Friday, May 25, 2012

Critiquing the Radical Unschooling Critique: Real Negatives or Gross Generalizations?

I came across a post a couple weeks back that I'm sure many readers will react quite strongly to. For once, it's not from some big mainstream media source dissing unschooling, but instead from a member of the unschooling community who left school in his teens, and has spoken at a couple of unschooling conferences. In it, the author discusses radical unschooling, and all the faults he sees in it. You can go read it over here before continuing, if you want.

Done reading (or not)? Okay, let me continue.

I want to start by saying that I appreciate Eli's honestly, and had many interesting discussions with him several years back when we both attended the same conference. To some extent, I agree with some of his points. To some (larger) extent, I disagree. But I'd like to take things bit by bit, and break down just what I like and dislike about his post.

"My parents made me do it, and I'm GLAD they did!"

I find it odd that the first and main example given is that of an always schooled individual, the moral of the anecdote seemingly being that it's often good when parents make there kids do things (or so it seems to me). But one story of someone schooled who was grateful to her parents for making a large decision for her, doesn't really make sense to me when discussing unschooling. There's such a different framework of living, and most often such a different style of parenting, between unschooling and regular schooling families, that it really does feel like the author is comparing apples to oranges (not that I like calling anyone fruits, but it seemed the most apt expression to use!). Yeah, okay, this person was happy with that, but how does that have any real impact on the topic at hand? Where's the story of a grown unschooler wishing their parent had made different choices, or being grateful for a time their parents had pushed them into something? I know there are at least a few cases of that, and that would present a far more compelling argument for increased parental control, to me (not that I'd ultimately necessarily agree: just that I'd find it made a stronger case).

And that mention of "bad crowds"... Well, that just doesn't sit right with me at all. I don't believe in bad crowds as they're usually defined and discussed, though I do believe in teens who are really struggling, and coping with their struggles as best they can. Sometimes a teen (or a person of any age, really) is in a group with people who treat them really badly. That's wrong, and no one should have to put up with that. But at the same time, I still wouldn't say the hypothetical group in question is bad, it's just unhealthy, and filled with people who would greatly benefit from being given safe spaces to spend time in, and supportive older people to spend time with. "Bad crowd" is too often just a vicious value judgement that makes it even harder to live as a teen in this culture.

Continuing with the story of the schooled individual whose parents saved her from "bad crowds," Eli says: "Maybe some radical unschoolers would acknowledge this case of parents sending their child to a school of their choosing as an exception where the radical unschooling approach was not the best thing. Of course, they might insist the parents should have taken her out of school altogether (and I might disagree because maybe she’d still run with the same crowd in town)." And here... Well, here I come to something that frustrates me a lot: when people decide that some decision made, no matter who made it, was the only course of action that could have resulted in good outcomes. When really, we don't know. You don't know. I don't know. I genuinely think I'd be in a worse place had I been to school. But I'm not actually certain, because how can I be? Maybe the woman in question is better off because of the decision her parents made. But maybe she would be even better off now if she'd worked through the troubles she was having herself. I can't help but think that, if the same situation had come up in a radical unschooling family, she would have ended up just as good in the end, only perhaps with a better sense of personal power. To say that this was the only way things could have worked out seems short-sighted at the very least.

The Importance of Environment

Eli brings up an interesting point when he discusses environment, saying "When unschoolers, radical or otherwise, talk about people’s natural motivation to learn and do what’s ultimately best for themselves, they often don’t acknowledge the power of our environment. What I’m motivated  to do is affected by what’s available, what’s needed, what others are doing, what’s considered 'cool', etc." I agree that perhaps how much we're all effected by the culture around us isn't recognized as much as it could be. I like Daniel Quinn's characterization of "the voice of Mother Culture," and that's generally what I'm thinking of when I say that unschooling isn't enough. And what I mean by that, is that unschooling alone will not come anywhere close to solving the tremendous amount of problems with our ways of living and relating to each other on this Earth. We need to question a lot more than just the education system. But, I think unschooling is a very good start, and I question whether increased parental control is really going to have a positive impact on how children and teens learn to deal with all the various pressures and situations they're faced with on a day-to-day basis. As I've said in discussion about TV watching (a very common example that radical unschoolers bring up, as is noted in Eli's post), parents being very involved with their kids--discussing the problematic things we encounter every day--is, I believe, far more productive than simply trying to keep their kids away from everything they believe is harmful, which is completely impossible if you're trying to take in as much of the world as you can, as many unschoolers seek to do. Similarly, while I believe that it's important for parents to be an active part of their teens' lives and the decisions they make, important for parents to act as guides and mentors, I'm not so sure that parents making choices they believe are "best" for their children, without their consent, is a good thing. Parents regularly, with their children's best interests genuinely at heart, make decisions I'm inclined to think are really bad!

