Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Secrets of a Buccaneer-Scholar by James Marcus Bach

"A buccaneer scholar is anyone whose love of learning is not muzzled, yoked, or shackled by any institution or authority; whose mind is driven to wander and find its own voice and place in the world."

This is a deliciously dangerous book: delicious because it taps into the refreshing fountain of intellectual freedom and dangerous because it dares me to cut the moorings of the traditional educational system and launch out into uncharted waters.

Have you ever felt flawed because you could not corral your attention to a linear course of study? After reading this book, you will begin to see your mental wanderings in a new light. Capitalizing on the premise that "knowledge attracts knowledge," Bach pronounces those random and seemingly irrelevant nougats of learning desirable, enjoyable, and useful. Do you have 13 half-finished books on your nightstand? Do you read parts of them and then meander off on bunny trails somewhere else? No worries--give yourself permission to wander because somewhere along the way those disparate threads of knowledge will converge and connect.

Bach excels at analyzing the rhythm of his own unorthodox learning patterns, and in so doing he gives his readers the tools for wiggling free from constraining straight jackets of thought, such as: you must go to school to learn, it is imperative to get good grades, you must not daydream, you must be able to learn from a textbook, you must be able to pass standardized tests, blah blah ad nauseum.

No one can accuse Bach of inexperience as a buccaneer-scholar. From his youth he despised school and could not be cajoled into doing the "drudge work served with sanctimony." As an example, he loved physics--played with slide rules (remember those?) and calculated rocket trajectories for fun. Yet he earned only a 49% in the class. Why the "failure"? In his own words:

"The problem was the labs. (snip) A 'lab' was a set of instructions in a book and blanks to fill in. These were turned in to the teacher, so that he could check that the blanks were filled with the expected numbers. (snip) These labs were represented to us as "experiments," but there was no inquiry in them. They were just ritual for getting a grade. In practice, a few student performed the ritual to obtain the magic numbers; the rest copied the numbers into their own workbooks.

For me, the labs turned physics into a sham. I was told I would not pass the class unless I turned in my completed workbook. Instead, I turned in nothing. My workbook remained empty the whole year. I failed physics, but to this day I feel good that I took a stand for ethics in education."

At the tender age of 14, James moved out of his home and into a motel (!) He was not a runaway and his parents were not rejecting or neglecting him. They gave him a monthly allowance and kept in touch. His experience on his own reminds me of Ben Franklin's early years:

"I no longer felt angry all the time. I learned how to manage money. I discovered I could live for weeks eating only pancakes. Then for weeks more, I lived on spaghetti. One month I ran out of cash and couldn't afford food for three days. I ate white sugar to stave off the hunger (it just made me sick). I would not repeat that mistake."

I have to admit, his parents were gutsy. His father, the author of the book Jonathan Livingston Seagull, provided a lifeline of support and maintained a strong long-distance influence via the telephone. It was he who finally encouraged James to "quit school and take care of your own education."

That he did. James holds no formal degrees, yet he is an expert in the field of computer software testing. His list of accomplishments -- from Apple Computers to Silicon Valley and many places in between--is truly remarkable.

I loved this guy's honesty, integrity, and gutsy passion for learning. I was a typical "good girl" on my journey through schooling, but have entered into the world of intellectual freedom and learning outside of the box as an adult. Much of this has been learned as I've had the opportunity to shepherd my four children through 13 years of homeschooling (and still at least 7 years more to go!) As he shared his life as an autodidact, I could relate so some of the ways that he has learned and I certainly share his enthusiasm for the subject.

Our early years of homeschooling provided structure and a certain level of discipline and routine. But I'm sensing a shift in my approach as the wind changes during the teen years. I covet "real" learning opportunities for my children and have noted that when those opportunities present themselves the fruit far exceeds any contrived lessons I might assign for them. A partial list of their experience would include:

  • Planning a retreat for other teens
  • Serving as a photographer at a wedding
  • Teaching guitar lessons
  • Choosing their own books for homeschool
  • Recording an original CD of instrumental music
  • Watching every single episode of Star Trek and picking apart the philosophy
  • Traveling to Israel
  • Decorating their own bedrooms

When I take my hands off and risk losing control, I gain influence. I become a valued coach who can enjoy the journey with them. I think one of the most common weaknesses of homeschool Moms is the desire to control. Let's face it, we enjoy charting their course! It's been great
choosing books and planning field trips. But at a certain point we must take the risk and relinquish that control.

It is amazing what young people are capable of doing. My 10 year old daughter recently painted her own bedroom--walls and woodwork--without a speck of help from me. She did a perfect job.

Guess what? I NEVER would have released my older kids to do that when they were ten! This is just an example of how I've changed and relaxed my grip. Maybe I could call myself at this juncture a buccaneer-unschooler? I like the ring of that!

James Marcus Bach has a website, including a learning video here.


Olive Tree Guitar Ensemble said...

hi, it's a very great blog.
I could tell how much efforts you've taken on it.
Keep doing!

James Marcus Bach said...

Thank you for your kinds words. I'm happy and grateful that you found my book worthwhile. Thank you.

Originally, I thought it would be read mostly by men in their 20's. Since it was published, I discovered there's a rather vibrant homeschooling and unschooling community out there.

I even got an email from a 7 year-old math enthusiast.