Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Uncollege, Hackschooling, and When Success and Profit Hijack the Message

I've been grumbling and grumping periodically (on the blog Facebook page, Twitter, and other online haunts) about the problems I have with the uncollege/education hacking movements for over a year now. People have reacted differently, some saying I'm being overly critical, some agreeing, and some just saying then WRITE something already explaining your stance instead of just complaining! Those latter people are probably right, in that perhaps it would have been a good idea to write about that ages ago, but at the same time, I don't think the timing was right. I haven't been in quite the right head-space.

I finally got the push I needed when I read a post a few days ago by Jessica over at College Rebellion. Several things came together: that post, the post she links (When "Life Hacking" is Really White Privilege, which I read a month or two ago and which has really stuck with me), and a quote I remembered posting many months ago. Suddenly it wasn't just that I felt vaguely uncomfortable almost every time I read something about uncollege or education hacking, now I had an actual post in my head. A place to start.

"Everybody, and I mean EVERYBODY, [is] jumping on the 'self-directed learning' bandwagon these days.

And they are bringing to it all the same old bullshit - children who are 'more'. More curious, more motivated, more more more.

So let me put my position out there. For me this lifestyle is about a principle and that alone - offering as free a life as possible to my children and myself. It's not about making a little super genius, super diverse interest, super engaged human. These children are not circus performers. So stop showcasing who did what at the youngest age, who gives the best TED teen presentations and not think that to me it will look no different except now the child is at home.

Unschooling, self-directed lives, natural learning, call it what you want. If it's 'about' results then it's not my cup of tea. Into flow or no expectations? Then I can engage even if the flow includes results." -Gillian Goddard
I think expecting that once grown someone has the skills to support themselves  is reasonable (if there are jobs to be had, and if disability, mental illness, or other serious things don't impede someone's ability to do that... So even that expectation isn't cut and dried). Nevertheless this perfectly highlights, to me, one of the biggest problems I feel there is with the uncollege type movement.

People have taken a philosophy about learning more freely, a philosophy that should be exciting and comforting at the same time (following what interests you, combined with the comfort of choosing how much or little you feel able to do, free from the stress of a heavy college course load), and turned it into just the newest way to claw your way up the corporate ladder, become a wealthy entrepreneur, or otherwise become "successful" by the most capitalistic measures out there.

Who are they speaking to?

I say "movements," plural, in this post because it isn't necessarily one movement, but a collection of trends moving in generally the same direction, that share a lot of commonalities in attitudes and views.

Generally, there's lots of talks about how college is a waste of time and money; college is conventional and makes someone boring, and to truly stand out from the crowd you should do impressive things instead (like travel the world or start a business); corporations prefer people who are involved with business from a young age instead of going to college; you'll learn more than your peers in college; the way of the future is technology, and schools are outdated and lacking in technology...

A couple of those I agree with (like the fact that college is really ridiculously expensive in some parts of the world, and most definitely in the US, for instance, though it's not as bad where I live), but many other seem like pretty bad points, to be honest, and points that only seem especially relevant to a select group of people.

While not going to college is cheaper than going, for many people doing anything but directly entering the job market is a struggle. Many people don't come from families where parents can support either college or expensive travel adventures, for instance.

Underpinning at least my understanding of unschooling has always been life learning as a, perhaps, liberatory approach to education. An unschooling influenced by Wendy Priesnitz' talk of life learning as an important part of saving our planet and re-imagining ways of living together, and unschooling as an important part of decolonization. The uncollege-and-hacking-your-education movements don't even seem to realize social inequalities exist, or if they do they don't seem to care. Ignoring the existence of institutionalized inequalities doesn't erase them, it just means that those considered the default, those already most privileged in our society, continue to be those best served by an oblivious or uncaring movement: white, male, straight, middle and upper class. No, not everyone involved falls into those categories. But everything I've seen seems to show that many people involved fall into at least a couple of those, and that there's very little to no representation from those most marginalized.

In prioritizing corporate and business ideas of success above any type of societal shift for a more just, more egalitarian, more sustainable world, I think it's clear that this movement isn't and has never been for everyone. It's just a new way for those already in the lead (of a race that was rigged to start with) to pull even further ahead.

