Tuesday, September 30, 2014

The Language That We Use Matters: Why Schooled People Aren't Sheep

This article was originally published in the July/August issue of Life Learning Magazine, a really lovely magazine filled with unschooling goodness, and it pleases me greatly that I've somehow become a somewhat regular contributor. You can check out another Life Learning original article of mine, When You Unschool You Don't "Unparticipate:" Community Engagement and the Value of Different Ideas, here in PDF form.

I find myself thinking more lately about the language we use when we talk about unschooling, and the way in which we talk about people who are not unschooling.

Often in my reading of unschooling and alternative education posts online (and sometimes in print as well), I’ve found myself wincing in discomfort at some of the language being used.

Drones. Zombies. Sheep. The masses.

I remember, in my teens as well, finding myself feeling uncomfortable at a comment or joke a fellow homeschooler or unschooler would make at the expense of school kids. I remember very vividly thinking one time it’s not their fault.

When we reduce the level of conversation to slinging about words like “sheep,” we’re both being hurtful and obscuring the points we’re actually trying to make. When we use language like that, I think we’re doing a couple of different things that we don’t want to be doing.

The only being we should be calling sheep are, you know, actual sheep.

We’re oversimplify things to a ridiculous extent. It’s not just a matter of people either doing what they’re told or forging their own path. Someone’s ability to choose a path such as unschooling is largely dependent on exposure to the concept (or similar concepts); the resources to actually follow through with it; feeling that their choices won’t be unduly punished due to severe marginalization they already face; and the support needed to maintain such a connected and unconventional way of living.

I hope that someday unschooling can be the way everyone has the opportunity to live, and I support all efforts to make unschooling and life learning (as well as any self-directed schooling projects) more widespread and more accessible. But we’re not there yet. In the meantime, blaming people for not being able to unschool, or feeling unable to do so, makes no sense and is pretty unfair.

Whether someone goes to school or went to school, has criticism of their schooling experience or thinks compulsory schooling is a good thing, it doesn’t lessen them as a person.

When we use negative language about schooled people, it’s alienating. If we really mean it when we say that we want more people to learn about and understand unschooling, and I truly believe that most of us do, then being superior about it isn’t going to help. I’m all for standing up to people who are being rude and aggressive about our choices, but if we start in with being rude and aggressive instead, we never give people a chance to express genuine curiosity and actually learn about our educational beliefs and learning lifestyle.

If we want to be very insular in our way of living, and furthermore have people know us as those rude and judgemental people, then maybe calling others zombie-drones is appropriate. Otherwise? It’s not appropriate, it’s not kind, and it’s not productive.

I’m all for criticizing schools, and compulsory education, and standardized curriculums. I absolutely believe there’s something majorly wrong with those things, and I appreciate the many great critiques out there. I just think you can criticize those things without criticizing the individuals who, through no fault of their own, are forced to attend school whether they want to or not.

I’m sure that the upper levels of institutional schooling (the bureaucracy, the government offices and corporate supplier of curriculum) would like to manage children like sheep, and turn them into drones (you know, good workers), but that does not mean that anyone, child or adult, is a sheep or a drone.

There’s a big difference between those two things.

I know I’ve talked disdainfully in the past about “the masses,” and though I hope I haven’t used any of the other ones, I really can’t swear I haven’t. I know all of us have seen these terms used by others, and most of us have probably used at least one ourselves.

In some of the less sensitive and perhaps less aware writing I did in my later teenage years, my passion for unschooling was often accompanied by anger at the institution of schooling, which is understandable. But what wasn’t reasonable was that it sometimes overflowed into negative feelings about kids who went to school.

So I get it. I get that it comes from defensiveness, and feeling that you’ve been rejected or are looked down upon by schooled people. I get it when it comes to teens and young people. And to some extent, I get it when it comes to adults, who may have similar feelings about judgement, and react similarly defensively. But, as an adult, be aware that the aspersions you’re casting on people who go to school include those who are currently in school. Children and teenagers.

I find the language we use has such a profound affect on the way we think. As I’ve learned and listened more when it comes to a variety of social issues, from racism and classism to adultism and heterosexism, I’ve found myself constantly challenged to look critically at the language I use, the way I write and speak, and what beliefs or prejudices might be lurking behind those words.

That self reflection has definitely bled into all of my writing, including my writing about education. It’s a continuous process of learning and growing, one I’m sure will be ongoing throughout my life. It involves some simple practices of actually listening when someone says “hey, that’s hurtful”; learning about and trying to remain aware of the social inequalities around us, whose voice is given more weight and whose rights are prioritized; and seeking in the way I act and speak and write to challenge these inequalities, and just to be kinder and more considerate.

In my writing about unschooling that meant, and continues to mean, thinking about who has the easiest time unschooling, who has access to the most resources, and paying attention to how I talk about people who aren’t unschoolers.

This isn’t an attempt to dictate how others write about unschooling. What I’m trying to do is merely share some of my own process, point out that some language I see being used too often can be both hurtful and alienating, and to just suggest that people put some real thought into their words.

We want to share this wonderful unschooling thing with others, not to have people think of us as those mean people who think everyone not like them are sheep.


  1. We should also recognize that the vast majority of people who work in school systems have good intentions, are smart, and are doing what they believe is best. There is no *one* thing wrong with the public school systems, and quite frankly I support them wholeheartedly - we just need a fundamental overhaul of them in terms of purpose and ability to meet learning goals. Some children really do better with structure, as a grown unschooler I believe that, and traditional schooling serves that niche. We need all the options we can get to help everyone learn in the way they learn best, and tearing apart the traditional school systems (literally or metaphorically) does nothing to reach the goal of good support and learning for everyone.

  2. I think a lot of us who promote so-called alternative forms of learning are susceptible to this dynamic. Over time, being on the defensive reinforces our natural inclination to view what we're doing as better, if not "right." Actually, I think this is the case for the conventionally schooled as well. Thanks for calling out this tendency and pointing to a more empathetic perspective.

  3. I agree so much, my use of language is continuing to change. I aim to de-escalate the emotion in what I say. This helps me be calmer and kinder when explaining things to other people. When I get it wrong I just use different words and try again during the same conversation. We have just moved on from home educating, but it is by choice. It feels similar, but the practicalities are completely different.

  4. The word I prefer to use is default. The default, unexamined choice, about school or anything. Neutral, but accurate.

  5. Argh, for some reason Google always eats my comments when I hit preview! :( from memory: thank you for this excellent post! Shared it on my Facebook and in a home ed group I'm part of, and I hope that lots of people will read it. I think it's quite easy to fall into this trap while raging against the system, but like you say, it's alienating – and not only alienating to the people who have no other choice, but of people who actively choose to pursue structured & academic education. And I mean, I definitely think that everyone needs to acknowledge how messed up the system is, including people who go into it by choice, but we need to remember to criticise the system without blanket-criticising the people who are part of it. Thank you for that reminder. :)

  6. An excellent point, and well made. It's a pleasure reading your blog. Please keep writing!
    Rebecca from Wellington, NZ