School's Out Forever

"Unschoolers" like Holly Furgason don't believe in public education. They don't even believe in teachers. They believe in the ability of their children to teach themselves. Will the law catch up with them?

In fact, when she really gets going on the public school system, she makes Holt seem positively moderate. Tossing out names like Thomas Malthus and Horace Mann, she sounds like a conspiracy theorist as she explains that rich people created institutions of compulsory education for the poor, not out of any sense of noblesse oblige but because they needed to prepare them for factory work. Public schools, she says, were designed to train people to go from place to place at the sound of a bell, not to educate an intelligent, free-thinking populace. "I'd no sooner let my kids go to school than I would let them swim in a vat of gasoline," she says.

So when Furgason got pregnant with her first child while she was studying at the University of Houston, she thought to herself, "How would I have wanted my life so I could have learned everything I wanted to learn?"


The Furgason kids don't have to do anything they don't want to do, but the girls like learning to make paper.
Deron Neblett
The Furgason kids don't have to do anything they don't want to do, but the girls like learning to make paper.
The Furgason kids don't have to do anything they don't want to do, but the girls like learning to make paper.
Deron Neblett
The Furgason kids don't have to do anything they don't want to do, but the girls like learning to make paper.

The learning taking place at the Furgason house is certainly subtle. The family makes frequent trips, almost always by bus, to the library, as well as to museums, bookstores, art galleries, the zoo, NASA and HITS Unicorn Theatre, where Furgason and all but her youngest child are performing in the musical Oliver! "I create a learning environment for me," says Furgason, "and it just kind of radiates out."

But they seem to spend the bulk of their time around the house, keeping in touch with friends via email, making cookies or their own Play-Doh in the kitchen or just plain playing in a backyard wonderland that includes chickens, an organic garden, a fallen tree, a 1942 Metro bus and a whole lot of open space. They talk a lot, too, about the play rehearsals, books, Pokémon, anything. No matter how inane the conversation, Furgason listens intently and takes her kids seriously. There is no shushing, even when they get a little loud with excitement.

Justin, the oldest at 15, is interested in medieval history, so he makes pieces of chain mail out of paper clips. It was not an assignment. In fact, his mother at first had no idea why he kept asking for her plastic-covered paper clips. Laboring quietly in his room, he would peel off the plastic and form them into round links with the help of a pair of pliers and a plastic chopstick. He hopes to sell his creations at the next Renaissance Festival.

Justin also hopes to be an engineer, but when asked if he has learned any algebra, he responds with his best Scooby Doo version of "I don't know." This may change, especially since Furgason herself became more interested in the subject after finding a book that treats math as a language, a medium she can better understand. Besides, Justin has come to many things a little late in life: He didn't read until he was 11, and happily he still hasn't learned the self-conscious coolness and eye-rolling angst of a teenager. Of course, Furgason isn't pushing anything. "If they never studied math, it would be fine with me," she says. "But the kids all want to learn."

Kate, 12, is the quiet perfectionist. She reads books from the American Girl series about young women in different historical time periods, and she writes and illustrates her own books with her ten-year-old sister and best friend, Courtney. She plans to start taking classes at Houston Community College when she turns 14 and then go to Yale to study drama and law. Furgason has no doubt she'll get in: "She's Yale material."

Courtney, the most outgoing of the brood, belts out musical theater in a low, earth-shattering voice at the slightest provocation. She reads books about birds, Pokémon and other creatures and wants to become a veterinarian. This, along with her siblings' ambitions, will require formal, structured training at some point, but Mom says that's okay as long as they choose it.

Six-year-old Abigail, who has the slightly slurred speech of a child who learned to talk by trying to keep up with her older siblings, wants to be a movie star and never leave home. The imaginative little girl scribbles faux cursive "stories" and gets upset when her mom mistakes a unicorn tale for one about a princess. She's not reading much more than three-letter words yet, which would make first grade difficult. But Furgason has faith. "My kids read, and I never really taught them," she says, "so it's gonna happen."

Out of sheer childhood necessity, Abigail is picking up arithmetic as she tries to determine whether the powers of her Pokémon cards beat those of Courtney's in battle. No such luck. "I'm dead, right?" she asks for confirmation. Abigail also eats leaves, which would seem to be a less than age-appropriate activity, until you realize that she and her mother have classified nearly every plant in the yard to determine their edibility.

The Furgason kids know a lot of interesting things, but it's obvious that there's a lot they don't know as well. Before a reporter can even get out of the car at their first meeting, Furgason makes it clear that her children are not to be quizzed or tested in any way. They don't know the capital of Idaho, she says, but does that really matter?

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