Sunday, November 13, 2011

Guest Post: The Future of Unschooling by Jeff Landale

I found this post to be very relevant personally, as when I received it a couple of nights ago I was in the middle of writing in my unschooling book about how we present unschooling, and how I feel we often sell it short, in not recognizing how much of a truly radical impact it could have...  I feel that Jeff really illustrates some interesting and important points here, and I hope you like this post as much as I do!

The New York Times had an article it published earlier this year, titled “After Home Schooling, Pomp and Traditional Circumstances”, which, in my mind, illustrated a few of the dangers alternative education movements can encounter as they grow, and also some roadblocks to a greater role these movements can take in transforming the world. The article describes 26 Floridian homeschoolers participating in a graduation ceremony, saying that “just as more home-school families now join co-ops offering weekly field trips and chemistry labs or use the local public school for sports, band or a class, so too do many of them embrace all the trappings of graduation season.” While I don’t want to deny parents the joy of seeing their child participate in a ritual marking their entry into the world (especially given the overall lack of rituals we have in our world), I hesitate when I see alternative education taking the same path that alternative music took in the 90s: a different surface aesthetic, but fundamentally following the same model as what it was ostensibly supposed to be an alternative to.

The article describes how each graduate was given a “Certificate of Completion”, speeches were given, photographs were taken of the graduates in gowns and those square hats with the tassels, so that the homeschoolers can say “I graduated, just like everybody else.” Homeschooling, for these homeschoolers and their parents, seems to be a way of schooling, just by other means: parents instead of teachers, a graduation at the zoo instead of the gymnasium, and so on. By wanting to participate in the cultural touchstone of a graduation ceremony, these homeschoolers are still allied to the ethos of school. There is thus only a superficial rejection of schooling, because the school is simply reconstructed at home. For the students and parents, this can make a huge difference in their lives, but structurally things are the same. Homeschooling, in this way, is a private affair, and a private decision, with no implicit or explicit social ramifications.

While this article does not make a big deal about the pros and cons of homeschooling (Will they be socialized? Will they have friends? How will they live in the real world? Will they learn anything?), it does open up the possibility that these questions are increasingly becoming an irrelevant distraction for people interested in truly radical alternative modes of education. If homeschoolers spend so much time and effort imitating the rituals, structures, symbols, and outcomes of industrialized compulsory education, if homeschoolers work hard to be able to answer the mind-numbing litany of inquiries into the success of homeschooling, then homeschooling itself will be nothing more than school outside of the school building.

And this is where Unschooling comes in. Unschooling runs the same risk of becoming superficially different while structurally similar to the forms of education and learning which we are aiming to break free from. Unschooling as a pedagogical philosophy has the advantage of being able to differentiate itself from both industrial schooling and homeschooling, but only if it differentiates itself critically, and not merely superficially. What are the structural changes we want to see in our lives as a result of Unschooling? What kind of relationship do we want with learning? What are the social changes that would inevitably result from Unschooling, if the logic of the philosophy was allowed to unfurl itself completely?

Writers like John Taylor Gatto (Dumbing Us Down) and Ivan Illich (Deschooling Society) showed not only how schooling damages individuals, but also how it supports so many of the oppressive and exploitative aspects of our society. If we find ourselves engaging in radical modes of alternative education which don’t inherently challenge and disrupt crucial aspects of the world, then we should be concerned that we are actually reproducing the same structures which Unschooling was originally supposed to allow us to escape from. Thus, rather than having Unschooling be that thing which isn’t school or homeschooling, we should have Unschooling be something which, while growing out of critiques of industrial schooling and its sibling, homeschooling, defined in terms of what it allows us to become, and how it allows us to change the world. And this means that in a lot of cases, we should simply disengage from conversations with Unschoolers and with all of those annoying talking heads on TV who ask over and over again whether Unschooling will create the same sort of individuals as school does (except smarter, and harder working, or whatever). With the legal status of Unschooling being mostly settled in the United States and Canada, now might be the time to stop reassuring others and ourselves that Unschooling won’t screw up lots of kids, and start focusing on how self-directed learning can lead to, and be a part of, much broader social movements throughout the globe.

