Your Career is Not Your Story

I used to say “we’ve stopped talking to each other,” but I don’t think that’s quite right. I think it’s more accurate to say, “We’ve lost our common story,” or “We’re telling different stories.”

Look at the narrative which animates us in the body politic today. On the topic of COVID there are two competing stories. One in which the bad guys are the ones who refuse to participate in mitigation measures, and one in which the bad guys are the ones implementing draconian rules in violation of our liberties.

The (long but worth the read) Tablet article on this topic frames these two different stories as different fears, and although many stories can be told as fear of something, it’s probably more generally useful to simply look at who the heroes and villains are.

But this applies to so many things. The story that a new Voting Rights Act is absolutely necessary — lest Republicans drive red states back to the Dark Ages of Jim Crow or worse — sits right alongside the story that our elections are subject to a myriad of manipulations and fraud from power hungry elite and their minions.

The current story of “identity,” where a young girl or boy is simply seeking to establish their own outlook on life without the outdated and outmoded parochial interference from parents or other fuddy duddy traditionalists; sits right alongside a story of basic biology being ignored and young people being used as pawns in a shameless effort to gain political power and dismantle the traditional family and even a sense of objective reality.

There is no better illustration of competing stories, though, than the stories of our educational system. The twist with this one is that our school system suffers internally from a clash of different stories. And the challenge we have clogging up our newsfeeds and social media pages is between the factions which embrace one, but not both of them, namely: 1) that the system is a place where kids’ talents can be cultivated and honed to where those with certain gifts can find their way to fulfilling careers and be great leaders, thinkers, engineers, scientists, etc. I like to call this the “next generation of … ” story. Built within that story is the understanding that not everyone is going to go to college or pursue a “professional” career, but through the process of our modern innovative system they’ll get enough to do a job they could support themselves with. Though it’s important to note that the “next generation of garbage men, janitors, low-level factory workers, retail cashiers, etc, etc” doesn’t make the marketing material; it’s … understood well enough.

The other story of public education is the egalitarian one. The one in which everyone is given an equal shot at succeeding at life. Everyone goes through the same classes, and of course it’s all paid for, so everyone benefits from the same vision and care of the educators, and if there are inequitable outcomes (at least beyond certain margins) then the system has failed in some way.

Both of these stories are told within the current education bureaucracies and their accompanying zeitgeist completely simultaneously. The former story could be considered the more honest of the two, if a little idealistic and tilted toward the higher end of the success scale, and the latter could be said to be more aspirational, and tilted especially toward the lower end of the socioeconomic scale.

Put another way, the modern public school system is one of ambitious advancement and meritocracy and equality, fairness, and uniformity… at the same time. The visions are not compatible, and again these different paradigms fighting for dominance are doing so within the same basic system.

This dichotomy, or rather this incongruent and contradictory story is not lost on our youth. They know that these two worlds can’t exist in the same pace and the wear and tear of this game has been been showing for a while. First is the callous and shameless rat race for higher education spots. Everyone should be required to watch the College Admissions Scandal documentary, not for the “real crime” drama of it, but for an honest look at the rigged and frankly maddening game that is college admissions in general.

But putting the internal conflict, and all the politics which it feeds (and feeds on) aside for a minute, we’re still left with the question: which of these approaches make the most sense? Should we have a system (or if you’re looking at the micro level, a school) which seeks to let the brilliant excel and the not so brilliant get what they need to “get by”? Or should we insist on a system that “levels the playing field” so that everyone gets a shot at that “American Dream.”

It probably won’t surprise anyone to find your humble author’s response to this choice is approximately: “Neither, please.”

The options don’t necessarily represent a “false choice” on logical grounds, nor is it simply because the two stories aren’t in every way at all times and places mutually exclusive (it’s perfectly possible to try to have different emphases in different… communities, subjects, grades, etc.). No, the real challenge is that the choice betrays a false purpose. The assumption built in is that the abiding purpose of education is and should be to prepare kids for their careers. It’s not shocking that this would be a primary purpose of modern education, but this doesn’t change the fact that we should question whether (or not) that is wise.

The conflict (meritocracy vs. egalitarianism) stems from a problem of identifying students — defining who they are — by what they’ll eventually do. It puts a hierarchy of careers and professions (a necessary hierarchy in our workaday world) onto children, which is irrational on its face, given we probably should seek to minimize even how much we do this to each other as adults.

