Although reform has been attempted many times over the years and may be what American schools need most, until reform is successful, encouraging children to quit school and self-educate may turn out to be most beneficial for some children and America. Self-education, or “unschooling” as it will be referred to here, can be described as unstructured homeschooling where children pursue the subjects they are interested in at their own pace instead of being forced to learn the things schools think they should know at a pace determined by the schools. Even though this type of alternative education may sound dreamy and unrealistic, unschooling encourages, among other things, independent thinking and responsibility.
Unschooling: Benefits for Children
Although many unschool because traditional schools seem less like nurturing places to learn and more like places of coercion, containment and conformity, many more worry that unschooled children miss out on proper socialization: How will kids be socialized if they spend all day at home? Sociologically, socialization is the process by which children are exposed to and learn their society’s cultural values and norms (Giddens, Duneier, Applebaum & Carr, 2018). Using that definition, some unschooling advocates argue that part of school’s purpose is to socialize children into norms of conformity and confinement, in large part, so that the transition to conventional employment in adulthood will be easy (Llewellyn, 1997, p. 57). Unschooling, however, can, by providing an alternative to education as an unpleasant, stratified game of monopoly, lead children to a different (and as some would argue, more enjoyable) sort of life and career than that for which traditional school prepares them.
First and foremost, unschooling frees children from the often unhealthy environment of school. In his book Instead of Education, alternative education advocate John Holt (2004, p. 7) was addressing a “minority of people … who believe that children” will learn, live and “cope with the world” in a “better” fashion when their interests are encouraged and their education environment is not one of a contest or race. Moreover, Holt said of the power structure of schools: “bow[ing] to superior force … makes us resentful and vengeful. We can hardly wait to make someone … yield to us as we were once made to yield” (Holt, 1995 p. 92-93). Because their interests are encouraged and they are allowed responsibility over their education, unschooled children tend to feel less oppressed and therefore less vengeful and more at peace.
In addition to freeing children, unschooling lets them have control of their lives and education. In his book Free to Learn, Peter Gray argued that schools, which were “originally developed to indoctrinate,” have deadened children’s curiosity, desire to learn and ability to “direct their own education” (as cited in McLaren, 2014, para. 7). John Holt elaborated on that sentiment saying that when children’s lives are “full of the threat and fear of punishment … [t]here is no way for [them] to grow up, to learn to take responsibility for [their] life and acts” (Holt, 1995 p. 92). By allowing children to make “all the decisions” in their education, unschooling lets them take responsibility “for their own success or failure” (as cited in McDonald, 2018, p. 7).
Unschooling provides an environment with fewer distractions. Away from the peer pressure and the rewards/punishment system of school, children can focus more on the experience of learning itself and less on their grades, the latest fashions, etc. Similarly, John Holt related his observations that once they receive rewards for reading, children stop reading for enjoyment and read only to get rewards (1995, p. 230). Once rewards are gone (as happens when children graduate from high school or college), children tend to stop reading completely. Unschooling, however, can establish an outlook of life-long learning by not putting a time limit on when one must have finished attaining an education stressing instead that it is never too late to learn.
Besides providing a healthier environment for learning, unschooling lets children learn at their own pace. While traditional schooling “may convince you [that] life is nothing more than an institutionalized rat race” (Llewellyn, 1997, p. 77), unschooling helps children learn at their own pace and in what tends to be an overall healthier environment. Holt conveyed that education as a race can be problematic because once a child is labeled as a “loser” it is difficult for her/him to have the self esteem needed to learn anything (1995, p. 224).
Additionally, unschooling lets children pursue the subjects in which they are interested. Speaking of their sons’ time spent in public school, groundbreaking homeschoolers David and Micki Colfax found that, during their years of homeschooling and homesteading, their sons “had learned how to use their time as they saw fit and necessary” (1988, p. 28). School, however, “interfered with what they knew was important.” In short, although, in some cases, children who are allowed free reign over their education may lack some important points of knowledge, unschooling advocate Grace Llewellyn felt that instead of learning a small bit about a large number of subjects, children should be encouraged to acquire more “quality” knowledge about a few subjects in which they are truly interested (1997, p. 133).
