Now, my quick answer to the question of how unschooling is like Santa Claus would be that perhaps it is more like Santa Claus than like the tooth fairy. The tooth fairy exists in fancy and in the cultural life of families. Santa Claus, on the other hand, seems in addition to these qualities to have a legitimate peg in history as St Nicholas. We don't know many facts about his life anymore, and there are many accretions and cultural ringings-of-changes, but he represents something that has endured and that is real and still resonant. I would say the same is true of unschooling as a phenomenon.
Now the long-drawn-out response to the question:
When I started considering homeschooling because my husband wanted to try it, I went to the library to research it into the ground, thereby continuing an honorable family tradition that I hope and trust will carry on to the next generation or two at least. (That is, researching new and interesting things into the ground, though I have some hopes they will homeschool as well). I was fortunate that my local library at the time basically carried a history of homeschooling on its shelves, as follows:
- Growing without Schooling newsletter -- wonderful little snippets from the lives of the first homeschooling pioneers, something like the blogs and message boards of today.
- John Holt's books, including Teach Your Own and Why Children Fail (a classic critique of institutional schooling systems of the time).
- Raymond and Dorothy Moore's books, including Better Late Than Early. Raymond Moore was a Christian researcher who believed that many children, particularly boys, are better off learning at home from helping around the house, conversation and informal lessons rather than going to school at ages 4, 5, or 6.
- Nancy Wallace's Better than School -- about her musically gifted children and her struggles with a tyrannic school system.
- Richard Mitchell's Graves of Academe. Another stinging critique of the institutional school system. It is available online.
On the other hand, I loved learning. I loved being with my children, I loved seeing them learn. I did not exactly know how, but I wanted to be a guide and mentor for them. Reading these books, I could see how home education could be something completely different than sitting my kids at desks from 8 to 3 doing textbook math, English, social studies, snooooze, hold your breath while watching the clock to see if you could beat your last time, long for the bell, watch the dust devils on the playground, put the library book you were reading on your lap so you could read while the teacher was droning on about something you already knew..... (I am describing how I got through the first 13 years of my schooling -- the next five were a bit more interesting).
Rather than perpetuating what I had been sick of even the first time around, we could keep doing something like we'd always done... checking books out of the library, going for walks, talking, playing games, living together.
And these classic unschooling books also gave me new possibilities that hadn't ever occurred to dreamy me, waiting for the time when my kids were all at school so I could get an advanced degree/become a librarian/sit around reading British mysteries all day. I could really be an influence in my childrens' lives, not just mark time as a guard and diaper changer until I handed them over to the school system. There were so many possibilities. Learning could take all sorts of forms, just as Shaun describes:
Homeschooling for us has been about drawing comic books and writing songs as history “narrations”; sitting down at the piano before breakfast, and then again before lunch, and then again after dinner; dropping English as a subject and picking up Chinese instead (and soon, German too!); dumping long division for a while and playing with protractors and compasses. And of course it has been chin puppets and orchestra concerts and sisters playing Harry Potter for an entire afternoon. It’s full of surprising connections, giving Victoria opportunity to say “just like Mozart!” or for Violet to draw stories weaving together the fiction and history she’s reading with her love of manga.
So this is why I think that unschooling IS rather like Santa Claus. I have an affection for the old fellow, though some of his modern manifestations don't appeal to me in every respect, and I think every family is free to celebrate him as they wish or indeed not at all... and with unschooling, I don't always agree with the ways other people use the term, and I think they are free not to use the term at all, but I do like and celebrate the basic historical substance and think the term continues to have validity and meaning.
Those original parents back in the 70's were admirable folk, sometimes risking their very freedom by keeping their kids out of a system that they thought had taken a wrong turning. Perhaps a bit comparable to good Bishop Nicholas dropping the coins down the chimney to free the girls from slavery.... but you get the point.
Here is a short summary of the history of American homeschooling. It seems to hit the main points.
I think I should add that I realize that I'm not addressing Shaun's main point, which was more to do with the inadequacy of labels -- Charlotte Mason, unschooling, classical --- in describing a rich, home-based adaptive learning environment that is broader and deeper than the labels. I think this as her main point holds very true indeed, and I found it personally convicting because I have a tendency to dwell on labels and terminology to the point where I lose track, as Mrs T said in her post, of:
whatever it is, whatever you call it, seems to happen in the uncharted spaces between the ideological islands. I can't even call it "the way children learn," because there are no "children." There's this child, and this child, and this child, and this child. And this mother, and this mother, and this motherYep, especially on this blog I like to sling around terms and quotations and distinctions that are meaningful to me in a sort of INTP theoretical way, but probably don't have much practically to do with how people live their lives and teach their kids. It helps ME -- perhaps a bit like Utopia-books seemed to serve a sort of social-commentary function -- but it can easily get abstract and artificial, I am sure. John Holt wrote a book called What Do I Do Monday? and I ask myself that almost every Sunday -- whatever I have been pondering all week, what does it come down to in terms of how our home actually looks as a learning environment? Tomorrow, to be precise? What will I be doing with my kids? After all, education is first of all a practical art, not a science. Labels can classify, but they don't do much to describe. And I can forget that if I'm not careful.
My purpose here is simply to point out the actual real fact of unschooling behind the accretions and recastings. Unschooling, as it occurred in the 70's, was one of the more successful grassroots movements of the century, I think; and I think it is still ramifying. It was a matter of individual parents taking back the parenting and education of their own children, and networking with each other to provide support and strength and encouragement. This seems to be paying off yet in all sorts of ways, some not even connected directly with homeschooling. At its beginnings, unschooling united all different types -- from California homesteaders like the Colfaxes, whose sons went to Harvard, to New Yorkers like the Wallaces whose children grew up to be concert musicians.
John Holt wrote in the second issue of GWS:
Those who read GWS , and want to take or keep their children out of schools, may have very different, in some cases opposed reasons for doing this.This is the original unschooling premise that cornerstoned the homeschooling movement as a whole, and I think it is still a good one now. It was about the right of parents to take back the children and their learning into their own hands, and the possibilities for new ways of life that ensued from that. Unschooling may not be exactly the term we use to sum this up nowadays. It has become a term used to describe a specific kind of child-centered learning, and in that regard, as Shaun says, it gets blurred in with many other forms of homeschooling that also respect the personality of a child. Or it gets set apart as something like "non-directive" or "hands-off" which for many people makes little sense in terms of how they actually live with their children. But in many ways it is just as apropos as the term "homeschooling" -- for how many of us actually "do school" purely "at home"? But all homeschoolers have presumably taken their kids out of school, and so in that respect can be called "unschoolers".
Some may feel that the schools are too strict; others that they are not strict enough.
Some may feel that the schools spend too much time on what they call the Basics; others that they don't spend enough.
Some may feel that the schools teach a dog-eat-dog competitiveness; others that they teach a mealy-mouth Socialism. Some may feel that the schools teach too much religion; others that they don't teach enough, but teach instead a shallow atheistic humanism. I think the schools degrade both science and religion, and do not encourage either strong faith or strong critical thought. Some feel that the school curriculum is dull, fragmented, devoid of context, in George Dennison's words, that it destroys "the continuum of experience." Others may feel that the school curriculum is fine, but that they don't do a very good job of teaching it. What is important is not that all readers of GWS should agree on these questions, but that we should respect our differences while we work for what we agree on, our right and the right of all people to take their children out of schools, and help, plan, or direct their learning in the ways they think best.