Sean Sullivan: Prism article

This is an article I wrote for Prism (a campus magazine) at the start of my second semester at Amherst College. It is a description of my experiences as a home-schooler adapting to college life.

By Sean Sullivan '97

I came to Amherst College last fall with a unique perspective on college: I had never before, even once in my life, attended a single class, written a single paper or received a single grade. I missed the entire formal education system, from first grade to 12th grade. I was what is called, in the popular language, "home-schooled" -- but even this does not quite capture the true nature of my unique education. Most home-schoolers follow a curriculum and try to reproduce, in the home, many of the structures and techniques of formal education. My education was completely different. I was given complete freedom to live as I wished to live.

I should begin by explaining why I was never sent to school. From the time I was born, my mother (who majored in sociology) paid close attention to everything in my environment, always questioning whether these things were desirable for a young child indiscriminately soaking up information and developing nearly irrevocable patterns of thought. She knew that cultural values and paradigms are imprinted early in life, at a level so deep that we are scarcely aware of their existence. She believed that serious problems in America -- violence, sexism, drugs, peer pressure, repression of free thought, chronic unhappiness -- are largely a result of this 'enculturation'. She wanted me to have a healthy psychology and a kind personality, so she decided to keep careful check on what I was exposed to until I had the maturity to make my own judgments and decisions (around age 10). I did go to a pre-school in Berkeley, but I was taken out because the routine playground games included mimicry of violent cartoons other kids saw on TV.

When I got to school age my parents visited all the schools in Berkeley, but they didn't like what they saw. I was ahead of my age level, and my parents wanted to find a school that would let me do things sometimes with older kids. Unfortunately, they all thought their function was to put me in a room with other kids of my precise age, even if that meant boring me to death and wasting time that I could have spent learning or having fun. And they were concerned about peer pressure -- my parents had been very careful at home to turn off the TV and control my environment, but it could all be undone by indiscriminate exposure to everything at school. So after some thought, they put two and two together: I was learning academics and developing a good character on my own. School could damage both these processes. So why, exactly, were they sending me to school? Because it was expected, everyone else did it. Since they were good Berkeley radicals, they decided to just not send me to school.

During my school years, my education bore no resemblance at all to a formal education. I was never given a curriculum, test or paper assignment -- I was just given freedom to do what I wanted, when I wanted, how I wanted. For me, "home schooling" was the same as life before school. All that mattered to my parents was that I was learning, somehow, and keeping well ahead of the education expected for my age. I read extensively, consuming books the way some people consume cake. I chose mostly science-oriented books written for adults; my favorite authors are Isaac Asimov, Lewis Thomas and Freeman Dyson.

In my early teens, when we moved to Cape Canaveral, I developed an active life outside the home. I spent much of my time in professional and scientific environments. This gave me a good "real world" background, and extensive experience dealing socially with adults much older than myself and more mature than my so-called "peers". Because I was free from any demands on my time, I had the opportunity to spend entire days at the Cape during shuttle countdowns and entire nights under the stars watching meteor showers. I often took long walks into the woods in the morning, and read or thought quietly among the pines and the palmettos. In short, my "home schooling" was neither at "home" nor "schooling".

People are often surprised that I chose to come to college. The truth is that I never seriously considered not having a formal higher education. My parents felt that college is a completely different experience from lower education, and always made it clear that the reasons for avoiding school do not apply to college. I cannot seriously compare 12 years of pre-collegiate school to four years of Amherst, and it would be quite unfair for problems of the former blind me to the benefits of the latter. My advocacy of home schooling is often seen as a rejection of formal education, but it is only a rejection of bad formal education. I have no objection to formal education per se, and tasting this style of learning diversifies my life experience.

Applying to college was an unusually thorny problem. I had no high school record whatsoever. The only quantitative data available was my scores on the SAT and Achievement Tests (I could take those tests without participating in the formal educational system). I called every school I was considering and asked their Admissions Office, how should I apply? I was amazed at the variety of responses this question produced. Some schools were very friendly. UC Berkeley said to just cross out the pages on high school. Cornell asked me why I called them about it, I should just send in an application. Other schools were very difficult. The University of Wisconsin wanted a xerox of the table of contents of every book I had read, so they could review the quality of my curriculum. Evergreen State was unable to even consider me, because the state of Washington has a statutory requirement for so many years of several subjects, and I had no years of anything.

At first I was frustrated with the bureaucratic problems at many schools, but I realized that I would inevitably conflict with the bureaucracy at these schools anyway. My self-directed study instilled a fierce self-motivation and independence, and my unique upbringing instilled a resolute willingness to question traditions and design my own solutions to old problems. In some environments these traits can be beneficial; in others, problematic. The way colleges handled home schooling served as a test for me on this issue. If they couldn't consider my application, I wouldn't be happy there anyway.

After deciding where I would apply, I visited the colleges. This decision would shape my life, and determine the quality of my next four years, so I wanted to make as well-informed a decision as possible. I came to Amherst last March, just before spring break. I sat around the first floor of James for awhile, and at dinner time I was smuggled into Valentine for (surprise!) pasta in Garden. I immediately sensed something different here. The students were happy, chipper, friendly, and something more that does not go into words. I felt like I really could fit in here.

