Question: Is unschooling a form of anarchy?

A few days ago via Twitter my friend Elizabeth addressed fellow radical and unschooling proponent Idzie and myself:

Hey smart ladies, random question, do u identify with anarchism at all? Is unschooling/gentle parenting lived anarchism?

I am quite unqualified to write much on anarchy, but I will note here, briefly, that Idzie self-identifies as a green post-leftist anarchist and you can read some great stuff on her blog. For my part, the concept of anarchy is one that, what little I know of it, I have a great deal of respect for (I recently read somewhere, “no nukes, no wars, no laws, no morals and no conformity”).

I notice knee-jerk biases against non-schooling and/or non-punitive parenting often sound quite similar to reflexive dismissals of anarchy – or any practice eschewing authoritarianism, a culture of expertism, and concepts of meritocratic structure. The mainstream reaction to the word “anarchy” is not a positive one: many identify anarchy as germane to and necessarily resulting in chaos and crime, disarray and disorder, a great deal more violence than already exists, of course, and some kind of feral state of humanity where all our Evil is manifested and all the breathtaking instincts of every other animal on the planet is entirely missing: “the terrorists have won”, total disrepair and a breakdown of civilization (because, of course, in the mind of many civilization is inherently a good thing). Think Mad Max, but without the saving grace of a young Mel Gibson in leather pants.*

And that’s what people, by and large, predict about unschooling, life learning, or living without compulsory schooling. It’s not going to work, and it’s going to be a Very Bad Idea. I’m not talking about open-minded questions or even some fair skepticism, conversations I’ve engaged in many times with a fair degree of lightness, usually – I’m talking about vitriol, labeling the lifestyle as resulting in an Underclass of ignoramuses, or on the other end of the spectrum being an offensive exercise in unexamined privilege; at turns either over-involved, or neglectful. In fact it’s the demonstrably ignorant, wildly vacillating, and mutually exclusive nature of the most vigorous and spiteful criticisms that made my partner and my tentative foray from public education to homeschooling to living without school all the easier. As we considered these criticisms, the whole culturally-prescribed normative edicts just collapsed like a house of cards, while our family thrived.

At root, these biases against even listening with an open mind to the principles of anarchy or living without school seem to have a root basis: a profound distrust of human beings. I note that in the case of living without school, there is also an incredibly strong adultist response (rooted in how we were trained to view children, while we ourselves were growing up). This profound distrust of human beings and the resultant affinity with a poisonous pedagogy is, when it comes down to it, a spiritual or moral choice we make with our every thought, and it is a way of  life we create with our every action. Do you personally believe God (or the cosmos, or whatever) made a mistake when He (or whatever) created humans, so “fearfully and wonderfully made”? Do you personally believe children have naughty, querulous, non-empathetic, and lazy natures that only the wise, firm hand of adults and institutions can and should properly mold?

I hope it’s obvious you don’t have to answer here, or to me. Ever. This is all your business; and as a direct result, your attitudes and beliefs will make it the business of everyone else you come into contact with.

Although many would like to believe otherwise, it has been pointed out to me rather convincingly that school was primarily created so we could continue with our Industrial Revolution and capitalist values and way of life, however well-intentioned many proponents are today. Many families currently live a reality that would make it very hard indeed to care for their own young during the day; USian culture’s child-unfriendly public spaces make this even more so the case. Consider: how much do we culturally value in a holistic way those who put the time in caring for the child class, and how much do we culturally value the nourishing of the spiritual and emotional health of all families? Children are mostly institutionalized, full stop, and many families who love their children very much are a part of these systems because they have little choice, or even if they have a degree of choice, truly don’t see the value in participating as a member of a non-schooling minority. As for the status and respect we afford those who do the important work of other-care, I’m not seeing it unless you get paid. And in the money-earning sphere, the lip service to teachers’ so-called heroism is expected to placate these working adults who are living out their professional lives in systemic circumstances far less than ideal and often downright dangerous and damaging (although I believe the children are the most primarily and profoundly affected during formative years).

