Sunday, October 3, 2010

The Need For Schooling

I've gotten more negative comments on this blog in the last couple of weeks than ever before!  They have been kind of nasty (I think I deleted one, because it really bothered me), ignorant, defensive, and rather hostile.  Several have been responded to wonderfully by other commenters, I've responded to a couple, and some I've decided have enough in them that I'd like to really take the time to respond not only in the comments, but in an actual post.  This is one of them, a comment that was posted (anonymously, of course) on my post Unschooling is Forever Part 3: Isolation, Socialization, and Doubters.  The comment is in italics, my response in regular font.

Schooling and life learning are not mutually exclusive. Schooled children learn in a structured manner on school days for approximately 6 hours. The rest of their life is spent learning freely.

Really?  Only six hours?  What about transportation to and from school?  The hours of homework to be done after school?  It seems to me that school takes up quite a bit more time than six hours a day, and that for the majority of schooled people, very little time is left over to "learn freely"!

Not all parents are as patient and nurturing as you experienced with your mother.

Of course they're not.  But what other experience am I expected to write from besides my own?  I write and speak about unschooling from my own experience, my own observations of others experiences, and research (reading anything about freedom-based education I can get my hands on).  But, mainly, from my own experience.  I don't claim and have never claimed to speak for or represent all unschoolers: I represent myself only, and my mother is a wonderful, nurturing person.  I hope that comes across whenever I write about her.

However, there are lots of other unschoolers out there with very different experiences (though I'm happy to say the majority of unschooling parents I know are very "nurturing").  Some have bad relationships with their parents.  Some unschoolers left high school to unschool entirely against the wishes and without the support of their parents.  Each experience is different.

There are many children who benefit greatly from the structure and separation that school provides. In some cases there are sad situations behind that reality. In other cases, it just works well.   There are also many families who do not have the luxury of the stay-at-home-parent.

Now, I see a couple of points that need to be addressed here:  firstly, unschooling is NOT against structure.  What unschoolers are against is *forced* structure.  Unschooling is all about personal choice: putting the power over their own learning and life into the learner's/student's/individual's hands.  It's then up to that individual to choose how much or little structure they want in their lives.  Sometimes (fairly frequently, actually), unschoolers decide to try school!  Many end up choosing to leave again at a later date, some stay.  Unschooling isn't a philosophy against structure: it's a philosophy against force and coercion in the choosing of what and when to learn.

By sad situations, I assume you're talking about bad home lives.  I agree, that's incredibly sad, and in such cases, which are way too common, unschooling definitely isn't an option.  In low income families, again, I agree that unschooling can be extremely difficult, and even impossible, to do (I should mention that I do know unschoolers who either are on or have been on welfare, so some low income families definitely manage to unschool!).  But there's a reason I say I'm not just in support of unschooling, but of freedom-based education.  Under that umbrella of freedom-based education, I place both unschooling and something else called freeschooling.  The most basic description of freeschooling would be unschooling in a building!  Virtually every freeschool I've heard of is dedicated to accepting as many people who want to go there as they can, no matter their economic backgrounds.  This certainly holds true for the freeschool starting up near me, as the organizers have a strong social justice bent and envision something truly wonderful, community based, and inclusive!

There are many children who would not have the drive to learn to read, as you did.

Oh dear, here I do believe you're showing your ignorance in having never interacted with the unschooling community, and seen the results! As Peggy Pirro, who writes one of my favorite unschooling books, said:
“We learn because we want to learn, because it’s important to us, because it’s natural, and because it’s impossible to live in the world and not learn. Then along comes school to mess up a beautiful thing.”
And that's how unschooling works.  As humans, we're creatures who love and want to learn, creatures who will learn everything they need to function in the society they're born into, simply by being a part of that society.  However, when you dis-empower people by telling them that they're not smart enough, not mature enough, not trustworthy enough, to control their own learning and life, you create people who no longer know how to learn if not from an "expert".  Schooling creates people who look to a higher authority for the answers, and don't trust their own power.

