The Unschooled Life

An interview with bOING bOING's Mark Frauenfelder

In 1988 Mark Frauenfelder co-founded bOING bOING, a small technology-culture magazine that eventually evolved into one of the Web’s most popular blogs. In addition to blogging at bOING bOING, Frauenfelder is editor in chief of MAKE magazine and author of the new book Made by Hand: Searching for Meaning in a Throwaway World (Portfolio). Ted Balaker interviewed Frauenfelder in July. 

Q: Tell us a bit about the book.

A: Made by Hand is a book about my explorations in the do-it-yourself world. I was always interested in DIY media. bOING bOING started as a print zine in the late ’80s, so I was interested in that and things like silk-screen T-shirts and the Web and blogs and all that. But I was never really handy.

Once I started editing MAKE magazine, I came into contact with all these people who were really great DIYers, and what I learned from them was that they were all really OK about making mistakes. In fact, they considered making mistakes part of their creative process. They realized that they were going to break tools and spend money they didn’t need to going on wild goose chases. But in the end it was worth it for them because they had all this cool stuff that they lived with, and it was part of their lives.

I decided that I wanted to try that out as a way to live and see if I could make my life better. So I started doing things like building a chicken coop and raising my own chickens and becoming a beekeeper, making things like cigar box guitars. I’m a big espresso fiend, so I retrofitted my espresso maker to control the temperature. I started carving my own wooden spoons and kitchen utensils. Things like that. And it turned out that it was really a lot of fun.

Q: These days we kind of live in a zero tolerance society where we’re trying to minimize risk all the time. How does that interact with the DIY culture? In a lot of ways we don’t want to make mistakes.

A: You should try not to make mistakes on purpose, of course. But you shouldn’t always equate mista

kes with failure or punish yourself about them. Basically, in school, mistakes equal bad grades. So that kind of conditioning in the real world is, “I don’t want to make mistakes because I don’t want to be punished, so I’m going to avoid risk.” 

Q: You mentioned the ultimate in do-it-yourself education, which is unschooling. Can you describe what unschooling is?

A: Unschooling is letting kids get bored at home and get bored with their friends and come up with their own ways to learn. You might point them in the way of projects—if your kid expresses interest in making a kite, you can help them along the way. And if you make a kite you learn geometry and angles, you learn about the weather, you learn about materials, you learn about physics. That kind of learning is based on projects. It’s a better way to learn.

Q: Do you think we’re becoming too obsessed with certification—you’ve got to get the right degree—and then we sort of forget about the experience side of things?

A: Look at people like Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Larry Ellison. They all dropped out of school. Some of the smartest people I know in journalism and in DIY, successful people, never went to college or even dropped out of high school because they just had a passion for experiences and trying things out on their own. I don’t think that’s for everybody. Some people probably should stay in school. But you’re going to learn so much more that way than if you just stay in school and study what other people are doing.

Bonus Reason.tv Video: Watch Mark Frauenfelder and Ted Balaker talk DIY, mistakes, and unschooling:

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  • Timothy Leary||

    Turn on, tune in, drop out.

  • ||

    The problem here is so simple really. It started when someone decided that there was a 'War on Terror'. This would be similar to a 'War on Sniping' or a 'War on Pincer Manuevers'. The US went to war against a tactic.

    In WW2 we were at war with Nazism and Fascism--and we fought the supporters of those ideologies at home, and abroad.

    We have avoided even the appearance of being engaged with the ideology that is fighting us now.

    We are at war with Islam.

    Islam is a faith, but it is a faith designed as a political system, a faith designed as a world conquering ideology.

    In WW2 we fought the ideologies of Fascism and Nazism in all the places it appears--against nations and groups.

    And we did not hide from what we were fighting against.

    Now, we fear speaking the truth. Even supporters of the 'War on Terror' refuse to make this connection--to them, we fight 'jihadis', or 'islamists'. And we do this because not all Muslims are jihadis.

    Not all Germans were Nazis, Not all Italians were fascists--but we understood that we had to fight, and win--or die.

    Then, we chose our life, and the life of our ideals over the lives and ideals of those promoting horror.

    We must make that same stance today.

    The Bund is building centers to teach the lessons of Mein Kampf. Why can we not see that?

    Because it calls itself a faith?

  • bayu tirta||

  • ||

    I definitely liked the last question and answer. It reminds me that there's a big difference between education and intelligence. Don't get me wrong, I'm not anti-schooling by any means. It's just that some of the smartest and wisest people I've met had little formal education. And there are trust-fund babies who went to Ivy League schools who are such dumbasses I wouldn't give them a minimum-wage job pushing a mop.

  • sarcasmic||

    Yet we managed to put an Ivy League dumbass not worthy of pushing a mop into the White House.

    Twice in a row.

  • ||

    One of the reasons I didn't vote for him.

  • Slut Bunwalla||

    Pushing a mop? That's racism, straight up.

