Friday, May 7, 2010

The Self-Education of Karl Hess

I listened to this podcast today about Karl Hess, a fascinating man with a fascinating life history. (You can get started learning about him at Wikipedia. )

In this podcast, at 2:20, the narrator talks about Hess' educational experiences under the influence of his mother, a dropout (note that this was not unusual at the time).

She did several things that I found interesting from the standpoint of helping a child move forward into developing a strong ability to self-educate. Supposedly she:

1. Began to refuse to answer his questions if she thought he could use resources to find out the answers on his own.

2. Showed him how to use the library, dictionary and other reference books, and also took him to government offices and showed him how to access public records. In other words, she guided him to resources.

3. Finally, and this was really cool, she wrote him notes so he could skip school anytime he wanted, as long as he went to the library or stayed home and read books which he then later discussed with her.

It's amazing to me that his mother had such a clear idea of self-education and when you look at Hess' life you can easily see that the man was a life-long learner, constantly taking in more information and then changing his life as he processed what it all meant to him.

That's educational freedom and one of the best gifts we can all give to our children.

(Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)


  1. I'm not so sure about any of these. Number two, okay, if his mother didn't drag him to the library and government offices unwillingly and "for his own good." Number three gives more options than most children have, but it's still manipulative. Number one, No. We wouldn't treat another adult that way -- refusing to answer their question if we thought they should be able figure it out themselves -- so why is it okay to treat a child that way?

    Did Hess ask for these options as a child, or did his mother impose them on him? The definition of self-education is that it's self-directed, not other directed. I guess it depends upon whether we believe children have a good sense of what they need to know. Hess' mother apparently gave him some free reign, so she thought he had some capability. Ultimately, though, it depends on whether we believe in ourselves and our own ability to seek out what WE need to know. If we don't believe in ourselves, we'll never believe in children.

  2. Excellent points Cheryl, thanks for expounding on them. I certainly wasn't saying his mother was perfect, for me this is just an interesting example about how we are evolving and learning. Although from your perspective living in today's world, you can't see that what she was doing was very ground-breaking, I bet it was pretty rare in the 1930s. I can't imagine that she had a lot of support back then for even the few things she managed to do to help him on his way.

  3. Thanks for this post, Debbie. A friend on Facebook pointed it out to me. I just added your RSS feeds to my Google Reader subscriptions.

    I finished reading Hess's autobiography, "Mostly on the Edge" in January 2010. I highly recommend it for anyone with a passion to work for increased civic liberty in this world.

    My recollection from the book is that Karl looked back on his mother's educational techniques rather fondly. Her approach seemed to be perfectly suited to his personality.

    He didn't care much for formal government schooling and devised a clever method to avoid running afoul of the truant officers.

    He enrolled in multiple public schools and then withdrew from them one by one, leaving each one thinking that he was attending school at one of the others.

    Bill Starr
    Columbus, Indiana
    Fri, 7 May 2010, 5:12 pm EDT

  4. In response to some of Cheryl's thoughts:
    I think what would have been truly deplorable is if the mother had cut Karl off from virtually any kind of stimulation (pictures, sounds, words and concepts, etc.)

    While what she did was certainly radical, not only for her time but since the beginning of public schooling, she believed (with reason)in the capacity of her son to guide his own studies.

    If the brain is the vessel of reason, then to some degree a child must be guided, simply because they are not born with neural pathways carved and developed. What Karl's mother did, I think, is quite astounding. She directed her son to the true source of authority, reason and knowledge.

  5. Hey Bill,
    I've had Hess' autobiography on my reading list for some time now so hopefully I'll get to it one day.

    Oh and nice to "meet" another fellow Hoosier interested in these sorts of topics. :)

  6. Likewise, Debbie.

    Folks interested in these topics seem kind of few and far between in the "real world".

    It's great to have opportunities like this for "virtual" networking.

  7. I have a big mouth and have a hard time not telling everything I know, but I'll definitely try some of the "directing to resources" techniques when my youngest daughter starts asking questions deeper than "But, Daddy, what about the moon?"