I have yet to meet an unschooler who *didn't* learn to read, and at this point, I've been lucky enough to meet hundreds of unschoolers in real life, and dozens more online.  And yet at the same time, I don't think literacy, knowledge of math, or any other academic achievement should be used as a measurement, *the* measurement, of success for any human being.  Memorizing stuff, learning to read?  That's easy.  And there are plenty of very well educated people who are miserable, depressed, and suicidal.  Is being "educated", as defined by having a body of knowledge that has been judged the Most Important Things To Know by some far off authority, really the most import thing out there?  I'd ask instead: are you happy?  Do you have a knowledge of your own value?  Do you love?  Do you feel loved?  Are you living in a way that makes you feel good?  Are you giving your best self to the world?  These are what I would consider measures of success, not whether you can do algebraic equations.

Schools do provide a service to our society, even if all it amounts to is increasing literacy of our community.

If everyone graduated high school being able to read, then this might be a more convincing argument.  It might also be a more convincing argument if the tons of people who graduate high school and can read, actually all liked reading, instead of many planning never to open a book again if they can help it.  Forced "learning" (because forced learning is never as real or powerful as true, deep learning, chosen willingly) often sours the subject, makes it hard and boring and distasteful.  Who enjoys being forced to do something against their will?  When you come to something yourself, you come to it without the tangled web of negative emotions and experiences attached to something you were forcibly made to do.

It sounds like your objective is to promote unschooling as superior. What you should be doing is seeking acceptance of unschooling as an equivalently effective method for preparing our children to become productive adults in our society.

That's what I *should* be doing, is it?  I should tell you now, Anonymous, that I don't take well to doing things I *should* be doing.  Everyone has their own idea for what everyone else should be doing, and many feel no shame in sharing their visions of what an individual should be doing loudly and authoritatively with said individual.  Whereas me?  I'm a fan of listening to your own intuition, looking at what you need and want, what your community (human, non-human, nature) needs and wants, and then taking the path that seems best to you.

I believe in freedom: freedom from government, corporation, hierarchy, oppression.  I don't see unschooling as simply one option among many (should I unschool this year, or go with a private school?), but as a method of freeing individuals from a government controlled institution that's intent on turning out well schooled individuals, who don't question the status quo, and happily consume as an empty attempt at gaining fulfillment.  Unschooling isn't just a type of education to me: it's a revolutionary and joyful choice.

So yes, I definitely consider unschooling  to be superior to other so-called methods of education.  No, I *shouldn't* simply be "seeking acceptance of unschooling as an equivalently effective method for preparing our children to become productive adults in our society".  I have absolutely no desire to become a "productive member of society" (=cog in a very large and currently earth destroying machine), or to suggest anyone else do such a thing.  What I want to be, and what I see as being created by unschooling/life learning/freeschooling is *good* (kind, compassionate, passionate, strong) people.  That's my wish and my hope, and more importantly than wishing and hoping, what I'm trying my hardest to be and do.

There are so many children in our world that need schools. 

No.  There are so many children in our world that need love, and food and shelter, and acceptance, and support, and trust.  No one *needs* schooling!


  1. Love this, Idzie. There's lots more to be said about that silly notion that "low-income" people can't unschool. I should probably write about it. ;-) I had this comment the other day on a phone-in radio show I was on, where the caller said it's only for "trust fund families." I told him my family is far from wealthy and that we made financial choices that we're still living with in order to help our kids grow up without school. (They didn't feel like sacrifices, as some people insist.) I also told him that there are many, many families (esp in the US) who, due to the recession, have one or both parents forcibly out of work...what a great time to try unschooling!

  2. Brilliant, Idzie, really! I've heard all these italicized arguments before, and I think you handled them wonderfully. :)

  3. @Wendy: Thank you! :-) Yes, there really is a lot to say on the subject. I'd really love to read your take on that!! I've wanted to write a post about the whole unschooling-is-only-for-rich-people stupidity for a while now, but I feel the whole class thing is a very important and complex subject, and I'm afraid I wouldn't do it justice. It's definitely still sitting on my list of things to write about eventually, though...

    I've had several people make trust fund comments to me online, and I've literally just cracked up. My family is middle class, but far, far from the upper end of middle class! Our family has definitely made decisions about finances that have made it possible for my sister and I to grow up outside of school, which meant that there wasn't enough money to do many things that families where both parents worked were doing. It's just been a matter of where our priorities lie, I guess! I know I wouldn't have wanted anything else.

