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An Interview With Dr. Oliver DeMille

by Mary Leppert

Dr. Oliver DeMille is the founder and President of George Wythe College, Cedar City, UT. It is the only college in the country offering a course in statesmanship. His workshops and speeches have been primary features of our past two homeschool conferences in Los Angeles and his enlightened analysis of teaching through mentors and classics has graced the recent past issues of The Link.We interviewed the very busy Dr. DeMille in order to learn his thoughts and applications regarding various specific matters in homeschooling.

Mary Leppert: How did you start George Wythe College?

Oliver DeMille: I started the idea of George Wythe College as a student. I was looking for graduate programs and had a difficult time finding one that used classics and mentors. What I really wanted to do was study the founding fathers, and I wanted to study the things they had studied the way they had studied them. I went to a lot of different schools, visited, looked through their materials, but couldnít find a program that did what I wanted it to —that did it like the founders. But finally, I did find a program that would allow me to do my own proposal.

My proposal to them was that I would study this out and put together, restructure, a design of the way the founders did it. For my masters and my doctoral work I did some intensive research in, mainly Jefferson, but also Madison, Washington and Adams, to compare —along with a few other founders. In so doing, my purpose was to research their educational methods, the design, the way they did it. As I was finishing up my doctoral program, we decided to do something with this, to actually apply it, to set up a program that would implement those ideas. So we founded George Wythe College in 1991 and have been improving it since.

ML: How many students do you have there?

OD: We have 65 students on campus and a couple of hundred correspondent —distance students.

ML: Can you elaborate on what you mean when you say, "using mentorship;" what goes on in that context?

OD: Basically, itís a dialogue between somebody who is more experienced, more advanced in the material than the student. The mentor takes the student through the material and helps him/her discover; the student has to do the discovering, but the mentor helps. What it comes down to is a dialogue. Itís not so much assignment as it is the two working together, making plans together and then working them out, so there is a constant dialogue going on there. If you look in history, youíll find that the great leaders had mentors, someone they dialogued with about great ideas.

ML: Can you give me an example, for instance in a history class, what would go on?

OD: At George Wythe College, the focus in history is biography. In our core classes, which cover a lot of different fields —whether itís science or whatever —thereís a lot of history because anytime you are studying classics or great people, one of the first things you do is find out where they lived, the time period, what was the culture and the society they were dealing with as they were making choices and doing things that led to their great work. So, there is a lot of history outside of "history class." Everything is tied in together.

One of the things that you get from a classical approach, from studying the classics, is that there really arenít artificial walls between history, science, government, english and whatever else. They are all tied into history and they are all a part of history, and they are all tied into the language that you are studying them in. In a specific history class, we focus more on biography. The students take one individual, say Napoleon, or Genghis Khan, or Thomas Jefferson, or Abigail Adams and everyone studies the same person.

They read different biographies, letters, journals, etc.

ML: How does mentorship apply then, once they read the assignment?

OD: The mentor is simply one who is taking part, involved in the discussion, involved in the class interchange. Itís not like you have a teacher up front who says, "Okay, youíve read your textbook and now we are going to talk about Abigail Adamsí childhood." Itís something like sitting around a table with a group of 5-15 people and the mentor is working in a tutorship role at that point. Mentors can be counselors, tutors, teachers.

ML: Itís mostly just being a leader then?

OD: Yes, it really is. But more, itís taking a certain individual under your wing and taking a holistic approach to his or her overall education to help him accomplish what he wants to.

ML: How do you see that moving into homeschooling?

OD: Itís kind of automatic when you do homeschooling —whether you intend to or not. A good parent is automatically a mentor in most things in a childís life. That is the relationship that the parent has. For them to add academics to it is a natural. Even with someone who goes to public school or private school or is away at college, the parent should still be involved in their education as a mentor. I often say that homeschooling is not as much where you are seated (what building, physically) as the fact that your parents are very much involved.

Iíve had students in college who were ready for college level work and took one course and they were 14, 15, homeschooled, so to speak, but they came and took a course in history, and were taking another correspondence course from another university. The particular student Iím thinking of —there were more than one —but his name was Casey. He was also taking shop, a typing class and playing baseball at the local high school; and he was doing math and science at home. His parents were mentoring him in all those areas and they would drop him off and pick him up from class, come in and meet with me and talk about the class and talk to him at length. He did very well, in part because they were involved. His parents bought an extra set of the books he was taking through the classes with me. They read them all and discussed them with him individually. Mentorship was taking place there, even though it wasnít your typical homeschool. They were simply saying "Where can he learn science best, where can he learn math best and where can he learn typing best?" and they took him to a typing class —thatís mentorship!

