April 18, 2011
I’ve sort of been looking out for an excuse to write about this topic, and lo and behold, I got a request (thank you bbsmum!).
One day in college I was sick in bed, and asked a friend to bring me over some tea and books. One of the books she brought me from her personal stack of library books was Grace Llewellyn’s Teenage Liberation Handbook: How to Quit School and Get a Real Life & Education. As evidence of how much she said she’d loved it herself, it was already weeks overdue.
I’d never heard of unschooling before, but I was a convert. I mean, I sort of understood, with that book, how people become religious zealots. It so succinctly and vividly captured everything that I felt was Wrong with the public education system.
At its most basic, the concept of “unschooling” contests the premise of the traditional school system that children best learn what they need to know by being forcibly confined to a classroom for 7 hours a day, 9 months a year, for 13 years, and mandated to learn all the same things at the same time in the same way as everyone else for most of those years. I’ve come to think of it as “factory-style schooling.”
Rather, the premise of the unschooling movement is that children come as they are desperate to learn, they don’t much have to be coerced or threatened into it, that people learn best by doing first-hand what they’re truly interested in. That the wide world is full of educational opportunities free for the asking and people should be able to use whatever resources work best for their own purposes. And that, intrinsically, children deserve no less than adults to be taken seriously as people worthy of respect and of having a say in the conduct of their own lives.
Some caveats: I’m speaking of the American compulsory public school system in its predominant form. I’m not against the idea of any schools ever, at all. I have no personal experience of charter schools, specialty schools like Montessori or Waldorf or schools designed to accommodate specific disabilities or special interests, so I don’t have any basis on which to make generalizations or criticisms of them. I know that people choose those educational options for a whole variety of reasons (the operative word being choose). And I know that some public schools are doing really wonderful things (one of the coolest in my opinion being the New York Harbor School) to give their students greater opportunity for self-direction and creativity.
I’ll try to be brief (ha), as there are many good books on this subject, about some of the reasons I think unschooling is worthy of consideration as an alternative to how we currently educate most of our kids:
1. The school system does not have students’ best interests at heart. It can’t. It’s incapable of having any respect for individual learning needs, life needs, passions or ambitions that fall outside the narrow parameters it’s designed to allow. Because the system isn’t designed to give impassioned minds as free a reign in their own highest development as possible, but to keep as many young people under control in as small a space as possible. The convenience of the system will always take precedence over individual well-being.
2. The school system is dishonest. It lies to students about what life is really like and what will be required of them. The traits most required for success in school are obedience and credulity, whereas the traits most required for success in life are creative problem solving, courage and critical thinking. Rather than discouraging immaturity, ignorance and short-sightedness, it exploits those traits to keep students under control with fear of the future. Adults with any self-regard wouldn’t put up with a fraction of the disrespect, humiliation and absurdity that school kids do every day only because they don’t know that they have a choice. By isolating students from working adults and from the world as it really is, schools create the impression that the knowledge they offer is all there is, and the way they require learning is the only valid way. The system calls people failures who simply can’t do things the way it demands. It says that education is something separate from real life by cutting students off from the world around them and from genuine experience. It says that life is something you’re preparing for, that you’ll be qualified for upon graduation, not something that you are living.
3. Age grading reinforces immaturity. It deprives kids of older classmates to be role models and mentors, younger classmates to be models and mentors for, and pathologizes healthy and helpful relationships between students of all ages as developmentally inappropriate or undesirable. It demands that there’s a right or a wrong age to learn any given subject or skill.
4. I’ve made this argument before, so I’ll truly keep it short here: the main values instilled by the school system are obedience, conformity, and fear of authority. Those are not the traits we most need citizens to have to fix our democracy, our economy, and our environment.
5. The real world is so much better, so beautiful, wondrous, strange, astonishing and so full of things to learn to do. Thirteen years is too long to spend locked up.
Though I’m tempted to try to anticipate and preemptively answer some of the more common objections to the unschooling movement, I’m curious to see what will naturally come up in discussion. So comments section, take it away!