Talking with Peter Kowalke

By Eli Gerzon

Introduction

Peter Kowalke is a 29 year old lifelong homeschooler and the creator of the Grown Without Schooling (2001) documentary about ten grown homeschoolers who "explore and candidly discuss the lasting influence home education has had on their lives" as it says at www.grownwithoutschooling.com. He and the people he interviews for the documentary and for his Grown Without Schooling column followed the "unschooling" philosophy in which the students follow their own interests without having to follow a set curriculum. Many people would be surprised to hear that this works at all! As thousands of unschooling families around the U.S. and the world will tell and show you, it does work, often in truly wonderful ways. But the challenges involved in being raised this way while living in this, as Kowalke says, "schooled society" had not really been openly discussed until his documentary.

As a grown unschooler myself this may have been the first time the famous grown unschooler interviewer was himself interviewed by another grown unschooler! We talked for nearly three hours about everything from sports and masculinity, to consumerism, intentional communities, and life purpose but it kept coming back to the subject of college and the challenge of being a grown unschooler, so that's what I focused on in this interview. He also talks about his motivation in making the Grown Without Schooling documentary in the first place.

Homeschoolers and unschoolers do get into college and many enjoy it, but it seems there was something profoundly painful about Peter's experience. After making the documentary, he did eventually earn a degree in journalism, but his disturbing experience with college stayed with him. Clearly most people don't have such a difficult time. But perhaps because of who he is and how he was raised, with so much freedom to grow, express himself, and succeed through his own efforts, Kowalke was sensitive to problems with college that others accept without noticing or speaking out. Hopefully, his speaking out will give others the courage to stand up for themselves when they, like him, notice something wrong with what is expected of them.

The Interview

College Was Assumed

My parents loved college and there was just sort of this expectation that I would go to college. I didn't even realize it was an option. We were still in the phase of homeschooing when there weren't enough people who seriously questioned this notion that the ultimate validation of homeschooling was to go back to school! The ultimate validation is whether or not I could get into college and do well in college! I didn't critically understand what the problem was but I sort of felt in my heart that there was something wrong. I didn't particularly want to go to college. I wasn't ready for it. I didn't know what I wanted to do, I knew that much. I sort of got roped into it and I lived under that fear. My whole life I saved money and it was like, "You're saving for college." Even as a kid college was this big bad thing looming down the horizon for me.

I went away to Hampshire College which kind of sounded unschoolerly. I didn't know where else to go. By that time I knew that a traditional school didn't make a lot of sense so I went to Hampshire when I was nineteen in 1998.

Physics or Magazines?

I didn't know what I wanted to do but I was into reading a lot of lay quantum physics books: Hyperspace: A Scientific Odyssey Through Parallel Universes, Time Warps, and the 10th Dimension by Michio Kaku; books by Richard Feynman; pored over Scientific American, etc. Like a good unschooler, I was broad. I'm interested in weight lifting; I'm interested in writing; and here came the science side to me. That was real sexy and exciting stuff.

But at the end I knew I wasn't a quantum physicist because there were people who knew so much more. I actually tried not to be involved with the campus publications because all through my teen years I was defined as the guy who ran that magazine: I ran a little magazine all throughout my teen years. That was my life. My identity was editor and chief. So I wanted to go to physics. But when I got to Hampshire I discovered: "Let's face facts, you're really a journalist. You love being an editor because that's what you do. It's not as sexy as physics but that's only because you don't know physics and you do know journalism. You do know what it's like to be an editor, so yeah, there's some bad sides. But there's bad sides to physics too." So the best thing to come out of Hampshire, was that I became the youngest person to be the editor and chief of the college newspaper. And despite my intentions to not get involved at all with campus publications!

Problems with Alternative College

But overall it didn't work out. Part of it is I'm very reluctant to talk about the Hampshire thing. When there were injustices done I called the administration on it. I worked at the paper and saw the seedy underbelly of how the administration worked. That gave me pause. And some of the weirdness at Hampshire disillusioned me. At the same time I was starting to realize why I was always reluctant about college. And that was basically that college was a continuation of the school system: it's K-16.