So just as an experiment, let’s pretend for a second that the obsession with profession, career, and job was shifted to something else, like the realm of virtue, character, pursuit of wisdom, or truth; then the contradictions in these two narratives go away, and the career paths of different kids — with their attendant strengths, talents, interests, proclivities — can be reconciled together into a more uniform educational regime.

After all, the future doctors, lawyers, garbagemen, sailors, farmers, and baristas benefit from having common understandings of how to treat their fellow human beings, to love each other and love their God in a common pursuit of a better world through improving ourselves as individuals.

This common pursuit not only resolves the merit-equity problem; it also offers a healthy, humane, and rational alternative to the other problems of identity — race, creed, gender, sexuality, etc — which seem to have become dominant in the current conversation on K-12 education.

That conversation, as it relates to topics such as CRT and gender equity issues — to use the two examples which are causing the most current consternation — is, after all, rather outdated and outmoded itself, as it forces everyone to be put into their boxes of caste or class in terms of race, or in terms of profession… or annual salary.

But that is, indeed, a discussion for another article. For today, let it rest with this:

If we are to treat each other as equal human participants in a divine nature, then we must endeavor to treat our children that way as well, not maneuver our educational paradigms on what their respective, potential, possible, future occupations might be.

An Educational Alternative – An Introduction

by Paul Gernhardt

The following is an introduction to the Loudoun Field Center alternative secondary education program at the Freedom Center in Lucketts, VA. Paul Gernhardt is the Executive Director of the Freedom Center and adds a lifetime of wisdom on how to gain success in personal, business, and spiritual endeavors.

When 18-year-olds gain full agency over their lives they must be ready to exercise their new rights, privileges, and responsibilities with purpose and intent. They need to have foundational skills, attitudes, and approaches that help them navigate the real world with minimal turmoil and maximum achievement. It is critically important to remember that education is not just about getting a profitable job in a particular field. The most important goal is forming young adults as effective, purposeful, positive forces in all areas of their life — from work to family to community. 

But that all really starts with an earlier transition point: that of the 13-year-old. A hundred years ago these young adults had completed their education and entered the real world. Young women began learning how to run a household from their mother – a very hard and complicated job before modern conveniences and services. Young men began working the farm, family business, or taking up an apprenticeship. Biologically they were primed to begin building an independent life to attract a mate and start a home. In these early teen years, young adults were given agency and responsibility. That had been the pattern for humans for thousands of years. 

In the early-1900s we started keeping these young adults behind desks longer and delayed the start of their adult lives to the late teens. In the late-1900s we further deferred the start of their lives into their mid-twenties through universal access to advanced education. A college education went from being the domain of those going into a few specialty fields, to the default path for anyone who could navigate certain economic and social requirements — with little regard for whether college was useful for substantial improvements in their future lives. 

The consequence of those decisions was that we have delayed the young adult’s ability to take control of their own lives. However, the underlying biological imperatives for these young adults have not changed. We have taken highly energized, motivated people eager to go and do and put them into mostly static classrooms until the passion has been dissipated. Our focus on knowledge as the focus of education, more knowledge is better, is being served at the expense of critical real-world capabilities. 

This is not to say that academics are not important. Today there is a lot more knowledge that is available and needed than there was a hundred years ago.  But at 13-years-old today’s young adults are ready, and indeed designed, to spend more time putting knowledge to action and purpose. The internal drive of the young adult is to engage and control their world… which we now deny them. Instead, we are more focused on knowledge and factoids while keeping them in carefully controlled, protective cocoons far away from the real world. We deny them the agency and the critical experiences gained from exercising it.   

To correct this situation we need to bring academics and purposeful action together. We can do this in an educational program designed as a holistic approach to their future lives. This is not a new concept. You can find bits and pieces of this approach in various alternative education programs. The goal here, however, is to take the best of the various approaches and build a complete program.

It should be noted at this point that not all young adults learn in the same ways at the same pace. Some are very efficient in learning in today’s 16+ years of classroom time. For many others, alternative approaches provide a faster and more comprehensive experience. Each parent and young adult need to consider their individual needs and styles and find the path that might best achieve their desired result. The right approach is that which works best for the individual’s future.

Currently, the educational choices center around traditional public/private classes, individual study at home, or a child-led learning system. Going down the self-study program usually means losing access to local support and forgoing many of the physical resources available in modern secondary education. Another alternative is deeply needed.

For the purposes of a conversation on alternatives, let’s consider that the academic portion of learning represents the core knowledge from which we build understanding and skills. Our world demands we show that certain core knowledge has been obtained. Ignoring that comes at the peril of limiting future opportunities – which is never an optimal result. 

