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unschooling helps children achieve full personhood

Unschooling Helps Children Achieve Full Personhood
By Tammy Takahashi

I spend a lot of time thinking about how people learn and what it means to be happy. One of the things that makes me happy is being surprised by a hidden gem of a book I find at a used book store or at the library. Finding Personhood: The Art of Being Fully Human (for $.50 too!) by Leo Buscaglia was one of those happy moments. While reading it, I kept thinking to myself, “This is the true goal of education and parenting.” And it got me thinking – again – about the purpose of learning; in particular learning without school.

My educational philosophy is to give a person space to do the things that make him or her feel successful, by his or her own definition of success, no matter what the impetus was for that particular “learning moment.” It’s hard to implement sometimes, because my own definition of success is different than others’, and it gets in the way.

But at its essence, whatever it looks like on the outside, success is that feeling like we are fully alive, and we are doing what we are meant to do. Success is when we feel that what we do, and who we are, are in unison. Real success is in the eye of the beholder, despite all the efforts of school and society to tell us that they get to decide when we’ve achieved a worthy goal.

And what could be a better definition of “success” than “being fully human”?

Buscaglia quotes Abraham Maslow in saying that “Man is ultimately not molded or shaped into humanness or taught to be human. The role of the environment is ultimately to permit him or help him to actualize his own potentialities, not its potentialities. The environment does not give him potentialities and capabilities; he has them in inchoate or embryonic form, just exactly as he has embryonic arms and legs.”

Education cannot make a person into something; it can only provide space for a person to discover who they are. Being fully human is not derived from doing things the way that someone or something has told us to, but by being who we are, the person we were born to be.

“Education cannot make a person into something; it can only provide space for a person to discover who they are. Being fully human is not derived from doing things the way that someone or something has told us to, but by being who we are, the person we were born to be.”

I can’t believe that I was nearly in my 30s before I understood this concept. For most of my life, I was under the impression that in order to be happy, I had to figure out how to be “likeable” and “worthy” of other people’s praise. I was good at doing the right things for good grades and for making teachers like me, but in my personal life, there were no grades, there was no direct feedback. I didn’t know what to use as a ruler to decide if I was happy. I tried and tried to use external means to figure out whether I was being a good enough friend, or a likeable enough colleague or a successful enough student. But all along, the ruler was inside me and I didn’t trust myself to use it. I had figured it out, after several life events and the help of my husband, that to me, success was to have integrity...and that my happiness was my choice. I still struggle with the temptation to use outside sources (such as people’s opinions and how much other people have done) to compare my own success. Perhaps that will always be ingrained in me, deep down, after so many years of doing well in school. But the moments when I feel the highest level of success are those when I can look inside myself and compare what I do with what I believe.

Adolescence, in particular, was a tough time for me, as I’m sure it is for most people. It’s a time when we’re figuring out who we are, while trying to survive against whatever forces might be keeping us from being free to experiment with that. But after adolescence, Buscaglia describes a level of maturity where people have, “a sincere desire to be productive and to give of that production to others. They desire to create and share their creations. They accept their lives and work with satisfaction and joy....”

I know too few adults who have this level of satisfaction in their lives. I feel incredibly lucky to have found it in my life. But it did take a lot of time and space to “mess around” before I reached this place.

Buscaglia goes on to say that, “The mature artists of life are spontaneous, accepting, flexible, receptive to new experience, suspicious of reality. They are harmonious with external forces, but autonomous, busy with the processes of inventing their own lives. They see existence as a series of choices, the selection of which they must determine, and for which they are singularly responsible. They care about, respect and appreciate the world and society in which they live and the others who cohabit it, even though they may not wholly agree with them.”

Just reading this passage makes me smile. How fabulous our world would be if everyone reached this level of maturity! This kind of thought is available in all of us. And to be able to see this, to be able to accept the disagreement and difference in others, is a point of view that is not cultivated. It’s not created. You can’t force someone to think this way. It’s born out of being free to make choices, again and again, until we start to see what the true, natural results of those choices are, in the context of the world around us, when we are not confined by someone else’s system. It’s also born out of having role models who are, themselves, able to see the world in this way, but who don’t try to make us see things as they do.

It wasn’t until after I was finally out of school and had my own family that I found this level of maturity that Buscaglia describes. What’s interesting, however, is that my kids, who are eight and six (and even to some degree my three-year-old,) already exhibit quite a lot of these traits. The kids I know who have grown up without school, in general, exhibit many of these traits. And those who don’t yet exhibit them are obviously on the road to getting there. All the while, even though they show all these signs of “maturity,” they also show the signs of innocence, and of confusion about who they are and the world around them, which leads to a natural curiosity.

The kind of “maturity” that I was so often congratulated for having during my adolescence involved my ability to follow orders, do what I was told and be the “good student.” I was quiet, thoughtful, produced good marks and rarely outwardly questioned authority. But is that really maturity? Is doing what we’re “supposed” to do a sign that we have achieved a level of greatness? Can a person who goes with what other people tell them to do and always does other people’s definition of the right thing truly be mature? I don’t know the answer to that. But I do know that, for me, maturity came after I was finally able to be free and make mistakes. It took years of no longer being scrutinized and of no longer feeling like I was trying to uphold a mask of who I was in order to give a good impression on others.

It’s a fallacy to think that kids who do well in school will walk out of the double-doors at 18 and instantly be transported into maturity. Perhaps there are some students who can get good grades while at the same time not putting any weight on those grades. I didn’t know any of them. My friends who had good grades in school had a hard time dealing with failure. And the ones who didn’t do well in school also had a hard time dealing with failure.

Other articles about potential:

Living for the Future

Whose Goal is it Anyway?

On Expectations About Learning

Where in school do we learn how to deal with failure? Because learning to accept and even welcome failure is, it seems, an effective way to figure out who we are. It’s impossible to truly succeed without a large degree of the opposite – not succeeding.

It is often mentioned in writer’s circles that the successful authors and freelancers are the ones who can fail over and over, and still go on. What happens to the kids who fail over and over in school? What happens to the kids who hardly ever fail in school and whose failures are looked upon as flukes? There is no real room for wholesome and learnable failure in a traditional school environment.

In real life, and in a life growing up without school, failure is daily. It’s all around us. And it’s perfectly OK. It’s not a problem and it’s part of the process of moving forward. It’s not worthy of our attention any longer than it takes to figure out what we need to learn from it and move on.

Having the space to express who we are, warts and all, is how we learn to be fully human. Being successful is when we make choices that reflect our authentic selves. It’s hard to make true choices that lead us to full personhood when we are trapped between going along with what we’re told and trying to go down our own path to growing up. When there is no middle ground, no space to move, how can we ever find who we are?

To me, the most important part of successful learning is to have room to be authentic, in whatever way that manifests, on a moment to moment basis. And in order to do this, we have to be free to make choices, to succeed or fail and to be free to interpret those successes and failures in our own ways. Give a person loving, enriching space long enough, and they’ll find, on their own, maturity and full personhood.

Tammy Takahashi lives and learns with her family in Southern California. She is the former editor of the California HomeSchooler and the author of the book "Deschooling Gently: A Step by Step Guide to Fearless Homeschooling and Zenschooling: Living a fabulous and fulfilling life without school."

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