Thursday, August 13, 2009

My response to some unschooling questions and concerns

I got this message from someone a little while ago, and I figured my response may be of some interest to my readers. The original email is in italics, and my response is in regular font!

Your blog is very interesting to me. I tried to leave this as a comment on your January 8 post about unschooling, but it is too long. Thus, I hope you don't mind receiving a comment via e-mail. You are a thoughtful, articulate writer, and I enjoyed reading through your blog.

Thank you! I'm glad you enjoyed my blog. I'll do my best to address your comments and concerns as honestly as possible, and since I think this exchange may be of some interest to my readers, I'm going to post it on my blog as well!

I attended traditional public school in the United States (near Washington, DC), but I did not really have a bad experience, myself. My parents were hippies with a relaxed parenting style, and maybe that counterbalanced my public school experience. So even though public school worked out for me, the ideas behind unschooling are not bizarre or nonsensical to me. I find the philosophy of it very appealing, in fact. And yet I have some concerns I cannot shake, and I wonder what you think about them.

Pretty much everyone who isn't actually unschooling has concerns they can't shake! Unschooling is so very different from the norm, so very far off from the widely accepted views of how people learn, that it's hard to wrap your mind around it. Hell, I was eclectically homeschooled until I was about 9 or 10, then unschooled throughout my teens, and I only really gained complete confidence in it a bit over a year ago!

First, I do think there are some subjects that would be very difficult to learn through unschooling. Math, for example, builds on itself so that mastering the most advanced concepts might take 10 years of intensive study and practice. For a small child who wants to be an astronaut, it may be very hard to connect that goal with the dull task of learning multiplication tables. And yet it would be very difficult to learn calculus without learning one's multiplication tables. I guess I am skeptical that young children -- and even older children -- would have the ability to assess what they need to know to reach a particular goal and the discipline to learn material that comprises the dull building blocks to support this goal.

Actually, unschoolers learn math just as easily as all other subjects! Though many parents who choose to unschool their kids (though certainly no where near all) are more liberal arts types, the unschooling children and teens themselves are a complete mix of more math and science oriented and more arts and language oriented people. There are many unschoolers who've gone into college in the maths and sciences area, and even though I'm definitely not a big fan of math, and haven't done more than poke at a math book since I was about 10, I can do basic math in my head faster and more accurately than a good friend of mine who just graduated public high school at the top of his class (actually, at the top of his entire grade)! All public school teaches is how to use a calculator, and many students go through high school without gaining any real understanding of mathematics. Also of interest, I've heard anecdotal stories of unschoolers who happily study (and do well at) the higher maths in college, without having ever memorized their times tables!

This isn't because I don't "trust" children or have faith in their abilities. It's because certain subjects are by their nature abstract, and that makes them much less likely to draw a child's interest. I would worry about the possibility that my son might decide at age 15 that he wants to be an astronaut, and yet he wouldn't know his multiplication tables. Yes, he could learn, but he would have years of catching up to do, and that would be unfortunate I think.

It seems to me that unschooling is much better suited to children with interests and goals in literature, the arts, maybe history, social sciences, etc., and not so much in the hard sciences and math areas.

Actually, I would say that your words do show a lack of trust in both children and the natural learning process. As many young children become fascinated with numbers as do with language, or building things, or insects. Math is part of life, and until it's made into something to be dreaded for many people in school, it's just as interesting a thing to learn about. You also make the mistake of believing that things must be learned at a certain time, or they can never be learned. Many unschoolers go until their mid to late teens without ever cracking open a math textbook, yet once they decide that they want to take the SAT's so that they can get into college, they study for a bit, then pass the SAT! MOST unschoolers go on to college (I'm in the minority since I don't plan to go to university), in a variety of fields. It does not take ten years of textbook study to get the math needed to enter college, even if you're going into the fields of math or science! I was recently talking to a schooled friend about the possibility of writing the test for my high school leaving certificate, and telling him that I thought I'd need to study for about 3 months to be able to pass. His response? You could do it in one month! Just because you're not using textbooks doesn't mean you're spending years where you're not learning. There's very little "catching up" needed.

I also think there is value in learning about things that you don't necessarily find interesting. Sometimes this is because only upon being exposed to it do you know that it might interest you. But it is also because there are things worth knowing that might not be very interesting. For example, I know people who know very little about history and think it is dull and irrelevant. And then they say really stupid things about current events or issues, and its obvious that their statements are due to their complete ignorance. Anyone is prone to that, but I can't help but wonder if unschoolers would be particularly prone.