Furthermore, unschooling can be necessary for children who want to focus on a particular interest, such as dance. “I had to practice six hours a day in order to be a ballerina, which I couldn’t do if I was in school. In a homeschool, I could put my energies into dance. That doesn’t mean I didn’t do anything else. When you have so much free time, you are inspired to learn and grow” (as cited in Llewellyn, 1997, p. 218). Ultimately, having the flexible schedule of unschooling can enable children and their families to live whatever life they want to live instead of waiting until after they are liberated by graduation.
In addition, unschooling lets children learn any place and any time, and “‘allows an individual to meet (and learn to communicate with) a wide range of people rather than being largely restricted to [one’s] peer group” (as cited in Llewellyn, 1997, p. 141). Although learning happens naturally every moment in life, most schools have confined it to a building saying that learning can only happen when teachers are present (Llewellyn, 1997, p. 53). David and Micki Colfax illustrated that children learn through actively being involved in the work of a homestead (1988, p. 5). “Clearing the badly damaged land provided lessons in ecology, and the construction of a house and outbuildings show the boys relevance of seemingly arcane subjects such as geometry.” In essence, unschooling lets learning become encapsulated in every experience one has.
While the adults in traditional schools tend to treat children as ignorant inferiors, in unschooling, as one young person said: “‘the line between kids and grownups is almost not there’” (as cited in Llewellyn, 1997, p. 144). Moreover, because an unschooling parent’s job is mostly that of supporter, parents and children tend to be “allies” (Llewellyn, 1997, p. 91). Additionally, unschooling can provide fulfillment for both child and parent. One homeschool mom stated that she “win[s] by being fulfilled and so does [her] kid” because by subtly positioning her child to “have important learning experiences,” she achieves what she wants as a parent (personal communication, October 14, 2018).
Despite these benefits of unschooling, in a 2012 article, Dana Goldstein argued that instead of taking their children out of school entirely, critics of traditional schools should “flood [schools] with [their] kids, and then debate vociferously what they ought to be doing” (as cited in McLaren, 2014, para. 19). Although the reasoning that parents will be more invested in trying to reform a system of which their children are a part might seem sound to some, should children who do not learn well in the structure of traditional school be forced to stay in it while their parents work for reform?
Unschooling: Benefits for America
While traditional schooling tends to perpetuate existing social inequalities by “teach[ing] students an uncritical acceptance of the existing social order” (Giddens et al., 2018, p. 424), unschooling tends to encourage independent and creative thinking. In fact, many families choose to unschool because they “recognize the ways in which compulsory mass schooling can halt creativity and deter originality in the name of obedience and conformity” (McDonald 2018, p. 6). As independent thinkers, unschoolers may come to reject and challenge the existing social order and its inequities. Speaking of what would happen “if we encouraged teenagers” to be creative and nonconformist, Grace Llewellyn said “democracy would get a boost, but the powers of mass production and rat racing consumerism would take a dive” (Llewellyn, 1997, p. 70). Consequently, for those who believe that the United States overproduces, over-consumes and needs more creativity, unschooling could, indeed, be seen as beneficial for America.
Besides encouraging responsibility and independent thinking, unschooling provides fulfillment and allows children to pursue their passions, learn from any experience and live the life they want to live. Because traditional schools in America tend to be unpleasantly structured as compared to unschooling, school reform efforts would do well to include plenty of the “principles of free play and self-directed learning” (McLaren, 2014, para. 20). Perhaps unschooling American children will create enough non-conformist, independent thinkers to finally be successful in the school reform America always seems to be seeking.
Colfax, D. & M. (1988). Homeschooling for Excellence. New York, NY: Warner Books, Inc.
Giddens, A., Duneier, M., Applebaum, R. & Carr, D. (2018). Introduction to sociology. New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc.
Holt, J. (1995). Freedom and Beyond. Portsmouth, NH: Boynton/Cook Publishers
Holt, J. (2004). Instead of Education. USA: Holt Associates, Inc.
Llewellyn, G. (1997). The Teenage Liberation Handbook. Rockport, MA: Element Books, Inc.
McDonald, K. (October 2018). Don’t Homeschool Your Kids, Unschool Them. Reason.
McLaren, L. (2014). ‘Unschooling’ is a luxury for the wealthy. Toronto, Canada: Globe & Mail, http://www.globeandmail.com