Money talks

With the surge in popularity for unschooling, uncollege, hacking your education, edupunking, the whole learning-more-independently-outside-of-educational-institutions thing, there's been a corresponding surge in people trying to make money off of this trend. A "trend-spotting firm" (something that, until very recently, I did not know existed) even predicted recently that unschooling counselor will be one of "8 new jobs people have in 2025." I think it's fair to say that job already exists, with numerous people offering unschooling and uncollege coaching over phone, Skype, and through online programs. New events and alternative programs claiming to support this type of education are popping up all over the place.

I don't think this is necessarily bad in and of itself. In fact, in plenty of cases this is a good thing! But it does point to a worrying trend of both turning unschooling into yet another specialty held by experts, and something you need to pay for to receive, instead of something everyone can do without any type of expert intervention (finances to have the time to pursue education permitting).

It also leads to some people misrepresenting their credentials, their success, and their experience in order to take advantage of a new market. I often feel like those claiming to want to help the unschooling or uncollege community--for a fee, of course--are far less concerned with helping and far ore concerned with that fee. Who's genuine and reasonable when it comes to the numerous books, programs, and coaching available is, of course, something each individual can only decide for themselves. If you trust someone, can afford their services, and gain positive things from it, that's great! And if you love something you're knowledgeable about and want to help support yourself through the sharing of that knowledge, I also don't think there's anything wrong with that. I'd just like to see maybe a bit more accountability to the community, and more openness about an individual's experience and troubles. If someone's life seems too good to be true, it might be because it isn't true.

Either way, I find it alarming that unschooling is being turned into a commodity, information and expertise to be bought and sold, instead of a free-form philosophy about living and learning.

I've never felt like there's much room for me

I'm not attending college or university, and I never have attended any type of educational institution. So initially, I got excited about all this new stuff. I joined groups on Facebook, followed blogs, read articles. And quickly started feeling disillusioned. Nowhere was I seeing the concern for humanity as a whole I was more used to seeing in unschooling circles. I was just seeing a lot of Success! And tech! And success in tech! And entrepreneurship! Business is good! I saw posts suggesting pursuing learning in ways that didn't appeal to me at all, grand adventures that I'd never want to go on (and in fact with my struggles with anxiety probably couldn't go on without suffering a breakdown) and couldn't afford. I didn't feel like my anxious queer hippie feminist self had a place in that movement at all, and I still don't.

Not a condemnation

All that said, I think the college-free movements have helped popularize some important ideas. I think popular advocates have said plenty of good and helpful things. I think plenty of people have gotten a lot of good out of being a part of these movements. I don't think they should cease to exist. I just think there are a lot of largely unacknowledged problems, big blind spots, and goals I can never get behind. I want to like seeing unschooling ideas for college aged people getting so much attention and support, but I just feel uneasy and uncomfortable by so much of it that I see and read. And I really just hope to see more awareness in the future of social realities, and goals more closely aligned with the true success of all people, not just the wealthiest, whitest, most male of the lot.

[Edited March 19th] The note about comments that was originally posted here was taken by some as an attempt to dissuade criticism or disagreement with this post, which was not my intent at all. So instead I'd just like to remind people, when discussing this potentially loaded topic, to please remain respectful in the comment section, and to note that I will be moderating it and deleting hostile/disrespectful comments. Thank you for your understanding!


  1. Well, as first comment out of the gate I want to say this is an excellent post and hopefully encourages conversations that are important to have in the context of any form of education: who has access, who benefits, which ways of learning and what types of content are being centered and which marginalized, where are the silences, and so on. I so much agree with you that unschooling reinterpreted as a sort of genius-farm for those who are to brilliant to put up with formal schooling really misses the point of what my friend Molly calls "holding the space" for children and their learning -- regardless of their levels of conventional success. Learning outside of institutional spaces should not be a privilege bestowed upon the elite, or become an excuse to institute a more sink-or-swim mentality ("oh, you can't hack your own education? well, obviously we aren't interested in hiring YOU.").

