Pushing Back Against What They
Don’t Understand By Wendy Priesnitz
The patio at my local café, which I have had pretty
much to myself recently, was getting crowded with tourists on this unseasonably
warm day in our little seaside town. It was so crowded that we were
sharing tables. My tablemate wanted to chat, rather
than let me write in my journal, so chat we did. He asked what I was writing
– as people do. So I told him about life learning. He asked, incredulously,
“How can anybody in their right mind possibly approve of – let alone advocate
for – depriving children of their education?” I gamely ignored the reference
to my brain and tried to explain the difference between school and an education,
describing how one doesn’t necessarily become educated merely by attending
school, and about intrinsic versus extrinsic motivation. Shortly thereafter,
he nodded ever so slightly in my direction and left.
As I walked back home, my right mind
intact, I tried (once again) to come up with a succinct way of helping people
understand that a self-directed education can actually be a better education.
But the notion that a child’s education must involve teaching by an adult
“expert,” in a dedicated building, during certain hours of the day in certain
months of the year, is too ingrained to be easily challenged.
Plus, it’s complicated. Or maybe it’s ingrained because
it’s complicated. At any rate, it’s about much more than education. Challenging
assumptions about schooling involves questioning traditional ways of relating
to children and young people. Respect, trust, kindness, and friendship are
often absent in the coercive way adults in our society interact with kids.
That can be mere thoughtlessness, or a result of the controlling – or worse
– way we were treated when we were young. (I personally believe that control
has its roots in the hierarchy of patriarchy.)
Later that same day, while scanning the social media links
that had accumulated while I was drinking coffee and alienating strangers,
I found a newspaper article about that crazy new phenomenon called unschooling.
It was well enough written, but some of the responses to the article were
depressing, especially a supposedly humorous but clearly ignorant take on
the subject by another writer. Aside from the obnoxious tone and the tiresome
play on words (which the use of the word “unschooling” makes all too easy)
in the title “Uh, boss . . . I think I’m going to unwork today,” this writer
appeared to have something in common with my morning café companion.
In that world, education is all about teaching kids
stuff they don’t know but which the adults in charge believe they should
know. That’s what schooling is about, but it’s not what learning is about.
And then there’s that sticky word “education.” In the broadest sense, education
is any act or experience that affects the mind, character, or physical ability
of an individual. However, the conventional use involves giving and getting
an education, suggesting that it is something one does to another, rather
than something one does for oneself in a motivated, self-reliant manner.
I think the notion that children must be given an
education in that sense is adult arrogance, i.e. adultism. Many (most?)
adults find it difficult to imagine how children can take responsibility
for anything, let alone their own learning. In this parent-knows-best manner,
they assume that kids won’t want to learn history, math, literature, science,
or responsibility, and therefore must be force-fed their educations. There
is the assumption that if kids aren’t coerced they won’t learn anything.
We make those assumptions because of the way we and those around us experienced
childhood and education. Realizing that there is a much better way to live
as a child can be unsettling at best and traumatic at worst.
Also contributing to the bias against self-directed
learning is resistance to change. That includes things that we think embody
values in which we don’t believe – ideas that are unconsciously threatening
to us or to our worldview. According to a
study published in the journal Personality and Social Psychology
Bulletin, we often do more than just reject new or “offensive” ideas;
psychologically, we actually push back against such challenges, reasserting
our own familiar structures of meaning. And that might explain why people
like my café acquaintance, some newspaper writers, and many other people
commenting on self-directed learning feel they have the right to insult
or mock others who see the world in a different way.
None of this helps us come up with pithy comments
defending our choices in social situations. But it could help us understand
the reactions that respectful parenting and life learning attract. And with
understanding of other people’s trauma and related denial can come compassion
– and the realization that openness to transformative ideas may come once
healing has happened. Meanwhile, all we can do is plant seeds, smile, and
enjoy our kids.
Wendy Priesnitz is the founder and editor of Life Learning Magazine. She is the
mother of two adult daughters who learned without school in the 1970s
and '80s, has been an advocate
of self-directed education for over 45 years, and is the author of 13 books.