A Current Famous Unschooler

As another school year starts so do all the stories about how much children forgot during summer recess, how we need to expand the school year to include more teaching and testing, and how we must identify, at ever younger ages, who is smart enough to be groomed for positions in the fields economists and politicians demand that we focus our children's abilities on: science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. In this hot-house climate of education it is hard to see that "learning is natural; schooling is optional" (to quote from North Star's tee shirts). However, great scientists and, I might add, great citizens, are not necessarily created by excelling at rigorous, early schooling, as this example shows.

I've heard for several years that Francis Collins, a manager of The Human Genome Research Institute and current director of the National Institutes of Health, was homeschooled. In the current issue of The New Yorker, Sept. 6, we are provided with some interesting details about how this important scientist was raised and unschooled.

For Francis, it was an enchanting, if arduous, childhood, part Boy's Life and part Woodstock. he could set a bar door and knew how to predict weather by reading the sky over the distant Alleghennies. he did not see the inside of a schoolroom until sixth grade, because Margaret taught her boys at home. "There was no schedule," Francis recalls. "The idea of Mother having a lesson plan would be just completely laughable. But she would get us excited about trying to learn about a topic that we didn't know much about. And she would pose a question and basically charge you with it, using whatever you had—your mind, exploring nature, reading books—to try to figure out, well, what could you learn about that? And you'd keep at it until it just got tiresome. And then she'd always be ready for the next thing."