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 Video: Watch Mark Frauenfelder and Ted Balaker talk DIY, mistakes, and unschooling: