It’s Time to Rethink Education – Part 2 (Unschooling)

It’s Time to Rethink Education – Part 2 (Unschooling):

There are several components, but the real shocker is that more of us aren’t embracing the current age of access to mastery of any topic. But that may not be so surprising—most of us were taught to be passive learners, to just “get through” school. It’s easy to be lazy. The rewards of becoming an autodidact, though, include igniting inner fires, making new connections to knowledge atnd skills you already have, advancing in your career, meeting kindred spirits, and cultivating an overall zest for life and its riches.

One good reason to dive head first into self-initiated learning is that much of what you were taught is already obsolete. “Knowledge workers succeed not based on what they know, but rather how they learn,” writes James Marcus Bach in his book, Secrets of a Buccaneer-Scholar. He dropped out of school when he was 14 and, in the early days of home computing, taught himself enough to become a software tester for Apple. He’s now an independent consultant.

Bach’s philosophy is rebellious yet inclusive: “Intellectual buccaneering is about self-education, but schools are OK, too. I’ve learned in schools, and I’ve learned from people who were trained in schools. I happily plunder knowledge wherever I find it. I don’t seek the destruction of schools. I am out to dismantle something else—the popular belief that schooling is the only route to a great education and that the best students are those who passively accept the education their schools offer.”

– From the Psychology Today article: The Golden Age of Teaching Yourself Anything

While some of you will be familiar with the educational concept of unschooling, it’ll probably be new to most of you. Personally, I never looked into the concept until I became a parent a couple of years ago, and it was my wife who first became fascinated with the idea and bought a bunch of books on the topic. I’m really glad she did.

The book we’re currently reading is by a fascinating individual named Ben Hewitt, titled Home Grown. Back in 2014, Ben wrote an excellent article for Outside Magazine in which he provided a concise description of what unschooling is. It’s quite distinct from home-schooling, which most people are already familiar with.

In the piece, We Don’t Need No Education, he explains:

There’s a name for the kind of education Fin and Rye are getting. It’s called unschooling, though Penny and I have never been fond of the term. But “self-directed, adult-facilitated life learning in the context of their own unique interests” doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue, so unschooling it is.

It is already obvious that unschooling is radically different from institutionalized classroom learning, but how does it differ from more common homeschooling? Perhaps the best way to explain it is that all unschooling is homeschooling, but not all homeschooling is unschooling. While most homeschooled children follow a structured curriculum, unschoolers like Fin and Rye have almost total autonomy over their days. At ages that would likely see them in seventh and fourth grades, I generously estimate that my boys spend no more than two hours per month sitting and studying the subjects, such as science and math, that are universal to mainstream education. Not two hours per day or even per week. Two hours per month. Comparatively speaking, by now Fin would have spent approximately 5,600 hours in the classroom. Rye, nearly three years younger, would have clocked about half that time.

If this sounds radical, it’s only because you’re not taking a long enough view, for the notion that children should spend the majority of their waking hours confined to a classroom enjoys scant historical precedent.

Even to someone like me, an individual who finds the concept of authority and involuntary activity revolting, unschooling seemed a bit radical for our family when I first read about it. Nevertheless, as I’ve considered it in more over the past few months, it’s become more and more appealing. To get an even better sense of what it’s all about, let’s read some more excerpts from the Outside article referenced above:

The boys will pay the bus no heed because its passing is meaningless to them. Maybe they have never ridden in a school bus, and maybe this is because they’ve never been to school. Perhaps they have not passed even a single day of their short childhoods inside the four walls of a classroom, their gazes shifting between window and clock, window and clock, counting the restless hours and interminable minutes until release.

Maybe the boys are actually my sons, and maybe their names are Fin and Rye, and maybe, if my wife, Penny, and I get our way, they will never go to school.

Hey, a father can dream, can’t he?…

The first incidence of compulsory schooling came in 1852, when Massachusetts required communities to offer free public education and demanded that every child between the ages of 8 and 14 attend school for at least 12 weeks per year. Over the next seven decades, the remaining states adopted similar laws, and by 1918, the transition to mandated public education was complete.

It was not long before some parents and even educators began to question the value of compulsory education. One of those was John Holt, a Yale graduate and teacher at the Colorado Rocky Mountain School who published his observations in How Children Fail in 1964. Ultimately selling more than a million copies, it was an indictment of the education system, asserting that children are born with deep curiosity and love of learning, both of which are diminished in school.

Holt became a passionate advocate for homeschooling, which existed in a legal gray area, but he quickly realized that some parents were simply replicating the classroom. So in 1977, in his magazine, Growing Without Schooling, he coined a new term: “GWS will say ‘unschooling’ when we mean taking children out of school, and ‘deschooling’ when we mean changing the laws to make schools noncompulsory and to take away from them their power to grade, rank, and label people, i.e. to make lasting, official, public judgments about them.”

