An Interview with James Marcus Bach - Helen Hegener
James Marcus Bach is a radical unschooler. A high school dropout who coined the term 'buccaneer-scholar,' James is an internationally recognized expert in the field of computer software testing, and has taught critical thinking and software testing around the world at places such as the Los Alamos and Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. A direct descendant of Johann Sebastian Bach, and the son of author Richard Bach, whose bestselling books include Stranger to the Ground, Jonathan Livingston Seagull, Illusions, and many others, James dropped out of high school at the age of sixteen to pursue his own interests, a move which has obviously served him well...
Helen: I'd like to start out with a little about your family. In the acknowledgements for your book, Secrets of a Buccaneer-Scholar, you noted that your son Oliver "surpassed me by dropping out of seventh grade." Can you share a little about his leaving school?
James: Oliver went to Mountain Laurel Montessori school, in Virginia, until the end of sixth grade. It's an excellent school, but Oliver was tired of it, and not happy in that final year. We asked him if he'd rather stay home, and he said yes. That was that. We simply filed the appropriate papers to keep the government off our backs.
At first I flirted with the idea of running him through a semi-structured homeschool study program, but that was quickly out the window. What fits us better is radical unschooling. By this I mean that we treat our son like an ordinary adult housemate, except that we pay his room and board. We simply live and support him until he's ready to support himself.
He reports that he is satisfied with this arrangement. I'm satisfied, too. It's a low stress, friendly living situation.
Helen: You were the youngest engineering manager at Apple Computer before your 21st birthday. Would you tell our readers a little about yourself, your childhood, and how you got interested in the field of computer software?
James: Yeah, that's about three chapters of the book, right there. Here's a short version:
I never liked homework, and once I started getting a lot of it, I reached a point where I just refused to do any more. I realized that no one could force me to do it, and I learned to ignore the haranguing of the teachers. (Also, I was a pretty combative young man. I got into a lot of schoolyard fights and was generally angry most of the time.) By the time I was 14, my mom and step-father had had enough and they sent me to live by myself in a cheap motel room, nearby. Oh, that was heaven. I'm serious. It was perfect for me. Dad sent me child-support and I lived on that.
Around the same time, Dad sent me a computer. I became obsessed with it. I pulled regular all-nighters to learn how to program it. As a result I missed a lot of school. Meanwhile, now that I was on my own, I had regular phone calls with Dad, a man with an amazing ability to cheer me up. So, from 14 to 16, I was living under my own authority, getting to know my father, but still going to school. I skipped classes a lot, but I didn't know what else to do but keep showing up, most of the time, to drift among the other students.
At 16, I quit. I went to live in a rented room in Fairfield, Iowa, where my older brother got me a job at a computer store. There I met a customer who offered me a job as a video game programmer. I worked in his living room, and later his garage, writing games for his company. A few years of that prepared me to be hired at Apple.
My educational background is Brady Bunch and Gilligan's Island. I watched a huge amount of television and read a lot of science fiction and fantasy novels. I started lots of things I never finished. I purchased books I didn't read. I daydreamed. I brooded. I wasted time in lots of ways. I also loved arguing, and learned a lot about logic from arguing. I honed my skills in early online bulletin board services, before the invention of the web. This aimlessness would become important later on, when I was introduced to general systems thinking, which is all about the underlying patterns that connect apparently different things.
My Apple experience helped launch me on a career of questioning things that most people don't question. That led me to study thinking and learning, and ironically, to become a teacher. I help people discover, appreciate, and develop their own rhythms of thinking.
Helen: Please explain a bit about your buccaneer-scholar approach to education.
James: The historical buccaneers were multi-skilled opportunists who rejected authority and formed their own pragmatic and liberated society. When I first began to study them, I was struck by how their attitudes and exploits were a close metaphor for my approach to plundering knowledge and rejecting authority in my own education.
Besides the general attitude, the buccaneers sailed ships; I "sail" my mind. I can't drive it like a car. For better and worse, my mind operates on passion, not self-discipline. I'm not arguing that this is the best way to live, but intellectual buccaneering is one interesting and vital way to live. For some of us, it's a perfect fit. If you're distractible and argumentative; if you love puzzles and challenges; if you seek your own idea of the truth, rather than copying from whatever the authorities tell you, then you might be a buccaneer, too.
Helen: In your book you outline the key elements of your buccaneering method of self-education with the delightful acronym SACKED SCOWS: Scouting Obsessively, Authentic Problems, Cognitive Savvy, Knowledge Attracts Knowledge, Experimentation, Disposable Time, Stories, Contrasting Ideas, Other Minds, Words and Pictures, and Systems Thinking. It's an interesting list of concepts. Can you talk about how they might apply to unschooling kids?
James: Sure. These eleven elements are not an approach that I 'follow.' They are eleven elements that describe what I have naturally done and naturally developed over time. They describe my own pattern of unschooling. I offer them because they might resonate with other learners, including unschooled children, or adults. They might help you bring your own learning elements into sharper focus.
