Better Than College: An Interview with Blake Boles

Blake Boles is the author of books, articles, and web projects about learning and finding good, meaningful work without going to college whose work I have followed for some time. His most recent book is Better Than College, which we discuss, as well as how he came to support the world of homeschooling and unschooling so energetically even though he, himself, was never homeschooled. This is the first part of a three-part interview.

Pat: The Not Back to School Camp was influential for you but you yourself are not homeschooled?

Blake: I grew up in California public schools and got good grades and thought I was really into math and science and so I got the opportunity to go straight into UC Berkeley, which at that time was only like seven thousand dollars a year for tuition, and when I was there I studied astronomy and physics and it was great. I took some interesting classes but then I start getting up into the upper-division math and physics. Really it was this one class, quantum physics, that made me realize that astronomy is really physics and physics is really math and if you don't really love math then you probably won't do well in those other fields and so I was sort of hemming and hawing over that and a friend handed me a John Taylor Gatto book and that was sort of the beginning of the end.

Pat: Which one?

Blake: A Different Kind of Teacher. Kind of a lesser-known book, but still one of my favorites. I went on Amazon after quickly devouring his book and found the Sudbury Valley School literature, Grace Llewellyn's Teenage Liberation Handbook, and a lot of these other books, like Summerhill. I knew about Holt, but I never really got into reading him early on for one reason or another. It was mostly Grace Llewellyn and the Sudbury Valley people and Gatto. So that was all I needed. I figured out how to change my major from astronomy and physics to alternative education. Sort of designed my own major. It was a very, as I realized later, kind of unschool thing to do.

Pat: Yes!

Blake: And Berkeley was luckily a very receptive environment for that kind of thing. After I graduated I worked in the outdoor education field for a few years and I traveled a bit and I applied once, right after I graduated, to work at Not Back to School Camp and I never heard back from anyone. It was just silence and I said, "Oh, well. Either this place isn't running any more although they still have their website up or maybe it's just really hard to get in there." So two years later, I applied again and this time I got accepted. That was 2006, the first summer that I worked at Not Back to School Camp and I've been working there continuously since then. So this is my seventh year and it's just been a giant influence on me because that was my first chance to meet a large mass of actual unschoolers. I had volunteered at some small Sudbury Valley schools while I was in school, but otherwise going to Not Back to School Camp was that big aha! moment.

Pat: Is there a way to make a comparison between your experience in the Sudbury Valley Schools and Not Back to School camp, or are they just completely different age groups all together and so there's really no comparison?

Blake: Well, I had a worked at another summer camp, a wilderness-based summer camp, in college. It was one where I went as a young person myself and I knew from that experience that I was interested in working with teens because they had a very cool teen leadership program and so I was always on the lookout for kind of what was going on with the teenage group and when I went to the Sudbury schools, a teenager was always kind of poorly represented. There were just no teenagers or, if they were there, they seemed to be struggling with the fact there were only about maybe five to ten, if that, other people in their age group. Now I’m just talking about some Sudbury model start-up schools that I saw in the Bay area. I got to visit Sudbury Valley proper (the original school in Sudbury, MA—PF) and I was just blown away by that because they do everything right. The teenagers at the Sudbury schools, were just, it was tough for them because there wasn’t a widespread community of people close to their age and you know that’s a lot of what it seems like, teenagers are looking for and trying to learn from. But outside of that at this point free schools just strike me as unschooling with the security blanket of a physical school often for a lot more money than the average high school will spend. The one the thing, of course, they seem to offer that unschooling cannot is that repetitious day-to-day, face-to-face environment, which is important, and that’s something that unschoolers who are just starting out on their own seem to struggle with.

Pat: I want to pursue what you just said. One of the things that I’ve seen as an unschooling parent is that it is a lot easier, in some ways, to unschool when the children are younger, because as they become teenagers the peer group becomes more important. But at the same time, I’m really fascinated by the number of learning centers and groups that are forming like the Not Back To School Camp. How do you take this need for community that teenagers in particular have, and if there’s only 10 or 20 unschoolers in a neighborhood and they all come from different backgrounds, how do you put up a flag and say here, here I am?

