basis now, and that is so awesome.

The cons of unschooling are, to me, very few and hard to acknowledge. (I'm not biased at all, can you tell?) But I can acknowledge that it isn't for everyone. Many people prefer or require a lot more structure, or need assignments and deadlines, or any number of things. There's nothing wrong with people that prefer classrooms; they aren't stupid or unmotivated or anything, they are just wired differently. And I respect that, even though I don't understand it.

Do you like the world you live in? How would you like to see it changed?

I love the world I live in. Sure, there are many downfalls to being a human on the earth today. But all the hate, and the wars... I can't help but look beyond that to see all of the wonderful people in this world and the beauty of the nature around us.

Every time I set foot in a different place, whether it's across the street or across the country, I see the most gorgeous landscapes and the most interesting quirks that land has; and I meet new people who, for lack of a better word, are amazing. There's the avid cuckoo clock-collecting poet; the old man with the family-run bakery serving the most delicious danishes; the "accidental" friend who shows you how to look at the world in a whole different way. There is just too much good in this world to only see its rough edges.

I guess the ways I would like to see it changed is that, overall, there would be more love and less hate. I feel a little like a silly hippie chanting "give peace a chance," but... I am a silly hippie, so it's only fitting. If we all loved more (and I'm not pointing fingers, except at myself because it's definitely something I need to constantly be working on), then I think the other sore spots in the world would begin to heal too. Of course, we can't hope for a perfect world, not in this life; but that doesn't mean we shouldn't strive for it together.


Anonymous said...

Great interview - thanks for sharing.

I have to add that I do hope for a perfect world in this lifetime - can't see how it can happen yet - but I hope... :)

Anonymous said...

I'm really enjoying the interviews you are doing- with unschooled young adults. I work at a school and notice how often the youth are unsure of what they want to do with their lives, fearful of the future, unwilling to take risks. It would be useful if they could learn from the examples of some of these young people.

Anonymous said...

These stories are all well and good but these are exceptional people. The majority of young people do not have this sort of drive.
They need the school system to help them structure their lives.
Besides, the institutional model has worked for 150 years. Why tear it down? If my kid could go to Oxford or Harvard, we would jump at the opportunity.

Anonymous said...

The institutional model in this country is not working. I'm not sure where you found your information but the model has been proven to fail time and again. Public schools all over the country are turning out mediocre students. I work in secondary education and I am shocked when students come to college and cannot even pass a basic reading test. Students who were "honor" students don't know basic math. I hope that you spend some time researching your information.

Linda Wyatt said...

I find it interesting how often people try to discredit unschooling by claims such as "but these are exceptional people" or that "the majority of young people do not have this sort of drive."

The question is, WHY are these unschoolers "exceptional people" and WHY do the majority of young people not have this sort of drive?

I think the majority of people are caught in a situation where they are not allowed to, or encouraged to, develop "this sort of drive."

I know a lot of unschoolers, including quite a few who are adults now, and yes, they are all exceptional people. But when 100% of a group is exceptional, it begs the question of what "average" is, and how it came to be accepted as average, or normal.

Anonymous, you may look at Jessica and see "exceptional" because of who and what you are comparing her to. She sounds pretty "normal" to me, which is not meant to disparage her at all, but to suggest that perhaps what is most common is not necessarily the best example of "normal."

I think a young person without a strong drive to learn is abnormal, and while some may need a certain amount of structure, the school system is by far not the only way to provide that, nor does it seem to work very well.

And I just don't get the comment about Oxford or Harvard, stated as if an unschooler couldn't go there if they chose. If your child does NOT have that option... WHY do they not?

Anonymous said...

I'm sorry but in my experience, most kids need direction otherwise they will spend all day playing video games.
These kids are from families that have resources and education that influences their kids. Many kids just don't have this oportunity. Schools provide this and everyone can get a basic education at the very least.

Unschooler said...

Kids will spend much of their time playing video games, but once they get their fill they will probably start moving on to other things. I spent a good 3 years of my unschooling life playing video games. But it led to me learning how to make them, which is what I now spend most of my time doing. I hardly play them at all anymore. Most of the unschoolers I know don't spend tons of hours playing video games. All the kids I know that do are either in school or homeschooled.

Unknown said...

"Whatever an education is, it should make you a unique individual, not a conformist; it should furnish you with an original spirit with which to tackle the big challenges; it should allow you to find values which will be your road map through life; it should make you spiritually rich, a person who loves whatever you are doing, wherever you are, whomever you are with; it should teach you what is important, how to live and how to die." John Taylor Gatto

Unknown said...
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Anonymous said...
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Ann Duncan said...

Hilinda, I agree!

"I find it interesting how often people try to discredit unschooling by claims such as "but these are exceptional people" or that "the majority of young people do not have this sort of drive."

The question is, WHY are these unschoolers "exceptional people" and WHY do the majority of young people not have this sort of drive?

I think the majority of people are caught in a situation where they are not allowed to, or encouraged to, develop "this sort of drive."

My now 17 yr old did her years-of-computer-games stint and then opted to shift gears. It was challenging for me to let go, but I am so glad I did.

She has educated herself beautifully, and is very quick to say, that, if she'd been stuck in the 9-3 school trap, she'd not have had time/energy to learn all she's learned, nor to have developed "this sort of drive".


Unknown said...

Thanks Ann. There is so much concern about kids spending inordinate amounts of time playing video games etc. I know I worry when my daughter(who goes to school!!) spends hours watching shows on you tube-so it's comforting to hear that kids turn out okay in-spite of all the square media!

Anonymous said...

The problem with the world is that there are too many people and too few resources. We need to learn to do with less-that way we can all have a stab at a decent life.

Unknown said...

Thanks for the comments, everyone!

Ann - that is a wonderful example of simply allowing your daughter the freedom to try out things for herself and make her own decision, which is extremely beneficial for her. This empowers her to think for herself and to know that she has the ability to continue to make well thought-through decisions throughout her lifetime. I know my parents allowed me to have this kind of freedom my entire life, and it has been invaluable. Making my own decisions for myself has stuck with me longer than if they were made for me and I blindly followed along.

For instance: when I was 4 I swallowed a penny and coughed it back up myself, determining that swallowing small, inedible objects was not a pleasant experience and that I would not like to do it again. Fast-forward to being 13 and 14 and having an obsession with Star Wars and Lord of the Rings. I spent hours of my time reading everything that fell under those categories, including reading and writing copious amounts of extremely pointless fan fiction. I can look back now and say, "that was a completely stupid way to spend my time," ...I can say, "Good thing I got that out of my system!" ... or, I could even go on to say how good of an experience it was, because I was certainly not bored, and I did learn a lot about writing, as is pretty impossible NOT to do while reading and writing.

This is a very good subject that I am planning to blog about very soon. You guys have given me more inspiration for other things to address in the entry! Thanks again!


Anonymous said...

Glad I found this blog. I need all the proof I can get that unschooling works and that unschooled kids grown up to be great people-and not weirdos as my husband believes.
Thanks RFS and Jessica for a great interview.

Anonymous said...

Jessica Barker is such an inspiration! Thank you for sharing this interview. :)

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