    Also, I love your point that unemployment is a great opportunity to try unschooling! That's just great, and so true.

    @Lisis: Thank you!! :)

  4. Absolutely awesome! You are so articulate!

  5. You rock, Idzie. Another awesome post. :)

  6. You have a joyfull, constructive mind! For someone who did not go to school, your analyses, arguments and writing exceeds mine and i think many other well educated people. You show a deep understanding of the arguments of your 'Anonymous'. You tackle every argument with great responsibility, knowledge and own experiences.
    Thanks for your donation to people, including the " *good* (kind, compassionate, passionate, strong).

  7. Hi, I just wanted to thank you for saying that sometimes unschoolers want to try school. I'm an unschooling mum with 2 at school, one preparing to start next year and one (not quite two year old) who is home. When I tell people I'm an unschooler, I frequently get the, "Yeah, sure you are *wink*" response. People don't understand that my children have the last word over their life experiences and after 7.5 years at home my eldest asked to go to school, his 5.5 year old brother then wanted to follow him, and now their 5 year old brother thinks they have such a fabulous time at this place up the road that he has asked to join them. I talk to my children about their choice to attend school almost every single week, and I always tell them they have to the option to not go to school.

    There are so many things I don't like about our school system that I'd be happy for them to one day tell me they don't want to go anymore!

    So, yes, I'm an unschooling mum whose children go to school - it can happen...

  8. Love your blog. We are a low income family who unschools. We love it. We're hoping to be out of this unfortunate financial situation by switching rolls very soon(dad will stay home, mom will work).

    I can't say I know of any other unschoolers who are low income. We're the only ones in our group of friends and they aren't aware of our situation, we don't want pity.

    It's amazing to see our children grow and prosper everyday without being forced into things they don't want to do. We have one child who needs structure, the others need very little, if any at all.

  9. This is what I posted to fb: excellent and well written article. I unschooled my son, when he decided to try school again they tested him several grades higher than his age and wanted to place him in all honors classes. We (he) spent a maximum of 4 hours a day, most days less, on actual "class work", where he researched things he wanted to learn about and would then write a paper or create a demonstration of for me.

  10. Ps: we were low income at the time as well... gotta love the library & internet!!!

  11. Idzie, you've been writing the most brilliant posts lately that just leave me awestruck. You are an amazing advocate for unschooling! Paragraph 9 (starting with "I have yet to meet an unschooler who *didn't* learn to read...") was PERFECT. Absolutely perfect.

  12. If I could reach through this computer screen to give you a hug I would! What a beautiful and articulate post from a beautiful and articulate human being!

  13. Just clicked on over from my RSS feeds to say loved this post, and think it's a really articulate, thoughtful, and powerful response to your critics. I don't have a high-traffic blog, but occasionally do get fairly hateful responses from people who either profoundly disagree with my perspective or simply aren't interesting in taking the time to listen to, and digest, my ideas. It's always hard to figure out how/when to respond. I like the way you approached it here.

    And of course, always love reading what you have to say :)

  14. "Schools do provide a service to our society, even if all it amounts to is increasing literacy of our community."

    Now here is an argument I love responding too. I always enjoy asking them that if schools is the tool to make our children literate, then why are we seeing a growth of children leaving school who struggle to read, write and spell?

    Another fantastic blog.

  15. I don't comment a lot here, even though I read often. I just wanted to say that I love this post. As a previous commenter noted, you're very articulate.

    That's all. :)

  16. "It sounds like your objective is to promote unschooling as superior."

    Yep. It is superior.

    -- A former teacher, public and private school student, and current unschooling parent

  17. Hey Idzie. So first, I'm going to say that I've been reading your blog for a year; I really like your point of view.

    Now, I don't like how badly you take differing opinion, though. None of the comments I just read from what you linked to seemed hostile or nasty. In fact, the rudest think has been your post itself because it comes across as so condescending and dismissive. Anonymous was just sharing his/her opinion. You are a blogger putting your opinions up for the world, and simply by writing about the unschooling experience you will receive comments from people who disagree. A lot of your writing isn't in first person. You're blog is not a diary-type blog. It's presented as someone who has experience in the area and speaks with authority. You publish articles on the internet and have done speaking engagements. A lot of your posts talk very generally about the unschooling experience without acknowledging the variations in knowledge and motivation that might be present in that movement.