You also make the mistake of thinking unschooling parents play a very passive role. Throughout my childhood and teen years, my mom would bring interesting books into the house (we also have a personal library of AT LEAST 5,000 books, I believe more), share interesting articles from the paper, send me links to cool websites or articles online, tell me about activities I may find interesting... We made (and make) regular trips to the library, and when I was young we participated in numerous activities. Unschoolers are exposed to far MORE of the world, since we're actually living in the world, than schooled kids who are stuck inside a building all day, away from the real world, and taught only a very limited curriculum. You say you're open minded to unschooling, yet your words seem very judgmental of a lifestyle that you admittedly know very little about!

You can be "taught" something, but you'll only get anything out of it, only retain the knowledge, if it means something to you, if it seems interesting and important. I'm guessing the people who make "ignorant" remarks about history are schooled, no? I know the people I've heard make comments like that are or were either traditionally schooled or homeschooled, not unschooled. They were taught all about history, but to them it was meaningless and boring. True learning only takes place when the learner is interested in a subject. Otherwise, it's simply rote memorization.

Last, I think it's a mistake to think that public education is really about the content taught. It isn't, for the most part. (From your post, I don't think you think public education is about the content either, but I see that you've raised the point in addressing the questions that other people ask you.) As a parent, I generally think it's my job to handle the content, because really learning about subjects requires experience and involvement -- i.e., traveling to Europe or China or wherever, instead of reading about these places in a textbook, visiting museums or nature centers, etc. Now, this isn't always true -- for some subjects, public education can teach content. (Again, I'm thinking of math, where the dull building blocks can easily be taught in public school.) But for most subjects, the content isn't taught all that effectively, and most people do forget it over the long term.

While you think the real goal of public school is to teach submission and obedience, I don't quite agree with you. I think it can have that effect, if parents are not careful. But I don't think it has to, and I don't think it necessarily does.

Instead, I think one of the most valuable things the public school experience teaches is how to maintain your sense of self -- your dignity, your identity, your sense of control and self-definition -- in an environment where everything is not within your control. In life, we must deal with people we don't like, rules we find objectionable, policies we find foolish. Our life choices may help us limit our exposure to these things. But other life choices require us to learn how to deal with these things. Becoming a lawyer or an astronaut, for example, requires the ability to navigate certain systems -- educational systems, career systems, government systems. Learning to navigate these systems -- to manipulate them effectively to achieve our own goals -- is an essential skill, IMHO. That's not to say that every kind of life path requires them. I have friends who are artists or dancers or craftsmen who have, for the most part, avoided these systems. But a person who has not learned to navigate these systems has far fewer choices in life. They cannot become a lawyer or an astronaut, a doctor or a veterinarian, because achieving these goals requires knowing how to function in an environment that is not entirely self-created and interest-driven.

I'm glad you agree that public school is not really about the content being taught. However, I find it incredibly sad that you realize school is a place where there's a constant assault on you dignity and sense of self, yet you think children should be forced to spend every single day in such an environment. As an unschooler, I have grown up in a safe, loving, nurturing environment, and because of that, I'm a healthy, happy individual who has the confidence to interact with a world where many people, and many institutions, are trying to undermine my dignity and sense of self. That's why so many people are so impressed with most unschooling teens! Unschooling creates whole human being, who have developed healthily thanks to the wonderful environment they grew up in. I see so many schooled teens and adults who have been damaged by the system. They've created a shell for themselves, and I think this is what you're attempting to get at when you talk about learning to survive in the school environment, but inside that shell they're insecure, scared of "failure", and don't know how to function in a healthy way. They've also learned that external validation is the only sort of validation, and that you must always live up to another persons expectations.

Now, maybe unschoolers can learn how to function in such an environment without public school. Certainly life does provide other opportunities to learn this skill, but only in very small doses. When I went to public school, I was encouraged to participate and to achieve, but only as a means to an end, not as an end in itself. I was taught by my parents to ask questions and challenge teachers. I was encouraged to use the public school and its resources for my own purposes, not to submit to it. And I am glad that I was so encouraged, because my current life as a part-time lawyer and full-time mom would be impossible without some formal education, the ability to achieve on standardized tests (including the bar exam) and the ability to function in the workplace (where I am sometimes required to spend time on subjects I don't find very interesting or compelling, but which are the essential underpinnings of larger goals I find laudable).

