April 18, 2011

Why unschooling….

Posted in Schooling and unschooling, Uncategorized tagged , , , at 1:35 am by chavisory

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!



  1. Loren said,

    This started to get a little unwieldy for Facebook…

    Having had some experience in grade school with a program designed to create an “unschooling” kind of experience in a classroom setting (very small class, age-mixed, students set pretty much free to learn or not learn as they saw fit), I can say that while I completely see the value for high school, there are some hurdles for grade-school kids in terms of basic competencies that really are needed to make the most of those kinds of opportunities. At 10, I was entirely focused on the social studies/language arts/science sides of learning; no one explained to me how math fit into any of those, especially science, so it didn’t interest me, and consequently there’s some fairly important and useful math stuff, I didn’t learn at the point in a math education where I needed to know it in order to learn other things, and it screwed me up for years. Also, left to my own devices, I would probably have stayed away from calculus like the plague, given the troubles I had with trigonometry (see the above math issue) and it turned out I LOVED calculus–with a good teacher who finally taught me fractions and percentages as needed!

    I’m not saying there aren’t better ways to achieve some sort of overall knowledge base than the current school system, but I do think that the alternative would ideally take into account ways to achieve a) a shared knowledge base on some level b) guidance to steer students more places than where their own interests might take them and c) experience with group settings where other people may not have the same skills/values/interests as you (especially in an internet culture where those with shared affinities eager to teach are so easy to find, it’s also easy to never see outside what you started out interested in).

    • Derek said,

      I agree with you that I think all children need at least a certain base-level of education under their belt before they branch off into whatever areas of life they want to specialize in. Everyone should know the basics of math, everyone should have a basic understanding of how our government and society functions, everyone should know enough of the rules of our language that they can successfully converse with others through text or voice.

      Public education can always be improved, but I worry greatly about any calls for us to do away with the system all-together. Not everyone has the choice to attend expensive private schools. Not everyone has parents that will take the time or effort to home-school their children. If you have a better way to educate everyone, then by all means, implement it. But don’t ask for the dismantling of public education without something else there for those without other options.

      • chavisory said,

        I’m not asking for the school system to be dismantled or done away with. I think there should be public schools–I think they should be an option for those who need or want that kind of structure.

        What I’m asking, effectively, is that accepting that structure is an option, not the mandatory default.

        What I’m saying is that *I* do not have a better way to educate everyone, because everyone doesn’t take to education the same way. I am no more qualified than the school system to impose my ideals on everyone else. I think everyone has a better way to educate themselves.

        Right now the school system is unaccountable in the deepest way possible, in that more or less everyone has to take part. There’s no real incentive for schools to do better by people, to respect difference, to respect individuals, to offer more, because they have a captive audience. If they didn’t, they’d actually have to be accountable to their students and families for what they do to people.

  2. Laura said,

    Well, you already know I agree with you. 🙂 I tried unschooling in it’s purest form for the first 6 months after taking Coleman out of school. He an I both needed a bit more structure. But one thing I love about the way we homeschool, is that I am able to find out how each of my children learns and adjust my instruction of the material to suit their needs. I also like the freedom of being able to move at their pace, and not have to hold back or speed up instruction based on what 29 other kids are doing.

    And I WHOLEHEARTDEDLY agree about the herding of children from one level to the next, keeping them only with others of their same age. Especially with kids like mine, intellectually at one level, and emotionally / socially at another, they both do 100,000% better with children either a couple years older or younger, and it makes a HUGE difference to their self esteem to have successful social interactions. It’s just huge.

    Ok..it’s no fun to just have someone gush about how right you are. 😉


    • chavisory said,

      Thanks! Yeah, I was always better off with kids either 3 years younger or 3 years older on either side of me.

  3. Byron said,

    I think you’d get along well with one of my old high school friends. He was in a Montessori through…well, however long Clay-Platte Montessori taught (6th grade? 9th?). From what I gather, it was pretty much totally demoralizing to go from an environment that fostered the natural desire to learn to the public school system (with the faults you identified above) where most students viewed “learning” as a chore. Although other people managed to slide into public school with reasonable success, I think it failed him in every possible way and negatively impacted his life for years. He finally steered himself back on course, but it took a long time.

    He is the main reason why I decided long ago that if I had kids I would do whatever I could to find that type of learning environment. I don’t have kids, nor do I plan to, but on the off chance they came along I looked up info on local Montessori schools once. They were (and I’m sure still are) amazingly expensive, I doubt I could afford them without a huge salary bump, and I get paid fairly well and have little debt. Most people, even if they wanted their kids in such a school, would be instantly deterred by the cost. And other than a few schools here and there, the public school system doesn’t seem to be making great strides in that direction.

