Monday, April 14, 2008

Unschooling as Fact or Fancy

Shaun at Red Sea Homeschool's post How is Unschooling Like Santa Claus? is a continuation of the conversation started by Melissa, which I have been following. It is interesting reading, and Mrs T at Fine Old Family follows it up with a post on Utopia and Unschooling. Oh, I like reading posts by other English lit majors -- I still have that old Edward Bellamy Looking Backward book around somewhere, with the paper clothing proposal. My husband and I -- we were not yet married at the time --took the class and read that book together and laughed at some of its naive absurdities. It made me smile to see that name again after so many years.

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.
All of these in their way subversive and yet constructive at the same time, and therefore suiting what I was newly understanding, as a recent convert to Catholicism, in regard to my responsibilities to my children. That is, that I would have to convert and reconvert every day if I were to make progress, and there comes the subversion and the construction. I had been scared to homeschool -- I hated school so much as a child and the worst nightmare I could imagine was an eternity actually BEING a teacher and foisting this teachery stuff off on my children.

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 mother
Yep, 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.
  • 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.
  • 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".


    Laura A said...

    Willa, thanks so much for posting this! I enjoyed it thoroughly. I only discovered your blog last week, when a longtime friend sent me a link, so I'm not completely caught up reading it yet. Already, however, I sense a lot of common ground, including a fascination with some form of unschooling in a Christian sense, serious books, and an INTP/INTF sort of personality. Perhaps it all goes together! (My friend shares these interests too, but I'll let her comment herself if and when she wishes.)

    I'll post a link to my own, very new and junior blog below, because Blogger for some reason won't take it under name/URL:
    I think it has exactly one reader, so don't feel obligated! ;-) Just wanted to introduce myself.

    Oh, and my daughter takes music workshops with the adult Wallace children sometimes. They live nearby. She likes them--both the workshops and the teachers!

    Laura A said...

    Oops, make that INTP/INFP. The mistake probably goes with the territory!

    Theresa said...

    Excellent! Keeping the history in mind really helps to make sense of it all. Loved reading this, especially the Holt quotes. Every time I read him I get reminded of what a genius the man was.

    JoVE said...

    I love where this conversation is going. It clarifies so many things. And it is nice to get into the details with a bunch of women who basically agree on how to proceed with our kids and how that label may or may not be useful to us. (i.e. none of us are actually worried about whether we really "fit" the label)

    Now I'll have to check out that other link. But first, off to the pool for a fitness class.

    Meredith said...

    Great post Willa, and I agree wholeheartedly with Theresa and JoVe, this is great to read for me!

    Willa said...

    Laura, nice to "meet" you. What a coincidence that you should start reading my blog just around the time I blogged about the Wallaces. That book by their mother was one of my all time favorites -- I always thought she sounded like a bit of an INTP too. Anyway, I liked the way she wrote and observed her children.

    shaun said...

    I love what you've done with the Santa analogy! (That's supposed to sound like, "I love what you've done with your hair!") The connection to history is important, and I do think it's necessary to honor remember and respect those who pioneered homeschooling before me, so that I feel much freer to make that choice and do it the way I want.

    I think your post on Orwell gets at why it is so useful to talk about the terminology. It is so easy to let our words define our thinking, and we need to push back a little!

    Amy said...

    Loving this conversation! I wish I had some brain cells left to join intelligently, LOL.

    BTW Willa, in answer to a question you asked on my blog, I *love* your long comments. You are always so thoughtful and wise. :)

    Mrs. T said...

    Thanks, Willa -- the historical perspective, and the reminder that these labels and terms we're critiquing come from somewhere and respresent something in historical fact, is a tremendous contribution to the conversation.

    When we started homeschooling I inherited a huge stack of GWS, going back to the first issue, and I read them religiously. In many ways John Holt gave me "permission" to do what clearly needed to be done with my children in the beginning, which was first to deschool, and then to follow their cues, rather than my fantasy vision of everyone studying cozily around the kitchen table of a winter morning. The spirit of hands-on discovery and of self-directed learning still guides a lot of what we do, and I will always owe a debt of gratitude to those pioneers.

    And thanks for supplying the title of that Edward Bellamy book!


    Marie said...


    Thanks for yet another wonderful, thought-provoking post.

    I think I'm finally realizing that my sense of label-of-choice, and my participation in conversation about same, is limited by the fact that my older child is a mere 6 years old. I want to have something to say from experience, but I lack the experience.

    I sure do want to learn from those who are farther down the road, though!

    Susan L said...

    I'm that friend of Laura A's who sent her to your blog. I've been reading here for a long time (ever since I found your link on Cindy's Dominion Family blog). I sent the link to Laura because you were talking about unschooling, and Laura and I have had many conversations about this over the years.

    Your blog is one of my absolute favorites-- very thoughtful, intelligent, and stimulating. And this is another excellent post!

    My own children are grown now, but they learned at home in a very unschoolish environment. You say you didn't want to homeschool because you hated school so much when you were young. I had the opposite reaction. My intense hatred for school made me want to homeschool so that my kids didn't have to grow up in that kind of system (even at home).

    And maybe that's because *I* am an INFP! :-)

    I've been doing a little, temporary blogging experiment of my own just for fun. Nothing big or earth-shattering. I don't have the time to post long, thoughtful posts, and what I have is a mishmash of random topics.

    I've wanted to say hello for a while and let you know that I enjoy reading here.


    Us! said...

    Thank you Willa, what an excellent thoughtful post. I will ditto what the above ladies said...!

    I have found that here in the city in my own sort of homeschooling microcommunity we have a lot of mom's who consider themselves 'unschoolers' and it is a hard one to define. I followed the earlier parts of Lissa's discussion (before the computer went to the doctor) and have appreciated your more historically contextualized thoughts on unschooling. I think that in the beginning people recognized the need to support one another and identify with one another in the courageous, alternative path they were choosing in terms of education. Now that the homeschooling movement is so huge I think people have 'tribed' up more which makes sense, but can also cause unhealthy divisions at times. I think this is one of the reasons I read your blog, and most of the blogs I do read; the women who journal on them are not obsessed with the label but rather about living the rich, real life with their children, which on most of favourite blogs can look very different at different times (the whole tidal analogy).

    My, this has become long!

    Have a good weekend Willa.


    Willa said...

    Thanks, Susan, for solving the little puzzle of who had recommended this blog. I was curious!

    Yes, about terminology and finding labels. --- it seems that perhaps labels are helpful as reminders but not as boxes?

    I personally like keeping the "unschooling" label around just to help me remember that learning is bigger than a curriculum. This is an insight that is probably so second-nature to many people that it doesn't have to be named.

    I am thinking too, reading Marie's comment, that the label "unschooling" can help push back against the pressures that tell us we have to do be doing something "schooly" with our young children if we want them to learn. That might be more of a factor in regions where there is a more academic environment since here in California, for instance, there is the push to send 3 and 4 year olds to preschool to prepare them for future academics. "Unschooling" though a negative term might be a positive concept to fill in what might otherwise seem like a blank in the child's life -- a "blank" that is actually a creative and rich soil for learning.

    Those are a few thoughts that occurred to me as I read the very interesting comments. I love this conversation.