Monday, February 2, 2015

You Don't Need an Ideal World to Unschool: Why the Concerns of Progressives are Misplaced

There’s a frequent criticism of unschooling that comes from progressives, liberals, and even anarchists of various stripes, which is that, by removing children from schools, parents are hurting the schools themselves; lessening the quality of said schools (since they’re no longer involved in school improvement); and taking money away from where it’s most needed.

I’ve always found this argument to be both puzzling and misguided for several reasons.

Parents are unable to make a real impact on schools and how they function. Even teachers have virtually no control over the structure or curriculum found in schools, and are often left frustrated by the bureaucracy and standardization stopping them from making any significant changes, even in their own classrooms. If teachers have that little impact, than parents certainly don’t have a bigger one.

Secondly, in many regions a large portion of each school’s budget comes from property taxes, meaning that schools situated in more affluent neighbourhoods will have a bigger budget, leading to more resources, more enriching activities, and at least nominally better schools. This is a true cause of inequality between schools and students, along with institutional privileges and prejudices that lead marginalized students to do worse, even in the same schools, when compared to more privileged peers. Some parents choosing to take their kids out of school, or to not send them there to begin with, are going to have a negligible impact on the finances of a single institution.

Yet even if both of the above concerns could actually be backed up, the argument still doesn’t hold a lot of weight to me. “Other children have to attend an outdated institution--one that often feels like a socially toxic environment, where the basic rights of students to free thought and movement are sharply curtailed in favour of imparting a top-down, universally mandated curriculum to be given to age segregated groups of children--so you have to go too.”

To me this seems akin to deciding that, because some communities are food deserts-- areas where poor residents have no access to fresh and healthy food--everyone, no matter their finances or neighborhood access, should avoid fresh food on principle. Instead, the approach should be to recognize that inequalities exist, and start having important discussions with people in your communities about what can be done to help solve those inequalities. Start taking real steps to enact change, or support the individuals and groups who are doing said work. Whether we’re talking about food deserts or a failed education system, the proposed solution shouldn’t be to subject everyone to the same level of bad, but should instead be a search for solutions that allow everyone to have access.

It seems to me that progressives have a long list of reasons not to unschool: It takes away from schools by removing parental and student involvement; there aren’t enough community resources; there isn’t enough parental support… All of these seem to hinge, not on a disagreement with the actual underlying philosophy of unschooling, but instead on the premise that the world at large and the individuals in it just aren’t ready for unschooling.

I wonder if this points towards a larger problem in how progressives and anarchists attempt to solve various societal problems. Most progressives don’t actually seem to be making all that many different choices in their lives when compared to people with more mainstream political views, regardless of their economic status or the amount of support available to them. Is the issue of education just another sign of fear holding us back? Is there a widespread feeling that we just need to wait, need to focus on broad incremental change instead of radical changes made in our own lives, and those of our families and close communities? 

Individuals have to make the choices that are best for them, based on their unique situation, and I certainly don't believe that everyone should or has to unschool. But I also don’t think we need an ideal world to be able to make important and radically different choices about how we live and learn. Yes, to focus only on our own lives at the expense of the wider culture would be a mistake. But I don’t see why we can’t have both: a push for broader change, and choices made that are actually best for you, your families, the people you care about most, when it comes to where, or whether or not, your children go to school.

We need to stop waiting for everything to be perfect to make any significant changes, or we’ll never make changes at all.

I hope more progressives can stop making excuses about waiting for the ideal, and instead focus on creating something better for the children in their own lives, as well as pushing for better alternatives for all children.

Further reading 
Learning About Culture & Community: Unschooling in the Real World by Eva Swindler


  1. I have never met the anarchists who think this way - many "progressives" (God I hate that word), but all the anarchists I know live by the "be the change you want to see in the world" - which unschooling is. my first contact with anarchy was through unschooling.

    1. I'm glad you haven't! I'm an anarchist and while I know lots of anarchists who are unschoolers themseves or just supportive of unschooling, I've also met anarchists who have some of the arguments against it that I outlined in the post! I spoke on a panel about radical education at the Montreal anarchist bookfair a few years ago, and an audience member said that wasn't this just an extremely privileged option unavailable to most, and aren't we hurting schools by taking our positive involvement away from them?

      I also found an old copy of Fifth Estate from 2004, where one author using the pen name Sunfrog said that "I do not see how unschooling can fully compensate for issuees with socialization and exposure to diversity" and "some strong-willed children will actually rule their parents" and "giving children the freedom not to learn might severely limit their freedom later in life." So basically, the exact same ignorant criticisms EVERYONE has, just couched in more anarchist language in the larger article.

      I'm happy that a year or two ago, Fifth Estate published a MUCH better article on unschooling by a personal friend and unschooling parent!

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    3. I would argue that the people you are describing are not anarchists, as they are advocating for government schooling. Your generalization of anarchists in this article reinforces the stigma associated with the concept. Most anarchists I know are unschoolers, as well as myself.

    4. I repeat, I myself am an anarchist. I'm sharing my experience with the anarchist community, which is that a startling number of anarchists I've come across have not been supportive of unschooling ideas. Sharing my experiences with the political group I identify with isn't "reinforcing stigma."

  2. I was pretty sure that the debate was that private school hurts public school. I'm not sure how unschooling can hurt public school. Anyway, if not sending your kids to public school really hurts it then I think that the bigger problem is private school, not unscholing. Because that’s not the same number of children by a big margin.

    I know a family of four children that unschool their two oldest and I fail to see in what way they hurt the public school system. They pay their school taxes and their income taxes and if anything they enable two classes to have one less children, that can't be that bad.

    I think that these people (progressives or whatever) must stop to think how blessed we are to live in a society where we can choose where how our children are schooled instead of being forced to send them to public school.

    1. The argument is definitely that both private school AND home education hurts public schools (see this article as an example

      Though really, deciding that private schools are bad carte blanche doesn't seem all that fair to me, either. In Quebec at least, if you want to have a school of any sort, you HAVE to follow the QC curriculum (which is ridiculous and is something being fught by good people), and if you want to found a public school, you have to take whatever teachers the teachers union sends you. You literally can't even hire your own teachers. Meaning that a private school with sliding scale fees is pretty much the only option if you want to create an alternative school of any sort!

    2. I think I see what you mean. You mean we can't have alternative schools here in Quebec like there is in the US. That's sad really.

  3. I think an underlying problem is that the majority of unschooling critics had a traditional elementary through high school experience. Whether they accept it or not, they have been brainwashed into believing the traditional way is the only way. This is also what stops a number of homeschoolers from unschooling--it is so completely foreign from their concept of learning and education. For myself, I have found I need to step back every once in a while and remind myself that I decided to try something different with my youngest child (I did do subjects with her older sister and brother as I have to report quarterly to my school district and prove they are being provided with a "well-rounded" education. My fear of doing this wrong is made worse by the very real threat of being reported for child neglect.) My concept of learning is clouded by own my experience going to public school, and I try to keep myself aware of that when I get frustrated because my daughter doesn't want to do all the interesting (in my mind) educational activities I offer her. (Example: "I work in a library, why don't you want to come with me every time I'm working and just hang out in the stacks?") On the bright side, I hope that as more people grow up unschooled, their experiences will help them become the leaders for future generations and institute ideas that make a real difference in how we perceive learning and how we handle education. This generation's leaders seems to be too mired in politics and the nostalgia of their own school days. My opinion, of course.