The Power of Authority
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The Power of Authority

The Power of Authority
By Wendy Priesnitz

One of the first issues I encountered as a life learning parent back in the 1970s was to overcome and then challenge the influence of the authority associated with schools. I saw two aspects of that authority. One was the officials who wrote and enforced the laws that affected homeschooling and unschooling (as well as the truant officers and local school principals who didn’t have a clue about what the law actually said) and who thought their authority gave them the right to frighten and control families. The other was the more subtle authority vested in the education experts who “know” that kids must go to school to learn and that parents who don’t send their kids to school are therefore either bad, uncaring, abusive parents, or anti-intellectual. I was rebel enough – and certain enough about the damage wrought by school – that I quickly overcame both challenges.

However, a few years later, as I became an advocate for homeschooling and unschooling beyond my own family, I realized that many people replace that old authority with something that is just as authoritative: They search for an expert authority on self-directed education who will tell them how to do it right. That concerns me for many reasons, not the least of which is that I think it’s a poor example to our children if we want them to be autonomous learners.

I also have a problem with the idea of “authority” as most people understand it. Clearly, someone who has studied something in depth (maybe even experienced it), has amassed a great deal of knowledge about it, and has become passionate about it is someone to be sought out for information or advice on that topic. But it’s good to remember that their knowledge may or may not apply to us. So even though we might consider someone to be an authority on a topic – in this case, the education of children – we needn’t give them power over us and our decisions, or allow them to control our behavior.

This notion of authority also, by the way, applies to other aspects of our school-free lives. In an article entitled “The Many Subtle Faces of Authority,” published in Life Learning Magazine in 2007, writer, math professor, and mother of grown unschoolers Marion Cohen points out that “the tyranny of wanting to do the right thing for our unschooling children can cause us to replace school-type authorities with a seemingly more benign homeschool-type.” As Cohen sees it, we might invest many things and situations with unnecessary and sometimes undesirable authority, all in an attempt to help our children learn or socialize. These could range from books, libraries, and websites to get-togethers with other families, structured play opportunities or programs, performances for children, arbitrary family schedules, or various other restrictions created by adult priorities. Cohen writes that giving these things authority – that is, making them part of the life learning experience based on our certainty that they are good for our children, rather than allowing them to be chosen freely (or not) – can ignore children’s strengths and steamroll their autonomy.

So, one of the things I have learned over the years is that being a leader, either in our communities or in our families, can be tricky. It gives us authority, which includes the power to influence or persuade others. But those of us in the self-directed education community must use that power responsibly and respectfully – whether we’re parenting our own children or assisting and advising other life learning families. As parents, and when we share our knowledge of home-based education with others, let’s keep in mind the wonderful potential that the writer and activist Starhawk calls “power-with-others,” which focuses on working together. In this case, that can mean sharing our experiences and knowledge when asked, but cooperating on solutions and working together so that everyone gets the information they need to make good decisions for themselves.

Wielding power over others – whether they’re children or other adults – is, in my opinion, contrary to the very idea of life learning/self-directed education/unschooling. Instead, we can consider respectfully inspiring and leading our school-free children (and other life learning families, if we are in that role) as caring, autonomous humans, rather than controlling them like the authoritarians we are trying to avoid. Living with consent and without coercion is possible. And, I’m convinced, it makes us and our children better people.

Wendy Priesnitz is the founding editor of Life Learning Magazine, the author of 13 books, and the mother of two adult daughters who learned without school in the 1970s and '80s. She has been an advocate of home-based, non-coercive, self-directed learning since the 1970s.

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