    I feel like you also writing very general, insulting things about public school that are too wide-sweeping. I know that, while reading your blog, I've felt insulted with certain things you've said along the lines of schooled-people are less creative. Even with this post you said, "government controlled institution that's intent on turning out well schooled individuals, who don't question the status quo, and happily consume as an empty attempt at gaining fulfillment." So, thanks for saying that I don't question the status quo, and I mindlessly consume. And before you say that you weren't applying that to all schooled people, I'll just add that you make this general statements a lot. It's always insulting. You can say you're only speaking about the institution, but when you talk about the products of that institution you're talking about me and quite a few of your other readers.

    And, even though I believe that unschooling could work for anyone who had parents or mentors really interested in helping them pursue their interests, I'm really happy that I went to public school. Neither of my parents are very interested in learning. My mom doesn't like reading and is pretty apathetic toward learning. My dad is very rigidly interested in specific topics and he has trouble helping me develop my own interests. Because my parents wouldn't expose me to new things, and I lived a very cloistered life before school that hindered my learning process, school was a really good thing in my life. That was the first time I met people who were interested in reading and discovering; I am lucky that my teachers were so great. I wasn't relentlessly bullied and my soul wasn't crushed. I can still have creative thoughts, and I try to be a *good* person. So, it is annoying when you continuously make rude comments about school and students when my experience doesn't demonstrate that at all.

  18. loved it all and most especially that last answer - so true!

  19. I love all of your responses...I just wanted to comment with some other ideas as well...

    "Schooling and life learning are not mutually exclusive. Schooled children learn in a structured manner on school days for approximately 6 hours. The rest of their life is spent learning freely..."

    Actually, when you take out all of the wasted time in schools...roll call, class period changes, dealing with the bad seeds, recess, lunch period, the pledge, anouncements, testing, etc...the kids are only getting "instruction" for about 2.5 hours per 7 hour day. The other 4 hours are wasted on waiting.

    "Not all parents are as patient and nurturing as you experienced with your mother."

    And that is a problem with society...many mothers are working to fulfil the expectations of society...this is why more people should refuse to let society educate their children.

    "There are many children who benefit greatly from the structure and separation that school provides. In some cases there are sad situations behind that reality. In other cases, it just works well. There are also many families who do not have the luxury of the stay-at-home-parent."

    The main reason a family would not have the "Luxury" of a stay at home parent is because they value other luxuries more. If you value the parent at home, you can find a way to make it happen. It's all about priorities.

    "There are many children who would not have the drive to learn to read, as you did."

    Forced schooling does turn some children against learning...but they get back to wanting to learn quickly when the choice is their own.

    "Schools do provide a service to our society, even if all it amounts to is increasing literacy of our community."

    So do prisons, but I bet there are other...better...options that will have longer lasting benefits to society than simply housing them and forcing them to participate.

    "It sounds like your objective is to promote unschooling as superior. What you should be doing is seeking acceptance of unschooling as an equivalently effective method for preparing our children to become productive adults in our society."

    It sounds like YOU are saying YOU are superior. Perhaps you should take your own advice and even consider that consideration of other ideas is the BEST way to be productive.

    "There are so many children in our world that need schools"

    What you said!

  20. Hi! I stumbled onto your blog through random wandering (the best kind!) and just wanted to say that I hope my home learning girls turn out to be as articulate and passionate as you! I've been reading (John Taylor) Gatto lately and, although I don't agree with everything he says, his statistics make me want to jump up and defend you against any and all contrary comments! You rock :)

  21. Thank you for all the lovely comments! I really appreciate your words!

    @Jennifer: Apologies that your comment didn't show up at first: I got it in an email when you first posted it (as I do every comment that's posted here), but when I went to see it/respond on the actual post, it wasn't there, so I figured you must have deleted it. It's only today I realized that it had ended up in the spam folder!

    I’m going to do my best to respond to everything you've said, though I know that this is going to be a long response! What I want to say first is that I really respect the fact that you shared your feelings with me about my writing in such an honest and respectful way.