    Fortunately, attentive parenting seems to help, at least at a young age. My 3rd/4th grade niece is still fascinated by the world around her and I credit my sister with keeping that fascination alive by always finding new experiences for her. Even if it’s as simple as a spring stroll through the nature sanctuary where baby deer and sticks covered in pond scum are both exciting finds. That’s a good start, but the friend I mentioned above had a good start too, so who knows how the next 8-9 years of public school will change my niece…

  4. Rachel said,

    Hi chavisory,

    Excellent post! I was a homeschooling (rather than an unschooling) parent for 8 years, and much of what you say has great validity.

    I approached homeschooling with a lot of structure and conventional skill building, based on E.D. Hirsch’s “What Your Child Needs to Know” books, starting when my daughter was in kindergarten. I think he is absolutely correct that kids need some basis of shared cultural literacy — mainly so that when they grow older, much of what they read and learn will already be familiar to them.

    Inside that structure, however, I left a lot of room for creativity and individualized learning, including doing service out in the community with a wide range of other people. My daughter quickly became comfortable with people of all ages, and that has never left her.

    I ended up enrolling her in a very small private school in the 8th grade and beyond, because I wanted her to have the experience of getting comfortable in a classroom and with the expectations of teachers before she went to college — and also because I wanted her to have a peer experience that I simply could not give her anymore. At 13, she really needed to be with other teenagers, away from me. Not all kids are like that, and I don’t think that one size ever fits all as far as educating and raising children are concerned, but it has worked well for her. She’s been accepted to 6 of the 7 excellent colleges she applied to, with offers of scholarships and financial aid to carry her through.

  5. katie s. said,

    I think unschooling, and homeschooling, and all kinds of schooling can be done well. But I think the first two require a profoundly self-aware parent for them to be done well. When I worked in the admissions office of one of the top theater conservatory programs, we had a girl who applied who had been unschooled. She did well in her auditions and interviews, but her standardized test scores (which we were required to look at as part of a bigger university) it became clear (from the scores and her essays) that her reading and math skills were absolutely abysmal and not remotely on par with the very average standards of my very large university. Her self-guided education was very focused on the theater arts she loved, but her parents did a very, very poor job of making sure she learned the real world literacy skills that you need in any career or life.

    There were a lot of things that frustrated me about going through public schools, but I think I still came out okay and don’t have anything against public education per se. My mother was a huge ally in this. The most important thing she taught me was that we all need to learn to work with people, and within systems, that perhaps aren’t ideal for us, but there are ways to work with those people and within those systems to make that experience better. I may be in a ridiculous class with an instructor who insults my intelligence, but I can still make the choice to play the game, to get through it, and figure out how to say… pick a paper topic so that I’ll learn something that is exciting to me. And to read other books in my spare time and pursue other interests to round that out.

    So, yeah. An engaged, aware parent can make any of those options work well for the student. I will say that I think my experience going through public schools taught me an enormous amount about patience, diplomacy, working with a vast variety of people and authority figures, and those have benefited me as much, or more, in my work life than has any other part of my education.

    • chavisory said,

      Here’s where the arguments about learning diplomacy and how to work with a variety of people ring false to me: in a real work situation, say I’m starting work on a new production, am I going to be given a team of 12 people, randomly assigned, who may or may not (but probably not) have *any* interest, talent, or experience in theater/production/design? No, never. In the real world, people work together by mutual agreement and/or for a common goal. Of course I sometimes have to work with people I don’t like, and people frustratingly different from me, but we have a common commitment to something bigger than ourselves, we (usually) have respect for each other’s abilities, and everybody involved has high stakes both personally and professionally in the outcome of a project.

      Whereas the way that “working with people” is construed in school is for the kids who don’t care to take the greatest advantage possible of the ones who do.

      I was stunned, I mean gobsmacked, to discover when I started stage managing that I actually DO like working with people, that I did enjoy discussion, diplomacy, and compromise…when the people working together had respect for each other’s differences and were committed to using those differences to solve a creative problem. I had always thought that I was going to have to have a very solitary job because I couldn’t stand working with other people. It turns out that I love working with other people–what I couldn’t stand was being forced to work under false pretenses with people who couldn’t care less.

      I don’t have anything against public education per se, either, or the notion that yes, there’s a basic level of literacy, math, and common culture that you pretty much have to learn in order to go much further, or that lots of people need more structure and guidance than others. I take issue with the school system’s insistence that everyone must succeed the same way or else you’re a failure. To me, all of its other evils flow from that basic lie. Every other lie it propagates is in defense of that one.

