Unschooling and the Power of Authority

Unschooling and the power of authorityOne of the first issues I encountered as a life learning / unschooling parent 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 (and those – like the truant officers and local school principals who didn’t have a clue about what the law actually said); they thought their authority gave them the right to frighten and control families. The other was the more subtle authority vested in the “experts” who “know” that kids must go to school to learn and that parents who don’t send their kids to school are therefore bad, uncaring, abusive parents, or anti-intellectual. I was rebel enough – and certain enough about the damage wrought by school – that I overcame both challenges pretty quickly.

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

My problem is the word “authority.” 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 education of children – we needn’t give them the power over us and our decisions that normally is invested in authority.

This notion of authority also applies to other aspects of our life learning / unschooling lives. In an article entitled “The Many Subtle Faces of Authority,” published in Life Learning Magazine in 2007, writer, math prof, and mother of grown unschoolers Marion Cohen points out that “the tyranny of wanting to do the right thing for our unschooled 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. 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 can “ignore children’s strengths and streamroll their autonomy.”

Being an expert is tricky. It gives you power to influence or persuade others. And I believe it’s important that those in such roles use our power responsibly and respectfully – whether we’re parenting our own children or assisting other unschooling families. As parents, and when we share our knowledge of unschooling with others, let’s keep in mind the wonderful potential that the writer and activist Starhawk calls “power-with-others,” which she points out we can use to accomplish good things and to effect change through working together.