Rye Hewitt putting his pack basket, which he wove himself, to good use. Photo: Penny Hewitt

Horribly bored, Ben Hewitt dropped out of school at 16. Later, he earned a GED and got through two semesters of college. He writes and runs a small farm in Vermont with his wife. They’re unschooling their two boys, who are 12 and 9. Or, as they prefer to call it,  “self-directed, adult-facilitated life learning in the context of their own unique interests.”

. . . the moment we stopped compelling Fin to sit and draw or paint or write was the moment he began doing these things on his own. It was the moment he began carving staves of wood into beautiful bows and constructing complex toys from materials on hand: an excavator that not only rotated, but also featured an extendable boom; a popgun fashioned from copper pipe, shaved corks, and a whittled-down dowel; even a sawmill with a rotating wooden “blade.”

In other words, the moment we quit trying to teach our son anything was the moment he started really learning.

Both boys “learned to read and write with essentially zero instruction” when they were eight Hewitt writes. “They can add and subtract and multiply and divide.” He estimates Fin and Rye “spend no more than two hours per month sitting and studying the subjects, such as science and math, that are universal to mainstream education.” After farm chores and breakfast, the boys usually head for the woods.

Sometimes they grab fishing poles, uncover a few worms, and head to the stream, returning with their pockets full of fish, fiddlehead ferns, and morel mushrooms. Occasionally I join them, and these journeys are always marked by frequent stops, with one boy or the other dropping to his knees to examine some small finding, something I would have blithely, blindly stumbled over.

“Papa, look, wild onions.” And they’ll dig with their young fingers, loosing the little bulbs from the soft forest soil. Later, we’ll fry them in butter and eat them straight from the pan, still hot enough that we hold them on the tips of our tongues before swallowing.

Hewitt thinks his sons will grow up to be whatever they want to be.

About Joanne


  1. Writing is at least 4,000 years old. Since the invention of writing only a few have learned to write without any instruction. In Ancient Mesopotamia we know that most scribes (only a tiny proportion of the total population) were taught to write in scribal schools. The notion that most people would learn to write without some formal instruction is complete, total and utter nonsense.

  2. Stacy in NJ says:

    I homeschooled my sons for 9 years – from k through 8th grade. While we schooled in a fairly traditional way, we knew unschoolers, both what I would call successful and unsuccessful. For the most part, what distinguished the good ones from the bad was what they actually did with their time. Families that spent most of their time doing *something* purposeful (sports, outdoor activities, reading for enjoyment, building stuff, making art or music) cultivated capable kids. Those who depended on a lot of entertainment (tv, computers, whatever) were less so.

    It was actually pretty easy to see how the kids were going to turn out. Just look to the parents. If the parent spent most of their time working, reading, involved in hobbies or interests then the kid did likewise. If the parents spent a great deal of time in front of a tv or computer the kids did as well.

  3. Parents can be great teachers, if they know what they’re doing. Of course, the same holds true for public school teachers… which was the point of public schooling in the first place… adults passing on the knowledge that humanity has gathered over thousands of years. Now, I’m not so sure.

  4. Mark Roulo says:

    “They can add and subtract and multiply and divide.” He estimates Fin and Rye “spend no more than two hours per month sitting and studying the subjects, such as science and math, that are universal to mainstream education.”
    Hewitt thinks his sons will grow up to be whatever they want to be.

    In my mind this ties in well with Joanne’s Core courses can be gatekeepers question: “Does everyone need college algebra?” The answer for these kids is, “no”, because they aren’t going to grow up to want to be something that requires algebra.
    Whether the kids tracking themselves out of a STEM career at ages 9 to 12 is okay is a separate question (and one I don’t have an answer to).

  5. Crimson Wife says:

    FWIW, I have known “unschoolers” whose children did no formal math until middle school when they got interested in a career that would require attending college. The child then worked through a remedial basic math text that started with the 4 operations and went on from there. It actually WAS much more efficient for the child to spend a year at age 12 or 13 covering the material at an accelerated pace than 6 years in a normal elementary math program.

    That said, I wouldn’t do it with my own kids.

  6. Sure there are five year olds who could learn calculus on their own. But not most five year olds. Without formal instruction in things like reading, writing and arithmetic a large proportion of the population would not acquire these skills. It is a fantasy to believe that almost everybody would just pick them up without formal schooling.

  7. Roger Sweeny says:

    Alas, WITH formal instruction in things like reading, writing, and arithmetic, a large proportion of the population do not acquire these skills.

    • Yes that is certainly true. Even with formal instruction the level of competency in these skills varies enormously. It’s also true that with virtually no formal instruction some people would learn to read and write. In Ancient Egypt there are examples of grafitti written by common workmen (one example is an inscription likening their straw boss to a rat ). Grafittii as well as public inscriptions is common throughout the Ancient World. So many people could read and write to some extent. Perhaps 20 percent of the urban population had some degree of literacy in antiquity, a much smaller proportion of the entire population.

      But learning to read and write is very different from learning to speak. Virtually all people in all human cultures learn to speak their native language with no formal instruction . Even very retarded individuals generally acquire some ability to speak. Human speech probably evolved some 100,000 years ago and that has been long enough for the evolution of an enormous amount of neurolgical machinery to support verbal abilities.

      But writing is only about 6,000 years ago and that has not been long enough for the ability to learn it to have become universal. The neurological machinery for learning reading and writing will slowly develop throughout the world but it will be a long time before people learn it just like they learn to speak or walk. For now formal instructuon will increase the ability to read and write but differences between people in these skills will be much greater than differences in the ability to speak.

      By the way in my comment above I referred to writing as being 4,000 years old. I was thinking of the date 4000 BC for the earliest writing and I should have said that writing is 6,000 years old. Of course the introduction of writing varies wildly throughout the world. In the New World true writing ( as opposed to pictographs) dates from the about 500 BC.