      So the girl who was passionate about theater–has she failed at life? No, she can go learn some math and functional literacy and reapply to college. If she decides she really should go to college–maybe she shouldn’t. Maybe she’ll learn it better now that she has personal stakes in the situation. How many kids graduate from high school barely literate, incompetent at math, AND not particularly talented or passionate about much of anything or with real goals?

      • Derek said,

        But not every situation people find themselves in is filled with others who are committed to solving creative problems. You may be surrounded by people who understand you when you’re stage managing, but what about when you go to the grocery store, or need to apply for a loan from a bank, or get stuck doing a job you dislike because rent is getting hard to come by this month?

        People often have to do things in the real world that they’d rather not do, just as they did in school. I believe it is very important for children to have experience dealing with people that might not understand them, that might frustrate them, and that might have a completely different outlook on the world than they do.

  6. chavisory said,

    Derek–I’m not arguing against the necessity of knowing how to deal with basic social interaction. I too believe it’s important to know how to get along with people, work through misunderstanding, and appreciate personal differences. I’m saying the way that the school system teaches those things is harmful, dishonest, and often accomplishes the opposite.

    By the time I hit high school, I thought I was going to have to move to Alaska, or someplace similarly depopulated, because I thought I just couldn’t deal with people. I’m barely kidding. It turns out that everything the school system taught me about interacting with people was wrong. I live in NYC and work in performing arts, for christsake.

    And don’t lecture me about the realities of taking less than ideal jobs to pay the rent. Just don’t. “What happens” is you do what you have to do, as pleasantly as possible. The world is hard. It doesn’t take 13 years in lockup to learn that.

  7. Great post. Your point number four reminded me of reading (can’t remember where) that public education began in Prussia however many years ago, and the purpose was simply to provide the king with obedient, unquestioning cannon fodder for his armies. I don’t know if that is true, but it would explain the current system of public education.

    • chavisory said,

      It is true that the Prussian system was the model for the American system–admittedly I’m not well-versed on this history. John Taylor Gatto writes almost obsessively on this note, and while it seems to me an expensive way to guarantee cannon fodder, I’d believe it as a general plan to instill passivity and tamp down dissent.

  8. bbsmum said,

    Whoops, I’m late to the party! What a fascinating post, and what interesting comments. I’ve heard that thing about Prussian education too: public education in the UK developed partly as a response to perceived military superiority in nations that had public education, and partly to control the numbers of children who were roaming the streets after a law was passed stopping them working in factories and mines!
    You make a powerful case for unschooling, but I wonder if non-unschooled children would be disadvantaged because schools would end up catering mainly for poorer children with less involved parents – home education needs parents willing and able to devote a lot of time, resources and energy.
    Thank you so much for giving me food for thought!

    • chavisory said,

      There’s no such thing as late to this party! Welcome.

      I’ve had the question put to me before about whether we’d just be consigning the neediest students to being disadvantaged by the substandard school system, with those already most advantaged escaping. But I think the key rests in public schooling being made non-compulsory. Then the schools would have to be accountable to the students who truly want to be there and want to learn.

      And I hear a lot of objections to leaving the school system that the public schools need the most well-off and involved parents to be involved. But I know that when I was in elementary and middle school, I never felt particularly wanted there. I mainly remember being made to feel like a selfish little nuisance every time I wanted to be able to do more than what the class was doing. Especially in middle school, teachers acted like my needs were a distraction they couldn’t attend to. So maybe the kids left in public school without kids like me would be better off, with more resources and teachers’ time available to devote to students who need them more.

      Thanks for coming by!

  9. bbsmum said,

    I think my ideal solution would be a voucher that entitles everyone to 12 years of free education, to be taken at any stage in life. I often hear adults saying “I wasn’t interested and messed around in school when I was young, but now I wish I had the opportunity to learn”. Maybe if more kids were unschooled, they’d grow up having a clearer idea of what they needed to know and be ready to enter formal education at a later age: 20, 30, 40, it wouldn’t matter, they’d pick the subjects they wanted/needed and be motivated to learn. Just a thought.

    • chavisory said,

      I like the idea of that a lot. The practical and political obstacles to carrying it out in the States would be intense, though.

  10. Aspergirl Maybe said,

    Fascinating post and comments as well. I was certainly bored and confused by much of my school experience and could have benefited so much from this type of approach with the right mentor.

    This gives me a lot of food for thought as I continue to try to figure out the best educational program for my son. Although we are staying with public school for the time being, I don’t know if that will be the best choice all the way through.

    Glad you wrote about this topic!

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