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essential knowledge debate

The Sky Is Blue. Except When It’s Not:
Unschooling and The Essential Knowledge Debate

by Laura Schuerwegen

Many a time, when one enters a discussion with someone who opposes unschooling or simply doesn’t know or understand what it’s about, or when you read a critique about life learning, the opposition takes up infallible position of “The Things You Have to Know.” Schooling, they argue, will teach you all these things you need to know – the things you cannot go through life without. These are things that, obviously, you wouldn’t learn if you were solely guided by your own selfish interests.

They’ll offer a list of things like national anthems, historic facts, the complete work of this or that author, arithmetic… Writing them all in capital letters and making them seem like Universal Knowledge You Cannot Live Without.

Let me tell you a little something about Universal Knowledge. It is true that there are things in life that one must know in order to survive. I guess we can call them universal knowledge. These are things like fire is hot and rain is wet and if you stand in the cold barely clothed, you might get sick… but a child acquires this knowledge long before he enters school and they are not taught explicitly. They are learned through experience. (Believe me, there are many children who have to experience the cold/barely dressed/sick cycle before they will believe it, and some adults even struggle with this notion!)

Everything a child learns as she steps over the threshold of The Irreplaceable Institution That Is School is trivial and negotiable. It is all very dependent on the specific institution the child will be attending, the teacher, and even the country in which the child is born or lives. Surely, there are some things all schools try to teach their pupils, like colors and shapes, but these are things a child either already had a notion of, or would learn on her own when decently surrounded.

All the things the life learning opposers call necessary for survival, or for obtaining some sort of status in society, or being a credible person – or whatever the reason they think you need that specific fragment of knowledge for – are extremely fluid. Each discussion partner will give you a different list (which already points you to the fact that they are not so Universal or Indispensable after all).

But let’s look at some of these so-called Essential Pieces of knowledge.

National anthems are just that – national – and I can show you an entire nation where hardly anyone knows the national anthem. That nation is my own – Belgium. The last time we had a prime minister, he even started singing another country’s anthem. So what does it boil down to when someone claims that a national anthem is an essential part of human knowledge? Patriotism. Patriotism isn’t an indispensable part of character; many people live well without it and aren’t lesser humans or ignorant twits because of its lack. Patriotism can also be a very dangerous thing, setting people up against others, solely because of the arbitrary borders on a map. Maybe if one day we create a global anthem and that could be considered a part of essential knowledge...but still.

History – like national anthems – is highly dependent on where you are located. Indeed, history is in the eye of the beholder. (The same goes for geography, another topic that is often described as Knowledge You Cannot Live Without.) There are a great many things I know about history, but they are probably incomparable with what someone from another country knows about history. And often even the things we claim to know are deeply flawed and shaped by Eurocentrism or Western Imperialism. So is anyone who comes from another part of the world and knows another part of history a nitwit? Or are they excused because they have a different nationality? What then with expats and travelers? What about people who only know ancestral history and not academic history of battle dates and royal successions?

Knowledge of this or that author’s works is another concept that is highly dependent on the culture in which you were born. And whenever this topic is raised, I can’t but think of an anecdote a friend of mine told when returning from a year of schooling abroad in the States: one of the students asked her (a Belgian girl) if we too have famous authors like they have Shakespeare. Notably, the U.S. formal school system isn’t that great at teaching children about this or that author either (nor are they about geography as another student asked her if Belgium was the capital of Brussels).

Now if all of these topics are covered and uncovered as trivial, arbitrary, and highly regional, it is most likely that the opposition will throw their last stones: the Holy Trinity of Reading, Writing, and Arithmetic. Surely, these are essential parts of knowledge one must have in order to survive in the modern world. And next to the claim that they are indispensable, they also have to be acquired at or before a certain, yet again arbitrary, age.

When one claims that this trinity is imperative, they are pushing aside the fact that millions of people all over the world grow up with knowledge of none of these topics and, yet, continue to thrive and even have jobs! So what they are telling you is that not only are all people in developing nations, all people who are illiterate or can’t count to ten, ignorant imbeciles, they are basically suggesting that the Western model of life is the only one of virtue and clearly the one we should all aspire to. And often this suggestion goes by without a grasp of the richness of analphabetic cultures; after all they’re savages, right?

All in all, it’s about your chances of survival in the Western dominion.

This, in itself, demonstrates that the critic of life learning who is uttering these remarks knows very little of unschooling, for isn’t unschooling also a movement that wants to change Western society as we know it? But even if we look at the topics of reading, writing, and arithmetic, we see that our opponent has little grasp of the essence of unschooling. Unschooling or life learning understands that a person will learn what they need, when they need it, if only the opportunity is there. And even though unschooling parents are often depicted as lazy nitwits who leave their children to run wild while they are enjoying cocktails while lying in a recliner on their lawn, most life learning parents are very keen on creating a fruitful environment in which their children can thrive. Why, most of us are even very literate and intelligent ourselves! We must be to have considered such a radically different approach to education.

Ergo, when a child grows up in a reading, writing, counting environment, especially an electronically driven society such as ours, he will one day find the need to pick up all these skills, at least as much as he needs them. Does it matter that he might not learn functions? Not if he’ll never use them. I, for one, have finished a Master’s degree without ever using functions once, even though they were an essential part of my math education in secondary school.

Nevertheless, I am a big fan of knowledge and I find it neat to “know things.” But I have met many a person who went through university flawlessly but didn’t know what an antelope is or who thinks “Je te Flouff” is French for I love you. They are highly functioning, respected citizens with Masters degrees (both examples hold even multiple Masters). So even for academic studies, the knowledge of such topics isn’t required.

Aside from the very rudimentary, there is no Basic Knowledge All Must Know. So why not fill your head with things you actually need and things you are actually interested in, no matter if anyone thinks you are just a nitwit? Simply because of our different interests, there will always be someone who thinks your knowledge is less than theirs, mostly because they don’t understand or don’t care about what you’re interested in. But that is their loss, not yours.

Education is power, yes, but when it comes to formal schooling, this power is often misunderstood. The power does not lie with the recipient, but with the creator. Surely, the person who decides what you should and should not know has more power than the empty vessels the schooling system sees its students for. There is no better person to decide what you should know than yourself.

After studying communication sciences in Brussels, Laura Schuerwegen escaped Western life to tend to her family in Sub-Saharan Africa. She writes at Authentic Parenting

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