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When You Unschool, You Don't Unparticipate

When You Unschool, You Don’t “Unparticipate” -
Community Engagement and the Value of Different Ideas
By Idzie Desmarais

One morning not too long ago, I woke up to find an interview request from the Montreal Gazette (the largest English language newspaper in Quebec) sitting in my inbox. After spending a short amount of time pondering my response, I ended up talking to the reporter for over half an hour on the phone. It was a good experience. She was respectful in her questions and actually listened to my responses, which is all I hope for when someone says, “Hey, can I interview you?”

A week later, the unschooling story was a front page feature. The main article was…well, not super positive, to say the least, though that’s more to do with the attitude of the Quebec Ministry of Education (that unschooling is illegal) and the views of one of the “experts” spoken to (an education professor whose study I wrote a rebuttal to when it was released a few years ago). I was not quoted in it. What I was quoted in was the accompanying sidebar article, which was very positive, and quoted Peter Gray as well.

The reaction, sadly, has largely been to the main article, and has mainly been the usual after a mainstream media piece on unschooling comes out: defensive, shocked, angry. One such reaction was a letter to the editor published in the Gazette, and it was such a perfect example of someone not understanding unschooling and how it works, that I wanted to write a response, clearing up a few things.

Will children really gain the exposure they need outside of school?

“The premise of the ‘learn what excites you’ is one that we all hold in high regard,” writes Ms. Sanders, the author of the aforementioned letter. “That being said, we don’t know when we are young what we don’t know, and education is that door opener.”

No, children don’t “know what they don’t know.” But where the mistake is made is the idea that a) schools are the only place to gain exposure to different topics, b) that schools provide exposure to the most important things, or the things every single child should know, and c) that schools do a good job of imparting knowledge on the subjects they do expose students to.

I’d counter that all three of those assumptions are wrong. Inside of schools, only a few subjects are taught. Outside of schools, learners have the whole world to choose from when it comes to their learning. It’s also important to note that unschooled children are far from alone in this process. Parents, acting as facilitators, seek to provide exposure to a variety of things, and children find interests – find learning – through friends,  neighbors, family, the Internet, the library, homeschool coops or groups, local classes, museums, travel…. The world is a big place, and it’s full of a whole bunch of options.

“Schools do not seek to help students question the way things are and build better alternatives... Some teachers do their very best to foster critical thinking and teach students about important things not found in the curriculum, but the system itself is not built to support that. It also isn’t built to let students think critically about the institution of schooling itself.”

And I really don’t think schools are picking the best options. Schools fail children by focusing on academic, intellectual, and abstract topics to the exclusion of almost all else. As William Upski Wimsatt said:

“[There were] No sex classes. No friendship classes. No classes on how to build an organization, raise money, navigate a bureaucracy, create a database, buy a house, love a child, spot a scam, ask the right questions, talk someone out of suicide, or figure out what’s important. Those are the things that enhance or mess up people’s lives, not whether they know economic theory or can analyze literature.”

Schools also fail children by upholding the tenets of society as it is. Jeffrey Nall had this to say on the matter:

“In addition to a lack of awareness of the social construction of gender, many teachers, idealists, and visionaries aside, are encouraged to embrace the role of dominant culture’s deputy, tasked with fitting children to the world that is rather than promoting critical analysis and re-imagining society. What is important to realize here is that learning, acquiring new understanding, be it reasonable or not, occurs throughout everyday life. Classroom and schoolyard ‘educational’ experiences such as those described above are formative, and warp children’s sense of self-knowledge.”

Noam Chomsky goes further:

“Because they don’t teach the truth about the world, schools have to rely on beating students over the head with propaganda about democracy. If schools were, in reality, democratic, there would be no need to bombard students with platitudes about democracy. They would simply act and behave democratically, and we know this does not happen. The more there is a need to talk about the ideals of democracy, the less democratic the system usually is.”