Thankfully, today it is an easy task to engage in independent academic study. Never has academic instruction been more available, nor as easily customized to the individual. A vast array of academic knowledge is available from a wide variety of sources in a variety of formats. Acquiring academic knowledge has essentially become a customizable self-serve commodity. Numerous available curriculums can be custom-tailored to the specific needs of the individual. 

What is most often missing in the independent academic process is in-person mentorship — the help, guidance, oversight, and encouragement needed to make continuous, purposeful, and documented progress in knowledge, understanding, and skills. A mentoring environment where they can move forward at their own pace, assuring that key knowledge is not missed and that support should always be available to them in an environment that allows them to focus and explore as they learn. Mentors are a critical part of the next education program.

Tuning knowledge into understanding and skills is an interactive process that engages our young adults in real-world projects. This goes to the heart of what a young adult is designed to do – engagement with the world. Trying, failing, re-engaging, building, and shaping their skills and world is not something that can be accomplished behind a desk. For many in traditional education, this is often done in extracurricular activities – as if it was an optional and unimportant part of the process. In fact, this should be a core part of what happens in the educational environment.

For our reconstructed education program, the goal is to integrate this into everyday activities. Get the young adults out of the classroom and work on individual and team-based hands-on programs. This is about taking the academic knowledge and exploring how it applies in life and how to use it to shape their lives. Projects which introduce them to new areas and skills for their lives, family, community, and career.

What does this look like in practice? A variety of programs each quarter. From great conversations and project management to individuals and teams choosing to start and run a business for a year, building a house, feeding the poor, growing a garden, building a hydro-power generator, learning first-ad, or even building an airplane. The list is endless. Some of it is will be required, some of it is guided by what the young adults wish to do and where they want to go. Each project puts knowledge to practice, developing skills, and learning to work with others.  Each is put in the context of family, faith, work, and community.

The best projects take acquired knowledge and provide a path to earn skills and insights that they can apply to their lives while exposing them to opportunities for spiritual, family, community, and career growth. A first aid course will help them handle emergencies in their lives, show them how to be prepared, ready to help others, consider safety in general, and expose them to possible careers in medicine. The education environment should provide a path for them to further explore those interests. Every program should provide an understanding of how it is, or could be, relevant in their future lives. 

This leads us into the final part of this blog: the holistic approach to a young adult’s education. Being effective in life is the ability to accomplish what you set out to achieve. The critical part of the statement is “set out to achieve”. Not just in a career, as much of today’s education seems focused, but in all areas. They will function in family, work, and community and should be prepared for that. A community that not only includes friends and neighbors, but faith communities, country, and society in general. 

Young adults need to intentionally explore how they decide what they will seek to achieve. What are their values and morals? Where do they come from and what do they mean? This is a spiritual and faith journey that must be purposely included in a holistic program.

Finally, education is not something that is ever finished. Every young adult should learn how to educate themselves going forward. How to seek new knowledge, understanding, and skills in all areas of, and throughout their lives.  Their final years in the education program should be largely self-led and adult guided. This should set the pattern they carry forward.

We have talked about “the rest of their lives”, but few young adults (or old adults for that matter) know where they are going for the rest of their lives. So it makes even less sense to pressure kids to decide now what they will do for a living “the rest of their lives”.  Few people I know with college degrees work in the field of their major. What anyone, particularly a young adult, values and chooses to do with their life will change when they meet someone they want to marry. It will change again when they hold their first newborn. It will change further as new opportunities and new people and new understandings come into their lives. Let their education program prepare them for navigating those opportunities instead of following a single precept of where they are going based on a decision made before they have experienced the world. 

We should prepare our youth for the next few steps they will take, then equip them to figure out what they need for the few steps after those… and step-by-step where they may go in their lives.

The following blogs will explore one possible education program’s approach to academics, support, projects, and worldview development. I hope you join me in that journey.

The Loudoun Field Center “Seed” Program

For the 2021-2022 school year, we’re offering a “seed” program:

From our Curriculum and Program page:

2021-2022 Seed Program

*** For the 2021-2022 school year, the Loudoun Field Center is offering a “seed” program with M, W, F, full-curriculum support through our partner, Bridgeway Academy. Students go through our full evaluation and customized curriculum process, and convene at the Field Center three days a week for 33 weeks to complete their academic work with the support of Field Center Staff. There is a limit of only 15 spaces in our seed program. As programs are added throughout the year, including our Great Conversations program, Vocational Science, Fine Arts, Physical Education, etc, our seed program students will get to participate in the new courses for substantially reduced rates. ***

***The tuition for the 2021-2022 “seed” program is $6000 for the entire year.***

How do you get started? Glad you asked:

Passion and Jobs

Sometimes your passion and your career don’t match up. You need both, but they don’t have to be the same thing.