That said, absolutes are rarely true, and I'm very sure that parents making choices against their kids wishes sometimes works out really well. Sometimes the kids in question end up very happy with whatever decision(s) were made. I'm also really not a fan of people deciding exactly the "right" way for everyone to relate to each other and interact as a family. How people best communicate and make decisions, what makes individuals and families happy and healthy, will differ from person to person and family to family. I strongly believe that the more respected and trusted people are (regardless of age), the more open and genuine the communication happening, and the more collective/cooperative the decisions made, the better everyone tends to end up feeling. But... Ultimately each situation is unique, and everyone just has to do their best in doing whatever they truly feel is best! Here it seems Eli and I agree, as he says "Personally, I think the ideal is truly happy, healthy people who know themselves, and do their best to share their gifts with the world."

What Makes Radical Unschoolers Different

Eli says that "Almost all parents who are not radical unschoolers think [unrestricted access to] TV, bedtimes, junk food, and video games is ridiculous. By concentrating on these things radical unschoolers can differentiate themselves from other parents. Every group needs their own way of identifying themselves." Which, well, feels like it's selling radical unschooling more than a little short. I've never felt like the most important things to radical unschoolers is unrestricted access to candy! I think why those are often used as examples is not just because all radical unschoolers agree about it, but because those things provide easy examples when articulating the ways in which approaching parenting with a radical unschooling philosophy play out in everyday life, by comparing the way they might usually be handled to the way an RU parent might handle things. And it still seems to me that when radical unschooling is discussed, the focus remains squarely on trusting and respecting children, not sugar or Wii.

Ultimately, Eli comes to the conclusion that what truly differentiates radical unschoolers is their "concentration on not forcing their children to do anything or impose any rules." And here, well, here I really disagree with him that rules are ever necessary. I don't believe in "rules" (neither do I believe in "laws," though that's a whole different story). Rules are absolutes, and don't leave any room for context, for figuring out how to handle each different situation in the best way. You can have no rules, yet still physically stop your child from hitting someone, or pulling on the cat's tail, or walking into traffic. Rules aren't necessary to parent well, and I believe they are at least as likely to cause more of the "bad behavior" in response to such an authoritarian approach, as they are to actually stop the behavior! I don't think rules help make people decent human beings, but I do think that acting with kindness, and helping your children (and partner(s), friends, neighbors) to act with kindness (including holding those around you accountable for their less than kind actions), helps create people who are kind. Rules aren't necessary.
Dealing with Conflict

I agree that radical unschoolers often put a lot of focus on conflict, namely on avoiding it by minimizing situations likely to cause conflict between parents and children. I also agree with Eli that conflict is unavoidable. Where I differ greatly, though, is in the level of conflict I think is okay. Fights over who didn't change the toilet paper, political opinions, and similar things are an inevitable and not very major (well, depending on the political opinions, I suppose!) aspect of living with others. But when Eli states that "Sometimes a parent will have to make a decision the child really doesn’t like and the child may be angry at her/him for a long time"? My initial, gut reaction is just no. When someone is angry at someone else for a long time, it almost always means that an important trust was betrayed. If anger lasts for a long time, it means something wrong was done. So while I don't think the damage is necessarily irreparable (though it may well be), I definitely don't think it's okay to cause that much anger and hurt.

Arguments for more tightly controlling children, and by children I mean people who have not yet reached their teens, hold more weight than those advocating controlling teens, to me. Not that I agree with traditional parenting of young kids AT ALL, but that arguments for more control seem to have some sense to them, at least. Children really aren't capable of a lot of things that older people are, though they're a lot more capable then most people give them credit for, and should be treated with no less humanity and respect than every human should be entitled to. But teens? Teens are remarkably capable people. Teens regularly raise children, run households, work as activists, and a million other important and difficult things. Teenagers, in my mind, are deserving of ALL the rights and respect accorded to adults. No one should be able to make important decisions in the life of a teen against their will, never mind whether parents want to or not.

