Thursday, May 04, 2006

Interview: Pat Farenga - long time supporter of Home Schooling

Below is an interview with Pat Farenga done via email. It was nice to learn more about John Holt. And I enjoyed learning more about Pat Farenga. I liked Pat's line: "I’m more convinced that knowledge is a vast public resource rather than a scarce private commodity to be doled out by school authorities."

Again, I hope you enjoy the interview.


Brief bio:

Patrick Farenga has been involved with homeschooling for over 25 years. He first started by working for John Holt, one of the early pioneers of homeschooling. John was very instrumental in getting parents to recognize the value of homeschooling. After John's death, Pat carried on the work as publisher of Growing Without Schooling until the last issue in 2001. Pat has written many articles, book chapters, and books. He is frequently contacted by the media for his insights into homeschooling. He has appeared on television and radio talks shows. And he frequently speaks at homeschooling conferences. For more information about Patrick Farenga, check out his biography.


When you were young, what did you want to be when you grew up?

A musician or a writer.

In your 1997 interview with Helen Hegener you mentioned that you played the piano and tenor saxophone. Are you still playing them? Have you picked up any new instruments? What do you enjoy about music?

Yes. I’m very active in a blues band right now, playing sax and writing arrangements. I haven’t picked up any new instruments yet, though I would love to try the baritone saxophone and the vibraphone or marimbas.

I get a feeling from playing music that calms and nourishes my spirit, which is why I think I’ve always enjoyed playing music since I was 8 and never had to be told to practice.

I have also always enjoyed making music with other people and I get quite a charge when I “click” with another musician or with a group, and we start talking in music. I love the improvisatory aspects of music because, when it is working well, you are connecting on a dimension outside the written music and I find that to be exhilarating.

What style of homeschooler are you? Has it changed over the years?

I consider myself a homeschooler who lives and learns by using the work and ideas of John Holt, which are usually called “unschooling.” John used ”homeschooling” and “unschooling” interchangeably, so I didn’t “grow up” being aware of the distinctions we make today with those words.

I love unschooling, the word John invented to better describe homeschooling, but now the term has become so trendy that I fear it is making people overly self-conscious about how they live and learn with their children. The last thing I want to do is make parents feel they should not try or do something with their children, such as taking a class or using a textbook, because some one will be judging them as to whether or not they are good unschoolers.

What has changed in my style of homeschooling over the years is that I’ve become even more convinced of the value of following children’s interests regardless of whether or not they have any connection to school curricula. I’m more convinced that ordinary parents can help their children learn and grow without duplicating any school methods in their homes. I’m more convinced that knowledge is a vast public resource rather than a scarce private commodity to be doled out by school authorities.

Public Education:

Also back in your 1997 interview you talked about the problems with schools teaching so children could pass tests, instead of trying to give them an education. Were you surprised by how prophetic you were with the increased emphasis on testing, and the No Child Left Behind law?

Not at all. Indeed, I’m flattered by your comment but I’m a mouse standing on the shoulders of giants. Ivan Illich and John Holt both saw the conflation of passing tests with proof of education, and both felt, as their lives were ending, that this conflation was increasing in our society.

What are your biggest worries today about public schools? Have your concerns changed much over the years?

My biggest worries about public school today are how we are so strongly linking our adult futures to our performance in school as children, and how we are making school the only appropriate place for children to learn. We need to make school LESS like school so we can explore the varieties of experiences that can make a learning society. However, we seem hell-bent in going completely in the opposite direction, towards a teaching society that conscripts and controls learning experiences for the sake of easier record-keeping and monetary accountability.
My concerns have changed over the years: I used to focus tactically on homeschooling a lot, such as on how homeschoolers could do end-runs around schools, by using the language and concepts of alternative schooling to support homeschooling. However, now I’m more concerned about the larger picture: how education has become an unchallenged good, and how learning and teaching, even among unschoolers, have become fetishes. There is a down-side to education, and I don’t just mean the money-pit arguments or the civil liberties arguments that have been around for decades. I’m referring to how our belief in education causes us to extend childhood for teens; the traditional benchmarks of adulthood – moving out to live on one’s own, getting married, working full-time, having children - were reached by age 21 in the sixties; now they aren’t reached until the late twenties and early thirties, because being in school has become so encompassing of our young’s time. Indeed, I’m now concerned about our society deciding to support “womb to tomb education,” with all sorts of certificates and classes being required before we can join or do anything as adults. I see how this benefits educationists, but this benefit has the cost of undermining one’s “pursuit of life, liberty, and happiness.” But, we seem, as a society, more willing than I ever thought to give up those pursuits in the name education.

John Holt:

Some parents who are new to homeschooling may not know much about John Holt. Could you briefly tell us about him?

John Holt was a fifth-grade teacher in private schools who wanted to know why he could teach a class and yet they didn’t learn what he was teaching. Unlike most educators, John took his teaching personally and refused to blame the students for not learning. Instead, John looked closely at his teaching methods and at the school environment, and he realized that those factors were what needed changing, not blaming the parents and the children.

And tell us about your experience with John?