ML: So, itís just guidance then?

OD: Yes, it is guidance.

ML: And do you think that society has gotten away from that?

OD: Yes. Itís now the conveyor-belt model. I think itís a matter of business: Itís not economical to have a mentor for every four or five students. You start giving a teacher a classroom of 30 and expect him/her to mentor —hey, thereís a lot of good teachers out there, who do mentor students, but they donít mentor all 30 of them, itís practically impossible. Even the very, very, best teachers in the conveyor-belt school system are lucky if they have four or five students throughout their careers that they can really say, "This person became a protégé and I really helped him become great." Itís just hard to do it that way. Homeschooling is a natural, whether you have one child or four or five you are going to mentor, thatís your whole purpose as a parent. There is a lot of emotional stock in that and itís something you value. Your whole purpose is to help your child become the protégé and the great person that he can become; to develop in potential. It is a natural for homeschoolers.

ML: What do you think about the concept of unschooling?

OD: Iím understanding by the definition of unschooling the idea that you are not pushing, you are letting them choose what they want to learn, you are letting the student learn as she goes, is that right?

Holtís idea, "How Children Fail," "How Children Learn," thatís his basic philosophy. Heís sitting there with a student who is reading, and the student is trying to figure out the reading, and Holt is just giving attention and the student is struggling with a word and Holt letís him go. The student makes a mistake and Holt doesnít say anything. He lets him go, thatís fine, and over time the student learns to read. Holt is there to help, if the student asks him for help, but he doesnít intervene in it. Mentoring totally fits into that.

ML: What about the type of unschooling family that believes that if the kid never wants to learn to read really well or write paragraphs really well, that we should not force him/her to do it, ever. What do you think about that?

OD: My personal opinion is, I think thatís fine.

ML: So what if a child was 16 and he couldnít write a paragraph or do math?

OD: It would be because he chose not to.

ML: And that would be okay?

OD: I donít have a problem with that. Let me tell you, I donít think that that would happen in a setting where good mentoring is taking place. But, if it did happen in a setting where good mentoring was taking place, it would be because both the child and the mentor determined that it was, in fact, the best thing for the child.

Now, I have a hard time, in our society, picturing a mentor and a child coming to that conclusion, but who am I to say what is right for someone elseís child? I am not sure that such could not ever be the case. I donít think that would be the case in my family, because my children would have to talk up a storm to convince me. I would not prescribe for somebody else that that would be a problem if good mentoring were taking place.

For example, people often ask "What about the socialization aspect?" for homeschooling. My experience with socialization has been that children tend to be socialized by the family they live in. Most of the kids who people point to as homeschoolers and say, "Well, they were just backward." I say, look at the parents. Probably the parents themselves are not particularly outgoing, interested in being involved in a big social thing and you assume that a child going to public school would somehow leapfrog that and have no social challenges —that is totally ridiculous. The reality is that if you took those same kids, with the same parents, into a public school, they would be the ones that would be picked on; they would be the ones that would be socially behind in the school, not because they are not in public school and so they are socially behind, but because in their family social skill is neither modeled nor valued. Now, my point with homeschooling is: Isnít the same thing true? In an environment where reading, writing and doing those kinds of things are not modeled or valued, thatís where you would have someone in unschooling who would just choose not to. But I have a hard time thinking that itís even probable that a student, growing up in family where mom and dad model reading, working with math, studying —they model this and they value this —that a student given total freedom isnít going to pick up on that modeling.

One of the things you find in any work of child psychology, any study of child development is that they model things and they go with what the values are. If you live in a society or in a culture where reading, writing and math are neither modeled nor valued, then maybe they donít have that much value. Thatís not going to be in our society. But if there is such a family, why are they homeschooling? Homeschooling would not be of value to them and it would not be something they model. I think that if you model something you truly value it and model it for your children, you can give them total freedom and 99% of the kids are going to choose to follow through with your modeling. The other 1% are either going to have some sort of a handicap or some sort of a problem that is holding them back and they may need special attention, in which case, homeschool is great. I think that very few students or children would choose to say "this isnít important for me," about learning in a family who models these values. Now, I know that that does happen sometimes and if it does, then there may need to be some more teaching or strong promotion of "these are our values" and some discussion.

ML: When you say that you do not think that a family like that would want to homeschool, what about the type of family that would want to homeschool because they want to pull their kid out of that?

OD: Itís reactionary —"Weíre not doing it to homeschool, weíre doing it because we want to get them out of the other environment."

ML: When you say "homeschool," you are talking about "school at home," right? Because there are a lot of people who homeschool because they just donít want their kids in school, so they call it homeschooling because their kids donít go off every day.

