Throughout my childhood I attended (in order) a Montessori school, a small private school, an alternative classroom in a large public school, a traditional classroom in a large public school, a charter school with an emphasis on self-direction, two Sudbury Valley-esque schools, and a class-based homeschooling center. Some of these were just awful experiences, while others were wonderful. Blue Mountain School (BMS) was one of the Sudbury schools and it was also one of the more wonderful experiences I had as a child. As an adult I’ve come to summarize my educational experience as “unschooling”–the process of letting the child (me) direct their own learning. BMS was, for me, the first step on my educational journey.
Whenever someone’s “free time” suddenly increases there’s at the very least an impulse to spend all of it relaxing, playing, and socializing. In fact, most people have so little free time that they never move beyond these things. Every free moment goes towards decompressing. But I believe firmly that when someone gets enough free time (i.e. freedom) their needs for relaxation become fully met and they begin to yearn for something greater. At least, that’s what I saw in myself and many of my peers.
For me, BMS was a space where I could be truly free. Free to play for hours and hours and hours until I ceased craving it. Free to explore who I was without pressure to perform or conform. I left BMS in my mid-early teens because it had let me grow to know what I wanted in life: academics. That process had shown me that getting what I wanted was a matter of reaching out rather than having it handed to me.
In the years since then I taught myself algebra, geometry, calculus, linear algebra, differential equations, complex analysis, combinatorics, optimization, computer programming, complexity theory, automata theory, neural networks, control systems theory, statistics, and dozens of other subjects as far ranging as ecology, ethics, and economics. I’ve taken classes at the high school, college, and graduate levels, bought used textbooks with pocket money, and spend endless hours on the web and running simulations on my computer. This learning is, at its core, all self-directed; I don’t have any degrees and don’t really want them. It’s very, very tempting for me to say that it is only because I was free as a child that my passion for learning survived. Of course, not every child that goes to a school like BMS will turn out to be a nutjob academic like me, but that’s the point! Freedom means getting to grow into the person you chose to be, rather than find yourself as a round peg trying to fit through a square hole.
As a bit of a footnote, I will mention that I still value the many friendships that I cultivated at BMS over a decade ago. Those endless hours of play formed strong bonds. I suspect this was more a product of my age than of the environment per se, but I look back with gratitude for those years, nevertheless.
– Max Harms, unemployed nutjob academic, artificial intelligence researcher, sometimes homeschool mentor, and Blue Mountain alumnus