    Now on to your points:

    1. The comments I linked to were all anonymous, and generally when I get negative comments anonymously I have very little respect for them. I feel that if the posters of said comments actually wanted to get into any type of real dialogue/learn more, they would have at the very least typed in a name. As for the hostility of the comments? It's often extremely hard to judge the feelings and motivations, the true intent behind them, of comments on the internet. Without the visual and tone-of-voice cues available in real life conversation, it becomes a bit of a guessing game. Because of the response I've gotten when responding to similar type comments in other places, I tend to sense hostility in comments of that type, simply because that's been my experience so far. I could be wrong in any or all of the cases here, yes, but my interpretation of them was as less-than-friendly (and anonymous), so I treated them as such.

    2. I never attempt to be either condescending or dismissive, and I'm sorry you interpret my writing that way. My attempt is always to speak my truth, truth as I see it, to the best of my abilities. I don't have any desire to tip-toe around my opinions or express things in a delicate way: I like getting straight to the point, and I'm sorry that you see that as being dismissive!

    3. I wouldn't say I "speak with authority". But I do have many years of experience in living this lifestyle, have met many other unschoolers, and do have a fair bit of knowledge on the subject. I'm not misrepresenting myself or my experience. How people take and use what I say and write isn't my responsibility, as you seem to be saying: as I said before, my goal is simply to share my truth as best I can. What conclusions people draw from my words is beyond my control.


  22. 4. "A lot of your posts talk very generally about the unschooling experience without acknowledging the variations in knowledge and motivation that might be present in that movement." What do you expect me to do? Add a disclaimer to each post? These are my experiences and opinions only, and do not apply to all or even most unschoolers. Readers reserve the right to draw their own conclusions. I should hope people do that already! And? Much of what I say about unschooling *does* apply to many unschoolers, because I haven't come up with all that I write and say from within a vacuum. My opinions and thus posts are the result of much discussing with others and much reading. From your post it seems that you yourself are neither an unschooler nor an unschooling parent, so I wonder why you think that what I write *doesn't* apply to most unschoolers, when you don't have any experience in that area?

    5. Some unschoolers say (and mean it when they say it) that unschooling is simply one option among many, something that works for their family. That's a valid opinion, and also an opinion that is probably far less offensive to many. However, it's not *my* opinion. As I say in this post, I see school as an institution, as a tool, of oppression. I'm against oppression in all it's forms, so how could I possibly say anything good about schooling in good conscience, when I see it as such? I think it's also important to note my wording here: "freeing individuals from a government controlled institution that's INTENT on turning out well schooled individuals". It's their intent, but that doesn't mean they're always successful in it. If they were, there wouldn't be any schooled people who are freethinkers, activists, people living very simply/non-consumerists, etc. and there obviously are. But can you seriously say that there aren't certain values, goals, ways of living that aren't extremely prevalent in this culture? There's most definitely a path (leading to "success") that people are expected to follow. Most definitely many things that are never questioned by the majority of people. I believe a big part of that is schooling. I would be dishonest if I pretended differently. (I should mention that I've had quite a few conversations with schooled people who share the same views on schooling and it's purposes as I do.)

    I'm glad you had a good experience at school! But just because that was your experience, doesn't mean that it's the experience of many or even most people who go through traditional schooling. As I said in this post, I consider freeschools a wonderful option, so I don't see it as a duality with either unschooling (supportive parents etc.) or public school. Freeschools are a wonderful thing!

    I want to say that there are a lot of institutions and social constructs that I'm entirely against: government, corporations, hierarchy of any sort, schooling (just to name a few). And while I do try to aim squarely at the big guys, at the actual problem, in my criticism, all of these things affect actual individuals, so there's no way I can leave the individual entirely out of the picture. The only way I could do that would be to not criticize any of it, just keep my mouth shut about it all and let things continue as they are. Since I'm not going to do that, I don't see any way to avoid offending some people some of the time. I can only hope that any person who is offended and does decide to comment does so in such a way as you did! I really appreciate your comment, and the opportunity it gave me to clarify some of my own views and feelings on things. Thanks again!

  23. @Jennifer
    I know Idzie's comments can be challenging to readers but that doesn't mean she's conducting herself poorly. In fact I think she does an incredible job and affords each comment the respect (or ill-consideration) it deserves.

