Tuesday, May 6, 2014

In Praise of The Unexceptional: Because Unschooling Doesn't Have to Be Impressive

In some ways, this feels like an redux of a post of a couple months ago, Uncollege, Hackschooling, and When Success and Profit Hijack the Message. I'm starting with inspiration from two of the same posts that launched the earlier piece, but I'm shifting focus here, and concentrating more directly on ideas of what, exactly, constitutes success for unschoolers, and the pressure we feel to be extraordinary.

There’s an attitude that seems to have been quietly sneaking into unschooling discourse and advocacy. Never outright stated, yet there nonetheless: that unschoolers doing Big Impressive Things is the way to prove that unschooling works. Which seems to imply that it’s only working if it’s, well, impressive.

I suppose it’s not all that surprising this attitude is being found even in unschooling circles, as the idea of there being winners and losers--the winners distinguishing themselves with grand accomplishments, prestigious jobs, and lots of money--is a pervasive and widely held view in our culture at large. Though he's talking about the anger many adults feel at children receiving what they see as undeserved praise, or having it "too easy" in life, I think this recent op-ed in the New York Times by Alfie Kohn still serves as a really good point to illustrate some commonly held attitudes about what success is and how it works. He notes one of three underlying values in how people often view children and success is that “children ought never to receive something desirable — a sum of money, a trophy, a commendation — unless they’ve done enough to merit it. They shouldn’t even be allowed to feel good about themselves without being able to point to tangible accomplishments. In this view, we have a moral obligation to reward the deserving and, equally important, make sure the undeserving go conspicuously unrewarded. Hence the anger over participation trophies. The losers mustn’t receive something that even looks like a reward.”

While no one in unschooling circles is advocating for punishing or putting down those who aren’t obviously “succeeding” in impressive ways, the idea that the proof is in the accomplishments, and that’s what we should be aiming for, definitely seems to be there. Gillian Goddard noted the same thing, saying:
Everybody, and I mean EVERYBODY, [is] jumping on the 'self-directed learning' bandwagon these days. And they are bringing to it all the same old bullshit - children who are 'more'. More curious, more motivated, more more more. These children are not circus performers. So stop showcasing who did what at the youngest age, who gives the best TED teen presentations and not think that to me it will look no different except now the child is at home.
This is also something that can be felt very keenly by those of us who grew up unschooling, or who have chosen to forego college in favour of “uncolleging” or otherwise learning into adulthood without institutionalized education. Jessica Barker recently wrote a post on her blog College Rebellion that really hit me hard, where one of the things she said about her own journey was that:
I’ve been really upset for quite a while because try as I might, I can’t live up to all the "aim for your dreams!" mantra I preach on this website, because I feel like I have to as part of the Uncollege Movement. I say "those of us" because the person I’ve been trying to fit into the Epic Box the most is myself – I haven’t allowed myself to accept the fact that I want to live a normal life, that I feel my success depends neither on going to college nor not going to college, nor even what I do in or out specifically. I have dreams, yes: but I also have finally reached the point where I am confident that following certain Big Dreams is actually not the most important thing to me in life.
Whether it’s deliberate or not (I'd say it's almost never deliberate), the attitude that to be successful we have to dream and do big definitely exists, and it definitely does harm.


I was discussing this article, and some comments people made on Facebook about this post in the works, with my mother today. "I've never said I'm proud of you deliberately, because pleasing me isn't important. I just want you to be happy, and if you're happy with your life, then I'll be happy!" she said. "I hope you haven't wanted me to say I'm proud of you," she continued, looking worried. "No," I assured her, "I'm good."


So often when people find out you're an unschooler they say "well you must be very smart/self-motivated/brave for it to have worked!" I never know how to point out that that's not the case at all. I'm no genius, I procrastinate like all hell, and sometimes just leaving the house feels like it takes more bravery than I posses. Unschooling is for anyone with the time, support, and resources to be able to do it, not just for special people.