    I'm grateful for the unschooling childhood I had. I'm also conscious it was made possible by certain kinds of privileges and I don't think it's acceptable to ignore that dynamic when we look at the future of education and what might be possible outside of the traditional classroom.

    1. Thanks so much for your comment, Anna! I always like seeing your comments on my stuff, you always have good things to say! :)

      "I'm grateful for the unschooling childhood I had. I'm also conscious it was made possible by certain kinds of privileges and I don't think it's acceptable to ignore that dynamic when we look at the future of education and what might be possible outside of the traditional classroom." I relate so much to that!! I always try and remain aware of that privilege of mine as well, and keep that awareness in my visions of ideal education, my writing about unschooling, etc.

  2. Wow. You've really given me something to think about. At first I was excited that unschooling was getting some positive press, but you're right. As inspiring as these talks may seem, they really don't reflect the average unschooling life.

  3. This is a very thought provoking article. I'm initially put off to pointing out a particular "advantaged" race, creed, gender... We all have our advantages in different micro-societies that exist all over the US at least. I just want to put that out there. Discrimination runs in every which direction in the modern US, as I've experienced it. I'm certainly not against taking advantage of our strengths as individuals. I just don't subcategorize human beings into such superficial terms. I wouldn't even know how. Looking into it based on statistical data, it's tricky. That's all I'll say on that.

    Still, some of what you talk about rings true for me personally as a human. How do people who "hack" education esteem themselves? Why not give esteem to all humans until proven otherwise incompetent? What are (or have been) the issues to throwing esteem to persons with degrees merely based on completing college courses? I think there are bundles of issues to look at here.

    Discrediting people is always going to have to be opinion/experience based. When you speak of new ideas, job markets, we have a new market in categorizing our experience with people (with or without degrees) by trying to assimilate opinions, job reviews in search engines like Angies List but there are many others. Most cites, even Ebay, have review/peer based search criteria built into them these days.

    Is education about getting ahead or about getting a head?
    Is the primary function of education making more money (if that's what you mean by success) or is it about learning?

    If it's about money, I'd say the degree poses an advantage unilaterally... until, your job review. It's not like these things go unchecked and there aren't eventual balances.

    But if a trade worker (or anyone, really) decides to learn about anything in the world, it isn't necessary to go to college to do so. However, there's still the problem with society (whichever one or microculture the person lives in, aligns with) basing their esteem for humanity, the trade worker's intelligence, based on the job, title or degree in hand.

    There's always that barrista at the coffee shop who has twenty different degrees but chooses a less chaotic path to the corporate ladder. We assume after hearing about the doctoral in something or other that the person is highly intelligent as opposed to someone who holds the same position but happens to read.

    I guess, I can see why it was difficult for you to write about this. One of the problems with ranking education is categorizing the aim or ambition of the venture. If one wishes to educate oneself for the sake of learning, college is utterly unnecessary and may even pose a hindrance or cherry pick what is considered educational to that endeavor. However, if one wants to build esteem in the eyes of "others", hold a title... I think there are many ways about doing so without a degree and many ways of doing so with a degree. It all kind of depends on the will of the individual and what getting ahead means to that person.
    Lots to chew on here. Thank you!

  4. I am not sure, when I read this, if I am quite clear about what or whom this "uncollege" movement is. I have a sort of image in my head of events like Quo Vadis or Trailblazer or the like, and the culture that tends to exist around them. But my experience of that world doesn't really resemble what you're describing here, so perhaps I am oblivious to something more nefarious that's going on. I'm also not quite clear how this movement is distinct from unschooling per se. Most of the criticisms you raise above could apply, for instance, to NBTSC, which is a largely white, affluent, apolitical space that charges money to provide support to unschoolers.

    While I've never called myself an "uncolleger", I did leave college after a few months and pursued my own studies and work path. This was a million years ago in 1995, and there were no resources available whatsoever for someone making that decision. Under those circumstances, my ability to "uncollege" (if we must use that term) was certainly due in large part to social privilege: I was, as you put it, the "wealthiest, whitest, most male of the lot". I could afford to take a risk in an arena without much infrastructure. In simple economic terms, I could afford not to go to college because I could afford to go to college. I didn't need a coach and a networking platform to help me find a cool job and a good living situation: I already had those skills, and more to the point, I already had that network. This is all textbook privilege.