A few years ago, Mike Rowe did a great video and it was covered in some articles and on his social media. The tagline was “Don’t Follow Your Passion.” My favorite line from the whole thing was this one though:

Just because you’re passionate about something doesn’t mean you won’t suck at it.

Mike Rowe

There is a tendency is American culture to ask a complete stranger, first thing, what they do for a living. In some cultures, it’s considered impolite, and akin to asking “how much money do you make?” This could be something worth re-evaluating about how we converse, even in the marketplace.

The reason for this is that one of the most challenging aspects of adulthood is coming to terms with what you’re good at it, versus what you’re “passionate” about, and then what is going to support you and a family and make you money.


But deciding whether your passion should be a career is tricky. Sometimes it simply has to do with where the money is on the bell curve. A “really good” mechanic — in, say… the 85th percentile — can make very good money, especially if they know quite well how to run a business and deal well with people. However, a baseball player in the 95th percentile of all high school baseball players…will likely make basically zero money as a professional baseball player. (Just take the total number of high school baseball players this year — about half a million — and divide by the number of college baseball players this year — about fifty thousand — then realize that the number of professional baseball players: about 750. There have only been about 20,000 MLB players… EVER.)

If your passion is in the arts, it’s even trickier. Real talent is not as easily recognized. Sometimes it’s timing, or connections, or blind luck, and mediocre musicians and artists get discovered and make good money because they’ve hit on something there is a commercial demand for and the right people recognize it and promote it. Other extremely talented artists remain in the shadows forever and never take off.

So beyond Mike Rowe’s point… at some things you don’t even have to “suck” at it… they’re just the types of careers that you just have to be the absolute best at to stand out and make a good living. No, this does NOT mean you should not pursue your passion for poetry, or food, or book-binding, just be acutely aware of what the demand is for the products or services your passions can produce… Be GREAT at, and find JOY in the things that you’re passionate about, and develop concrete and duplicable, predictable skills, in the things that make you money. Sometimes they can match up as the same thing. Sometimes they won’t. It’s in the making them the same thing that you don’t want to apply too much pressure.

And lastly, don’t forget that work and play can mix in unpredictable ways. For every one person that has had the “Do something you LOVE for a living and you’ll never work a day in your life” experience, there are quite a few that have had the “Do something you love for a living and what you love becomes a JOB, and you’ll grow to hate it” experience.

OH, and the next time you meet someone new, instead of starting with “What do you do?” or ask them, “What are you reading these days?” or, “What do you do for fun?” Regardless of what people do to pay the bills, they like to talk about what they are passionate about. So… as Mike would say, “Never follow your passion, but always bring it with you.”

VIDEO: “Step One: Escape”

Introducing the Loudoun Field Center, a high school alternative near Lucketts, VA. We’ve carved out 100 acres of Loudoun wilderness to give students the chance to ESCAPE and forge a productive path to adulthood.

There is a Better Way to do High School

We can help prepare our teens for adulthood, in a service-minded and challenging way

There are a myriad of things which we can say about the current landscape of education. Living in Loudoun County, VA, we could focus on the “culture war” playing itself out at the school board meetings. Alternatively we could focus on the disconnect between secondary education and careers, in terms of college graduates finding themselves “failing to launch” and living back at home with their folks. 

We could talk about those young adults, having launched, marrying later than they ever really imagined, feeling disappointment in their careers — if they have one—a lack of fulfillment in their relationships, disconnect from their communities. In the end, it would be hard not to come to one over-arching and inevitable conclusion: something has to change.

Where does the failure lie? Who is to blame? Schools? Families? The Church? Bad diet? Social media? Sin? Video Games?

Who knows, really. But what can we do about it? Maybe another “Great Awakening” is around the corner. Maybe these things have a tendency to simply work themselves out. Every generation seems to have a version of lament about “kids these days.”

The truth is that there is one place where we can look to try to make a real difference: High School.

High School is that magical place where the children gain all the functional abilities to become an adult, but without the Executive Function to do it in a way that doesn’t make us all a little bit anxious. Infinite possibilities and infinite diversity in infinite combinations all culminating in that glorious moment: when they turn 18 and they are no longer the legal responsibility of anyone but themselves.