    When I first heard unschooling comments I bristled too. After all, I went to public school and I got straight A's and I was fine! And I'm a critical thinker!

    However over time I've realized critiques like Idzie's are spot-on. Most kids are doing the best they can and most parents/carers who send them there genuinely think they're doing the right thing. Many people respond defensively to anything that doesn't support their worldview. But we need critics with acumen, and Idzie is one of those.

    To quote/paraphrase her:

    "The only way I could [not offend people] would be to not criticize any of it, just keep my mouth shut about it all and let things continue as they are."

    I'm glad you're not keeping your mouth shut.

  24. Thank you, Idzie, for not keeping your mouth shut.

    :) Annette

    (former public school teacher of 18 years, now unschooling with her 6-year-old daughter...)

  25. Good for you Idzie! You have alot to say and you say it well! Keep on going girl!

    (chad's mom ..and chloe's from NEUC )

  26. In 2010, the only children who "need" school are children whose parents need daycare.

    What could be more fun than learning something I want to learn in a fraction of the time school would take to teach it to me at my laptop in my own home with a cup of tea and a biscuit and one of my cats curled up contentedly beside me? No getting up at some ungodly hour on freezing winter mornings to make sandwiches, no getting rained on or snowed on or buffeted by winds, no sitting in traffic, no need to spend whole days in the company of people I don't actually like, and hallelujah - no getting bored stupid by people droning on about things I'm not remotely interested in. That's what I like most of all. I can learn stuff schools don't teach (and in some cases won't teach) and I can disregard things schools teach that I know from four decades of post-school experience count for sod all in the world at large.

    My son seems to be enjoying the adventure too.

  27. Hi,
    i would like to know if you have more info about the freeschool mtl thing. there website is not working anymore and i'm interested in the whole project.
    for the big exchange with jennifer, i must say i feel there is something very constructive in her comment and critic. i too was schooled in a kind of alternative school that i have enjoyed attending and although some of your ideas realy resonate with me, i think they might be sometimes so extreme that you can have the shut down syndrome from your auditory (except if the are already converted).
    i agree with the way jennifer phrased that we can feel like we are shit that we are just a product of school with no head and critique thinking if we went to school. luckily i believe that a lot still comes from home and that we are so affected by so many different sources that we can save our souls a little bit, even if we went to school... :O)

  28. i'd just like to say, i'm sure in what will come across as a very offensive and superior tone, that it is very difficult to take seriously the opinion of someone defending their own educational experience with an argument filled with spelling and grammatical errors.

    @Bob "In 2010, the only children who "need" school are children whose parents need daycare."

    agreed... only rather than be tortured by the rain, snow, and wind, our children can play and joyfully interact with those precious forces of nature to the extent of their own comfort and fulfillment, and then happily return to their warm tea and biscuits!

    Idzie, you are clearly intelligent, articulate, passionate and firmly confident in your personal convictions; all of which represent some of my highest hopes for my own unschooled children.
    keep doing what you do!

    warm regards,
    -former product of the public school system who is finally learning to think for myself and speak up accordingly

  29. Hello Idzie and lovely commenters
    I also went to school and found it boring and lonely for the most part. We now unschool our daughters. Unschooling is a perfect fit for my beliefs on parenting and learning, though I don't always find it easy to know if we're providing enough opportunities for them.

    I share a lot of Idzie's values - respect for children & their autonomy, elements of green anarchy and animism.

    But I also see Jennifer's point of view. I don't think one perspective, however true it is for me, is the one true perspective. Jennifer says school was great for her. She doesn't knock unschooling. I think that deserves respect. So many people tell me they enjoyed school - I reckon about half of those I speak to. (And I'm lucky to live in a community where consumer values aren't rampant and many of my neighbours are like-minded in terms of core values, so these are thinking people who you'd find interesting, Idzie, not brainwashed automatons! :)

    Unschooling is an intelligent life choice. It stands on it's own as a credible lifestyle without us knocking every other choice. I think we do ourselves a disservice if we disrespect the validity of other people's positive school experiences.

    I'd like to think unschoolers are generally open-minded. To me that means being able to accept and live respectfully alongside people with different outlooks and experiences.

    What do you think, o venerable community of unschoolers?