Monthly Archives: April 2016

No Need to Scale Up Unschooling

No Need to Scale Up Unschooling

So can we “scale up” unschooling? Not according to the newest point of criticism from the territory-protectors. After they’ve retired all the other nonsensical objections like lack of socialization, poor academics, sheltering kids, elitism, etc., etc., they state that we cannot scale up unschooling. That is the gotcha that allows them to think they’ve won something (because, of course, it’s business talk…and growth is important, right?!).

I don’t argue with those people because unschooling will, of course, inevitably scale up. And it is, in fact, already doing that. So many of the words that are foundational to learning without school are being used by researchers, academics, and other school folk. “Self-directed learning,” “child-directed,” “play-based learning,” “independence,” “life-long learning,” and more – even “unschooling” – are all out there in the lexicon now. Of course, what you or I or other life learners mean when we use those words is a world away from the lip service being given to them by so many others. And it’s oxymoronically silly to even think about superimposing those words onto the current system, which is about as far as many people’s imagination goes. But awareness is a step in the right direction.

And here’s the thing: Nobody needs to scale up unschooling. When the current education system, along with our economic and social ones, finish imploding, I am confident there will be enough unschoolers around to pick up the pieces and show the way forward. They will be the ones who will know how to think for themselves and who remember how to learn self-reliantly, how to problem-solve rather than regurgitate, how to lead rather than follow, how to ask the hard questions and pursue the answers…. They will be the ones who will help the rest create a kinder, smarter, fairer, more egalitarian world. And I guess that will mean that unschooling has “scaled up.”

Redefining Work and Money (and everything else in life)

Redefining Work and Money (and everything else in life)

Redefining work and money involves an examination of what’s important to us, how we educate ourselves, what sort of work we do, and what sort of world we want to live in.

“To find out what one really wants, and what it costs, and how to pay what it costs, is an important part of everyone’s life work. But it is not easy to find out what we like or want, when all our lives other people have been hard a work trying not just to make us do what they want, but to make us think that we want to do it.” ~John Holt, Never Too Late: My Musical Life Story

In those two sentences, from a book published in 1978 – around the time he coined the term “unschooling” – John Holt put his finger on a problem that people are feeling even more strongly today: How do we make enough money to live comfortably, how do we find work that pleases us, how do we arrange our lives to be able to afford to do that sort of work, and how can we ensure that our children won’t struggle with these questions? Those questions about redefining work and how they interrelate with the rest of life are also the basis for my life and my work.

For instance, in this 2010 article, I suggested that work is actually redefining itself. Then I looked at how kids who learn without attending school (“unschoolers”) are well prepared to thrive in a world that’s already quite different from the one in which their parents and grandparents came of age (and for which our school systems were designed). The very ideas of work and the value of money are changing in the face of social and economic upheaval, and ecological decline. Many unschoolers have quite a different – truly radical – outlook on those topics.

Charles Eisenstein wrote in his book Sacred Economics, “True wealth is sovereignty over your own time.” Control of their own time is something unschoolers develop, because their education has taught them to trust their own instincts about pursuing what is important to them. So it’s not surprising that an unschooling dad, Michael Fogler, borrowed from unschooling to coin the term “un-jobbing” and write a book about it in 1999 entitled Un-Jobbing: The Adult Liberation Handbook. He describes un-jobbing as “living the life you truly want to live without major, full-time employment and still making your ends meet.”

I’ve written about unjobbing (as I prefer to spell it) as well, since I have been doing it (while unschooling my daughters) since the mid-1970s (before either of those words was coined). One particular article prompted someone (who admitted that he dislikes his job) to comment to me that unjobbing seems to be a self-absorbed luxury. I pointed out to him that, in fact, a variety of motivations are at play for those who are trying to redefine work and income, most of them not about luxury at all:

  • Baby boomers are getting to retirement age and wanting to continue to work as a way of staying active and relevant.
  • Other people are still jobless due to the last recession or corporate downsizing, and are looking for creative ways to pay the rent.
  • Those with jobs find themselves working harder for less buying power.
  • Some people are convinced there is a need for a new type of economy and a move to things like green technologies, which are solutions for issues like climate change and resource scarcity.
  • Some people worry that more economic hard times are ahead and want to be prepared by developing greater self-reliance.
  • Still others are just plain burnt out and fed up, wondering if there’s more to life than the nine-to-five grind and are willing to trade some purchasing power and stress for a simpler, healthier, and more convivial lifestyle.
  • And then there are the parents who want to stay at home with their children or elderly parents.

Fogler identified the common ground among all these people who are redefining work when he wrote in Un-Jobbing that, “What we have going with our jobbing orientation is chronic national busy-ness (alias ‘business’), which has proven itself to be unhealthful for humans and our planetary home. We must look in another direction. We must put less emphasis on jobs and more on cooperation, simplicity, and serving one another. This may very well involve meaningful work, but that’s not the same as jobs.”