He was a gentle, thoughtful man. He was very generous with his time and he enjoyed talking about music and audio recording as much as he enjoyed speaking about education. Indeed, towards the end of his life John did not enjoy speaking about education reform – it was just the same issues dressed in new clothes and he was tired of it. He much preferred talking about music, politics, and books over how we can reform schools, since, as he learned, and as I fear I’m learning, most people really do want the schools that we have, which is why they haven’t changed much since they were first created in the mid-eighteen-hundreds.

For people who wanted to learn more about John Holt, and what he taught, where would you suggest people start?

Any book by John is a good starting place, except for Escape for Childhood. That book is out of print anyway, the only one of his ten books that isn’t in print right now. Escape upsets both liberals and conservatives to no end with its logical application of the rights of citizenship to people regardless of their age.

However, if, as I’m sometimes asked, to read one book by Holt:

For parents of preschoolers I recommend either Learning All the Time or How Children Learn, the revised 1983 edition.

For parents with kids in school I recommend How Children Fail, the revised 1983 edition and The Underachieving School.

For teachers I recommend How Children Fail, Freedom and Beyond and What Do I Do Monday? For anyone interested in education theory and practice, Instead of Education: How to Help People Do Things Better, has long been a favorite of mine.

For parents considering homeschooling, or who are homeschooling and want to move into unschooling, Teach Your Own: The John Holt Book of Homeschooling.

For musicians, or anyone interested in Holt’s biography, Never Too Late is the book.

Holt’s collected letters, A Life Worth Living, is the best portrait of John Holt as a thinker, writer, and person. Ohio State Univ. Press published it in 1991 and it is now out of print, but it is a treasure-trove of great material and a unique guide to the changes in society from the forties to the eighties.

Has it been hard to often be in the shadow of John Holt?

For me, yes. I’ve been very conscious of how many people, in and out of the homeschooling movement, are aware of John’s work and get support from it and I’ve always tried to properly credit and promote John’s work without letting his readers and supporters down. Now, as I get some distance from Holt Associates/GWS, I’m beginning to feel less like a curator and more like a thinker in my own right.

I’m bringing some closure to this period of my life now, as I work with the Boston Public Library to move Holt’s archives from my house and some storage facilities to the library.


What kinds of questions does the media ask you about now? Are they still harping on socialization? Or have they found some new concern?

They still harp on socialization. As more people homeschool the media is doing more stories about it, but they aren’t much different stories than what was appearing in the eighties. There are probably more stories about teenage homeschoolers doing high school and college now than in previous years, but that makes sense as the movement grows and its children get older. The common questions and answers that Holt wrote for homeschooling in the original edition of TEACH YOUR OWN needed very little updating by me in 2003.

In general do you see the environment for homeschooling more positive or more negative than ten or twenty years ago? And why?

It is more positive because more people are homeschooling now than ever before, and their success inspires others.

What are some of the positive changes you've seen in homeschooling over the last twenty years?

1) Conventional purveyors of textbooks and school curricula view homeschooling as a serious market and that has made homeschooling more accessible to parents who don’t like to consider themselves as being “alternative” anything.

2) Homeschooling is now sometimes mentioned as an option for families by school officials, psychologists, and social workers.

3) Grown homeschoolers are now taking their place as parents, and some are deciding to homeschool their own children.

4) Increased awareness and support for local and state political initiatives to keep homeschooling as free and open as possible at a time when educationists are circling their wagons and demanding conformity from its adherents.

5) The growth of online, charter, and voucher schools have all made homeschooling more palatable to the general public. When I was growing up, you could only go to public or private school; if you didn’t fit somewhere in there, you were a dropout. Now, there are many niches to place your children in. But only homeschooling allows learning to be viewed as an embedded activity in the natural world of families and communities, rather than as a prdouct made by teaching children in a special place where nothing but learning is supposed to occur.

What are some of your worries about the future of homeschooling?

1) Homeschoolers’ desire to copy the public school in their home so their children “won’t be left behind if...”

2) How affluent parents use homeschooling as a means to distinguish their children from others who compete for admittance to prestige colleges. This could turn homeschooling into the same “education by zip code” problem we have in schools today, where some public schools are “more equal” than others.

3) The growth of cyberschools that, in order to get state funds, lobby government to change the definition of homeschooling to mean being enrolled in their type of school. People who want cyberschools should have them – I’m not opposed to distance learning – but there are many legislative dimensions to defining who is a homeschooler and what is homeschooling and I’d hate to see all those efforts, made over a period of years, get short-circuited by companies who see this as a way to get guaranteed income by putting electronic schools in people’s homes.

If you could start over, what would you do differently in the way you homeschooled your own children?

I’d spend less time worrying about what my relatives and school officials thought about homeschooling. They’ve all come around, in one form or another, to supporting us in our homeschooling.

You have written extensively about homeschooling, including a few books. If someone wanted start reading your writings, where on the web would you suggest they start?

I’m working on as I type this, and it should be up and running by the end of May, 2006.

Again, thank you for making the time for the interview.

Update I: 5 May 2006
Pat and I had a slight miscommunication, and I've a few additions to the above interview.

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