Yes, Unschooling is Progressive

Unschooling is Progressive

Yes, unschooling is progressive. I am not sure why this is a difficult concept for many people to grasp. But, these days, I seem to be spending more time than usual talking to people about how most life learners are engaged in the life of their communities – and that, in fact, it’s a large part of how they learn. I am amazed that, at least four decades into the modern home education experience, many (most?) people on the progressive left end of the political spectrum still think learning without school is isolationist and therefore socially regressive.

For instance, I have just finished an exchange with a guy who thought he had uncovered a major contradiction in my thinking and, therefore, in my work. Home-based education, he declared, is highly individualized and focused on the family, which isolates children from society. It’s self-centered by nature, he stated, turning out “graduates” who are lacking interest in society and the common good. That, he pointed out, is totally out of sync with my writing in Natural Life Magazine about social change, the New Economy, environmental issues, and so on. He actually said the “flaw” that he’d detected diminishes my credibility as someone interested in solving world problems…and kindly urged me to drop the “infatuation with homeschooling.”

Always ready to patiently explain and educate, I assured him that unschooling is progressive, after all. I first tried to help him understand the error of his stereotypical view of home education. I agreed that there are some homeschooling families that are insular in their outlook, and assured him that many others aren’t. Stereotyping people who live without school is just as ridiculous as making broad assumptions about people whose kids attend school.

In reality, there are large numbers of civic-minded life learning families for whom unschooling is progressive – adults and children alike who volunteer their time, speak up about important issues, and are active in other ways that will help their communities. These families model public service for their children, demonstrate to their neighbors that children have a voice, and provide a rich learning environment – in addition to creating social change.

I hoped that providing my critic with some examples would help him understand the linkages between learning without schooling and social change. In the September/October 2014 issue of Life Learning Magazine, we wrote about community engagement and unschooling. In the November/December issue, I wrote about place-based education, which allows students to use their local communities as resources for learning by doing. And in the January/February 2015 issue, we tied those two concepts together with a series of profiles of unschooling families that are active in their communities.

As is all too common on social media, the guy didn’t thank me for the information or even take the time to read those articles. Instead, propelled by his righteousness, he immediately went on to blame home-based education for what he called the “current and widespread degeneration of civic engagement.” That, of course, is rather much of an overstatement, but most homeschoolers are used to being told they should fix schools from the inside rather than bleeding off “the cream of the crop” from the system and therefore making it worse that it already is.

Realizing the futility of talking to a wall, I didn’t go on to point out to this person that public schools are not the models of democracy and human rights that he thinks they are. As I wrote in Challenging Assumptions in Education, children learn about democracy by living and participating in one – going to public meetings, educating their fellow citizens about issues, protesting when something happens they think is inappropriate, and so on. Being forced to attend school five days a week, where many aspects of life are out of their control, doesn’t help them learn how to function democratically. So I didn’t bother to suggest that removing the compulsory attendance requirement and top-down methods of operation would go a long way toward putting some reason behind those criticisms.

If he’d been willing to listen further, I’d have told this person that all the things I work on are side effects of the Industrial Revolution. That includes public schools, the separation of work and play, the compartmentalization of functions in society, environmental and public health damage, human rights issues, and the devaluation of home life and of the work of women and children. And the solutions to the problems created by those things are inevitably interconnected.

All I can hope for is that eventually this guy will notice how school-free children and young people are repopulating their communities on a daily basis – shopping, banking, volunteering in seniors’ homes and animal shelters, attending public meetings, going to the library, playing in the park, swimming at the community center. And maybe then he’ll realize that kids are citizens too, and that they are interested in and involved in community life, something that’s arguably easier for school-free kids that for their peers who are sitting in schools, insulated from real life.

Maybe then, he’ll realize that there is no flaw in my belief that the liberation of children and young people is an important part of the solution to the many problems his and my generations have created. Yes, unschooling is progressive…and much more.