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Unschooled future?

In my previous post, I observed that I didn’t really have a dog in the hunt of unschooling vs. other homeschooling techniques. I’m starting to feel like I do, however, mostly because I find the language of unschooling advocates to be so troubling. I have no doubts that unschooling is a great technique for many children and their parents. I have no desire to persuade people against unschooling, if that’s the choice they want to make. Moreover, I’ll happily acknowledge that some kids will probably do best unschooled – maybe even many of them.

On the other hand, I find myself quite honestly pissed off by the language of unschoolers – anyone who needs to describe all other methods of parenting and educating with the language of violence using words like “force” and “coercion” to describe loving parenting relations that are different from your own choices deserves some real scrutiny – why is it necessary to then demean all other kinds of parenting or education? I am deeply suspicious of one true ways, and when people tell me that all children would benefit from one technique, but not all parents are smart enough to pull it off – implicitly impugning the intelligence of anyone who doesn’t make your same choices, I’m turned off.

I am trying really hard to have some sympathy – I understand that people are often hostile to unschoolers, and perhaps these rhetorical techniques are the ones they’ve found work best as a defense – I’m not sure. But The Light The Truth and The Way in teaching do not appeal to me – not from those who claim that Montessori or Waldorf or whatever is the one true way, and not from the same variety of evangelical (small e) homeschoolers who want to convince us that they too have found the right way to tend children.

That said, I do derive a good bit of my thought from unschooling – we are not really formalized in many areas, and I trust my children to lead us in large degree. I admire Ivan Ilych and John Holt and other major figures that underly the philosophy of unschooling. My children spend less than an hour most days in formal “schooling” and much of it is self-driven. Many of the unschoolers I know pretty much do the same things we do, and indeed, given the ubiquity of public education’s single model, I can understand why almost anyone who doesn’t “do school” looks like an unschooler. My beef here is not with all unschoolers, but with those who seem intent on describe all other parenting as fundamentally destructive.

But besides that, I have of a couple of other problems with what I’m learning about the ideology of radical unschooling. Part of it is that while I didn’t like a lot of my education, mostly because I found it very boring, the parts that I did like tended to be the ones where the most was expected of me, where I was pushed intellectually beyond the places I would have gone on my own. Intellectual rigor and discipline in the cause of learning appealed to me – I didn’t find them a turn-off then, and I don’t find it a turn off now. And while later in my life I could seek out those kinds of teachers, without some experience of that kind of discipline offered to me from an outer source, honestly, I wouldn’t have known where to look for it.

But perhaps the biggest objection I have is this – every unschooler observes to me that “Oh, if my child wants to become a rocket scientist and has never studied higher maths, they can just study hard and learn them, or find teachers and do them quickly.” And that’s true for some students, in some subjects. But as someone who has been an autodidact on a number of subjects, it is also true that there is a degree of fluency that often comes from early contact with ideas, a fluency that isn’t always replicable.

I think of it as a crack in the wall – on the other side is an astonishing and glorious wide view that you would not have had before. But before you get there, you have to do the work of widening the crack enough to see the prospect beyond. Some children, spotting a crack in the wall, will widen it purely for the fun of seeing what’s on the other side. Others, however, will only know what’s there if someone encourages – or even requires them to set to the task of widening the view, because without that work and that other perspective, that voice of the person who has seen, there’s no way to fully understand what is there. I know that many unschoolers have found that their children get to the same place mine will without the price of what they call “coercion.” But I find myself wondering how big a price the kind of requirements we have “ok, now it is time to” really cost – vs, the risk of never seeing the wide view at all, or waiting until hollowing out the space to see becomes a true burden, more difficult than it ever would have been for a few minutes a day of effort.

I know this can be true – my husband may not have enjoyed Hebrew school every moment during his childhood, but I can see the difference between his fluency with a siddur and my own, and the difference between my childrens’ relationship to their faith and mine. Now I know that I could become more fluent with a greater degree of commitment and study, perhaps enough that only I would ever know that it didn’t come easily. But even that knowledge is sufficient – and why condemn my kids to that little hesitation, that limitation, when I can give them life without limits with 15 minutes a day of study – study they enjoy? I’m not clear on what the case would be for this. Why demand my teenager give up all the other things he loves to study only maths frantically to meet requirements, when those same things could come to him and he spend his time studying math and reading poetry and working outside?

Time is not infinite for any of us, and every choice has its cost. I am open to persuasion that the cost of requiring my children to do things is greater than what they might miss – but I haven’t seen this persuasion made, except in terms I find false – that attempt to equate the coercion one exercises on a prisoner, a colony, a dissident (because this is the language of coercion) with the requirements made by parents who love and teach their children.

Moreover, while the research on how well unschoolers turn out in their skill sets and employability may not be clear, research on some things is very clear. We know, for example, that Jewish children raised to make up their own minds, without any of the equipment to do so, without the training in prayer and language, history and culture mostly don’t become Jewish. Plenty of those raised with that training also choose not to be Jews, of course, but the numbers are radically different. I do not care little enough about my faith to leave to chance whether my children will perceive the benefits of knowing these things before they make a choice – and make it difficult for themselves to acquire this knowledge. I see no reason to believe that the rules are different for any profession, faith or culture that requires a background skill set that takes a long time to acquire – of course people *can* do it as adults and do. But I know few people who have done it as an adult who think that they were happier or better off for not having the knowledge in the first place.

And while we do not know whether this is true of everything else, I would suspect it is true of more things than not – indeed, in at least one area, I now it it to be true. Many of us, for example, grew up spending time with grandparents watching them do subsistence activities that are now largely abandoned, that most of us now have to relearn. Grandma was there, offering us a useful model of how to can, knit, garden and use herbs. Grandpa could have taught us to milk the cow and bank a fire in a woodstove and chop wood smoothly and sharpen tools. Some of us did, in fact, take advantage of that knowledge, and have it to pass on. But most of us lived unschooling for a while, at the feet of our grandparents – and we didn’t learn enough, and now we are scrambling to catch up. I hear daily from people who know that they can teach themselves these things – but for whom there are not enough hours in the day, and for whom those lost opportunities are a sharp and real sorrow.

I live in a world where so many people are mourning the lost opportunity to learn – the chance was there, the opportunity, the willing teacher. And in many cases, what was lacking seems to have been some externally imposed discipline – because no one said “what Grandma is doing is really important, so you need to help her with the gardening” two generations lost their knowledge. I know some people who complain that they were required to go out in the garden with Grandpa, and then didn’t want to do it for the next forty years too – but not nearly so many as those who mourn the chance and wish someone had given them guidance and some gentle discipline, imposed by someone who has enough experience to see what’s on the other side of the crack in the wall if you just do the work of expanding the view..

Editorial Notes: Related: See Myra Eddy's posts on the same topic here and here. -KS

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