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Life of Fred - A Living Approach to Math

An Interview with Stanley F. Schmidt, Ph.D.

Interview by Martha Robinson

Stanley F. Schmidt, Ph.D., graciously agreed to speak to us about his very different math program, Life of Fred, a series which combines humor, an interesting narrative, and math. (Scroll to the bottom of this page to see links to the reviews.) He also shares how one can obtain a quality education, a topic near to the hearts of homeschooling parents. Below is a brief autobiography, written in a style similar to his books:

Dr. Stanley Schmidt became a Christian on May 14th, 1944, when he was picked up bodily by those who loved him and carried into the church sanctuary and baptized. He says that this was the most important day of his life. He doesn't remember a lot about that day since he was only four months old at the time. Since then, he has gained over two hundred pounds, and no one carries him into church anymore. Children who know Stan say that he is a very silly man. Around Christmas the kids at church call him Stanta Claus.

He graduated from Berkeley in the month he turned twenty-one and the month he turned twenty-two he was teaching full-time at El Cerrito High School in the Bay Area. He taught there for two and a half years picking up his master's in math from Cal while teaching full-time. Then he taught every math course offered at City College of San Francisco until January 1980.

At the age of 36, he went back to Cal (after a 15-year break) and took four courses (15 units)--all in departments that he have never taken a course in before. Then he moved to an A-frame outside of Santa Rosa, California, waiting to see what God would like him to do with the second half of his life.

The minister at his church asked if he would like to preach on Sunday morning sometimes. Over the years he has preached at various churches: Methodist, Unitarian, Presbyterian, and others. Each of his sermons was handed out in printed form at the end of the service, and at last count he has about twenty-eight sermons in print.

He created and produced the television series Stan Now Considers All Things which ran for five years. It began as a weekly half-hour program and later expanded to a full hour. Each program consisted of three- to six-minute segments devoted to the overall theme of what it means to be well-educated. Each segment was centered on one of sixteen areas including English, history, science, the Bible, sociology, poetry, economics, philosophy, and health.

His blood flows in a lot of people--a 38+ gallon blood donor.

In 2000-2001 he had about 150 laying hens. He has named each of the chickens! (He called each of them Betty.) Each Sunday he would bring the eggs to church to give away to friends. Many Sundays he gave away thirty dozen eggs.

Dr. Schmidt retired from all employment in January 1980, but he is working as hard as ever. He loves life, and God has truly blessed his days.

How did you come to write the Life of Fred series?

Stan Schmidt: In the month I turned twenty-two, I began teaching full-time at a public high school in California. During the first semester, I drew Fred on the blackboard and began to tell stories about him. Over the years of teaching at the high school and college levels, the story of the life of Fred developed.

When my daughter Jill was in the second grade, I used to drive her to her school. During those trips, I would tell her the most recent episodes in Fred's life.

God's call to Moses and to Isaiah came in an unmistakable form. Mine came about ten years ago in a phone call from my daughter Jill, who was then twenty-eight years old. Her memorable words were, "Dad, before you die, you should write down Fred's story." (I was and am in good health.)

Is Fred Gauss named after someone you know?

Stan Schmidt: Sometimes in the college classroom I would play a little game with the students. I would ask them to name a letter of the alphabet and then name a composer starting with that letter. Even with "tough" letters like V or W, they could come up with Verdi or Wagner.

Then we did it with baseball players.

Then I asked them to name any mathematician, starting with any letter of the alphabet. Silence ensued. Usually, the only answers were "Einstein" (a physicist) and "Mr. Schmidt (me)."

Mathematical historians often write that Archimedes was the third best mathematician in western civilization. The second place award usually goes to one of the inventors of calculus: Isaac Newton. The top place: Karl Friedrich Gauss.

We've all been taught that math takes much repetition to learn. How do students retain the math you teach in your books with so few problems?

Stan Schmidt: "I have told you a million times!" is a common expression. You ask your teenage son to clean up his room. You ask your husband to take out the garbage. They forget, and you have to repeat yourself.

How often would a man say to a woman, "When I asked you to marry me yesterday, I can't remember what your answer was"? Never. If a math book has to nag its students with fifty problems on every topic, it means that the reader really isn't interested. It's called "drill-and-kill."

