Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Brenna McBroom:More time is more freedom

Twenty year old potter (and many other things besides) Brenna McBroom shares her views on unschooling, success and--well read it and be amazed by the eloquence of this mind.

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

To me, the question of success is inextricably linked with the question of how I choose to spend my most valuable and non-renewable resource: my time. In my mind, a successful person is one who utilizes her time to its fullest potential, relentlessly pursuing those things which she is most passionate about and which bring her contentment and satisfaction (with the caveat that those things being pursued must not have a damaging or detrimental effect upon humanity).

I spent a year at a small liberal arts college when I turned eighteen, and my reasons for going were as uncomplicated and misguided as ‘because this is what I’m supposed to do’. (This, ironically, after six years of radical unschooling. Socio-cultural messages are pervasive.) When I chose to leave after a year, it was largely because of the realization that my time is finite, and that I couldn’t sacrifice four years of it in pursuit of a degree that I might not ever use.

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

An unschooling mom that I greatly respect is in the habit of saying ‘do what you love and the money will follow’. I started throwing pots on the pottery wheel about two years ago, keeping that piece of advice in mind. I did it because I loved it and because it fed and satisfied me, but the money has started to slowly follow. Right now it’s not enough to pay a mortgage or buy a Mercedes (or probably even a Hyundai), but it’s enough to help fund travel and my ceramics addiction.

I’m very lucky: my parents see this as a time in my life for me to be pursuing an education whether I’m inside or outside the walls of a college. Because of this, they are happy to assist me in funding travel, internships, and other educational opportunities.

You've grown up with hardly any institutionalized schooling. What have been the pros and cons of this type of lifestyle?

I would say that the primary positive result of this type of education is that my time is my own, to spend or squander as I wish; it does not belong to a teacher or an institution. Because of this freedom, I’ve been able to pursue the things that I’m passionate about to their fullest potential, without any hindrance, and I’ve had the chance to learn what I’m passionate about, what I love, through direct, hands-on life experience. I’ve also been able to learn in the way that I choose.

For example, I’m an extremely visual creature; auditory processing is not my forte by any means. If I had gone to traditional school I would have struggled while listening to lectures, but as an unschooler I could simply make the choice to learn things by reading about them. I can’t think of more important lessons, to be honest: learning how to learn, and learning what you love.

It seems to me that many in the unschooling community are hesitant to criticize themselves, which is understandable. However, I think that, in order for our movement to remain a viable and vital one, we much undergo a nearly constant process of self-evaluation and self-criticism as a means for growth. Because of this, I’ll cite a real and omnipresent ‘con’ that I’m struggling with in regards to unschooling.

I feel that a lot of new unschooling parents are very hesitant to do anything that resembles ‘controlling’ their children, and so they fail to stop their children when they are behaving in ways that are disruptive or damaging to others or the property of others. Unschooling conferences frequently feature the worst displays of such behavior; a damaging trend when you consider that such events are one of the primary ways that we represent ourselves to the ‘Muggles’.

To me, this problem is only one symptom of a larger disease; namely, that many unschooling parents passively accept the principles of unschooling as gospel, rather than actively examining them.

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

I love the world that I live in. Were I to change it, I think I would alter attitudes and beliefs rather than attempting to change governments or institutions, because, in the end, it is the things which we believe and the values which we hold highest that shape our world. I would change the belief that qualification and ability are inextricably linked.

For example, in the eyes of many, the twenty four year old MFA graduate possesses more ability to instruct ceramics students than the self taught ceramicist who has been operating a functional studio for thirty years, merely because of his qualifications. I’m not saying that qualification and ability never come hand in hand; merely that they don’t have to.

I would change the belief that learning is hard. I would change the belief that success = money. I would cure psoriasis and give everyone a Snuggie; I mean, while I’m at it, why not?

What words of advice can you offer a young person who is not sure if school/higher education is the right place for her at the time?

Trust yourself! If you have a niggling, nagging feeling that institutionalized schooling isn’t right for you at this point in your life, then listen to it. College can be a wonderful tool to get you where you want to go, but it’s just that: a tool. It’s important to keep it in its proper perspective; that is, a means to an end, rather than an end in itself.

If you’re struggling with the college question, a good litmus test is to ask yourself ‘I’m planning to go to college to what end? What am I trying to achieve?’ If your answer is something like ‘because I want to be a veterinarian’ or ‘because it’s an efficient way for me to learn everything that I want to know about classical philosophy’ then you’re probably on the right track.

If, on the other hand, your answers are something like ‘because otherwise I’ll end up working in a fast food joint’ or ‘because I don’t know what I want to do with my life’ then I would suggest you do a bit more soul searching.

I learned through personal experience that college isn’t a good place to find yourself, and that there are much better places for that. Write a book. Save the rainforest. Teach English as a second language. Revitalize your community. Build a house. Live somewhere that you don’t speak the language. Read this blog.

Furthermore, never believe those who tell you that not going to college resigns you to a lifetime of ‘flipping burgers’. The perpetuators of this myth are usually none other than the school faculty and administrators who are completely dependent upon your continued support of higher education for their continued employment. The vast majority of people I know who have chosen to forgo college for the time being are doing amazing things like writing grants, traveling the world, working on farms, or doing web design.

