Famous Unschoolers: Ansel Adams

“The back page of an October issue of San Francisco magazine displays a vivid photograph of a small boy, eyes wide with excitement and joy, leaping and running on a great expanse of California beach, storm clouds and towering waves behind him.  A short article explains that the boy was hyperactive, he had been kicked out of his school, and his parents had not known what to do with him–but they had observed how nature engaged and soothed him.  So for years they took their son to beaches, forests, dunes, and rivers to let nature do its work.

The photograph was taken in 1907.  The boy was Ansel Adams.

Last Child in the Woods, p. 102-103

Ansel Adams’ story was one of the major inspirations in my decision to unschool.  He sounded so much like my oldest daughter, whose inability to concentrate on her tasks was so frustrating and so difficult for both of us when we were more conventionally homeschooling.  


If Ansel Adams were in public school today, he would have been diagnosed with ADHD.  “Adams was a hyperactive child and prone to frequent sickness…After young Ansel was dismissed from several private schools for his restlessness and inattentiveness, his father decided to pull him out of school in 1915, at the age of 12” (Wikipedia, Ansel Adams).

“Ansel had to be in motion at all times; otherwise he would twitch with frustration, his mind flitting along with his body…Today he would be classified as hyperactive, but then he was seen as a significant behavior problem” (Ansel Adams, a Biography, p. 7).

“Whenever he had to sit in the classroom, he would fidget, yearning to be set loose in the wonderful outdoors….In the classroom he felt enchained.  Education based on rote memorization seemed senseless to Ansel, who had already found consequential meaning in the natural world all about him.” (Ansel Adams, a Biography, p. 11-12)

“The most important result of Adams’s somewhat solitary and unmistakably different childhood was the joy that he found in nature, as evidenced by his taking long walks in the still-wild reaches of the Golden Gate. Nearly every day found him hiking the dunes or meandering along Lobos Creek, down to Baker Beach, or out to the very edge of the American continent.

When Adams was twelve he taught himself to play the piano and read music. Soon he was taking lessons, and the ardent pursuit of music became his substitute for formal schooling. For the next dozen years the piano was Adams’s primary occupation and, by 1920, his intended profession. Although he ultimately gave up music for photography, the piano brought substance, discipline, and structure to his frustrating and erratic youth. Moreover, the careful training and exacting craft required of a musician profoundly informed his visual artistry, as well as his influential writings and teachings on photography” (AnselAdams.com).

“When he discovered his deep affinity and natural talent for music, Ansel also discovered himself” (Ansel Adams, a Biography, p. 13).

His father “encouraged Ansel to explore a greater variety of life’s possibilities, unencumbered by many traditional expectations” (Ansel Adams, a Biography, p. 9-10).

“Ansel confessed that as much as he loved music, he was not sure it would be the best choice for his life, or the best thing he could accomplish in this world.  With quiet passion, his father urged him to take as long as he needed to find his future, even if it meant twenty-five years.  Carlie was determined that Ansel’s life would not be wasted as he believed his own to have been” (Ansel Adams, a Biography, p. 16).

Ansel Adams had anything but a traditional education, yet he is known as one of our deepest inspirations and dearest icons.  John Swarkowski states in the introduction to Adams’s Classic Images, “The love that Americans poured out for the work and person of Ansel Adams during his old age, and that they have continued to express with undiminished enthusiasm since his death, is an extraordinary phenomenon, perhaps even unparalleled in our country’s response to a visual artist.”

Sometimes, I wonder what would have happened to Ansel if he had been a child in 2007 instead of 1907.  Would he have been medicated enough to sit still so that he could then endure school?  Would we have then been given the gift of the glorious images of Half Dome or the Tetons?  Would our National Parks have been so lovingly preserved without his part in the fight for their preservation?  Would we have been able to put faces to the Japanese internment as we have?

What will our children accomplish, if given the freedom to do so?