Vandana Shiva points out the role schooling plays in industrialization:

“I think the way western education has grown over the last few centuries, especially with the rise of industrialization, was basically not to create human beings fully equipped to deal with life and all its problems, independent citizens able to exercise their decisions and live their responsibilities in community, but elements to feed into an industrial production system.”

Schools do not seek to help students question the way things are and build better alternatives, they simply do their best to present the way things are as the only and even best way. Don’t question, just listen. Some teachers do their very best to foster critical thinking and teach students about important things not found in the curriculum, but the system itself is not built to support that.

It also isn’t built to let students think critically about the institution of schooling itself. Ivan Illich once stated that “School prepares people for the alienating institutionalization of life, by teaching the necessity of being taught.” In a similar vein, in an article by Jordan Bates he comments that:

“In the U.S. and other countries, students are never given the tools to scrutinize the educational standards and practices to which they are subjected. It is rarely, if ever, articulated to students that our way of ‘educating’ and assessing is but one imperfect model; or that much of what we ‘know’ consists of our most current theories and preferred interpretations; or that everything they’re being taught is filtered through a cultural lens fraught with biases and agendas; or that in all likelihood what we do know about existence is one water molecule in a sprawling super-ocean of things that we do not know.”

We also make a big mistake in thinking that, regardless of cultural context, communities, interests, and needs, every single individual child the world over should be learning the exact same things. Learning should be personalized, informed by, as I said in the article in the Gazette, “[the learner’s] needs, their families and communities and what they’re passionate about. The most amazing thing about unschooling is the incredible array of people and that’s what builds healthy communities – not trying to have everyone know the exact same things.”

“Is school really the only place you can participate in community?”

Are schools really the most supportive places for children and teens?

To continue with the letter to the editor that sparked this post:

“Today’s educators spend endless hours at workshops and professional development meetings to address this goal. Teachers have participated in learning communities that broaden the dimensions of each of the elementary and high school curricula, allowing for new programs of study and various educational paths that support each student.”

Yet despite all this, schools remain stagnant, the content taught often feels irrelevant to students, and nothing major ever changes. There are just tweaks here and there that don’t really challenge any of the major problems built into the system (strict hierarchies and separation between teachers and students, lack of free choice and intellectual independence, authoritarian instead of cooperative approaches to problems). I think this just goes to show that teachers don’t really have that much impact on the system as a whole. Even the most progressive and caring of teachers are severely limited in what they can do, and important choices about how schools look and function, as well as what becomes a part of curriculum and what doesn’t, are made by bureaucrats and politicians, not teachers. She continued:

“Good schooling is not only centered on the academic piece, but encompasses the social and mental health of each student.”

That statement is so inaccurate it’s insulting. What about the countless teenagers dealing with depression, anxiety, and other mental illnesses who are receiving no special support in school? What about all the closeted LGBTQIA+ young people who are just desperately trying to make it through high school safely, feeling completely unable to come out because of the culture at their school? What about the kids who are bullied, burned by cigarettes, beaten, and terrorized by classmates, while school administration does little to nothing about it? What about students of a racial or ethnic minority, who don’t see themselves and their communities reflected at all in the curriculum, and who may feel greatly discouraged from practicing their own culture by being forced to conform to the dominant (Western, white) culture which is presented as the only or best option in schools?

When all those things are issues of the past, and the majority of students feel supported, both physically and emotionally safe, and like they have an important say in their own education, then you can say that schools support students’ mental health. Until then, I don’t really think you can.

Is school really the only place you can participate in community?

“Many students develop their love of sports through the various teams at school,” Ms. Sanders continues. “Others learn confidence and success through plays and musical performance. These electives are clearly designed to enrich and encourage further exploration past the high school years.”

I feel like I’ve responded a thousand times to this type of question. It’s like the words start to blur together as I respond:

Unschoolers don’t just learn alone all the time; we do things with other people...yes, even structured things.