Me and my sister, (almost entirely) lifelong school-free learners, aren’t exceptional. Sure, we’ve both done plenty of things we’re proud of: speaking in front of people for me and playing music in front of people for Emilie; she's recieved multiple belts in Ninjitsu and I’ve cooked professionally. Some of the things we've done, like my blog and unschooling advocacy work, are things that have gotten a lot of praise and attention from other people. I suppose my blogging/writing/speaking could be considered “impressive,” though it doesn’t usually feel that way to me. That one thing though is the only thing I can think of that could possibly be considered really impressive. I haven’t traveled beyond North America, have never hitch-hiked or bused across the country. I haven’t started my own business (besides the very half-hearted attempt at selling thrifted clothing, which I *do* plan to put more effort into), and sadly people are not lining up to hire me. There are other things I’m good at, for sure. Cooking and baking come to mind instantly. But that? That’s a quiet skill, hidden away in kitchens. Most of my skills and hobbies and interests are quiet, nothing huge or eye-catching.

I love going on road trips, with both family and friends, but they're usually
within a 6 hour drive from my home. Exploring the New England States, into
Ontario to visit family, or Northeast up into Quebec to visit where some
family comes from. Places chosen for their beauty and abundance of good
people, not for a grand and exciting adventure.

But what’s more important for the moment than whether or not I, or my family, fits the narrative of The Successful Unschooler, is just what that narrative is. Us unschoolers are feeling pressure to do more and be more: to become world travelers or successful entrepreneurs, to win prestigious awards or get head hunted by Google. Somehow, through both the greater culture and through those same messages making their way into our own, smaller, unschooling communities, we’ve gotten the idea that quiet skills aren’t enough. That if we’re not doing big things with obvious rewards, then we’re not enough.

That’s why the quote from Alfie Kohn I shared at the beginning of this article, and the article I pulled it from, really resonated with me when I read it. My whole generation, both schooled and not, has been messed up by those messages.

What complicates it for unschoolers is that, well, we’ve got something to prove. Not only unschoolers feel this added pressure: children coming from any “unusual” family, or any type of family likely to be looked at suspiciously by the dominant culture almost certainly also face a similar type of added pressure. We want to show that this unschooling thing works. Parents of unschoolers want to show that it works! So people turn to tangible, big things they can point at: Look! Look how impressive! And people talk about following your dreams, with the implication that “dreams” must be pretty special looking. I think without consciously realizing it, those forces play off of each other: parents and unschooling advocates talk about all the exciting special things unschoolers get up to and can do; unschoolers themselves want to prove with their lives that the way they’ve lived is successful. It goes in circles of lots of people talking about impressive things, unschoolers starting to feel like impressive is the norm, and thus if they’re not doing Impressive Things, then they must be failing, instead.

Which is rather sad, because the reality for many unschoolers, and many young adults foregoing college, is much more complicated. Life looks so different for different people. For many unschoolers life looks like video games, and Google searches, and craft projects at midnight. Playing with neighbors and homeschooling park days and trips to the library. For adult uncollegers life might look like reading lots of books, both non-fiction and fiction, keeping a blog, marathoning TV shows, having email discussions on history with friends, and volunteering at the local animal shelter. Life might feel exciting to the individual (very hopefully it does!), because it’s your life, your interests, your goals. But from outside? It probably doesn’t look that exciting. It might, with TEDx talks and a series of ebooks about travel adventures. There might be aspects of your life that look impressive, and other parts that don't. The impressive activities are every bit as valid as the quieter ones, for sure. But they're not better.


Laura Parrish had the following to say in a Facebook conversation sparked by my mentioning of this post I was writing.
I've always had a hard time with the language people use about grown children: They "turn out" well. (Or they don't.) We're "so proud" of them. (Or we aren't.) It doesn't jibe with the way we've focused on helping clear the way for our kids to see what's what for themselves and make their own choices. It's not about using a method to produce a superior product. They don't "reflect on me". They're just themselves, and that's enough. It's a lot.
I love that. And I think it points to such an important thing when it comes to unschooling: this isn't a method meant to turn out superior products humans. The point isn't, or certainly shouldn't be, about superiority, about being better, more successful people. It should be about all those far less tangible things: people who are kind, and capable, and enjoy learning. As Stephanie Sims said:
[T]he unschooling path is meant to be a joyful and natural one, not an exemplary one that can be held up as proof as Unquestionable, Absolute Success. At the end of the day, my unschooled children may only look different by their memories and how much they love and expect to love their lives--that's good enough for me.