“Meaningful work” is the Buddhist path that says even the humblest job can have meaning; it’s also part of “Right Livelihood.” Vietnamese Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hanh wrote, “To practice Right Livelihood, you have to find a way to earn your living without transgressing your ideals of love and compassion. The way you support yourself can be an expression of your deepest self, or it can be a source of suffering for you and others … Our vocation can nourish our understanding and compassion, or erode them. We should be awake to the consequences, far and near, of the way we earn our living.” (The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching, Parallax Press, 1998).

In a letter to the editor published in The Progressive, author and philosopher Wendell Berry took that idea a bit farther by addressing the issue of work’s quantity and quality. He said that we need to ask a variety of questions about work before we suggest people are doing too much of it: Questions like whether or not we chose our work or feel compelled to do it to earn money; about how much of our intelligence, skill, and pride is involved in our work; if we respect the result of our work; and what are the ecological and social costs of our work.

The problem my friend alluded to when he commented that unjobbing is a luxury is that although there is much important work to be done that has positive ecological and social benefits, there is often not enough willingness to pay for it. And expressing one’s deepest self, redefining work, or even worrying about the consequences of one’s work is difficult when struggling to pay the rent. That is where simple living and minimalism come in, along with developing some self-sufficiency skills so we can create or mend some of the things we cannot afford to purchase.

Economist Juliet Schor figures we will all be living that way at some point soon – in what she calls the Plenitude Economy. She wrote about it in her book Plenitude: The New Economics of True Wealth (entitled True Wealth in softcover). The Center for a New American Dream has summarized it in this video. Essentially, Schor describes her notion of a post-consumer society as redefining work and money. It is one in which people work fewer hours and pursue re-skilling, homesteading, and small-scale enterprises that can help reduce the overall size and impact of the consumer economy.

But what about those whose mental or physical health issues preclude working at any sort of job (let alone redefining work), and performing self-reliance skills or homesteading? That’s where a universal basic income comes in – an old idea that also has caught people’s imagination again, with a number of jurisdictions announcing plans to test the idea in the near future.

Whether you think all of this is a prudent reaction to confusing times or a utopian (naïve?) luxury, I see a compelling convergence of ideas in economics, education, sociology, and governance. And I think that redefining work, money, and education holds the germ of a solution for a happier, more convivial, self-reliant, better educated, restorative, “civil” civilization. At the very least, it’s hard to deny what British author and popularizer of Zen philosophy Alan Watts once wrote:

“If you say that money is the most important thing, you’ll spend your life completely wasting your time: You’ll be doing things you don’t like doing in order to go on living, that is, in order to go on doing things you don’t like doing – which is stupid!”

Anarchy in Education?

Anarchy in Education?

Often, in the news, we hear the term “anarchy” incorrectly used to describe incidents of vandalism, violence, or other mayhem said to have been perpetrated by “anarchists.” In reality, anarchy can be defined as a society without a popularly recognized government or a central governing authority. And that, most people assume, will automatically lead to vandalism, violence, and mayhem.

Why do they think that? Most people just can’t imagine living without hierarchy, leaders, and authorities telling them what to do and how to do it. In the same way, most adults cannot believe that children are capable of managing their own lives and learning without adult direction and intervention. Most people simply do not trust themselves and other people, including their own children, to live peacefully and productively without being directed by others who are thought to be more capable, better informed, and/or more enlightened. They assume the alternative is chaos – what they incorrectly define as anarchy.

That’s because most of us have been brought up to be followers who do what we’re told – in our families, churches, schools, and other institutions. As I wrote in my book Challenging Assumptions in Education, the school assembly line has conditioned us to think that anything more difficult than which brands to buy should be left to the “experts.” Doctoring ourselves is irresponsible, constructing our own houses is not feasible, organizing within our communities is subversive, and learning on our own just doesn’t work.

The world is currently experiencing mayhem – economically, environmentally, politically, and socially. Will we ever find just the right style of government, political party, or leader to fix things? Probably not. In fact, we just might have to take matters into our own hands, as people around the world have been doing. In our culture, we are not used to active participation and problem-solving, so many people find the prospect scary. However, we need to develop those tools and many more in order to find a way out of the mayhem my generation has created.
Fortunately, kids who are growing up without school – and with their active questioning abilities, self-esteem, self-reliance, and other important qualities intact – can provide the solution.

As life learning parents, we can help create change, in the world and with our children, by modeling self-reliant thinking and trust in our decisions about how our families live and learn…as well as about issues like politics and the environment. We might not create anarchy, but we can certainly create a better world than we have now.

What’s Wrong With Natural Living?

What's Wrong With Natural Living?

Natural living – along with organic living, green living, and other renditions – is increasingly popular around the world. Many people are realizing that we have the right to a clean environment, that the planet is in danger of becoming uninhabitable unless we take better care of it, and that we can’t easily trust corporations and their handmaiden governments to provide us with clean air, water, and food. Consequently, we are also understanding the interconnections among the various aspects of life: Natural living comprises what we eat, how we make a living, where we live, how we get around, how we educate ourselves.

Providing information and inspiration for natural living in its broadest sense has been my life’s work. Natural parenting, natural living, natural learning…those are all topics you will read about on this blog and in the magazines I own and edit. The business is forty years old this coming fall. But natural living is, unfortunately, as controversial as it has ever been.

