deschooling: not an all-or-nothing experience

[Ed note on terminology: Let us not pretend I oppose the existence of institutions of learning that employ knowledgable instructors providing course material either voluntarily or for a wage. This is absurd. What I mean by “school” for all my alt education writings is the following: a state-run institutional edifice where children are required to attend; also, the resultant culture that has sprung up in and supporting such institutions.]

I’ve recently had the good fortune of receiving a moderate volume of calls, emails, and texts from parents who are curious about homeschooling and unschooling for their children. Part of the increased activity may be the small community ripple our thirteen-year old daughter made this fall when she tested into, and enrolled at, our local community college. Regardless of the factors behind this increased interest, I love the subjects of homeschooling, unschooling, parenting, and living with children. I am honored when adults and children alike trust me enough to share their concerns.

Today I’ve fielded texts from a mother to six who is trying to navigate her family’s first year of home- and unschooling. She tells me her family spent a year deschooling – living without books and curriculum – and now she’s worried, because they’re “behind”. She was feeling upset because in an online unschooling community she brought up these concerns and was told by members of the group that she “hadn’t deschooled yet”. This kind of thing can be unschooling-speak for: “you’re still part of The System! Bad unschooler, bad!” (Meanwhile those unfamiliar with unschooling are probably scratching their heads thinking – “What in the WORLD is ‘deschooling’?”)
Let’s think about my friend’s position for a moment.

With six children, some of them near full-grown, my friend has embarked on this incredibly brave thing: removing them from public school. If you haven’t done this as a parent you probably don’t realize how terrifying this can be. She has been trying to make her way in a semi-rural geographic area unfamiliar with and (as is the way) unsupportive of unschooling. She took a whole year off enforcing instruction – and faced whatever direct or tacit criticisms her friends, family, partner, and community offered up. She did these things with very little support and help. Now believes she’s seeing signs that her kids are “behind” in some way, and she knows that as their mother she will be criticized roundly – if not out-and-out accused of abuse – if other people think this too.

Any tone of criticism from unschooling quarters of her having “not [fully or properly] deschooled” may not be helpful. In all likelihood, none of us will ever fully deschool. At the date I write this, Western childrearing is bemired in constant testing, appraisal, comparison, competition, and what I like to call a scarcity mindset. Unschooling is a way out of that, but it isn’t easy for most. It is true there are those who will grasp the concepts of unschooling relatively quickly and find these concepts incredibly agreeable (as I have). But even so, we are unlikely to be surrounded by family, friends, and community who will help us when things are hard, let alone support our new worldview with enthusiasm. I think perhaps an always-unschooled child in a remarkably-balanced home – that is, a child from a nurturing household, raised without compulsory institutionalization and by very confident parents or carers – might come as close to being “deschooled” as anyone can. But about ninety-six percent of us were raised in school, and cared for by parents with all the attendant anxieties parents have been told they should have – as well as the sometimes very severe troubles that plague most human beings like divorce, anxiety, depression, substance abuse – that sort of thing. These factors put stressors on parents and children that are myriad, frightening, and complex. As a result, most all of us learn a very “school-y” way of looking at things.

What do I mean by a “school-y” way of looking at things, you ask? 

I mean the perspective of constantly evaluating, comparing, and pushing oneself (or others) to perform to institutional or social standards regardless of personal drives and temperament. I mean the belief that performing to academic standard in school will problem-solve any of life’s real struggles.

Schools are not all bad. Schools house some lovely children and passionate, caring grownups. The school environment teaches us good stuff – or at least non-harmful stuff, like history dates and fractions math.

But unfortunately a larger lesson school teaches us is that children cannot be trusted to grow up the right way. Children must be taught certain things on certain schedules. They must be corrected and punished, and any grownup allowed on the premises is free to do so. School pretends children’s minds are unformed or primitive, and it is our right and responsibility to mold their brains like clay.

School teaches us children shouldn’t be out in the world with “real” people, but should be rounded up and housed during daylight hours. I wonder how many grownups have thought about what that teaches children.

School teaches us children are less valuable as human beings than adults. At school students are managed, like cattle – no matter how we try to dress it up. Children are required to live in a way we figure is good enough for them, because they are “just children” – although we know that as adults, we would find such an enforced experience frustrating, humiliating, and boring. (In fact, teachers – who have significantly more freedom than children – often do find their jobs frustrating, humiliating, and boring!)

School teaches us to perform for bribes. Grades are bribes.

School teaches us that some people are smarter than you, and that makes them better than you.

School also teaches us that authority must be deferred to – whatever cosmetic lessons we find in a class or two. In the world of school, those who “rock the boat” are only appreciated if they (were mostly white men who) have died off and provided us a pithy paragraph in a textbook. Real and present-day examples of people “rocking the boat” continue to meet the same kinds of reprisals – oftentimes violent – that have plagued every generation. And don’t look to school to employ any meaningful justice in the scheme of things, or to employ a democratic process!