Unschoolers often participate in a whole range of different activities. In my childhood and teen years, I participated in a play, a musical performance, a choir, a marching band, an Ultimate Frisbee team, a bowling team, as well as numerous classes on as wide-ranging topics as swimming, French language, doll making, and history. In school, the types of things the author lists are “electives.” Out of school, they’re an integral part of each individual’s learning and life, not to mention something that you have more time for, since you’re not restricted by spending most of your waking hours in school, traveling to and from school, or doing homework.

“When you unschool, you also unparticipate in an environment that promotes different ideas, listening skills, and recognition that our personal way is not the only right way to navigate ourselves through life.”

I find it frustrating that people sometimes seem to think that adding the “un” prefix to various words is a good way of mocking or discrediting unschooling. It’s not. Moving past that, as I discussed earlier in this article, I think schools do a pretty good job of presenting only the dominant ideas on how the world works and should work. I have yet to see any proof that schools promote different ideas, listening skills, or the “recognition that our personal way is not the only right way.” In fact, I feel like I’ve seen quite a bit of the opposite. Upon learning that I didn’t go to school, plenty of kids and previously schooled adults have reacted with scorn, and have responded with comments such as “but you have to go to school!” and rude attempts at quizzing. That’s not even mentioning the horrible reactions I’ve gotten from schooled people about other parts of my identity, like that I’m queer, and feminist, and have ideas about environmentalism and politics that not many others share. Where is that knowledge of diverse ideas and respect for differences that schools supposedly instill in students?

Furthermore, and contrary to popular belief, unschoolers don’t all hang out only with people who are exactly like them, and thus learn quite well, while spending time in the real world outside of school, that there are many different ideas out there, and a diverse range of experiences and ways of living. I actually wrote about just this subject recently, saying:

“The world is full of people who aren’t like you. In fact, the world contains a wider diversity of people than can often be found in school, considering that schools are: a) age segregated; b) contain students only from that school’s district, which means that as often as not, the student body will be fairly homogeneous in terms of socioeconomic level, race, and even religion.”

That’s true of where you live, as well, so it might not be different outside of school, besides the age-segregation part, but it certainly won’t be worse. While there might be some negative stereotypes of the extremely conservative far-right Christian school-at-homers who wish to keep their children away from everyone who doesn’t think exactly like them, that’s not the reality for any unschoolers I’ve ever met (when it comes to homeschoolers, sometimes that view is accurate, although more frequently it’s not).

Unschoolers are out in the world doing things and meeting people, which means you’re going to come across quite a few people who don’t share your beliefs, work ethic, and habits. That’s just a part of living life, and a good part, usually!

Going back to the letter, the author concludes:

“As the school year approaches, watch your child grow and thrive. Encourage them to try the course that is unfamiliar to them. As parents, we want our children to learn to live within our community and world with knowledge of others not like ourselves. It makes them strong at work, within their families and multi-dimensional people.”

I hope all children will thrive wherever they find themselves, but the reality is that many will not thrive in schools. If children are instead wilting in school, withdrawing or lashing out in anger, if they seem anxious and depressed, I hope parents will consider looking into other options. Options, like unschooling, that allow young learners to explore and discover new things, at their own pace and in their own way, and to spend plenty of time in various communities, befriending people from a variety of backgrounds, a whole range of ages, and countless different interests.

That’s what will help children be confident people, comfortable in their own skins, and prepared not just for the world as it is, but equipped with the flexibility and creativity to help create the world that might be.

Idzie Desmarais is an unschooler, cook, writer, and anarcha-feminist. She likes to spend her time making tasty food, reading fantasy novels, blogging about unschooling, and going on road trips with friends. She dreams of someday living in the woods with friends and family, growing tons of tasty food, and writing books. She lives in Montreal with her parents, sister, kitties, and a big shaggy dog. You can read more of her writing on her blog.

Here is another article in reaction to the same newspaper commentary.

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