Sunday, April 20, 2008


Theresa at La Paz Home Learning has a series of posts on unschooling that I wanted to preserve since they have to do with the ongoing unschooling conversation:

Kim at Starry Sky Ranch wrote about right brain, left brain, also discussing the usefulness of labelling. And Leonie wrote about unschooling recently, too, learning with no strings attached.

One question that seems to be coming out of this discussion (though I am listing it as two!) is:

When do labels help? When do they constrict?

My last post quoted a neuroscientist who was talking about the reductionism in some modern approaches to literary analysis. Laura rightly pointed out that the quote itself was just a bit jargony (and notice that this paragraph I am writing is getting a bit that way too). I think the author of the article, as an actual neuroscientist, was using the specialized terminology to deconstruct the deconstructionism of the neuroaestheticists. The concept I was trying to highlight in the quote was the concept of "overstanding", which to me implies making something smaller in order to stand over it and critique it in an over-simplified way.

I think human language, reflecting our own humanity, has a tendency to label in order to box something in, OR to box other things OUT. I have often noticed it. I think labels are useful to identify and as JoVE pointed out in Theresa's comment box, to "gather in" and provide a sort of fold of shelter. For example, the concept of unschooling gives a sort of positive force field around a concept that needs to be protected -- the primacy of the learner in the learning process, and the essentially active role of the child in his or her own learning. I have seen the Attachment Parenting label used the same way. It provides parameters, a shorthand icon for a certain type of practice, a readymade community to whom you don't have to explain your whole philosophical thought processes, and a sort of beacon in the distance to aspire to.

But labels can be mis-used, as in this example by Cindy at Dominion Family, who unfortunately isn't blogging anymore. She wrote two thought-provoking posts, not about unschooling in particular, but about boxing in general -- not the sport, but the equally aggressive tendency to impose one's own preferred non-essentials upon everyone else, or to exclude the vast majority who doesn't measure up to the preferred standards. This tendency is at least 2000 years old and is a major theme in the Gospels, where it comes up as one of Jesus's particular aversions. The fact that it has survived in so many people, some of whom profess to follow in His footsteps, implies to me that the tendency is almost as deep-rooted as pride. And I am not immune, mea culpa!

Here is Cindy's example, telling a story told to her by someone else:

He was with a group of people from church at a restaurant. He was waiting for his wife outside the bathrooms and his baby started to scream. He frantically looked for a pacifier which his wife rarely used. Coming out of the restrooms was a little homeschooled girl from his church. She saw the pacifier and kinda huffed and turned around looking for her mom. Her mom came out of the bathroom took one look at the baby with pacifier and said something to her daughter like, “It’s Ok, honey, some people just don’t know any better.”
Here are the links to her posts:

She points out that the tendency to impose is often a flip side of a virtue -- strength of will and purpose. I think that is very perceptive. It certainly is a balancing act, especially on the internet. Part of the balance is that the reader, too, has a responsibility not to be imposed upon by what he or she reads. I wrote about how mentoring is not the same as imposing, and how the mentored person has a responsibility not to be imposed upon. I am certainly not going to point out any specific examples, but I personally tend to avoid receiving wisdom that has a "fear" or "anger" mentality: "Do it my way, or some horrible thing will happen to you" or "don't be like THOSE people, or you will no longer be in OUR club". Those types of sources give me a jolt that sometimes feels like energy, but it's really not. It's a substitute for good energy, like the way a simple carb acts on my blood chemistry, and it doesn't last, and it leaves me feeling less energetic than before.

Even some good sources have that jolt to them, not because the sources are gestapo types but because I personally react fearfully to parts of them -- Charlotte Mason's writings might be an example, for me. I try to isolate and get rid of the fearful elements and just focus on what might work for our family or what I see is positive and helpful in the advice. As Cindy also points out, being a GHM isn't the same as being opinionated. Don't many of us get truly energized by someone honestly sharing their convictions in a real, personal way? This is more like a protein or a complex carb.

It isn’t just a matter of being opinionated. Blogging is opinionated but to tell the truth the best blogs are the most opinionated ones. I enjoy reading people’s opinions on their blogs, but the gestapo mom seeks not only to give her opinion but force her ideas on those around her.
So once again, I would say that the problem is not the labels themselves, but the way they are used. Maybe it has a bit to do with this fallacy mentioned by Drew at Running River Latin School.

It goes like this: ab esse ad oportere non valet consequentia, or as Marcello Pera puts it, "there are no formal [logical] implications between 'is' and 'ought'.

In other words, just because some homeschool mom does something and talks about how wonderful it is and even (gasp!) has principled reasons for doing it this way and even puts a name on it -- that does NOT mean that it would be wonderful for everyone's family or that the principles would apply the same way in a different situation. (ETA: Wendy at Zoom Times makes a similar point coming from a different starting place -- these connections are really interesting!)

Now to finally close this long post ---I have been trying to adopt Melissa's practice of turning away from the computer screen to give my attention to whoever is asking it. That has been enriching for me because I have heard my husband read aloud to me about China from a National Geographic magazine; I have shared Aidan's excitement about his car puzzle and the way he can make jacks spin like tops; I have listened to Sean narrate and comment upon a football story he has been reading; and I have been trying to keep some mental awareness of the time passing that Kieron and Paddy are playing Sonic the Hedgehog upstairs. It is definitely a painstaking discipline for me, and I am not very skilled at it, so this is probably a very disconnected blog entry! But I did want to get those links down. If anyone else has blogged or read a blog that is part of this recent unschooling conversation, please let me know. I am trying to keep track of it.


llmom said...

Wonderfully put, Willa. I have struggled a bunch with this label thing and have to remember that I am the expert for my own family.

shaun said...

Yes, nicely said. And what is it about Attachment Parenting?! We were "devout" APers and at times we felt more severely scrutinized by other APers than we did by those who didn't share our preferences.

In addition to the "ought" factor, I wonder if there is something about labels that can lead to comparison. Once we classify -- and we do need to give things names in order to communicate -- is there a human tendency to slide right into assessing better and worse without noticing the difference? I wonder if that tendency might even be inherent in our language. (I bet Derrida would have something to say about that! :) )

Just another thought . . .