This is not to say that teens are exactly the same as adults, or that they don't usually need more support and assistance than older people. Just that with the capability they have, teens should be the ones ultimately making the important decisions in their lives, because, well, it's their life. It's pretty simple.

Keep Away from the Muggles!

Some people, Eli says, have been turned off by the judgement and intolerance they've met in dealings with radical unschoolers. And actually, yeah, that's been exactly my experience, as well. Not personally, but friends and even family have been told they're not "really" unschooling, and many people have said to me they've felt extremely unwelcome in radical unschooling (and even sometimes plain 'ol unschooling) spaces, both online and in person. Often people who are new to unschooling ideas quickly find out that certain questions and concerns are not treated kindly when expressed (and I'm not talking about people who come into unschooling spaces and aggressively start interrogating everyone there, but people who respectfully and worriedly ask questions about this philosophy that really draws them, yet is frightening at the same time). That's why I try very hard, while still expressing difficult ideas as plainly and honestly as I can, to make sure I never tell others that they're doing it wrong. While I do believe there are things that are not really unschooling, I respect and am friends with people who are homeschoolers, relaxed homeschoolers, and regular schoolers. I think more freedom is always better, in any context or way, and if a parent whose kids are in school gains some inspiration for creating a home environment that's more respectful, or a teacher tries to bring as much inspiration from unschooling into their classroom as they can, or a homeschooler convinces their parents to let them pursue some of their own projects during "school time," then I'll feel I've succeeded in sharing unschooling ideas. Any positive changes people make in their lives are good, even if they don't end up unschooling.

"Radical Unschooling" in (mis)Practice

I know Eli's criticism's stem in large part from what he's witnessed at conferences. 'Cause here's the thing: if you've been to unschooling conferences, it's almost guaranteed you've seen at least one instance (and probably more than one) of kids behaving in disrespectful and unkind ways to those around them, while their parents do nothing. Sometimes it seems that radical unschooling, with ideals of giving children great freedom in all areas of life, is interpreted as everything your children do, ever, is okay because they're just "expressing their freedom." When, well, there are lots of things that aren't okay. How each family and individual will deal with and react to each situation will be different, among people who identify as homeschoolers and unschoolers and radical unschoolers and everyone else, and there isn't really one right way of reacting to any situation, though I definitely think it's fair to say that there are better and worse ways, and ignoring unkind behavior, no matter what the age of the individual, isn't a very good strategy. I understand that this is what Eli, and plenty of others, have witnessed, and for some it's turned them off of unschooling altogether, which is a real shame. The unschooling community as a whole is often really loathe to self-critique, which lets a lot of problems within the community go unchecked and unmentioned by many (though not by the plenty of people I've had really great conversations with about the issues we see). There are often issues that do need to be addressed, but here we get to perhaps my main problem with Eli's post: it generalizes. So hugely and blatantly.

Those who call themselves radical unschoolers, or whole-life learners, or otherwise extend freedom to their children beyond just the academics or what could be considered traditionally "educational," are a large enough group that if you generalize, you're going to be wrong. I know too many really awesome people, and great parents, to feel even remotely comfortable when someone equates radical unschooling, and all radical unschoolers, with what some like to call "unparenting." Criticize the problems, but don't decide that those problems are shared with every radical unschooler out there. And please don't decide that the obvious solution is more control! People can hold those around them, their kids and friends, accountable for their actions, work with them to improve situations and responses, and recognize that children need lots of extra help navigating the world they're in, without resorting to authoritarianism.

Eli says near the end of his post that "We need to go to the root of ourselves and the problems around us if we want to create real change." But as I see it, reevaluating the way we treat children and teens as a culture, and realizing that authoritarian control is and never will be a way to create positive change, never lead to the creation of a culture that is truly cooperative and respectful (to humans, non-humans, and the Earth), is deeply important. You can't teach people to be respectful by treating them without respect. You can't teach people they're capable of making good decisions by making the decisions that you think are best for them. And you can't teach people to trust in themselves by telling them with your actions that they're untrustworthy.

I rather think radical is a good word here: getting to the root of things by questioning the very foundation of hierarchy and authoritarianism that puts the youngest of us at the very bottom. Treating children as capable human beings deserving of respect, not "unfinished" beings that have to be shaped and controlled? Yeah, I think that's pretty radical.