And just like 5th grade is vastly different than high school. College is very different than fifth grade but still the fundamental assumptions and underlying structure and philosophy of it is still the same even at a Hampshire because all colleges are accredited. And basically a college lives and dies by its accreditation. That means they have to do a certain dance for the agency that accredits them. Every college out there, more or less gives up its soul. That's why you don't see any viable accrediting alternatives to college at this point. So I saw that, that's why I said I'm gonna do it on my own. And I continued to unschool through college.

Part of the reason I made the Grown Without Schooling documentary was I was trying to discover why college didn't work for me. Is the system really as messed up as I think it is? I was trying to understand my homeschooling experience. It was an opportunity to soul search and be helpful for other folks. With the documentary and these grown unschooler columns I may be, on some level, trying to answer the question: How do you live as an unschooler in a society that believes in school (and will believe in school, I don't believe in my lifetime I can change that)?

Unschooling in a Schooled Society

One big problem I've faced is figuring out how to live in this society that's structured around the school mentality when I don't believe in the school mentality. I'm not in a position to be completely self-sufficient and divorce myself from society. I wouldn't have enough friends. I wouldn't be able to make my own food, and housing and all those necessities. And I wouldn't have the community. I can't do it all myself, I'm very aware of that. So I have to live in society on some level. I have to figure out how to live in society but at the same time not give up what's truly important to me, my life, and the philosophy that's truly important to me. This has been a struggle for me for many years.

I wrote an article earlier about meeting the mainstream: how much to give into the culture and how much to stay true to yourself. I was very lost when I wrote that article. But now I'm found. I'm a magazine editor. And that's what I'm good at because I was a magazine editor as an unschooling teenager; that's the lifestyle I'm used to and expect and have conditioned myself for. So it's nice to actually be doing that and to be doing it with an interesting magazine. I'm glad I'm working for a wine and beer and spirits magazine instead of an air conditioner magazine! Who wants to be the editor of air conditioner monthly! You know? I have a pretty sexy magazine and it's something I'm interested in and I'm living true to myself. Things aren't perfect. But it's a lot better now than things have been since I was forced to go to college. I think I'm finally recovering from the major sidetracking that was college. College knocked me off of my trajectory in life and I'm just now getting back.

Lessons Learned

I do believe society sort of forced me to do something that wasn't healthy for me. Parts of it was very happy. Other parts it was hellish. And I really hope I never have to go through that again. I hope that I've learned from that experience. There weren't enough people to guide me or maybe there were guides but I never ran across them or I didn't know how to take their advice. But I had to stumble into that pit and deal with it. And hopefully I've learned that I won't have to do it again. Now the pessimist in me says I probably will step in the pit again! (Laughs) But we'll see, maybe I'll get lucky this time. Or maybe I'll have somebody who will have been there and will help me avoid it by and large. That would be very, very nice. I don't need to make that mistake myself. I don't need to have a trauma that was as traumatic as the college years were for me. I would like that to be a once in a lifetime trauma.

The Hampshire experience really showed me that life is not all stars, that it can be tragic, and unexpected and cruel. When you're driving your car before you've gotten in an accident there's a certain invulnerability that you have and then you get in an accident that's bad. And then you think, "Oh my God: every time I drive I could actually get myself killed, or injured, or crash!" You realize that it can happen to you in fact. I think that has happened to me in my life so there is an element of tragicness. What I've tried to do is embrace life and say to myself, "There is tragedy: there could be tragedy at any moment. So enjoy life right now." Don't be a hedonist. Planning is very important, but it shouldn't come at the cost of enjoying the moment. And it doesn't take anything to enjoy the moment other than a positive outlook.

--Eli Gerzon writes and speaks about travel and education and leads Worldschooling Travel Tours. Read his "Stranger in a Strange Land" travel newsletter, see beautiful photos, and find out about homeschooling, unschooling and worldschooling at www.eligerzon.com.