People often say, "I don't see why I should have to take math. I'll never use it." Do you have a response for them?

Stan Schmidt: The whole Life of Fred series is devoted to answering that question. Every math teacher is asked, "When are we ever gonna use this stuff?"

In every book in the Life of Fred series, we read about the adventures that Fred gets into. In the course of his daily adventures we find the the need for a particular piece of math. Then after the need arises, do we do the math. Every aspect of math---from factoring in beginning algebra to hyperbolic cosines in fourth semester calculus---is motivated by need.

Your Life of Fred books include history, poetry, literature, and other topics. What are those things doing in a math book?

Stan Schmidt: Packing knowledge into water-tight compartments is insanity. In the government schools, the bell rings and the kids study history. The bell rings again and they study English. And the two subjects never meet. Wouldn't it be wonderful if the papers written for the history class were also evaluated by the history teacher with respect to their English? In general, they don't, because it's extra work.

If the woodshop teacher would include a lot more measuring and computing, kids would learn arithmetic in a meaningful context. In general, they don't because it's extra work.

Sure, I teach mathematics in the Life of Fred books---more mathematics than any other homeschooling series I know of. But my mental orientation is that I teach kids, not mathematics. The whole, wide, wonderful creation is open to explore. In good conscience, I could not write a math book that was just theorem-proof-definition-theorem-proof- definition-theorem-proof-definition.

You mention that one of the points of Life of Fred books is to let the student learn by reading. Why should they do this, and how does this differ from current teaching methods?

Stan Schmidt: My goal is to aim kids toward adulthood. After they graduate from the university, for the next forty years, most of the important things they learn will be by reading---not by hearing lectures or playing with manipulatives.

When they were in kindergarten, 95% of what they learned was from the teacher's speech. As they go through school that percentage drops. In graduate school, reading becomes the dominate mode of learning.

To include a video component to the Life of Fred series would be a disservice to the kids. Learning how to learn-by-reading is perhaps the most important aspect of a child's education (other than developing a deep grounding in God). I could easily put Fred on the television screen, since I have five years experience in producing a weekly series (Stan Now Considers All Things--What It Means to be Well-Educated) for cable television. I don't, because it wouldn't be good for the kids.

You don't use any color pictures or drawings in your books. Why not?

Stan Schmidt: Put today's cutting-edge geometry book--with all its colored diagrams and politically correct photo illustrations--on your lap, and two things will happen. First, your legs will fall asleep because of its immense size. Second, your budget will be destroyed. These coffee-table tomes with sixteen authors, editors, illustration supervisors and consultants are today's fad.

Consider, for example, Life of Fred: Calculus. In 544 pages it covers all two years of calculus--not just the first year. (Second order differential equations, Lagrange multipliers, Stoke's Theorem, etc.) Two-year calculus books often cross the 1000-page mark and generally cost $120-170. Without color and a huge overhead, Fred is $39.

You've commented that a university may not be the place to receive a good education. Where can one obtain a good education and how would one go about it?

Stan Schmidt: It was Samuel Johnson, I believe, who suggested that the best education might be obtained by sitting and reading five hours a day. At first, you might be content with the thirty-plus Oz books. As the months pass, you might move on to James Bond. And then as you mature in your reading, the James Michener novels. Follow your current interests and keep stretching. Consult lists of great literature such as Fadiman's Lifetime Reading Plan.

At the end of four years you will have a much fuller education than someone who has paid their university tuition, walked to class, and heard the lectures. (You can learn a lot faster by reading than by hearing someone talk, and when you are reading what currently interests you, the material sticks a lot better.) And the habit of reading will last a lifetime. Many college graduates hardly touch a book after graduation.

As a well-read individual, your conversation will not be limited to the dreadful four topics: the weather, places you have traveled to, the state of your health, and things you saw on television.

Many thanks to Stan Schmidt for sharing his thoughts with us here at! reviews related to this interview:

Review of Life of Fred: Fractions and Life of Fred: Decimals and Percents
Review of Life of Fred: Beginning Algebra