Notice there is no "buckle down and study hard" type of advice here. You will automatically study hard if your heart discovers something worth studying (that's what I call an authentic problem, as opposed to fake problems made up to satisfy some teacher whom you don't care about). Unschoolers have disposable time (that's time they can afford to "waste"). Unschoolers are free to experiment. Unschoolers don't necessarily see the world in terms of narrow and disconnected subjects, but rather as a connected whole (that's knowledge attracts knowledge and systems thinking).
Helen: When did you first learn about unschooling, and how did the term 'radical unschooling' enter your vocabulary?
James: Lenore and I discovered unschooling shortly after we began to homeschool Oliver, three years ago. Like many easy-going parents, we didn't like the feeling of being martinets. I wanted to throw all that structure out, but I worried that my son would languish in an unhappy malaise. While looking for books about homeschooling that might shed light on this, we discovered a book on unschooling. I don't remember which book it was, but the amazing thing was that it seemed to contain no content. That is: no program or plan. I got the impression that unschooling was permanent summer vacation. Somehow that emboldened me to follow my instincts and let go.
I had wanted Oliver to think like me and be like me, but now I've renounced that desire. Oliver will do as he wishes. We will support him in developing into whatever sort of man he wants to be. Of course we have feelings and hopes and we share these with him, in a playful way.
Radical unschooling entered my vocabulary in July, when I discovered the radical unschooling forum. I looked at the definition and some essays on radical unschooling and they are a good fit for what we do: we treat Oliver as a sovereign and trustworthy individual in all aspects of life, not just education.
The only thing that bugs me about some people in the radical unschooling community is a sort of fear about words. It seems that some folks are terrified of just saying what they feel and what they want to their kids-- because they are worried about pressuring them. I heard one woman claim that even saying "be careful" to a child was somehow disempowering. I fear that some radical unschoolers want to set up an orthodoxy of correct speech and behavior vs. incorrect. I reject that. If radical unschooling means anything, it has to mean that we abandon the very notion of "one right way" to live. Otherwise it's not very radically "un" anything.
I certainly don't want to live in an artificial world of prescribed sugary phrases and forbidden words. I don't accept any authority that so prescribes. I think we can sincerely respect our children's ideas, desires, etc. without hiding our own feelings or speaking in stilted ways.
If I say something that confuses or intimidates my son, that is just part of life and learning. I don't seek to intimidate him on purpose to "toughen him up," it's just something that naturally emerges from time to time. So, we work through that, and he grows and I grow.
Helen: You were a featured speaker at the recent Rethinking Education conference. Did that experience change your ideas about the homeschool community and/or unschoolers?
James: It's made me bolder about unschooling. I was inspired to hear from other dads about their friendly and accomplished children who had never been to school. I suppose it's a hackneyed thing to say, but I did feel validated.
Helen: Earlier in this interview, you mentioned the concept of general systems thinking, or the idea that there are underlying patterns which connect things we might not otherwise associate with each other, which could easily be a way of explaining unschooling...
James: We can always find ways to separate, divide, make distinctions. That is often important (it's the "contrasting ideas" part of my own learning practice). What is also useful and important is to find commonalities, consistencies, and unifying patterns, because then we can use our knowledge of one kind of thing to gain insight into what is apparently another kind of thing.
If human minds were merely disparate parts, then it would be possible to operate on one of our parts without affecting the others. But that is not our experience. When I deal with my son I can't tell him to turn off his moral judgment while I use threats to scare him into learning what I wish him to learn. He's learning about morality and ethics continuously as he experiences the world around him. "Do what I say but not as I do" and "do what I say and not what makes sense to you" and "Learn not as I learned-- from experiment and experience-- but only as you are instructed" are not workable principles for raising kids in a free society.
Helen: In response to an earlier question you described what you do as "helping people discover, appreciate, and develop their own rhythms of thinking," and I was struck by that term, 'rhythms of thinking.' Can you talk about that a little?
James: You can find a lot of this in John Medina's book, Brain Rules, which is essentially a book about the rhythms of thinking. Another great example is Maria Montessori's concept of the "sensitive period." In her model of learning, neurological development is related to cravings for certain kinds of experiences. A sensitive period is an onset of concentration toward a particular kind of thinking--maybe reading or building something or solving some kind of puzzle. Montessori felt that children who were prevented from indulging fully in the activity associated with a sensitive period would miss an opportunity for healthy brain growth.
At the root of this idea, our thinking minds are not just TV sets that passively wait while our conscious wills decide what to watch. They have their own needs and dynamics. Work against those, and the mind suffers. In my case, it will shut down pretty hard and the result is a fairly severe depression.
Helen: You said earlier unschoolers have disposable time; time they can afford to waste. Isn't that sacrilegious in our go-go society?
James: Yes. But of course "go go society" is not my religion, so I don't mind committing that sacrilege. Hey, all I'm talking about is what is required in order for knowledge workers to do great work. It requires exploration. It requires time to brood and muse. If you don't want or need to live by ideas, then you can feel free to schedule every second of your life.
