The following are just my thoughts (confused ones...). I hesitate in a way to believe that there is more than one way to approach education. I believe that there are general principles for living, and that there are various "tools" to help accomplish those goals. Plus, different emphases can be present at different times.
Taking classical education, I think the focus is on the ideal, the ideal of what is best and most vital in human knowledge. It's a given that no one person will actually reach this perfectly. But striving for it induces humility and lots of other good qualities (at least, potentially, and that's what I'm talking about). Humility is a GOOD thing; Socrates thought the main benefit of his approach is that it required, and induced humility -- an acknowledgement that the quest is lifelong, will involve all our faculties and the goal will never quite be reached, though there IS constant progress.
But the concept that each person has something to offer is "implied" in classical education, I believe. The focus is on the ideal, but liberal arts is education for the "free man" and Christianity added the truth that we are ALL free men; that we all have different callings in life but that we share our humanness and that anything we are and do by our very nature, we can learn to be and do better.
Charlotte Mason brings this out a lot in her writings as well. We are ALL entitled to have our feet set in a "broad room" as she writes; it's not two tracks, one for the "slaves" who are merely trained to mechanical work, and another for the "free men" who can afford to focus on their humanity and pursue education "freely". We are all free men in God; it is our heritage, that He has given us.
The unschooling literature discusses some of these same truths, but in such different terms it is sometimes hard to recognize. The focus is on the individual there, and implicit is the idea of a goal. So there is the same balance in mind, but a different emphasis.
I fear loss of humility, and a radical subjectivism, if the focus is too much on the individual. I don't think the unschooling "philosophy" recognizes the danger enough, and some of the secular unschoolers actually embrace radical subjectivism and dismiss the cultural heritage altogether, and reach for a kind of complacency that dismisses any humility or acknowledgement of inadequacy. That's what bogs me down whenever I look at unschooling -- sometimes, the philosophical underpinnings ARE contradictory to what I believe to be true. I was just reading one of those types of articles yesterday -- ugh.
With classical education, also, the focus (this time on the ideal education) can get too fixed and the individual, in this case, can be forgotten or subsumed. There is a sort of radical "objectivism" that's always a heresy or danger in our Church and takes spiritual form in Jansenism, Phariseeism etc. I think you are right in saying that is in many ways a worse danger. People end up measuring "success" in narrow, legalistic terms and judging accordingly and forcing students through hoops.
It IS a danger but not as much of a danger for ME personally because of my background. I was sort of an unschooler at heart before they even existed formally. I did the minimum I could in school, kept my head down and my thoughts to myself, and saved my "real learning" for outside the classroom. So I have no problem in believing that unschooling "works", because it DID work in my own experience, I just have regrets about my arrogance and reflexive dismissal of authority. And sometimes I fear my own kids are different "types" and wouldn't learn as much as I did -- to be perfectly honest!
I think that a large part of education is fostering humility and a sense of awe and love. When we TRIED unschooling, I felt that the measure of everything for my kids and for me became too much, my KIDS. They were the standard of measurement, if you see what I am saying. If they didn't like something, or didn't want to do it, then that was the final court, the veto.
I see some of the products of unschooling, the grown kids, writing in those terms -- what suits ME, what *I* want to do with my life. I admire confidence and a can-do attitude, but it has to be subordinate, in my view. Of course, I am talking about teens and young adults here, so maybe that is just how that age group writes! I can't dismiss that possibility!
That's why I appreciate talking with all you with a Catholic unschooling approach, because I can see that this doesn't HAVE to be the way it is. I see you can unschool, focus on the kids, but avoid focusing on them in a navel-focusing way
I see that in many of John Holt's writings as well. He talks about education as "access" -- letting children be part of the adult world, letting their lives and work and learning be real, letting them get away from the useless clutter associated with large scale, institutionalized education. Sort of like what Elizabeth was saying much earlier in this thread. Probably many homeschoolers instinctively work this way, and that's why many different approaches can actually "work", be effective, because they follow effective general principles even though the approach or "tools" may differ. Kids are adaptable -- they can grow up fine in many different types of households as long as they are respected and loved, challenged and encouraged, etc. Anyway, that's my tentative theory FWIW.
(I took this out of the post I wrote above because it seemed like a sort of side-issue that I wasn't dealing with specifically enough to be helpful in a public forum)
I try to do that largely with discipline and child-raising, I realize. 90% of our discipline is purely positive -- nurturing relationships, meeting needs, discovering what type of people our little ones are, providing an environment where seeking virtue is expected, modelled, sought out as desirable and FULFILLING. OK, I am not saying we live this out day to day but that that is how we THINK about it (DH and I, and now the older teens for the most part as well).
There is some negative discipline, of course, and some very ineffective discipline as well, and things we miss because of our own personal blind spots. But the point I'm making is that if Catholic character formation can be like that without being permissive (we certainly have our permissive moments but I'm talking about the overall pattern and direction here), why can't academic education be like that?