  • ||

    Mayor Goldie Wilson became president?

  • Realist||

    Amen brother!

  • ||

    Three out of the last four, even.

  • mad libertarian guy||

    Make that 3 times.

  • Realist||

    Obama comes to mind.

  • ||

    *Jimmy Carson doing the psychic mail bit*

    C, Electronics, 3d Modeling.

    *opens envelope*

    Some of the thing wylie learned since dropping out of school.

    (Grammar has not managed to make it into my lesson plan so far, but, meh.)

  • Johnny Carson||

    My brother always did have a penchant for telepathy.

  • ||

    Yeah, I wasn't one of his viewers. Guess I should do more research before posting about my Above-Par self-education experience.

  • Jack Parr||

    Thanks for the acknowledgement.

  • ¢||

    So...the no-link policy is reciprocal now?

    "SHHH!"

  • ||

    "Basically, in school, mistakes equal bad grades. So that kind of conditioning in the real world is, “I don’t want to make mistakes because I don’t want to be punished, so I’m going to avoid risk.” "

    Interesting point. But even if you hold this view and manage to "unlearn" it, everyone else still holds this view. If they see that you have made too many mistakes, they will view you as a failure. Which sucks, if you want that person to offer you a job.

  • ||

    You're only a failure if you think you're a failure.

    Or some Jedi mumbo jumbo. But seriously, there will always be somebody who values life-shaping experiences of trial and error more than whether you graduated with a 2.0 or a 4.0.

  • Realist||

    Both would be good.

  • ||

    How are you supposed to gain any life-shaping experiences if you are studying all the time for that 4.0?

  • Realist||

    Hopefully it won't take you a life time to get through college.

  • ||

    Might take a life time to pay for it, though.

    When I went to college, it didn't cost anywhere near what it costs now. (I feel sorry for today's college kids, even though they have much cooler shit than I did back then.) But it still took me years to pay off my college debt. I wasn't taking any vacations, I was working two jobs.

    Which I guess was a life-shaping experience, in that I learned how to fold a stack of shirts to the exact same size. Also how to deal with batshit crazy customers and punch a time clock at JUST the right time.

    My problem was probably with my expectations. I thought life-shaping experiences would be fun.

    The ones I had in my 30s were much better.

  • ||

    So that kind of conditioning in the real world is, “I don’t want to make mistakes because I don’t want to be punished, so I’m going to avoid risk.”

    A few rounds with the Real World will soon instill this attitude in most people, regardless of how they were schooled. They fact that actions have consequences, meaning mistakes get punished, is what makes it Real.

  • Rob Thomas||

    I wish the real world would just stop hassling me.

  • Cracker||

    What the world needs now is another folk singer, like I need a hole in my head.

  • ||

    The "real world" is overkill on punishment. No one *likes* making mistakes. Left alone, most people would just naturally make mistakes and learn from them. Instead, we attach grades or demotions or other extra, unnecessary consequences instead. It kills the motivation to learn instead of fostering it.

    In the spirit of true libertarianism, live and let live.

  • ||

    1) Buying a house in 2005, and

    2) Entrusting the management of my IRA to a "financial advisor/planner" (these are actually financial salesmen, whose job it is to use your money to plan for their own retirement, before they even begin to think about yours)

    and

    3) Taking that crappy job through a recruiter who knew about the high turnover and used it to keep making a commission on the same job every year

    were three of my most expensive mistakes. Frankly, when your mistakes fuck up your life badly enough, you really do regret making them. Sure, it was useful to learn not to trust anybody. But still.

  • ||

    I also bought a house in 2005 and took a job as a stop-gap solution until a better one appeared.

    Both worked out really well. By really well. I mean really shitty.

  • ||

    You know what all my mistakes had in common?

    ME!!!

    I shall now resume self-flagellation.

  • kinnath||

    http://despair.com/dysfunction.html

  • kinnath||

    My kids where in grade school when Columbia went boom. I used that as a case study in the consequences of poor decision making.

  • ||

    Wow! I was pleasantly surprised to see Reason do a piece on unschooling. We've been unschooling our middle schoolers since January. We're just now starting to see signs of getting out of the video game/TV phase (not that there's anything wrong with it - they could very well have careers in the video game/TV industry in the future).

    Our kids kind of forced us into unschooling. When they were in public school, they refused to do their homework. They *chose* the punishment. When we did traditional homeschooling, same thing. They opened our eyes and stretched our minds to see that learning involved so much more than worksheets and textbooks.

    We also don't have any requirements that any sort of learning has to be finalized by the age of 18 and we don't have any expectations of college. (I personally hope they both find a way to work for themselves and be financially independent.)

    Anyway, so rare to see people get it about unschooling. Thanks so much for doing this piece!

  • ||

    We just started homeschooling this year with a light approach that isnt fully "unschooled" but definitely allows a self-directed approach by our kids. Best parenting decision we've ever made was to get them out of formal public education and do it ourselves.

