Saturday, August 31, 2019

Yes, There ARE Things Every Kid Should Know: Social Justice and Self-Direction

I’ve seen some interesting discussion from fellow leftists in and around the unschooling world in regards to social justice and the importance of children--all children--knowing certain things. The issue raised is this: if we can agree that there are important issues of power and oppression that all children should understand, how do you reconcile that with an approach which, on the surface, looks like children learning whatever they want, regardless of what anyone else thinks?

I agree that there is a baseline of knowledge and understanding necessary in order to be a thoughtful and kind person, and in order to engage in the work needed to dismantle structures of oppression. How are children to understand the current context if they don’t know the history of the Holocaust, of American slavery, of British colonialism, of Canadian residential schools? Children are generally taught about the ways in which they themselves are marginalized either by a hostile world which never lets them forget it, or by loved ones looking to prepare children for that world. But what about making sure all children, no matter their background, are equipped to challenge power and behave conscientiously towards those around them?


I believe the concern that these things won’t be learned if children just “do whatever they want” rests on a fundamental misunderstanding of what unschooling is, or at least my understanding of it. I’ve often described unschooling as self-directed learning that is guided by the desires and needs of the learner and their communities. We exist in a world full of other people, and I would never disagree about the importance of living as morally and justly as we can, which requires being educated about important topics.

However, using oppressive and authoritarian methods to try and teach anti-oppression and anti-authoritarian politics is ridiculous and counter-productive. People learn what they live, and no matter how great the content being taught, if the structure or ways of relating reinforce hierarchies, dominance, and oppression--if children are learning that people who are bigger and older are entitled to control and dictate to those younger and weaker, they will not be learning the lessons we want them to. It’s simply unjust to use force and coercion to try to “make” children learn something, and the belief that the ends justify the means is just the type of attitude that sustains modern schooling, that continues a system built on the denial of children’s autonomy, and the enforcement of a colonialist Western model of education and social organization.

I think becoming educated on important topics can be achieved through unschooling. I further believe it’s imperative to try and nurture these qualities respectfully, and detrimental to try and do so any other way.

After all, people don’t tend to remember the things they’re taught against their will, when they don’t see the relevance or real world implications, when they’re somewhere they don’t want to be and are being taught by people they may not like. There’s a quote by Katrina Gutleben that goes “Learning can only happen when a child is interested. If he's not interested, it's like throwing marshmallows at his head and calling it eating.” This is why I don’t believe a mandatory curriculum covering everything any of us might decide ALL children should learn would be any more effective than current curriculums, where most information that’s taught is never truly learned.

One of the things that’s always appealed to me about unschooling is the anti-authoritarianism baked into an ideology that treats education not as something done to children by learned adults, but as an organic, collaborative, community-rooted process. It embraces horizontal ways of relating to other people, across age divides, and invites us all to question the oppressive structures we’ve been told are just and necessary. It is one way to start creating a different world, to live as we wish things to be instead of recreating harm.

Do all unschoolers feel this way? Not remotely. There are unschoolers with politics I consider terrible, who have very different goals than mine when it comes to embracing self-directed education, and who are passing on a lot of harmful ideas about the world to their children.

Here is where I agree with the people who believe that some things just need to be learned in order to challenge injustice. Unschooling, on its own, is not enough. Respectful parenting alone is not a complete solution.

So what to do? Well, here is where I think the importance of family and community culture comes into play. Who is part of a child’s life? What are their perspectives, experiences, and values? If children are surrounded by people who talk about and embody different ways of existing and living outside of the dominant culture, who discuss inequalities and structural violence, important history and current events, who work to unlearn their own prejudices and fight for justice, who care and learn and struggle and include children in all of that--then that is what they will learn to do themselves.

While some disagree, I’ve never seen unschooling as a way to shelter children, or as a way to control what they learn. As I’ve discussed before, I see unschooling as a way to open up more of the world, not to restrict it. I’m also never going to argue against having firm boundaries about, say, not using slurs or derogatory language about marginalized people. I am not suggesting that unschooling is a free-for-all, but that there are far better, more authentic, more consensual ways for children to learn than an “anti-oppression curriculum.”

I also think it’s important to note that while children do not have all the knowledge and experience that adults generally have, and so of course it’s important for adults to be role models and help children gain those things, we must recognize that children, too, have valuable experience and perspectives that add to adults lives, and to social justice and liberatory movements themselves. There’s a great meme I’ve shared before on Facebook, that states in part “Children's innate tendency to question the status quo as well as their ability to imagine an ideal world without limits makes their active engagement in organizing efforts an invaluable resource as we move together towards ultimate liberation for all.”

It’s easy to fall into the trap of seeing children as empty vessels to be filled, as people in training instead of people now, when the reality is that everyone has things to both learn and share, everyone has something to add across the spectrum of ages. And if any movements are seeing children solely as almost-people in need of molding they’re both perpetuating oppression and missing out.

To bring it all back around, there is definitely knowledge that is important in attempts to challenge injustice and create better ways of living. However, the best way to acquire it is to live it, to be surrounded by people who care. Kind of the same way adults gain the knowledge and skills necessary to make positive change. Children, though their needs, their experiences, and their development may be different from adults, are still every bit as deserving of basic respect, to be included instead of condescended to, to have relationships with people who see their involvement as valuable.

If we really care about making things better, we can’t do so by recreating the same power structures that oppress us all. Instead, we need to recognize every person as a potential ally and partner in the struggle for justice… including kids.

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