Compulsory schooling is where I learned how to regurgitate information and to sit still and listen to Grownups, because Grownups knew more and better than I. Compulsory schooling helped me learn a great deal of fear or at the very least, encouraged me to become very risk-averse and unlikely to challenge Authority, even when my heart and gut told me Authority was doing wrong. Compulsory schooling taught me the myth of the United States as meritocracy: people who were poor and downtrodden, well they weren’t working hard enough. Compulsory schooling never “taught” me critical thinking (as if children need this “taught” to them!) nor much valued the creative process and drive because, as my linked-to friend Wendy Priesnitz has also written, if compulsory schooling did value these things the system would not be able to function. The attitudes of by-rote institutionalism for children can also profoundly negate a child’s most basic needs and drives; briefly I remember my brother who received a D in high school Art, primarily because he didn’t complete things on the teacher’s schedule (today this makes me laugh when I think about the world of art, which to my knowledge does not have a universally-adopted timeline on how long to work on a piece!). Needless to say his adult life has involved a tremendous and consistent amount of creativity, and within the career he chose as an adult due to his passions he has an excellent reputation as an employee. I will also add schooling was not experienced as a positive thing for my brother in many ways; he was continually criticized and thinks of himself as a “poor performer” despite a B-average (yes, I checked).

I have observed children learn things profoundly well, in their own ways, when allowed this freedom and the necessary safety and support adults can provide. I did not experience this freedom growing up, which is perhaps why I was open to valuing and creating this reality for my own children. I mentioned my brother who didn’t much enjoy school; well, I did, because I learned how to be a Good Little Girl and because my abilities were along those privileged in our educational system – linguistics, science, reading comprehension, and math. I was a High Achiever in school, a straight-A student, and received a full-ride educational merit scholarship that delivered me a degree in Engineering within four years of college. I could write tomes on the costs of assimilation, a near-entire capitulation mechanism to Authority and Expertism, and my performance-to-gain-praise-and-prizes but I won’t here. I will merely relate that, much like my children’s experiences seem to evidence, it was when I began living my life for my own reasons that I began to grow character, to grow compassion, to be less selfish, to find my passions (instead of merely chasing income, status, and prestige, not that there is anything wrong with any of those things), to reach out and assist others, and to question those culturally-sanctioned narratives that hurt us all. The list goes on. I’m gratified to watch my children, who hopefully won’t have to “un-learn” as many fear-based theories I believed and strategies I employed .

I also find it really surprising that the largest vocal majority against whole life unschooling is by far those who not only haven’t tried it, they have just now heard of it and already hate it. These days, if I were to hear of a lifestyle I knew little about, I’d likely go, you know, asking questions directly to someone who had experience. Preferably, if I thought I might benefit from an open mind, I’d seek out someone who was having a great deal of joy and personal growth in the process. To that end, my blog is a catalog of our experiences, and my email and social media streams are always open to those who want to ask me anything at all (kelly AT hogaboom DOT org, kellyhogaboom on Twitter).

“There is a principle which is a bar against all information, which is proof against all argument, and which cannot fail to keep a man in everlasting ignorance. This principle is, contempt prior to examination.” 

Today very few adults in blog-reading US of A grew up in a home that not only consistently met the children’s needs – physical security (home and clothing), nutrition, and consistent emotional nurturing – but that also allowed the greatest autonomy and personal freedom (of expression, of movement, of choice) possible. Given that’s the case, it’s always encouraging to see a grownup who was raised without such autonomy, asking how that sort of thing might work.


* Or if you’re into the really weird movies we are, think perhaps Warrior of the Wasteland, with all the senseless killing and electro-harness rape but without the heroic awesomeness of Fred Williamson’s gold-plated archery and fabulous mustache.


Edit 12/13 – You know what I forgot to mention? I forgot to tell an anecdote about our family. Like, if you come inside my house you will see a “normal” family (whatever that means), a clean and tidy house, food on the table, kids who are mostly polite and assist chores regularly and without being forced. Etc. Etc. I was going to write about our current experience a bit just to point out that, if you think life without school and with an exchewal of authoritarian and coercive parenting is all disarray and disrespect, you’d be incorrect. Anyway we’d much rather have you visit, if you want to see how it works!

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