You can learn to "work the system" whether or not you go to school! I was a member of the Royal Canadian Air Cadets for three years. As it's literally based on the military, with "fun" components tossed in since it's designed for youth, it's quite structured, with a rigid ranking system, separate levels (grades), and all that jazz. I've never been to school (I don't count kindergarten) and when I chose to leave cadets, I was at the highest rank I could be for the amount of years I'd been there. I hated it, and I discovered that I'm never going to be part of that sort of structure again, but I can most certainly function in it! You don't need to have been in a rigidly structured institution your entire life to be able to function in one. As I already said above, unschoolers are in no way limited in their options.

Yet another assumption you make is that unschoolers will never do anything that isn't "fun" since they're not forced to. That's silly. Everyone has goals and aspirations, and if you want something badly enough, you're going to do whatever needs to be done to get there, whether or not each individual activity is fun. Unschoolers don't do pointless busywork. That doesn't mean they don't work towards the things that are important to them! I have, and will continue to do, things that I don't particularly enjoy, yet I do them because they're necessary for something that truly matters to me, something I'm passionate about! If I find that I really want to take a course offered by a school that won't accept me unless I have a high school leaving certificate (not that that's likely, since ALL the universities in my area accept students without paperwork), then I'll take those few months to study, and get my certificate! I don't like learning things of no value to me, such as I would have to if I wanted m certificate, but if I had to to get to where I wanted to be, then I would.

My older son starts kindergarten later this month. I have a lot of trepidation about it. I have this feeling that he isn't going to like it, that he's not going to be terribly good at it, and that it isn't going to add much to his knowledge. But I am sending him anyway, because I think it is essential for him to navigate a world that does not cater to him and of which he is not the sole master. I will be very curious to see how he does. I am also open-minded to the possibility that it will be a very poor fit for him and that it will offer nothing valuable for him. In that case, I would be willing to change gears, and all options would be on the table, including unschooling.

Our culture does not foster human happiness, and seeks to maximize production and consumption above all else. That's what the schooling system is for: creating worker bees. Worker bees are what the economic system needs. You say you think that young children should be shoved into a system that is indifferent to their emotional well being, and you act as if that's a good thing. I say that's terrible. Unschooling raises WHOLE human beings, human beings who are comfortable in their own skin, healthy, confident. Whole human beings can navigate this unfriendly society far more successfully than can people whose souls have been crushed by the school system!

I find it hard to believe that you'd consider unschooling, since you come across as feeling very negatively towards it. You speak as one who believes that public schooling is best. It seems to me you're saying that you think children should go to school so they learn just how unimportant their feelings and emotional health is!

I apologize if I offend you with this response, as that's not my intention. It's simply a subject I feel passionately about, and your words hurt my heart. I hurt for your own son, and all the other children being sent, against their will, to school this year. You sound like you also believe school will hurt your son, and are only sending him as some sort of "tough love" thing. I don't understand how you could send him there, feeling the way you seem to (I could be wrong, that's simply what I gathered from your words)!

Something that also may be of interest to you is Eli Gerzon's Whole Soul Safety or the Real Reason to Rise-Out of School.

I hope that, at the very least, you can come to see where I'm coming from in my feelings and opinions on this issue!



  1. Fantastic response! I NEVER understand those who say they think USing is great & yadda yadda, but that they're going to send their children to school anyways to make sure they can deal with the crappy parts of life...because you know, one doesn't have to deal with them if they aren't forced to go to son is about to turn 6yrs and has delt successfully with a lot of crap and he's never been to school.

    I don't understand, "I love him/her, don't want them hurt, but I'm sending them to school anyways"...just don't get it.

  2. It sounds to me like she is searching. I totally agree that some professions you just have to go to college but it doesn't take 12 years to be ready for college. If her son decided to be a truck driver would that be okay with her?
    My son is going to start junior college in a couple of weeks and would like to be a lawyer also. He did better on the ACT than his pre-calculus private schooled friend and many public schooled friends! So it can be done and it doesn't take as long as the school system drags it out.
    I encourage her to search her heart and the internet. There are lots of information pages, forums, and yahoogroups that could help her hash out the answers to her questions.

    Hope you don't mind my comment Idzie.

  3. Just "meeting" you from a link on twitter... You have some great thoughts here, and great first hand experience!! I was homeschooled (an eclectic mix of unschooling and book work) as a child, and have mixed my children's educational experience in both public school and at home. This year, my two youngest will be home, and I'm looking forward to taking an eclectic approach to it. It's what I love about homeschool. It's so easy to tailor to each individual!!