Now, the word “natural” would seem to be a straightforward offspring of the word “nature.” But it has dozens of meanings and sub-meanings. It’s used in mathematics, economics, science, music, computer programming, childbirth, sociology, medicine, education, and, of course, marketing. In current usage, it also has many synonyms, including reasonable, appropriate, proper, expected, innate, inherent, lifelike, realistic, legitimate, habitual, normal, healthy, native, simple, non-artificial, genuine, unadorned, real, authentic, unstudied, unaffected, and straightforward.

So we shouldn’t be surprised that it is a controversial word. For years, it has been especially problematic in the prepared foods industry. In relation to food, the Oxford English Dictionary defines it in this way: “Involving no artificial or man-made ingredients, chemicals, etc.; ecological, organic; spec. (of food and drink) containing no artificial colorings, flavorings, or preservatives.” That definition makes it alluring to marketers. According to the market research company Nielson, packaged foods labeled “natural” outsell those marked organic by a substantial margin. That’s why a survey by Harris Interactive found that eighty-three percent of the U.S. public would like to see the government define the term, something their government has not done.

But aside from all of that, there are some things that just are natural. For instance, you’d think that a parenting practice as natural – and proven to be healthy – as breastfeeding would be immune from the controversy over the word “natural.” Nevertheless, last week, an article in the journal Pediatrics urged health professionals to stop saying that breastfeeding is natural, arguing that doing so gives the impression that natural parenting practices in general are healthier than, well, whatever you call the other kind.

In the article, Unintended Consequences of Invoking the “Natural” in Breastfeeding Promotion, Jessica Martucci and Anne Barnhill, Medical Ethics and Health Policy researchers at Penn Medicine, wrote:

…we are concerned about breastfeeding promotion that praises breastfeeding as the “natural” way to feed infants. This messaging plays into a powerful perspective that “natural” approaches to health are better… Promoting breastfeeding as “natural” may be ethically problematic, and, even more troublingly, it may bolster this belief that “natural” approaches are presumptively healthier.

Further, they think that the use of the word natural should be curtailed in general, claiming that it is associated with such “problematic” practices as home birth, homeschooling, and the rejection of GMO foods, and that natural parenting movements are contributing to the decline in vaccination rates.

Now, I know quite a lot about those natural living topics. They are, after all, the raison d’être for Natural Life Magazine, Natural Child Magazine, Life Learning Magazine, and Child’s Play Magazine. In fact, the researchers Martucci and Barnhill wrote directly about the problematic likes of me in a separate guest commentary at Philly Voice:

It doesn’t take much internet digging to find some of the potentially problematic implications for a public health campaign built around an argument that ‘natural’ is better. A search for ‘natural living’ turns up a variety of sites devoted to natural parenting. Parenting blogs and natural news sites often discuss practices and ideas ranging from home-birth and consuming the placenta after birth to homeschooling, breastfeeding, and homeopathy. But these are also spaces where one might expect to run across writers and commenters expressing concerns about the necessity and safety of childhood vaccinations and the promotion of immunity through ‘natural’ disease and healing processes.

They went on to warn:

Studies have shown that anti-vaccination sentiment tends to overlap with reliance on and interest in complementary and alternative medicine, skepticism of institutional authority, and a strong commitment and interest in health knowledge, autonomy, and healthy living practices.

Yep, they nailed that part! Encouraging educated skepticism of institutional authority underlies all of my work. Now, I don’t know for sure whether or not the researchers were funded by Big Education, Big Ag, Big Pharma, or its little sister Big Formula. But, whether or not you believe that breastfeeding is a sort of gateway drug to other ”radical” natural parenting practices, I smell something very much like corporate influence. And in my world, even the faintest whiff of that gives me more confidence in my own way – in the natural living and learning way.

In a Natural Life Magazine article entitled Natural Reflections: What Does the Word “Natural” Really Stand For? Professor of Environmental Ethics Gene Sager noted that:

The natural life today is natural in a new key: to act in harmony with Nature, we need to take a well-informed, consciously conservationist approach. I have emphasized the ideas of “well-informed” and “consciously.” In a sense, we have become watchdogs on guard against greedy corporations, sluggish governments, and a public manipulated by marketeers and the media. All this requires constant vigilance and effort.

All of those players can be seen in the controversy about the use of the word “natural.” If it wasn’t such a compelling idea, Sager’s “marketeers” wouldn’t be as attracted to its use as they are. And, on the other hand, there wouldn’t be the concern about it being over-used by those of us who can think for ourselves.

For me, the bottom line in all of this controversy about natural living and natural parenting is this: Don’t pay attention to what anyone else – a marketer, a corporation or its representative, a PhD researcher or scientist or another a member of academia, or any other self-described expert – thinks or instructs you to do. These days, they could have a vested interest in persuading you that there is something wrong with natural living. So do your own research, trust yourself (and your children), and follow your own instincts. You might end up agreeing with what you are told. Or not. But I have found that Mother Nature is as trustworthy a guide as any.