Schools perform a kind of cultural hazing. Quite simply, many adults don’t want to work too hard for children to have it better than they did. This is not because adults don’t care; it is because adults haven’t dealt with the insidious oppressions of our own childhoods.  We’re encouraged not to.

In fact, one of the most confusing things to me as a child and young adult was the hypocrisy of school: we were told in glowing terms about free-thinkers, groundbreaking artists, and brave social pioneers – while being simultaneously told to respect the teacher’s authority (no matter how mean-spirited or unjust he or she might be!), produce an art project identical to our peers, and tolerate the bullying (by child and adult alike) within the school walls. We were told when to eat; we had to ask when we could eliminate waste. Sometimes I think if just one adult would have spoken to us in frank terms about this hypocrisy, and revealed himself as witness and friend to the child, my mind wouldn’t have kept churning away at this silly business of “school” – trying to make sense of it all!

The plain fact is: if you live long enough to become a grownup, you have acted the autocrat to children.

Now since I am a passionate autodidact, some assume I disliked school or had a horrible time there.

Well – I didn’t! I enjoyed being liked by peers and teachers; I enjoyed earning A’s, and receiving praise from adults. I thrived in classes which were to a letter very easy for me. I liked being around my friends. I enjoyed, in large part, many of the social aspects of school. I did not occupy the lowest ranks of the socioeconomic strata and escaped bullying relatively unscathed.

So: I liked school just fine.

But I didn’t have a choice to leave.

I’m an adult now. And there is a life so much better than school.

We can start this life, without even doing anything dramatic. It is exciting, it is scary – it is quite freeing.

We can leave school behind – not the fractions math or the history dates, if we like those and find them useful – and maybe not even the physical building if we’re not quite ready. But we can leave behind the unjust, unfair, illogical, and oppressive mentalities that permeate the institution, and make for such an unsatisfying experience for students, teachers, and parent/carers. If we can’t easily leave this all behind, or even part of it – that’s okay. We can find teachers and mentors who help us. I have done this, and I am so glad I did.

And I am comfortable with whatever place the new home- or unschooling parent is, today. I don’t need a parent to yank their child out of school to be able to help ease their path. (In fact, I don’t think you should yank children anywhere!)It isn’t my right or responsibility to set the pace of your journey. I have come to believe that taking steps, even baby steps, along the path of autodidactic learning and childhood nurture will yield some of the most mind-enriching lessons of our lives. Like the unschooling parent herself, my job is to be loving and encouraging – to be a listening ear, and to offer advice when asked.

For a friend, then, who may be worried about his child being “behind”, I would first ask a few questions:

What does “behind” mean to you?

Do you worry about your child’s mental and emotional health – or rather, what people will say about you based on what they think of your parenting? Think carefully before answering.

If your child were academically “ahead” of his or her peers would that make it all better? Would that remove the parenting difficulties of providing consistent love, of feeding and clothing your children, of dealing with death and illness, loss and fear – of seeing your child suffer all these travails and more?

Do you believe you are the one who provides the drive in your child to succeed?

If you answered ‘Yes’ to that question – is it possible you’ve taken an inappropriate amount of responsibility in the parent-child relationship?

Do the same things that bother or worry you, bother and worry your child? Exactly the same?

Does your child have different strengths than you?

At what age do you begin let your child steer the course of her own life – without your interference? I don’t mean “let her do what you want her to do” – I mean really begin to let her choose?

If your grown child is “behind” later in life – say in the workplace he is not earning as much, or appreciated as much, or does not have titles that his or her coworkers do – whose job is it to course-correct?

If your child (young or grown) is “behind” on something they don’t care about – should they be forced or coerced to care, by you, their parent?

If they do care about what they are “behind” on, is it possible they can learn to do something about it?

Is it possible your child can experience periods of relative inactivity, of rest and respite, instead of being required to always be performing or improving?

Are you using your child’s life as a distraction from some of the dissatisfactions of your own?

As an unschooling parent when people think of me – if they think of me at all – it is as an extremist. Either I am a radical with heady ideas that “won’t work in the real world”, a woman who thinks her children are “too special” for the norm – or I am considered a very neglectful parent indeed: the “wire monkey mama” from the Harry Harlow experiments, callously ignoring the raw materials of my progeny. In a way these accusations have helped me. When I realized I would be criticized by either lens no matter what I did (as, sadly, all parents are), it became easier to give up addressing the critics. I looked for support instead, and mentorship. Given time, this has put me in the extraordinary and humbling position of being able to offer support to you – if you’re looking for it.

Trust that no one loves your child like you do. Trust that your love, and your willingness to change – and the fact that this is not a race! –  are more than adequate factors for love and growth. Trust that you have made mistakes in the past – as we all have – and you will probably make mistakes in the future, too. Trust that being a parent doesn’t come with a requirement to be perfect.

Trust that our children can live and thrive despite our mistakes.

And thank the Universe for that wonderful truth.


Comments are closed.