Reflections from an Adult Unschooler
Astra Taylor, a writer and filmmaker, has written a personal essay about growing up as an unschooler, and she reflects upon the influence of Growing Without Schooling magazine on her life. It is nice to know that the work me and my colleagues did is appreciated by those who were directly affected by it, and I really like how Astra understands at a deep level how our culture is increasingly against self-directed learning, particularly for children, and how schooling is dominating their lives more now than ever. This has always been a difficult issue to find allies and support for and, as Astra notes in the selections below, it has become nearly impossible in today's womb-to-tomb schooling climate.
Also, like many home- and unschooled children I know, Astra chooses to go to public school and comes out to unschool again. Reading how she navigated high school and college, moving in and out of school as her heart and ambition move her, shows how many different combinations of learning opportunities can be used instead of the linear, factory-style model of school consumption.
When my mom was doing her stint stalking caribou, books about radical education were in wide circulation. First and most famous was A. S. Neill’s Summerhill: A Radical Approach to Child Rearing, an account of the legendary antiauthoritarian boarding school in England, which sold more than three million copies between 1960 and 1973—an astounding figure. Then there was Paul Goodman’s Compulsory Miseducation (1964), John Holt’s How Children Fail (1964) and How Children Learn (1967), Jonathan Kozol’s Death at an Early Age (1967) and Free Schools (1972), Carl Rogers’s Freedom to Learn (1969), George Dennison’s The Lives of Children (1969), and Ivan Illich’s Deschooling Society (1970), to name the most influential. In those early days Growing Without Schooling, the magazine started by Holt and published well into the 1990s, came in a brown paper wrapper, as though the subject matter addressed in its pages might be as objectionable to the postmaster or to nosy neighbors as pornography.
These publications were part of a top-to-bottom movement to devise new philosophies of and forums for learning. First there were the “freedom schools” that had been part of the civil rights movement. Next were the hundreds of “free schools” founded across the country committed to child-centered and democratic education. Finally, there was the widespread campus unrest against the corporate multiversity, beginning at Berkeley, which then became part of the movement against the Vietnam War and culminated in the massive student strikes that shook the nation—coupled with the establishment of open universities, where idealistic students and faculty sought to liberate learning from the tyranny of accreditation.
Today, the prospect of a book like Summerhill—one that paints a sympathetic portrait of kids who refuse to attend classes, do schoolwork, or obey authority—reaching an audience of millions seems absurd. Instead we have well-meaning studies like Under Pressure: Rescuing Our Children from the Culture of Hyper-Parenting and The Homework Myth: Why Our Kids Get Too Much of a Bad Thing. These and countless other recent books and articles rightly criticize the current emphasis on testing and tracking, our obsession with “enriching” kids as though they are bags of flour, and our single-minded obsession with climbing to the top of the meritocracy no matter how rigged and meaningless it is to begin with. But in the end they make no rousing or imaginative suggestions of other ways to live and learn. After-school tutoring is OK—just do it in moderation. Ditto for SAT prep classes, sports, and other “extracurricular” activities. These books advise parents to stay on the well-trodden path of standardized schooling, but to travel it a bit slower.
. . . We differed from homeschoolers in essential ways. We weren’t replicating school at home. We had no textbooks, class times, schedules, deadlines, tests, or curricula. Were we fascinated by primates? By rocks? By baseball cards or balloon animals? If so, it was our duty to investigate. My parents eschewed coercion and counted on our curiosity, which they understood to be a most basic human capacity. This is really what the whole debate over compulsory schooling is about. Do we trust people’s capacity to be curious or not? This trust isn’t always easy to muster. The older I get the more astonished I am that my parents had it in such abundance when most of us mete it out as though it were a scarce resource; whereas I suspect the more we dispense trust to others the more we see how deserving most people are of it. After all, have you ever met anyone who isn’t interested in something? Sometimes other people’s interests aren’t fascinating to you, sure—but people always have interests. Have you ever met someone who was incapable of learning? John Holt, who coined the term unschooling, summarized his view this way: “The human animal is a learning animal; we like to learn; we are good at it; we don’t need to be shown how or made to do it. What kills the processes are the people interfering with it or trying to regulate it or control it.”
After enduring some higher education Astra discovers the Albany Free School, whose work and efforts we wrote about and supported at GWS for years (as well as many other radical writers and teachers), and writes about her conversations with Mike Guidice, a young teacher there. Mike notes, after some time working at the Free School, “I am just now starting to understand the intersection of my antiauthoritarian politics and the school.” This, I think, is a very important realization for those of us who have been working in this area for so long: the connections we see as obvious, and that drive us to continue our work, are not that clear to young people who did not grow up with the ideas, books, and trust in their abilities to learn that Astra describes.
Indeed, many of those books and ideas, which were very popular in the sixties and seventies, are now out of print and ignored by academics, so they only exist in little enclaves on the Internet and in society. Most important, as Illich and Holt wrote in the early seventies, education is no longer a personal quest but has become a public commodity we are compelled to consume; those who refuse to partake are considered by the education establishment to be uncooperative citizens and losers who, obviously, need more schooling so they can be made to fit into society. Fortunately, in the United States and elsewhere, we can still be conscientious objectors to compulsory education and help our children, and others, escape the negative effects of schooling. But as Astra notes at the end of her essay, the creation of a new community that supports learning and provides resources for all children to learn instead of focusing resources on schools to control and predict learning, seems to be a public policy that is impossible to achieve.
Growing up, I experienced unschooling as a compromise, the more appealing of the two extremes available in Georgia given my family’s modest budget: staying at home and teaching myself, or going to public school and having my spirit crushed. What I really wanted—what I still want, even now, as an adult—is that intellectual community I was looking for in high school and college, but never quite found. I would have loved to commune with other young people and find out what a school of freedom could be like. But for some reason, such a possibility was unthinkable, a wild fantasy—instead, the only option available was to submit to irrational authority six and a half hours a day, five days a week, in a series of cinder-block holding cells. If nothing else, we should pause to wonder why there’s so rarely any middle ground.