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Pushing Back Against What They Don't Understand

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.

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