In addition to fundamental curricular differences, there is also something of a cultural schism between the two styles. Home-schooling is popularly associated with strong religious views (in a 2007 survey by the National Center for Education Statistics, 83 percent of homeschooling parents said that providing “religious or moral instruction” was part of their choice), while unschooling seems to have no such association. “Unschooling has always been sort of code for being secular,” explains Patrick Farenga, who runs the unschooling website “It’s about understanding that learning is not a special skill that happens separate from everything else and only under a specialist’s gaze. It’s about raising children who are curious and engaged in the world alongside their families and communities.”

I can almost hear you thinking, Sure, but you live in the sticks, and you both work at home. What about the rest of us? And it’s true: Penny and I have made what most would consider an extreme choice. I write from home, and we both run our farm, selling produce and meat to help pay the bills. Everyone we know who unschools, in fact, has chosen autonomy over affluence. Hell, some years we’re barely above the poverty line. But the truth is, unschooling isn’t merely an educational choice. It’s a lifestyle choice.

Unschooling is also perfectly legal in all 50 states, so long as certain basic stipulations—from simple notification to professional evaluations, “curriculum” approval, and even home visits—are met. But many unschoolers have been reticent to stand up and be counted, perhaps because the movement tends to attract an independent-thinking, antiauthoritarian personality type.

Of course, unschooling is not the only choice. Increasingly, families are turning to options like Waldorf, the largest so-called alternative-education movement in the world. It was founded in Stuttgart, Germany, in 1919, based on the teachings of Austrian philosopher Rudolf Steiner, who believed that children learn best through creative play. In 1965, there were nine Waldorf schools in the U.S.; today there are 123.

Still, perhaps the best answer I can give to the question of what price my children might pay is in the form of another question: What price do school-going children pay for their confinement? The physical toll is easy enough to quantify. Diabetes rates among school-age children are sky-high, and the percentage of 6-to-11-year-olds who qualify as obese has nearly tripled since 1980. And what do children do in school? Exactly.

They sit.

So what prompted me to shift from, “this seems interesting, but it’s probably not for us,,” to “this might work for our family,” in just a matter of months? For one thing, I have a fundamental issue with forcing kids to sit in a classroom all day with other kids of the exact same age, while being forced to learn in the same way and at the same pace. Second, with all the information currently available online, the resources for thoughtful parents and curious kids is simply extraordinary and unprecedented. Typical schooling seems very outdated in this reality, and I’m not the sort of person who just does things because it’s what everybody else does. Finally, I started to ponder some less obvious downsides to traditional schooling. What if we want to go on an adventure as a family. Whether desert camping in Morocco, or a drive up to Montana, our ability to do such trips would be confined by school schedules. We’d have to take trips at the same time as all the other kids, which just rubs me the wrong way.

Ultimately, my wife and I haven’t decided on exactly what we’re going to do, and we plan on keeping an open mind about all options and taking cues from our kids themselves as they are each unique individuals with their own desires and needs. This post isn’t about making the case for a particular type of educational path, but to get people aware of the various options out there and inspire everyone to think outside of the box.

From a societal perspective, the reality is unschooling necessitates at least one person to be a stay at home parent. In the case of Ben Hewitt, he works from home and his wife is also there. That’s the ideal situation in my opinion, and it’s simply not an option for the overwhelming majority of U.S. families. In fact, most households consist of two parents working full-time just to make ends meet. This is a tragedy since it stifles household creativity and forces everybody into a stressed out box where family becomes an afterthought.

My wife and I are in a fortunate position which gives us options, and we will explore them all. That said, the choice to potentially unschool is not something I take lightly. If we decided to go down that route, I’d have to change a lot about how I do things. At the moment I spend most of my day reading and writing for the purposes of this website. If we accepted the enormous responsibility that comes with having kids at home, I’d want to dedicate far more time during the day to interacting with our children. My everyday life would be affected in a very significant way.

Parenthood is a tremendous honor and responsibility, and it saddens me that so many parents don’t have the opportunity we do to be so engaged with our children on daily basis. Given this reality, it’s important that those of you fortunate enough to be home with your kids think deeply about the options available before doing something just because everybody else does. The world’s changing fast and it’s crucial we raise as many children as possible who can think independently and ensure the future looks very different in a positive way from the one we’re living in. Humanity depends on it.

Finally, here are a few resources readers pointed me to on the subject of unschooling. If you have any other good ones, please share in the comment section.

Lazy Mill Farm

John Taylor Gatto

Living Joyfully

Dayna Martin

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