Blake: I think it’s a continual challenge and there’s not a good solution to it. You know, honestly, a lot of the teenagers who I know when they find face-to-face community in their local areas, it’s more typically just based around their interests and their hobbies, like martial arts, or arts, or something like that, rather than it being about finding or just trying to track down everyone who self-labels as unschooler. Because just like within a high school group, even people who are in your exact same educational mode just might not get along with them; they just might have a clash of personalities. I didn’t feel compelled to hang out with the majority of the people at my high school in Bakers Field, California and so, through just sort of regular interest groups. Then often what happens next is that these just Not Back To School campers, to take one example, are only together for one or two weeks a year. They form really close friendships during that period of time. It’s very traumatic to go away and everyone splits up. But, then, they do meet up again throughout the year. They just travel a little bit further to do it. So, I guess, they are not just relying upon finding people in their local neighborhood, somewhere where mom can take you in 15 minutes. There’s this contingent of Pacific Northwest Unschoolers from Not Back to School Camp who get together, for instance. They’ll take the time out to do a large field-trip type thing, which they usually organize themselves. That’s how they fill that social need. Still, I’d say the majority of the time the kids I know are spending with their families or with their local communities who may mostly not be unschoolers unless you lived in a really lucky area. I think it’s a hell of a problem to talk about getting sufficient face-to-face community with other unschoolers just because there aren’t enough of them.

Pat: I do think that one of the reasons that college has got us in such a bind is because of the alumni associations and how they’ve become these self-replicating nodes for their college. I think that informally maybe, that’s really what’s happening with the unschooling movement through the Not Back to School Camp.

Blake: Yeah, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. It’s just basic networking in communities. I know a lot of young adult unschoolers, both college graduates and ones that have not gone to college, who really relied upon the widespread unschooling community, a lot through the unschooling conferences but, also, sometimes, through places like the Not Back to School Camp, to find their first job leads or to do everything you would associate with an alumni association. I think that’s great, that’s just civil society at its best.

Pat: Citizenship! In Better Than College, you claim the main reason people talk about going to college—even if they completely buy into unschooling, homeschooling, alternative education—is that the college degree is sort of a safety net, just in case you’ll need it.

Blake: First of all, I would agree with them. It’s just part of the culture at large, which is, we value a Masters degree or a bachelors. We often talk about a mythical employer who feels better when they see two letters after someone’s name because it’s a signal that says this person is reasonably intelligent, they’ve got some set of social skills and personal drive because, they got through four years of an institution. And they’ve got, hopefully, broad skills like critical thinking, reading, and writing skills. And hopefully some specific skills like whatever the major was. So, it is useful as a signal and that’s what gives it its value as a safety net. That being said, there are no free lunches, everything has a cost. The cost of a college degree both in terms of money and in terms of time and forsaken opportunities, in terms of things that you could have been doing otherwise are large. It’s kind of like just talking about real estate in the early 2000s, it’s like “Oh, real estate is safe, you can’t go wrong, throw your money at it and everyone is better off.” Until, absolutely, everyone does that, someone finally calls a bluff, and the whole thing just comes crashing down. Because, you realize, that house in Phoenix is not worth $600,000, it’s worth $250,000. Anyway, thanks to the easy federal loans and the culture of glorifying education, which in many ways is a good thing, but, when you look at those graphs, the cost of living is rising, the median family income is rising just above it, and then health care, and then tuition cost. So, the costs have just become really disproportionate to the return that you get in terms of it as a safety net or a backup. It’s just basic supply and demand. If a whole bunch of people go and get a safety-net BA it will devalue the worth of that BA in general.

Pat: But all the government education policies we have push everyone to attend college, which totally exacerbates the problem. Why do you think we keep falling back on the college-for-all strategy?

Blake: I haven’t looked at the numbers recently but it seems to me like there might be some truth in the fact that a higher per capita number of college graduates from other countries are doing the hard science and the technology degrees that people in the United States are not doing. If that is true, then maybe there is some value when people say we need more college graduates, if they are really just saying we need more people with hard science and technology focused degrees. Because, for many science degrees, there is really not a great alternative to college. If you want to get really good at marine biology, if you want to get really good at research psychiatry, then you go to a four-year college and graduate, because that’s where the whole community resides. Because the academic community is also the research community is also the teaching community. So, for some focuses, there is a really good reason to go. Obviously, if you want to become a professor, if you want to become a licensed professional of some sort—a doctor, a lawyer, even a nurse nowadays—then college is probably a good idea. This is assuming you have the self knowledge to make the decision yes, I want to invest 8 years of my life and X number of hundreds of thousands of dollars to become a doctor. That’s sort of a different question. But, for those going into research science, license professions, want to go into professorship, then they need to go to college and more college degrees might be warranted. But, I think the danger is when any political leader says we just need more college graduates in general. Then Joe Blow, age 18 who is thinking “There’s all this other stuff I could be doing but, I guess, I should go to college and get a degree and whatever, and maybe just you know, try as little as possible to get through and drink as much as possible while I’m there.” It’s when people that could be doing stuff that’s not in that list that we just talked about. They go to college anyway, they get a degree, I think that’s when the return on investment, both time and money investment, starts dropping precipitously.

End of Part 1