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An Interview with Daniel Pink - Part Two

  • Amy Hollingsworth
  • Published Nov 22, 2002
An Interview with Daniel Pink - Part Two

I discovered Daniel Pink around the same time that most home-schooling parents did, last fall when Reason magazine published the cover story, "School's Out: Get Ready for the New Age of Individualized Education."

I considered the article one of the best apologetics of home schooling I had ever read. What was most surprising was that it wasn't written by someone inside the movement, but by an outsider looking in.


Months later, he was gracious enough to accept my invitation to speak at the Virginia Home Education Association (VHEA) Conference in Charlottesville, his first home schooling conference. We sat down while Dan ate his lunch in between signing books and toting his two young daughters around the conference. This is the second part of the interview.


Amy: What was your school experience like?


Dan: I was a very good student. I was an extremely good student. But what does that mean? That means that I would write down on the test what the teacher said the right answer was. That doesn't mean that I thought about it at all, that doesn't mean that I approached the subject creatively, that doesn't mean the subject matter actually passed through my skull once I left that classroom.


But I was able, for better or worse - probably in many cases, for worse - to figure out the rules of the system and play the rules of system. And the rules of the system were: Please authority figures, memorize stuff, regurgitate it on the test, don't do anything too risky or creative, and don't even ask yourself what is your passion, what moves you, just go along with the system, march in step, don't listen to your own drummer.


In many cases, kids didn't even know they had their own drummer. They didn't even get to that point where they had to decide between marching to their own beat or marching to someone else's.


Amy: There's no time for it. I used to think, "Don't do anything that you can't get credit for." I was that kind of student.


Dan: That's a very good point. In a way those kinds of students often have a harder time making the transition to working for themselves. Because so much of school, of that kind of authority-pleasing habits, prepares you for the traditional world of work - where the boss is the surrogate teacher, and your performance review is a surrogate report card.


You find some curious things out in the data on this about the people who are most successful working for themselves. They often have extremely low SAT scores, for instance - SAT being the paragon, the apotheosis of traditional left-brain thinking and authority-pleasing habits. But there's no correlation between your performance on your SAT and any performance in life.


Amy: Which plays right into your Thanksgiving Turkey Model of Education.


Dan: American education for a long, long time has had essentially what I call a Thanksgiving Turkey Model of Education, where you took kids, you cooked them in school for a certain amount of time, a few of them after 12 years of schooling, got an additional four-year basting at college, and then you served them up to employers.


At a certain point in American history that made sense because one of the rules of schools was to indoctrinate kids in the rules and habits of working for large organizations. But it is just a fundamentally wrong-headed way of dealing with a world where technologies and knowledge and organizational forms are changing and changing and changing.


Homeschoolers already know this. Anybody who works realizes that they need to keep learning and learning. And that simply what your degree is in or what you did in school is almost irrelevant to your ability to master the world of work.


Amy: And you address that in your book. You ask: If we [Americans] are so dumb, why are we so rich?


Dan: I think it's because what goes on in traditional school is not terribly, terribly important to the success of the economy. In many ways that's a scandalous thing to even think about, let alone to say. But if you look at the scores, the United States always pulls up the rear on these international rankings, and we always lead the parade when it comes to economic success and more important, innovation. And I think it's because kids learn to do great things outside of school.


Amy: In spite of school.


Dan: In spite of school, right. I mean the idea that you can train people to be great innovators and do imaginative things is ludicrous. What you have to do is let them loose.


Amy: You have said, "Homeschooling ... is a bit of a misnomer. Parents don't re-create the classroom in the living room any more than free agents re-create the cubicle in their basement offices." Some parents do re-create the classroom! Is that still free agency?


(Dan thinks about it.)


(Amy jokingly whispers, "The answer is no.")


Dan (complying): No.


Dan: Yes and no. I think that people should have the freedom to create the setting that's right for them. There are not many of them, but there are free agents who prefer to not work in their home and get an office somewhere and maybe even dress up. That's not consistent with my way of doing things, but if they want to do it, God bless 'em.


Amy: I would say most homeschoolers might start off that way [re-creating the classroom] - that's all they know - but generally they do work out of it.


Dan: One of the other things I think in both homeschooling and free agency, there isn't a single right way to do anything. You can't just buy a kit, open it up and build it, and everything will be cool. There is learning in the process itself. This is a journey that you're on with you and your family. And the journey itself is a learning experience. If you think you can just walk in this precooked, pre-made setting and everything will be fine, then you are missing the point.


Amy: What do you think about your first homeschooling conference so far?


Dan: Well, my first impression was driving here today and pulling into the parking lot and seeing several hundred cars, vans. I was wowed by that. I said to my wife, "Oh, my God," and then when I couldn't find a parking space, I knew something was up. It feels like being at a gathering of free agents in that there is creativity in the air.


I think there's less posing, less posturing, less hierarchy. You have people here who are smiling because they are pursuing what they want in their own lives. I love the idea of mixing grownups and kids. I think being exposed to a greater variety of people - including adults, including kids of different ages - it's healthier. It's also better preparation for the real world.


Amy: You write that kids (and adults) "lose the intrinsic motivation and pure joy derived from learning and working when somebody takes away their sense of autonomy and instead imposes some external system of reward and punishment." Can you elaborate?


Dan: You can figure this out through your own life experience, or you can figure it by going to scholars who have studied this. But there is now an enormous amount of research in the field of psychology about happiness. And one of the things that shows up among people who have a sense of well-being - it's not money, it's not prestige, it's not things.


It is -- are they doing something that they love? That's why I like this idea in psychology literature of intrinsic motivation: Are you motivated by trying to get some external reward - a grade, a promotion, a 780 on your SAT? Or are you motivated by what's in your heart and in your soul? Are you motivated by the pure joy and exhilaration and challenge of the experience?


Discovering what that is that gives you that sense of joy and exhilaration is essential. In some sense, that is what life is about. It's the journey to figure out who you are, what is your unique contribution, what makes you different from all these other people on the planet. And what's going to be your singular, unique contribution to this world?


And that too is a process of discovery. There are many people, unfortunately - it's a shame, it's sad - who haven't even begun taking the first step in that journey because in some sense they don't know they are allowed to do it.



(c) 2002 Amy Hollingsworth. Used with permission of the author.


Free Agent Nation is available at bookstores, or from Dan's website:



If you missed part one of the interview, click here.



Amy Hollingsworth has written extensively on home schooling and parenting issues for The American Partisan, Home Education Magazine, Reconciliation Press Online and numerous educational Web sites. Her article, "Behind the Mask: What the Phantom of the Opera Taught Us," was recently featured in the book Christian Unschooling. You can email Amy at