So what would a high school look like if all it really focused on was making sure that at that monumental 18th birthday, the newly minted “adult” was in the best possible position to forge their path into the “real world”?

First, it would most certainly NOT focus on “career readiness”… mainly because there is a great likelihood that whatever given career the youngster intends to pursue, either their talents, their opportunities, or sheer circumstances will likely lead them somewhere completely unexpected, and that’s not always a bad thing (your humble author was supposed to be an astronomer).

Second, a properly focused secondary educational program would most likely NOT focus too much on the social “identity” aspects of their lives, as they are still in the process of understanding the own inclinations and personalities. Constant obsessions with identity in terms of groups or in terms of individualism has resulted in our current zeitgeist’s inculcation into modern youth an unspeakably harmful narcissism. This leads nowhere but disappointment.

Speaking of self discovery (and disappointment), this high school program would also certainly NOT be focused on a mission to “save the world” or to make “relevant contributions” to the world. Many life and career paths can seem very frustrating and unfulfilling, especially as it is measured up against the unrealistic (or unreal) profiles one is going to see on one’s friends’ Instagrams. Not everyone is going to be a marine biologist and save the whales, much less the planet from ecological catastrophes. Not everyone is going to cure cancer, fix world hunger, or end racism. Some will be thankful for having a job where they can help anyone or build anything or feel like they’re making a difference at all, even within their own small communities.

Rather, a “high school” education should work not on the future, or for that matter the past or even just being “present” and “in the now.” Instead it should be about the Permanent Things. Things that have lasted and will last. Character, wisdom, humility, and all the virtues of humanity which unfailingly make us good husbands and wives, mothers and fathers, service-minded bosses or employees, citizens and statesmen, thinkers, craftsmen, artists… human beings.

A real, modern, and successful high school experience should be concerned with developing strong communication skills — reading, writing, listening, thinking, and speaking — so as to prepare young adults to communicate with a variety of people in a variety of circumstances, wherever life takes them.

Lastly, an effective high school program should encourage students to focus less on saving the world and more on improving themselves. It should help them to work on their own strengths and challenges; to take the time and give proper attention to their souls, spirits, and their Creator, so that when they go out into the world, they can make it better by their witness, their example, their faith, and through confidence borne through humility and God’s grace.

All of us — mentors, parents, citizens, students — are in a position right now where we see the “system,” for lack of a better term, systematically failing us. But our community is stronger, more resilient, more permanent, and has no choice but to strive for something better. 


(First posted on Great Conversation(s))

A Message from the Interim Director

Dear Parent:

We are so excited to be kicking off the 2021-2022 school year, our inaugural year with a full-curricular program at the Loudoun Field School. We are so privileged to be able to support your family and your student through their secondary education adventure. Whether you jumped into independent education with both feet excited about giving your teenager the flexibility to create their own educational path, or if you are in a position where non-traditional options have been thrust upon you, you are not alone, and we are proud of you for making the leap, and honored that you would make it with us!

The Field Center is here to be not only a place, but a supportive family, for those who wanted to make sure that their son or daughter has all the opportunities possible to become life-long learners. It is incumbent upon us, as parents and teachers of the upcoming generation to carry on the legacy of deliberate, thoughtful, purposeful, and curious learning. We all take that seriously and to that end have created a program committed to challenging students (and ourselves) to ask the hard questions and to explore the ideas which continue to challenge our modern world:

  • What is the meaning of success?
  • What in today’s world is considered a life well lived?
  • How does one navigate the information age to find wisdom and truth?
  • In what we have we over-indulged our view of identity and self as defined culturally?
  • Does true greatness come from power and influence or from virtue and justice?

We see the purpose of education to be more than simply Math, Science, Writing, and the Humanities, but indeed fundamentally: Intellectual Development, Character Formation, and Communication Skills. We strive for future scientists, engineers, and craftsmen to approach their missions with reverence and wisdom. We envision future parents; citizens and statesmen; entrepreneurs and managers to lead people with humility and honor, in all areas of life. This is why the Field Center teaches through Shared Inquiry, Collaborative Learning, and Guided Projects.

From the bottom of our hearts, we thank you for having your son or daughter join us on this voyage. We pledge every day to give all we have and all we are to the honest search for what is virtuous, beautiful, and real in the world, lest we be faced with the prospect of explaining to our grandchildren what once was.


Butch Porter
Interim Director of the Loudoun Field School
Founder/Director of Independent Education Services, LLC (IndED)