  4. Melissa, yes, I am searching, I suppose, though I didn't realize I was. And yes, as my son's happiness is most important to me (rather than some culturally driven idea of "success"), I would be fine if he wants to be a truck driver. I am a lawyer, but I am a part-time government lawyer for who works to live, not a lawyer who lives to work.

    Michele, I don't think school is necessarily a place that "hurts" people. I think for some people it can have that effect, but for others, it is a positive experience. I would not send my son to school if I really thought it would "hurt" him. If my son turns out to be one of those kids for whom school is not a positive experience, I would not keep him in school. I think Idzie misunderstood me on this point, which probably is because of the way that I worded my e-mail.


  5. I want to spend a month in your library.

  6. BMM - Don't wait too long! I sent my kids to school on the "Well, we'll just see how it goes" program. Two years later I had a 6yo who was having suicidal thoughts. Her despair came on SO fast. Two months from bright and bubbly to writing a "Things I Hate" list with herself at the top of it.

    We started unschooling when our oldest was in 4th grade and our youngest was in 3rd. It took about five years for the last obvious remains of the school damage to heal. Math, in particular, was positively RUINED for them by school. After loving math games as toddlers, they both started coming home with "I hate math" comments. So sad!

    If I had it to do over again, neither one would have set foot in a school.

    Think of it this way: Just as it's never too late to homeschool, so too is it never too late to send them to school. Start with the known kindest path.

  7. That's sad but also helpful to hear your say that Ronnie: I guess school really can have a damaging effect - fast. Was reading a lot about the history of school today and it sounds like it's really designed to be that way. Here's a great video about that history:

  8. @Michele: Yup, I just don't get it either.

    @Melissa: I most certainly don't mind your comment. On the contrary, I love getting comments, so thank you very much for leaving yours! :-)

    @Rachel: Thanks for your comment!

    @BMM: I'm partway through responding to your email, and will try and get it finished and sent in the next couple of days. I really appreciate our exchange, and the fact that it feels positive to me. Thank you for being willing to read what I have to say! :-)

    @Will: *Laughs* I love discovering books in my own house that I never even knew we owned... Just today I said I wanted to get out some Calvin and Hobbes comics from the library, only to be told that we own a bunch!

    @Ronnie: Thank you very much for sharing your story . Hearing that makes me incredibly sad, but I think that's definitely very important for a lot of people to hear!

    @Eli: I find the history of the school system to be both fascinating and horrifying to read about. I'd be very interested in that video, but the link is messed up! If you read this, could you possibly re-post it...? Thanks!

  9. LOVED what you said here. I've never thought about unschoolers being exposed to more real world than schooled people, fantastic response, so glad you made the time to respond to this person, thanks, some really great stuff here.

  10. @Ruth: Thanks so much! Glad you like this post. :-)

  11. Love this! I am a mom to 4 ages 9, 6, 2 & 5 months, all unschooled. We know children who are unschooled, schooled at home, public schooled & everywhere in between. The unschoolers all seem to have a maturity beyond their years, not to mention strength in their goals I never had as a public school kid. Thanks for sharing your thoughts! Very well written! "My kids are not uneducated, just unschooled!"

  12. awesome! i learned so much here. you are one seriously talented young woman, including wonderful writer - clear, concise... i'm jealous of your skills! i'm totally gonna unschool my kids if i ever have any! i love it. it seems to all fall in line with living more consciously, living in the moment. we are all capable of so much more than we give ourselves credit for. i especially loved your paragraph that included: "I'm a healthy, happy individual who has the confidence to interact with a world where many people, and many institutions, are trying to undermine my dignity and sense of self." and "They've also learned that external validation is the only sort of validation, and that you must always live up to another persons expectations."

    completely insane, isn't it?! my public and private schooling was enjoyable for the most part but i was always pretty shy at school, compared to being a total clown at home. my husband's mother and many other family members are teachers and believe in schools very strongly (it seems, i'm learning hebrew so i can learn more about what my MIL really thinks, since she doesn't speak much english) ... my point is that Guy (husband) was totally raped by the school system. he was a shining example of a kid that totally did not belong in a formalized education setting. he was in school in the 70's and 80's so they didn't label him with all that fancy letters they have these days (add, adhd, etc) but he was all that and more. it's taken him until now (he's still working on it) to value himself and be confident enough to be an artist and work with animals - two things he begged his parents to let him do as a child. i could go and on. hopefully your blog and your own life and others can help to make necessary changes in the way our society thinks and behaves...

    phew. i feel better now! glad to meet you, you talented girly! :)