Friday, May 14, 2010

Speaking Out About Unschooling

Recently I'm realizing more and more, as I've been in contact with an ever growing amount of local unschoolers and alternative schoolers, as well as similar "radical" educational types, how very precarious the state of all non-institutionalized schooling is in my home province of Quebec.

I grew up hearing some homeschoolers worrying about having the neighbors call child protection services, and I remember hearing of a couple scary stories when they were called...  Things never seemed all that bad, though, overall.

But in recent times, it seems to me that the climate here is becoming increasingly unfriendly to those outside of traditional schools, even as (or perhaps because of) the steady rise in the amount of people choosing to stay far away from the school system.  I'd wonder if maybe my personal perspective has changed as I've gotten older, and I'm just noticing it more now, except that others in the area are saying the exact same thing: from speakers at a local Christian homeschooling conferences, to freeschool advocates and anarchist unschoolers.  The government really is cracking down on what they seem to see as a potential threat to their control of the minds of children and teens.

When I commented about this on Facebook, several people suggested it was a fallout from the recent publicity unschooling has been getting.  I can't speak for anywhere else, but I know that that's certainly not the case here!  The general population in Quebec pays very little (I'd go so far as to say no) attention to news in the States.  And even beyond that, this isn't something that recent: I think the last several years have shown an increase.

But those comments raise an important point (one I've talked about a bit before, and thought about a lot more), about whether publicity, and whether being very outspoken, is a good thing or not?

Many unschooling and homeschooling families choose to be "under the radar".  To just quietly go about living their lives, without bringing much if any attention to *how* they're living.  I totally understand and respect that as a personal choice: either because you don't want to deal with the annoyance of being constantly questioned, or even more importantly because unschooling is borderline legal where you live (as in Quebec), so being open about it can be downright dangerous, depending on your situation (I know that my family didn't even admit to being homeschooled [let alone unschooled] when we were younger, if we could help it.  We all felt safer that way!).

But I take issue with the idea that people in general who have chosen non-traditional paths in education *should* keep quiet about it, stay under the radar, for fear of government crackdowns and restrictive laws.

I think that's a horrible way to go about things, and honestly a very selfish way.  People who are unschooling, people who have started or send their children to or go to democratic or free schools, people who are natural, autonomous learners of all types, are showing that the alternatives are wonderful.  We're going beyond the theoretical and actually showing, through our lives, how joyous life can be without a coercive schooling system.  To keep these alternatives quiet seems a gross injustice to everyone currently in the school system.

I watched The War on Kids last night, screened as part of this month's Festival of Anarchy.  It's a GREAT film, though very depressing.  I cried at multiple points during it, and I just kept thinking "thank you mom, for never sending me to school!".  To allow things to continue the way they are, to keep quiet when so many are suffering--depressed, self-harming, suicidal--in school doesn't feel right to me.

I think that those who feel comfortable, and those at least risk by doing so, have, well, I'd almost go so far as to say a *duty* to be outspoken.  To share our stories, speak out, write about it, write "Ask Me About Unschooling (Freeschooling, Homeschooling...)" on our shirts... ;-) Just to be OUT THERE, willing to discuss and share.

My family is at a point where both my sister and I are old enough to be safe from government intervention.  I'm past compulsory schooling age, and Emi would be finishing her last year of high school were she in the system.  So we're in an excellent position, and one we're taking advantage of, to be very outspoken.  My mother, sister and I spoke at a local homeschooling conference last month.  I'm speaking as part of a panel on radical education at the upcoming Anarchist Bookfair.  We've been connecting with lots more local educational radicals of all stripes.  And there's also other amazing local stuff going on, promoting alternatives to the traditional educational model: a local mother is helping to start a freeschool, as well as writing a book about how harmful the school system is (which I'm helping to edit/organize); a young Quebec teacher is putting together a documentary on how bad a job the schools are doing, and how many wonderful alternatives are out there!

I'm thrilled to have connected with so many locals recently, excited to be a part of this movement for educational freedom in Quebec, and looking forward to connecting with many more people in the coming days...