Finally, keep in mind that not going to college NOW is not the same thing as not going to college. I believe that many people would benefit a great deal from taking a few years to experience and experiment with various occupations and lifestyles before they make the decision to attend (or not attend) a university.


Anonymous said...

Great interview - thanks for posting - I've sent a link to my own Brynna :)

clementine said...

What a fantastic interview. Brenna is a wonderful example of successful unschooling. I am so thrilled by the series and by what all the young people you've interviewed are doing with their lives. It's amazing how they all embrace life wholeheartedly and are unafraid to enjoy it.

appalachian unschool said...

Wow, Brenna, I really enjoyed reading this! Thanks:)

JSN said...

Critic, here.

It doesn't sound like Brenna would be making it without financial support from her parents.

Maybe that works for her and her obviously-not-poor parents, but it isn't a recipe for everyone.

I am concerned that someday some state government, run by ring wing loonies, will start giving a check to everyone who takes their kids out of school and that lots of poor people, eager for the money, will take the check and not really care.

I am a pretty radical egalitarian. Montesquieu asked "What is meant by love of the Republic in a Democracy?" (by "democracy" he meant direct democracy, still, that's the goal...). He then went on to say that there has got to be equality, not only of wealth, but of hopes and dreams.

If the rich send their kids to private schools, and educated, upper middle class parents teach their kids at home, the poor kids are left on their own, never even having met someone whose lot in life isn't poor.

It's a far cry from what I want for the world.

Force everyone into public schools, then the top 10%, who give almost all the money politicians get, would start forcing the politicians to do something about the schools. Pay teachers real money, for example. Smaller classrooms. Et cetera...

rfs said...

Hi JSN, just want to make a few comments about your comment: You say that Brenna wouldn't have made it without her parents financial assistance. Many parents assist their children financially with their educational costs-think college, university etc. So, within this context it's an irrelevant argument.

I get concerned when you talk about "forcing" everyone into public schools; makes you sound more like totalitarian than an egalitarian.

You quote Montesquieu as having said, "there has got to be equality, not only of wealth, but of hopes and dreams." So in your opinion, stuffing everyone into public schooling will mean equality for everyone, will it?

And whose 'hopes and dreams' are we talking about? The kids? The politicians and rulers? Yours?

Ren said...

I'm not willing to sacrifice my children for anyone's ideals; not my own, not the governments, certainly not someone who believes in no freedom of choice.

The truth is, many of us in the unschooling world struggle with money and find creative ways to fund our children's interests anyway. Self-taught individuals always seem to find a less expensive way to get what they want.

College is certainly high on most parents list of "financial ways to support your kid" but so far my adult child has saved me a lot by doing self-study for the things he wants.

My children are great at coming up with ways to fund the things they want....unschooling is not only for the wealthy though if you have that luxury you should certainly use it to enrich your learning experiences and provide interesting, fulfilling memories for your family. Just as we all do in our own way.

Love your interview always, you are well-spoken and fun to read. :) Now where's my snuggie?

Anonymous said...

Brenna is kind of correct about unschoolers sometimes letting their kid behave in a disrespectful way.
I've seen shocking behaviour of what I'd call 'unparenting.'
It gives us a bad image.

Blake Boles said...


Anonymous said...

Having the choice of how to spend your most valuable resource is a privilege as well. Of course, when you are young, you don't tend to think this way. Mice that you can know this that young in your life. said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
rfs said...

How right you are! It's precisely because we are not willing to sacrifice our kids to someone else's ideals, curriculum, beliefs that we take responsibility for our kids education.
Unschoolers come is all different types; single parent, low income, super rich etc.

Rebecca said...

Brenna, this is a great interview! I'm so glad it's been shared here.

I think that what you say in closing is so important. Just because you don't go to college NOW doesn't mean that the door is forever closed. It's far better to wait until one has a reason to go (even it that's only to check it out) than to go because it's what everyone else is doing (or 20% of everyone else).


BTW, the argument that everyone should be in public school because only then will schools change is a stale one.

Over the years, there have been many forward thinking educators who found that their concerns and suggestions about school fell on deaf ears. They realized that the only way to change education was to take it out of the schools. And here we are, changing the real world (vs. the insular and often rigid world of compulsory schooling).

Anonymous said...

This is a question of privelege. Brenna and Stella have parents who can allow them the time and space to 'pick and choose' and take it easy. This is a luxury not available to most.

As to educational reforms happening outside the school-I agree with this as one route we can take. But to simply look down upon public schooling is offensive to those who fought to have educational rights for everyone. It is an attitude that stems from a place of privilege. Not everyone can be in your shoes Miss.

rfs said...

I understand your frustration Anon, but
as with any institution, there is a time when its main purpose is to sustain itself- in other words its usefulness expires, it becomes redundant - and basically lots of $$ are spent to keep the monster afloat.
Ivan Illich spoke about this decades ago when he wrote a book about the institution of medicine/hospitals etc

Sam said...

Freaking brilliant! So eloquently written, thank you, I will pass this on to everyone I know :)

Amazing for this unschooling mom of two small kids to read. Big sighs of relief.

rfs said...

Welcome Sam! We have many interviews with grown unschoolers if you do a search on the blog.
We plan to continue offering these to our readers as we hear from others who have grown up unschooled.

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