Just like everyone else, the lives of each unschooler will vary quite a bit. What unschoolers, no matter their age, share is a similar attitude towards learning. How that manifests in the lives of each unschooler is going to be different, and how closely it aligns with the dominant culture’s version of success (or the unschooling community’s prioritization of travel and entrepreneurship as success) is going to depend on the person you're looking at.

I just hope, as unschoolers, we can hold tight to our shared value of appreciating learning for learning’s sake, whether it’s big or small, sung from the stages of a national singing competition, or curled up in a comfy chair in a nondescript house reading about Arthurian legends or the history of comics. As older unschoolers, we’re going to continue getting a lot of pressure from the general population, both the pressure all young adults face to be productive and “useful” members of society, and the added pressure to prove ourselves as successful unschoolers. The unschooling community doesn’t need to fall into that same trap of judging peoples success by their productivity, or large achievements, or traveling lifestyle. Instead, let's just make sure that we convey, in all our words, in our speech and writing and advocacy, that all learning is important. We need to celebrate all those quiet lives, too.


  1. Thank you! This was wonderful! :)

  2. Brilliantly written. Thanks.

  3. Thanks Idzie. Very refreshing. I think it is a challenge for all of us to live in a way that is true to ourselves rather than by the narrow standards that mainstream society dictates. Being an unschooling parent is not considered as impressive by many people either. The joy for me lies in the warm and intimate relationship I have with my children and the individual learning journeys that we are on. I have no idea how it is all going to turn out. To spend time worrying about how my children will turn out would suck all the joy from our days. We will just get on with our quiet things. I really appreciate your writing.

  4. (Sorry, I deleted my first try at this comment. :) )

    Idzie, reading your post, I began to examine what points you made are true for our family and what may not be. My kids are 27, 21 and 20 now, and, though I think having unschooled is part of how they grew up, they don't think of themselves as "unschoolers". I'd have to ask them, but I've never heard them call themselves that. I think -- and I hesitate to speak for them, so I'm emphasizing *I think* -- each might describe him or her self by their interests and what they're doing now, not by one of the paths that we followed. "I'm a mother and an artist and a writer" I might hear my daughter say if I asked her. "I'm a runner" is what my eldest son would lead with, I'm pretty sure. "I'm a writer", or "I'm interested in Cosplay and Science Fiction and reading and gaming . . . " geez, I don't know where to stop with my younger son -- or any of them, really. (After reading your post and thinking about it, I must ask each of them and see what they say.)

    I think that they don't feel that they have something to prove "as unschoolers". It seems to me that they are each comfortable following the paths they choose without worrying about the expectations of "the mainstream" (or about proving something about unschooling by doing Big Important Things), because that's what they've been doing all along. Finding one's own path without worrying about what others think, letting go of expectations and being true to oneself, was something I never learned to do, but it's the way they've grown up. Like your mom, I hesitate to use the phrase "I'm proud of them". What I really am is in awe of them. They each amaze me and watching their lives unfold brings me joy. This is what I feel when I read your blog or see that you've created a Zine or baked something wonderful. You *all* are amazing, exceptional people. Unschooling is part of what allowed you all to become who you are, but it doesn't define who you are.

  5. One of the ongoing challenges I face is learning (at my age! still!) how to turn off the voice of a culture that tells me that Significant Achievement is what matters most, when what I really like to do is scribble a few lines of poetry now and then and make nice things for dinner. I love what Kurt Vonnegut wrote: "We're here to fart around, and don't let anybody tell you different."

    1. That's a wonderful quote that I'm going to use from now on! :) Thanks!

  6. Excellent post. Sharing with my unschooled teen. Thanks.

  7. Here here, just shared with ny little family, important ti hold on to this , thanks

  8. Yes, yes, yes, yes, and yes. Thanks for pointing out something very important.

  9. Thank you for writing this. I'm going to be sharing this as a starting point for our own discussions about unschooling, which--I wholeheartedly agree--should not be co-opted as an alternate model to maximize achievement.