  • Fast food industry||

    We look forward to working with them soon.

  • ||

    if you make a kite you learn geometry and angles, you learn about the weather, you learn about materials, you learn about physics.

    This is idiocy. Without the building blocks of an education, building a kite teaches you very little about physics, or geometry or anything else. Sure, you learn not to make it with toilet paper and steel rods but not much else.

    My son turned 9 in August and is about half way through Algebra I. He will read dozens of the great books of western culture before he is a teenager. My daughter is 5 and reads and is working in "3rd grade" math.

    I am home schooling because I want them MORE educated, not less. Since they will both still be minors when they finish high school I will force them to take college courses, too.

    How would a child whose mind is not fully developed direct his own education?

    Our kids kind of forced us into unschooling. When they were in public school, they refused to do their homework. They *chose* the punishment. When we did traditional homeschooling, same thing.

    If they chose punishment, then the punishment was obviously not strong enough! If they decide to start smoking crack will you let them because they are willing to accept the punishment?!

    They opened our eyes and stretched our minds to see that learning involved so much more than worksheets and textbooks.

    I suppose they also opened your mind to the idea that they didn't need to brush their teeth? From where would they have attained this knowledge or wisdom?

    I personally hope they both find a way to work for themselves and be financially independent.

    You hope? But you are leaving it to children to make certain that they are prepared for these things on their own? "Unschooling" sounds a lot more like "unparenting" than anything else.

  • ||

    We also don't have any requirements that any sort of learning has to be finalized by the age of 18 and we don't have any expectations of college. (I personally hope they both find a way to work for themselves and be financially independent.)

    Now would be a good time to redo your basement, so they have a place to live when they're still there in their 30s.

    Our kids kind of forced us into unschooling. When they were in public school, they refused to do their homework. They *chose* the punishment.

    ROFL. That kind of refusal's going to go over real well with their future employers. Oh, wait, they won't have any. They'll be living in your basement.

  • ||

    Graduate school was a lot like unschooling , although I didn't get to pick a project. It was more like, "here is this really complicated problem, be the first to solve it". My graduate adviser wasn't around for advice and such. It was sink or swim. It was a good environment and it turned out really well. High school was murder, though. I had a really hard time with the authority and structure. I had to petition to graduate with a sub 2.0 core GPA. Don't know how I would have done with the unschooling. Without having someone around with a lot of in depth knowledge and good resources I bet I would have just gotten high all day and started trouble. So, a lot like highschool.

  • Realist||

    Very interesting guy. His ideas would be great for some , but not others...as he said.

  • ||

    And yet, Bill Gates would like to certify all of us techs, and has a big system (racket) that does just that. Just sayin', not my favorite person...

  • ||

    Here's the important part: "I don’t think that’s for everybody. Some people probably should stay in school."

    Entrepreneurs have some kind of "it" factor that others don't. You need the great idea and the wherewithal to execute it.

  • jtuf||

    Thanks for this article. Bong Bong is now in my bookmarks.

  • jtuf||

    I mean, Boing Boing. My mistake.

  • ||

    Bong Bong? Could explain the missing letter.... ;-) =D

  • ||

    Too damn funny.

  • ||

    Guys like him would literally reinvent the wheel if they could.

  • MOM||

    Raised three unschoolers - all now college graduates, well adjusted, and they care about the world and others. Best thing I did for them was to allow them to grow up with a love of learning and intrinsic motivation and self-worth.

  • ||

    Back in the 80's I was hired by a guy in a small high-tech company (eventually got up to 200 people) manufacturing computers used in scientific processing like oil exploration. My job was hardware engineer although I had never taken an engineering course in college. He was co-founder of the company, the engineering manager, a working engineer - and a high school drop-out. "Education" in this country, from kindergarten all the way up, is nothing but a gigantic scam for employing members of the parasite class, not to mention being indoctrination centers for our government.

  • Sean W. Malone||

    So... Just saying... Mark just entirely ignored Ted's count-off. Pick a tempo, guys! :P

  • Homeschool||

    I enjoyed the interview very much. Thanks so much for doing it! I do wish that Mark hadn't commented on the legalities of unschooling, because it's clear that he was guessing. Homeschooling regulation is done by the states in the US, and each state has different requirements. I haven't studied the regulations in all states, but in most of them unschooling is legal and no trickery is required. Generally the goal of regulation is to ensure that children are being provided with educational materials and/or are learning. Because unschooling parents DO engage with their children and unschooled kids DO learn, the regulations don't present a problem.

    Also, I think the dichotomy Mark presents between unschoolers and homeschoolers is false-- many homeschoolers take a relaxed approach that attempts to balance child-led and parent-led activities. And it sounds like he was hanging out with radical unschoolers-- even among unschoolers, not every family would let a kid play videogames for 6 months. There's a spectrum.

    Nitpicking aside, it was refreshing to hear someone smart calmly explain why unschooling can be good.

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