After leaving Amherst I convinced myself that I had made too much out of a few chance encounters, the school couldn't possibly be that different. But then fate stepped in to underline its point, as it often does. I stopped at a 7-11 in South Carolina and saw some people who had this same kind of chipperness. I said to myself, see, here in rural South Carolina people are like this too, Amherst wasn't that different. Then their friends came back from the restroom -- wearing Amherst sweatshirts. They were Amherst students on spring break. If I could spot an Amherst student in a 7-11 a thousand miles away, the school had to have something really special. (This quality, which I still cannot put into words, is really here. I feel it every day.)

Coming back to Amherst last September was a truly strange experience. The start of freshman year is, of course, a disorienting time for everyone -- but imagine what it's like if you have never been in a classroom! The most ordinary things, like taking notes and making comments in class, were new experiences for me. After the first day or two, the mystique associated with the unknown passed and I started to see class for what it was, instead of what I imagined it to be. Within a week I settled in. Classes were much easier to become accustomed to than I had anticipated. I thought carefully about what I saw of formal education to try to see this new concept objectively. For a long time, my views followed a random walk -- there was no trend towards any kind of stable opinion on college. I had lots of pieces unsorted lying around the table, and new pieces were thrown in regularly.

Everything was new to me. For example, when I had my first paper assignment, I was bouncing around talking about how exciting this was -- the topic was just the kind of question I love to think about and ponder, and now I had a legitimate excuse. Needless to say, my dormmates were perplexed. They would have considered it slightly more normal to ask in Garden for a lightly fried weasel and a side order of fries. No one, ever, likes paper assignments.

After a couple of papers I started to understand why. Even the most glorious and intriguing of paper topics begins to lose its luster at three in the morning when one does not have the option of pondering and one must just write. Pondering is the fun part, but unfortunately there is too little time at Amherst for this vital part of the educational process. It is not so much the quantity of work as the inability to help schedule it oneself. When three classes give you paper assignments in the same week, on top of the regular workload, you can rest assured that none of the papers can receive the full concentration and immersion that they deserve and I want to give.

In fact, my biggest complaint about college has been the inability to ever think deeply about anything. Since coming here, I have never given any project the kind of full attention that was commonplace for me.

Before college, when I undertook some new project on my own, I would need two or three days to really become interested in, and able to fully concentrate on, my project. Then I would think about it from the time I awoke to the time I went to sleep. I ignored time completely and simply existed in relation to that which I was considering. My mind would become full of non-verbal interrelations that would vanish if I took my mind to other realms for even an hour or two. When I finished the project, after a few days or weeks, I would have ingrained a permanent understanding of the subject and a comprehension of what was really happening. I could never have reached such an understanding if this full concentration was broken by other projects, no matter how much time I spent.

At college my concentration is so constantly being broken that it never even has a chance to start to form. I cannot go from one class to another in ten minutes, adjust my mental mindset, and pull up the mental imagery that is so essential to understanding. Long-term memory cannot replace the short-term memory at this early stage in the process; it only works when the quantity of connections in short-term memory reaches a critical mass and the fundamental understanding is transferred to long-term memory. Mentally I feel like a person who tries to sleep, needs to sleep, but is always jabbed awake with a sharp stick just at the onset of REM. Formal education does not produce the kind of experience that I am used to, so most people do not know there is another way. And then, when there are a few hours to think freely, I am so exhausted that my mind simply shuts down and refuses to comprehend anything.

During Thanksgiving break I stayed in Stearns. The dorm became very quiet and I returned to a more natural mode of existence. I spent long hours immersed introspectively into thought about all that I had seen, without exhaustion from lack of sleep or interruption from class work. This was the kind of thought I had been missing, and I felt as refreshed afterwards as a person who has had REM sleep for the first time in weeks. That marked the point where I truly began to feel like a part of this community.

College is far more rigid than my previous education, but everyone else I know finds the reverse to be true. I wonder how people can survive the (often academically mediocre) 12 years of prison inflicted upon our youth. If I had been through it, how could I endure another four years? I wonder, but I can adapt to the rigidity because it is only four years, and the academic and social environment is nearly utopian. I am not opposed to formal education entirely, I just believe it is done too heavily, too long and too poorly. Four years of Amherst is perfect for me.

Although I am frequently too exhausted to believe it, I am enjoying this utopia. College is giving me very positive opportunities and experiences that I could not have had in any other setting. My professors have been excellent, and the material they present has been fascinating. They have directed me very efficiently and rapidly towards things I would have encountered alone only by chance. The old analogy of drinking from a fire hose has taken on a nearly literal meaning. And best of all, I have noticed many, many times that I have applied material learned in class to the real-life problems of forming opinions and making decisions.

The best part of college is the people. The students here are the most fascinating and wonderful group of people I have ever seen gathered in one place. Conversations about Life, the Universe and Everything often last until three in the morning, and these are shaping my life just as certainly as anything I have learned in a classroom. The friends I make here will probably be friends for a lifetime, and I am very thankful for what they have taught me thus far by the example of their lives. To be around such people was a major part of the reason why I decided to come to Amherst, and it has been even better than I could have imagined.

The main lesson I draw from my educational experience is that there are always alternatives to the traditional ways of life. Sometimes it is a good idea to take a step back, ask yourself where you want to go, and make your own path.

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