Not only do I think being outspoken is incredibly important, it also just feels so GOOD to share something I'm so passionate about, to be a part of a movement I think is so important!

For all of us who have solutions outside of the mainstream, institutionalized models, I really do believe the best way forward is to speak up!  The more voices, the better. :-)



  1. I believe in something Martin Luther King, Jr said: "Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter."

    You're dead-on about the selfishness of keeping a low profile too.

  2. @Arp: I really like that quote. :-)

    I think it's okay and entirely an individual decision whether *you* personally are very vocal or not. What I think is selfish is thinking people should keep a low profile in general...

  3. I totally agree. It's increasingly important that we demonstrate the success of the various alternative models of education. I believe we're nearing a tipping point regarding public education...and that it will inevitably change a la Godin, Pink and other non-educational writers. So it's natural that the old guard will dig in its heals and be aggressive in its own defense. It is, as you say, easier to speak out once the threat of persecution is removed (which is why I'm still here after 35 years of advocacy!). So good on you for all the outreach you're doing.

  4. I agree that it's important to be outspoken, but I would hesitate to call anyone selfish for choosing not to be. Unschooling is, in a sense, a process of learning that "selfishness" is good. It's about knowing that it's okay to learn what *you* want to learn, to do what *you* want to do with your life and your time, and to make your own choices for your own reasons.

    I'm glad you mentioned your quiet early years of unschooling. It illustrates exactly why we sometimes "should" remain under the radar. Our children deserve absolute consideration in our decision of how public we want to be as unschooling families. Mine prefer that I refrain from risking that they get sent to school.

  5. That didn't come out exactly right. I didn't mean to sound like I was dissing your point because I'm all for the bravery of openness! I guess I am one of those people who has been more scared lately. I had a friend get turned into CPS a few weeks ago, and now the school district is going back over her paperwork, at the end of the year, which they already approved at the beginning of the year, and they are now threatening to tell her she's not in compliance. Argh! As unschoolers, I am not confident that our home would pass muster, were we ever to be more closely examined, so the last thing I want to do is risk being more closely examined.

  6. @Cheryl: Maybe I didn't phrase it right? I was saying I think it's selfish to believe NO ONE should be outspoken about unschooling, that the whole movement should remain under the radar. I didn't say, nor did I ever mean, that an *individuals* choice to keep quiet about their lifestyle was selfish in the least. I'm very sorry if I offended you. I definitely understand making the choice to be less open about unschooling for safety's sake, as my family did when we were still at risk!

  7. Arp, speaking of MLK, Jr., in the early 60s, I was herded by police horses, bitten by police dogs, and beaten by police clubs for my Civil Rights activities. Later in the 60s and early 70s, I got more of the same for my anti-war activities. These days, with unschooling, I'm content to just *do* it and not proselytize it aggressively. Call me selfish, if you will, but I've spent enough energy outside my personal universe and I choose to spend my time and effort on my wife and children nowadays. I promise not to chastise *you* for being a vocal apologist and advocate for unschooling. So, where can I find your unschooling essays, books, tv appearances, etc.?

  8. I have always lived my life open, and bold. So when it comes to raising my children, it is just natural to be that way. I do not worry what others think. I am also blessed to live in a place where I am free to do so. For me I feel it is important to show others, such a freedom, and joy.Parents are the ultimate authority, not our government. I want to insure this continues for my children and their future.
    As for my husband, he did not like it when I would announce to our friends things like "I don't use a curriculum", or " We don't test". I told him to take a good look at our children. He no longer is concerned with what others think,and may brag a little to much! :)

  9. Unschooling is out of the closet. Personally, in the past few days I've had requests to speak to a mom's group about the topic; I've been asked to contribute my footage to a film a young man is making on 'teaching yourself,' people have contacted me about the radio show and if we can continue it.
    I think that tipping point Wendy mentioned is flying towards us.
    So far, in my experience I have been very lucky.
    I have never had to hide what I do. People have mostly been really positive on hearing about unschooling. Maybe because we live and work with very open-minded social and environmental 'activist' types and people who feel comfortable with who they are in life who just get it.
    Those who did question at first now have to admit that it works beautifully (the proof is in the pudding).
    I wholeheartedly support Idzie's plans to be more vocal about unschooling.