Helen: On your publisher's website is a delightful example of your buccaneer-scholar attitude: My life in 8 words: "I fight bullies. I question boundaries. Eight words? Nine!!" I think many radical unschoolers can relate to that idea, but how can one find the balance point between that and the need to 'go along to get along?' Does the attitude of a buccaneer ever just create problems you can't surmount?
James: Yes, it's a lot of trouble being a buccaneer. I sometimes wish I could get along and go along better. I wish I had two personality buttons: "Maximize Insight" and "Maximize Care For Others." The insight button would put me into full outrageous buccaneer mode, scattering sacred cows in search of better ways of thinking. The care button would make me shrug and enjoy the people around me, grooming and feeding those same sacred cows.
There are some people who know how to charm me so that I spontaneously go into maximum care mode. My wife is one. But I don't know how to reconcile caring with ruthless questioning.
Helen: I've read that you're currently learning to sail and learning to fly, and I think there are hard and fast rules which apply in both disciplines. Are you finding ways to apply radical unschooling buccaneer-scholar attitudes to learning those lessons?
James: There are no hard and fast rules in sailing and flying, other than those of physics, and to some extent, the law. Sometimes, people make up rules that they believe are related to physics and the law, but aren't. A buccaneering way of learning is to question the source of the rules we are presented with. Buccaneers want to understand why things work the way they do. That's an important part of mastery.
For instance, on the Husky A1-B float plane that I fly, there's a rule that I must taxi on water at an engine speed of less than 1000 RPM. It's my dad's plane, so I'm happy to follow his rule. But I'm still going to challenge it. When I challenged it, his answer was that at higher engine speeds, water will be sucked into the engine. Oh, that's not good for the engine. When I later read another reason for going slow on the water (water droplets damage the propeller), Dad replied "That doesn't apply to us, because our prop has a stainless steel leading edge."
My father, teaching me to fly, wants me to question each rule. Often we go up and test our understanding of the rules by intentionally breaking them to see what will happen.
Helen: Your book, Secrets of a Buccaneer-Scholar, has been very well-received. Do you have plans for a sequel? Will there be a movie?
James: What I would like is to do a PBS special-- something like James Burke did with Connections. I want to show how successful people all over the world have designed their own educational strategies, and that the world of schooling, although useful, has given us a very narrow view of how learning works and what thinkers need to do to prepare to meet the world.
I do have a sequel in mind, too. I want to write something called The Buccaneer-Scholar Field Book, which includes examples and stories from other people about how intellectual buccaneering works. I'll write it more quickly or less quickly depending on how the first book sells.
Helen: You've spoken and written about your father's groundbreaking book, Jonathan Livingston Seagull, having a profound impact on your life. I know many of our readers are familiar with the book. Would you tell us a little about how that amazing book and that brilliant writer have affected your life, and what role - if any - they might have played in your decision to become a buccaneer-scholar?
James: My father became famous at the same time he left the family. That was when I was four. So I never knew him much, growing up, but what I did know was what people said about him. In third grade, someone asked me what it was like having Richard Bach for a dad. I said it was like having the god Apollo for a father in ancient Greece: you never see him, lots of other people talk about him, and you hope it means you will grow up with superpowers or something.
My father's role in life seems to be to call me to adventure. He convinced me to leave high school. Once, he convinced me to sell everything and travel around the world. I almost did, but just before leaving town I met and married my wife Lenore instead. I wrote my book because of Dad, while staying in a cabin on his property. He's advised and supported me in many ways. That's because he lives the ideas of Jonathan Livingston Seagull. And while writing my book, it dawned on me that the plot of JLS is also kind of the plot of my life and career.
Helen: I loved Jonathan Livingston Seagull, but the book which really struck home for me personally, and again, for many of our readers, was Illusions: The Adventures of a Reluctant Messiah. Many unschoolers have quotes from it on their blogs and websites. Would you mind talking about that book, and maybe even your father's premise that our true nature is not bound by time or space?
James: Dad and I have had many conversations about this. Actually, reading Illusions triggered the beginning of my first real relationship with him. I was 11, at the time, and after I read the book, I wrote a long melodramatic letter about how I wanted to get to know him. He wrote a warm letter back, and soon invited me to come visit him. That was the start of a long series of philosophical conversations that introduced me to his way of thinking.
When I was young I used the visualization methods described in Illusions, and looked for meaning behind coincidences. I did that very purposefully. Now I think they are a deep part of how I see the world; they aren't as conscious. But I think you can see echoes of Illusions in my book. Everywhere I've tried to reverse some bit of conventional wisdom or pointed out the value in otherwise apparently valueless things we do, I'm trying to highlight a different sort of logic that trusts in an underlying unconscious purpose to our lives.
The last line of Illusions is "everything in this book may be wrong."
That is the basis for everything I teach.
I'm a different kind of personality than my father is. I'm an extrovert warrior, where he's more an introvert passivist. I'm a skeptic (the original kind, meaning that I live without certainty), whereas he holds certain beliefs as absolutely true.
We connect in our common feeling that the human spirit is wonderful and creative, and in our love of deep conversation.
© 2009, Helen Hegener