Jeff Landale is an elementary school drop out currently studying Politics and Classics at Simon's Rock College in scenic Great Barrington, Massachusetts. Ostensibly, he is writing an undergraduate thesis on Unschooling and its role in emancipatory struggles, but in reality he spends his time thinking about Indian food. He can be reached at


  1. Funny that the article says "many of them embrace all the trappings of graduation season." It really is a trap. I just don't understand the point of school-at-home homeschooling - to keep the kids at home? To get better at school faster? There really is no social impact at all.

  2. I love that article, the best part? "change the world"!

    To Molly, I don't really agree that homescholling has no social impact. First, it's outside the norm, it's not like everybody does, it's not what our government wants from us. Secondly, why go to school 7-8 hours a day to learn something you can learn in very much less, have plenty of over-organized activities and in short being "forced" to enter the mold when you could spent that time exploring your neighbourhood, get plenty of unorganized fun and simply live your life?

    You can say I see homeschooling like a mix between schooling and unschooling but I guess it's not everybody who thinks like that.

  3. Ok I am biased and I admit it from the get go. We are a homeschooling family since the 70's and it boggles my mind when some homeschools will they say they don't like the public or private rigid pattern and then low and behold they mimic the very system they dislike. As unschoolers we chose this style of education because it allowed for more self initiated learning which was like a domino effect which as one Stanford U professor noted, gives a child a classic liberal arts education that allows for personal success later on. Cookie cutter education styles don't seem to produce much more than drones.

  4. "If homeschoolers spend so much time and effort imitating the rituals, structures, symbols, and outcomes of industrialized compulsory education, if homeschoolers work hard to be able to answer the mind-numbing litany of inquiries into the success of homeschooling, then homeschooling itself will be nothing more than school outside of the school building."
    It is so great that people are still getting angry about this. it is not a mere dislike of classrooms, it is a rejection of the entire structure and the damage it does. Will be interested to read his thesis.
    thanks for posting this Idzie
    much love

  5. well written. I have been homeschooling/unschooling at least 1 of my 5 kids for 20 years. I am constantly astounded how parents seem to get a passing grade once their kids get accepted to any type of post secondary education program. This seems to be doubly true for homeschooling families:( That schooling framework just continues to dominate as the only measure for success.

  6. Several points,
    First, good job, great post.
    @s.e. I think that yes, parents do seem to have a mentality that if their kids are accepted to post-secondary education, they've done their job properly. That is how my mother still feels. There are many reasons for this, but in short, I'd say that it's very very hard to break with the values we learned as children, which is why often people who see problems with the current system, want to simply shuffle some superficial elements around without truly changing its structure. They recognize a problem, but haven't developed morally enough to recognize its source, or perhaps they don't want to. There are many examples of this, politics in general being a very public one.

  7. Thanks for all the nice comments! All I can say is that being tagged as a "grown unschooler" is pretty discombobulating.

  8. Great post, Jeff, I think it is great that unschoolers are engaged in critical thinking - it was a dirty word in my world of schooling and wasn't really accepted until University.

  9. Thanks for this very well-thought and incredibly insightful look into the future of unschooling. I very much agree that when homeschoolers do things that make their homes look like schools that is does nothing to promote the true values of unschooling. For unschooling to make a wider difference in society, it needs to stand out at something truly different than the schooling model. Unfortunatley, most media view different as strange and a little crazy instead of something that just might be a better alternative.

  10. Hello everybody
    I have taken the step to homeschooling and find your comments very interesting, I have a question, namely, do I have to fill out the questionnaire and meet with the principal of my local primary school? Will I face a problem with child services?please help.

    1. I am not Idzie, so I hope she doesn't mind me replying to this, but just wanted to say that it depends where you are; in the US I think it varies from state to state, and I'm not sure about Canada. I'm unsure if the head of the local school would be involved unless your child is already registered at that school though? – but I would Google homeschooling/unschooling laws for your area & maybe try to find a local group. Some countries are stricter than others. Good luck and I hope you find a way to do it! :-)

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