    To my mind, the presence of new resources--books, programs, social media networks, coaching, etc.--tends to mitigate the effects of that privilege, not heighten them. In recent years, I'm starting to see people who _can't_ afford to go to college, but have access to (vastly cheaper) resources to help them navigate the alternatives. I take this to be a very good thing, and I've been impressed to see what it's meant for some people who are otherwise very underprivileged. I mean, part of me says "darn you kids, back in my day we didn't have any Facebook Groups or life coaches..." But that sentiment seems to me at best a sort of golden-glow nostalgia, and at worst it is actually a dream of re-asserting the unspoken privilege I once had, where neither the rich or the poor could go to an uncollege seminar.

  5. I recently read a paperback from the local library on hacking college. Some parts resonated, other parts bugged me. Thank you for helping me better discern what was behind the subtle grumbling in my gut. As an introvert married to an introvert and jointly raising up a creative, intense introvert, I found the constant barrage of references to networking (coffee, dinner parties, conferences and more) sapping--and that was just reading about it! If one isn't engaged in moving forward in some way all.the.time. then one is merely slipping behind the pack. And slipping behind--as opposed to creating start-ups, connecting with venture capitalists, and throwing parties filled with fascinating people--is for nobodies. Or at least that's what I felt when I put down the volume. Like most resources, I culled what I could from it that worked (or might work) for us, and am leaving behind the rest. I do appreciate that there is another voice in the world speaking about options to the standard path.

  6. YES!

    I was also super excited about, specifically, the UnCollege movement started by Dale Stephens. I thought it was awesome that someone was trying to shake up the way we think about higher education and what its value actually is. I even got involved at the end of 2011, but after a few months, it didn't feel right and it wasn't something I wanted to be a part of anymore.

    I am far more "mainstream," business-minded, entrepreneurial than you are, with different goals and different experiences as far as traditional education is concerned. I want to run my own business (as someone who thinks too much and doesn't play best with others, it's my best option), and I do believe that starting a business is way better experience than going to college, and is a good way to get into a business career - if that's what you want.

    I agree with a lot of the general ideas that UnCollege is built upon, but I feel like they promote one path like it's foolproof and great for all ("hack" your education -> start a business, preferably in tech/Silicon Valley, California -> get noticed -> instant success).

    I don't want that path at all! I value a lot of things more than I value money and fame. It just rubs me the wrong way.

    I've always felt too creative, too uninterested in technology, too introverted, not people-oriented enough, too travel-shy, and way too female to be welcome and valued in that group. I am all for breaking the mold, but UnCollege is for people who reject one mold and fit right into another.

    As for your points on how the associated people ignore social inequalities, it's something I had never even considered. I think it's very true though. Is it intentional? Maybe not. UnCollege is definitely for privileged people, and privileged people generally need their privilege pointed out to them. (I never saw how privileged I am either, until it was pointed out to me by you, your blog, and other blogs you've shared! I'm a better person now, and much more aware. :) )

    UnCollege and its people definitely feel self-serving to me, instead of trying to serve the world and truly help the people in it. I'm not a fan of using unschooling as a means to an end (that's contrary to the point of unschooling), but as a journey, a lifestyle, and a more honest way of living.

    I don't want to bash UnCollege, because it has gotten a lot of attention, and I'm sure it has helped a lot of people feel like they can succeed without going to college (whether by choice or not). I'm just glad I figured out soon enough that I had three choices: 1. Go to college, 2. Follow the UnCollege path, and 3. Do whatever feels right, and don't do what doesn't feel right. I picked the third, and it makes me immensely happy, and that's how I define my success.

  7. I think that when you do something new and out of the mainstream - you either need have a great self-esteem or be super self-confident. Self-esteem obviously being the hard one to achieve or build... So people go with self-confidence, which requires achievements to uphold. I think that the UnCollege movement is good for something - that people can see that they don't need a piece of paper to prove that they can learn or have learned. Maybe, just maybe this will lead to more people unschooling their kids? Who knows?