OD: If nothing is done, then whatís being done or whatís being modeled could be very negative for the child. Itís still the parentís role to decide. There are two perspectives: Legal and educational. If you look at it from a legal or governmental perspective, you could say, "Protect that parentís right and if those parents and those kids all want to be illiterate idiots, thatís their choice." From an educational perspective, obviously, the negative modeling is not the way to do it.

Itís not the ideal, my big thing for homeschoolers is, "Letís improve the quality of homeschooling, letís not make it reactionary." When I am out speaking, my whole message is: Letís not buy into the mediocrity or the reactionary mode of saying, "Well, weíre going to go against something." Letís not go against something, letís be for something, for a superb education.

ML: So your main focus for homeschooling would be to have homeschooling for excellence?

OD: I do think there can be other reasons. There can be social reasons, there can be reasons of belief, but none of those are an excuse for mediocrity or a poor education. If you are going to take responsibility for the education of your children —and everybody should, regardless of whether they go to school or not —then follow through on it, make it happen. If you send your kids to public school, then get in there and get involved in the PTA and know the teacher personally and go to those meetings every month and be involved and help your kid with his homework every night. And if you are going to homeschool, then you take up all the slack that someone else would have and make it excellent.

ML: Right, right. Your kids are under the age of 7, right?

OD: My oldest is eight years old.

ML: So, what is your idea of a curriculum for homeschooling? What would you do exactly? I know you say, Ďread the classics, read the classics,í but can you give me an idea of what you are going to do for your own kids?

OD: Weíre already doing it with our own kids. We started when they were very small. We started reading to them. One of the things we use is E.D. Hirschís series, the Cultural Literacy Guide. We are in the 4th Grade with our oldest son. He is 8 years old working with 4th grade reading, math and so forth. And weíve got one in the 3rd. She is younger and she listens in on him all the time and is doing the 4th grade math.

ML: What kind of math do you do?

OD: Weíve kind of gone with what is in Hirsch, but then we have supplemented it with our own discussion. We teach the basics of math, but we do a lot of applicational things. We live on a farm, so we measure out how much feed goes to the chickens and how much goes to the other animals. Math is a big deal; we discuss it. And weíre doing the planting each year, so there are a lot of ways to teach math, where it ties in with science and real life; that is a positive way to do it. A farm is a great thing for homeschoolers, by the way.

ML: Do you think mentorship, in and of itself, is like a style, like unschooling, do you think it is its own particular thing?

OD: No, I donít. I think itís universal. I think if you find a program thatís working, it will have mentorship. It may or may not have classics, although if you look deep enough, youíll find that there is at least some great motivating concept behind it all that the people are using. If you find an organization, a homeschool, a private school, any school classroom —if you find a system that works, you will find at the root of it someone who is really taking his/her mentorship seriously —really being involved, caring and taking an interest.

ML: I have a question about the classics too. If we are always pointing children in the direction of reading other peopleís works over and over, will individuals ever grow out of that?

OD: I canít remember who said it, I think it was Goethe, maybe it was Mendel, Iím not sure. One of the greats that I read said, "If you want to be great in any field, itís a three-step process. Study the greatest master of that field, learn all the rules that he used in order to become great, learn those, master those and know them well and then, forget the rules." I think thatís really the truth, and Cicero said it even better, "To remain ignorant of what happened before you were born is to remain ever a child."

Let me summarize, what I mean is this: If you are trying to start over without the great ideas and the great knowledge, if you are trying to start over on your own, youíll learn new things, but how much better if you learn from the greatest ideas that humanity has ever come up with to this point and then you build on those?

ML: When you function from a certain naivete about certain things, it causes you to do things that you might not do if you read about all the protocols in certain areas.

OD: The key word is "always" and you donít focus always on that. You do focus enough on that, you donít ignore it. Human beings are extreme, our nature is extreme, we usually see things in terms of either "We study the classics or we donít." There is a process here, you study the classics, but not alone, you study the classics with mentors. And you donít just study the classics with mentors, but you consistently try to apply, in a practical way, the lessons you learn from the classics and mentors to your own life and the society as a whole. And by combining those three things together, you are constantly moving forward and doing good things and new things. You go back to the great artists and almost all of them got their inspiration from things that they saw from other artists or from the landscape. The greatest scientists are familiar with and know inside-and-out what other scientists came up with before them. So you only study the classics half of the time. The goal here is to be well-rounded, well-balanced; to be one who has a superb education and who has a plan and method of doing something about it. In my mind, the goal of education is to prepare us to be decent, effective and good human beings. And by "balance," I donít mean mediocre. Balance is greatness in a number of areas.

Copyright © 2006 Modern Media