  10. This makes me think about when I was a new breast-feeding mother. Because the over-sexualization of breasts in this culture makes breastfeeding difficult, I felt very awkward and uncomfortable feeding my child in public. But I thought that if I were to go to a bathroom or similarly remove myself from the view of others, that I would be contributing to the belief that breastfeeding is somehow shameful and that breasts are primarily to be used for men's sexual pleasure. So, the very fact that I felt uncomfortable feeding my child, to me was all the more reason to do it. Because women shouldn't feel that way. It should be so commonplace that no one thinks anything of it. And the more women do it, the more quickly this will be realized.

    I guess I feel the same way about unschooling. If our parental rights really are being threatened, it seems to me to be all the more important to speak out, and especially to speak out in solidarity with one another.

  11. I am open about our unschooling life, mainly because I am proud of it and proud of my kids, I want both of them to know that what we are doing is great, and that following our hearts is much more important than conforming to what others think we should be doing. Yes, doubts sometimes come up for me. If at some point we run into trouble, I hope I am able to fight the battle in an honest and objective way. It all comes down to protecting what we believe in. This is the example I want to show my kids.

  12. I was having a hard time just flying under the radar as we unschooled. Just could not keep my mouth shut about something I'm so passionate about.

    But I must admit, I felt quite relieved when my youngest (who completely on her own opted to take and) passed a HS equivalency test last month. No more concerns of gov't intervention there.

    We haven't yet seen the War On Kids film, but my daughter frequently expresses gratitude for not having been subjected to school :)

    Do you think the shift in attitude may be coming from the UK? My unschool/homeschool friends there are now facing some dark days.


  13. I've never really given thought to the idea that we, like any other group, need advocacy. I tend to offer vague answers when asked about my homeschooling life, not out of embarrassment really (though that does factor into it sometimes, when so many people break out the stories of their horrible uneducated redneck homeschooled cousins, of which everyone seems to have one or two), but because it's so inconvenient to have to be the one to educate people. It's a pain to go through the 'no, it doesn't work like that' process, and to disabuse them of their ideas that every homeschooler is some kind of crazy extremist or government hater or religious nut (though we have plenty of those, and they, unfortunately, tend to be the noisiest and best publicized). Recently though Unschooling has been getting a lot of bad publicity in the US and, thinking about it, I feel like it's a bit more of my duty to try to educate the people who ask me about it about some of the good it can do, too.

  14. It can be difficult and isolating to speak out against the norm. I know that my own stances unfortunately are beginning to have that effect.

  15. Is breastfeeding considered out-of-the-norm in Canada/US?

  16. This post is very inspiring. I find that I am taking such steps out here in the States. So far I'm "just another blogger," but I am getting in contact with actual organizations to share my written views on democratic and alternative education. I haven't gotten to the level of public speaking (yikes) but I hope to. I am *actually* finishing my senior year of high school unfortunately, and I've been in the conventional system for my whole youth. In terms of being outspoken, now that I am almost done with k-12, I do feel more comfortable expressing my ideas and experiences, and to spreading the word about the alternatives step by step.

    Putting oneself out there is challenging, but needs to be done in many ways, big and small.

  17. 'My feminine mind' I like how you compared it to brestfeeding and I think you are very aware to see that the very uncomfortableness you feel is more reason to push forward and remove the door blocking what we know is correct. I saw a special on ABC that made me uncomfortable. It was very bias against unschooling and you could see the way they cut and edited the program to make it fit in their favor. I then read so many blogs and comments on news channels with people actually going as far as saying parents should go to jail for child mistreatment. People fight so blindly.
    I wrote two blog post to counter the misinformation.