This is an interview I did with Smatoos, a site that reviews educational technology for kids. 

SMATOOS: Could you give our readers a bit of background on why you decided to start homeschooling?

Penelope Trunk (PT): It was in the back of my mind even before I had kids, but my first kid was autistic and I realized I wasn’t the stay-at-home type so I put it on the back burner. But the more I wrote about careers the more it became increasingly clear that the only career problem people have is that they don’t know how to teach themselves and they don’t learn how to figure out what they like. That’s really the crux of every single career problem.

At the same time, I realized that school is a complete rip-off and totally stupid and not preparing people for anything. Then we moved to a farm and the schools near our farm are probably in the bottom 20% in terms of public school quality in the U.S. Then I started looking into homeschooling to see if I thought I could do it, and I was stunned to find out that all the big-picture school reformers are basically in agreement that the best thing for a kid is an individualized learning plan – we just can’t implement that in public schools.

Then it became more like – how could I keep my kids in school? There’s no evidence that says kids should be in school. It’s just a big babysitting service. So even though I really had no idea how I was going to homeschool, because I was the breadwinner in the family, I figured it’s just like breastfeeding – it’s totally inconvenient and an absurd burden on the mother, but it’s way better for the kid than bottle-feeding. To me it’s the same thing.

SMATOOS: Are there regulations and standards that you have to meet, legally?

PT: It varies state-by-state. Some states make it really difficult and some make it really easy. I do nothing, in my state [Wisconsin] I could lock my kids in the closet for 15 years and no one would check on me. But even in the really stringent states, it’s so easy for homeschool kids to learn curriculum – what the kids in school are learning. Because kids in school are learning about 25 minutes a day and the rest of the time they’re doing other stuff. It’s generally known, in the homeschool community, that if your kid does an hour of schoolwork a day they’ll be way ahead of the kids in their grade.

SMATOOS: How do you feel about college? Is it a worthwhile endeavor?

PT: I think you need a college degree to “play” in the world. If you don’t get into a top-ten college you should just go to a community college so you don’t spend any money. Every applicant to a top-ten school in the U.S. has high grades and SAT scores. So you need something that makes you stand out. So you’re much better off homeschooling, where you can take a whole year to study for the SAT and get a great score. Then they assume you would have gotten good grades, and you’ve got great extra-curriculars. So I really think that people are going to figure out that homeschooling gives you an enormous advantage in applying to those top-ten schools.

SMATOOS: We run articles on apps for kids with autism and special needs kids. Are there any apps or web programs you’ve found to be especially useful for your son with autism?

PT: Those apps are total BS. Smart kids don’t need to be taught how to read and kids with special needs don’t have to be taught how to read either. They’ll ask when they’re ready to learn. If you have an autistic kid who’s not asking to read they should not be taught how to read. My kid learned how to read using his Nintendo DS because if you want to beat the game you have to know how to read.

SMATOOS: Really?

PT: Yes. Any kid with even a close-to-normal IQ is going to ask how to read at some point and if the kid’s not asking, when it comes time to get a job they probably shouldn’t get a job that requires reading. They should work at McDonald’s. Because reading is fundamental to satiating our curiosity. There’s a wide range of research to show that you don’t need to teach kids how to read. New York public schools have been debating for decades, “Why do we even teach rich kids how to read?” We already know that if kids have two college-educated parents they don’t need to be taught how to read in school. The kids who do need to be taught how to read are those who have no stimulation at home. I bring this up just to say how insulting all those educational apps are, they’re totally stupid. World of Warcraft is a great educational app.

SMATOOS: OK, so you think these educational apps are really aimed at kids who are in a very traditional education system, they need to get the high grades, they need to get ahead, but that’s not something you think is important.

PT: I’m glad you brought this up. Let’s say we’re in a regular education system. In the U.S., to get into the top colleges you need a hook, not just top grades and SAT scores. So, for the parents who are following a traditional route and who are looking for their kids to follow traditional paths, their kid needs to be doing something outside of school that’s not schoolwork, because they need a hook – something that makes them stand out. So, the apps are especially damaging to the kids who are in traditional schools because they need that free time to do something that will help them get into college.

If you leave kids alone they’ll be on the computer 100% of the time, especially boys. So the issue is, instead of looking at what’s educational, look at what’s engaging. What we need to teach kids is how to use the computer to figure out what they love to do. Because the biggest problem adults have is they can’t find a job they like. The reason for this is that they’ve been taught to use the computer to get good grades instead of to use the computer to find out what they like to do. So technology is absolutely essential to raising a child because the child’s going to be working on the computer, unless they’re a carpenter or something. Technology is a tool for self-discovery – for starting the process of self-discovery so you can use it throughout your life and find out what kind of work it is you want to do.