Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Unschooling in the news

A recent post by one of my favorite unschooling bloggers, Child's Play, remarked on Good Morning America's recent segment on unschooling in Massachusetts. I really appreciate her analysis of the interview, in which she addresses the overt bias and negative bent of the segment, the condescending position that "well-meaning" but "extreme" parents are allowing their children to "play hooky," and are unable to successfully put into practice a "utopian ideal." The graphics themselves suggest the unbelievability of the entire proposition: "Imagine no school: parents let kids go free" (gasp!) Some of the responses posted by readers address the positive aspects of unschooling that were edited out of the segment, and I would like to add some of my own thoughts to the discussion.

First to the issue of discourse and investigative journalism. While some may disagree, Good Morning America is not "news." Rather, it is infotainment and, as such, says a good deal about the spectators who were so incensed at the thought of American children being educated not simply outside the confines of an institution, but, further, without the institutionalization of thought. While many of those viewers were dumbfounded (and I use this term with its valences of meaning) upon discovering that parents could sleep at night knowing their children were learning without textbooks and tests, what I find most troublesome is that those same viewers are able to sleep peacefully with the assurance that Good Morning America is providing them with a "complete" and "objective" representation of what unschooling is/could be. The overwhelming popular desire for soundbites and partial truths (as long as they can be crammed in between infomercials and celebrity gossip) underscores that public/formal education does not create critical consciousness. If that were the case, Bill Moyers Journal would not be running at 10:00pm on a Friday night, and George Stephanopoulos would be out of a job.

Besides the numerous problems that Child's Play raises in regard to the segment, I would like to consider a few more. Aside from Chang's incorrect use of scare quotes ("miss" and "regret" aren't multivalent here, only "normal" is - Sy could have told her that), she asserts that school offers kids options to explore things they might not otherwise experience citing examples of Phys Ed (basketball, volleyball, etc.) Regardless of the fact that schools are offering less and less in the way of non-academic experiences (some are getting rid of recess and phys ed altogether), she seems to suggest that these are not experiences one could have outside of formal schooling. Am I wrong, or did most of us spend our childhood free time, our time outside of school, playing those games? Is it the job of school to teach us how to play basketball? Can't we learn even that on our own? And, given that unschooling is all about free time (time to choose what we will do, how we will do it, and when), it seems that unschooling will clearly provide those opportunities in excess of what the institution of school could ever offer.

Another major problem with Chang's interview is her question regarding coercive parenting. "Isn't it the job of the parent to teach the child to do things they don't want to do?" she asks. While this mode of thinking about children reveals certain mainstream assumptions about children (they have to be forced to be good/helpful/studious/well-rounded, etc.; parents and children naturally have a contentious relationship; children must be controlled if they are to develop properly) and about the society in which we raise them ("democracy" is only possible in an authoritarian form), it does not reflect the ideals and goals of unschooling. We want to raise our children to take control of their learning, to think critically about their lives and the world around them. Teaching to the test does not accomplish this. Why do we assume that children will not make the "right" choices? Or better yet, what are the "right" choices? Do we want them to run on autopilot, filling out worksheets, memorizing facts they will then dump after the test, enrolling in courses at college because "it's what I've always done," because their "parents think it's a good idea," because they "don't know what else to do"? (Yes, spoken from the mouths of my freshmen advisees - they are 18 and still don't know what they want out of life.). Is it "right" for them to go to college if, after graduating, their career expectations are thwarted because of a failing economy that no one seems to know or understand how to fix?

What does this fear of (not) learning without tests and textbooks say about our ideas of learning, our (lack of) respect for children's inherent desire to learn and their natural ability to do so? Aristotle said that all men, by nature, desire to know; that what we have to learn to do, we learn by doing. Are either of these assertions fulfilled via standardized testing and textbook learning? Many great thinkers and poets were wary of the institution of school because they saw that it went hand in hand with the institutionalization of thought (Mark Twain and Friedrich Nietzsche being only a couple who are famous for their scathing critiques). Perhaps our true fear is of a nation of critical thinkers - that would be a difficult citizenry to manage (again, no scare quotes here.)

Elsewhere, I have discussed some of the reasons we have chosen against formal schooling. While I would not assert that our parenting could be defined as "radical unschooling" (we do place some limits on diet, access to commercial TV and other forms of media, bedtimes and hygiene), we are doing our best to facilitate our children's learning, rather than educate them, and we are attempting to do so with respect and without coercion in the form of punishments or rewards. We read a lot. We travel. We play sports. We hike and play in nature. We do research on the internet. We make art. We sing, dance and make music (including formal lessons and informal play). We snuggle. But I think the most important aspect of our unschooling journey is the respect we have for our children's right to make decisions and assert their agency. They don't *have* to read about this or that, just like they don't *have* to apologize (when they don't mean it!) or clean up the playroom (unless they've decided it's easier to play down there when they can find their stuff.) The result? They read a lot, and they read what they want. They argue, but they are kind and considerate of each other's feelings, often offering help and apologies without us hovering and enforcing "correct" manners. They question assertions; they see grey (as well as black and white); they wonder and consider and hypothesize. They act like human beings because we treat them as such.


  1. I just watched the piece. It seemed to me they left out all the good stuff. Why didn't they show how the kids ARE learning, instead of confronting them and putting them on the defensive. And they were so extremely brief on the other family with the little kids, who seemed to be more moderate and probably represented something closer to what many unschoolers do.

  2. cheers for this post! i always find it interesting when academics unschool... people who have invested enormous amounts of time and energy and generally money and self concept into the very structured and normal modes of education. i suppose that's a bit different than elementary ed, however.

    was great to see you tonight! let's get together again... and perhaps get our kids together too. funny, you didn't mention homeschooling when we were talking about the ideal preschool. ;)