Unschooling: A Libertarian Approach to Children

The conventional model of K-12 schooling is based on two assumptions, both wrong. The first is that, out of all the world’s knowledge, there is some subset about the right size to fill K-12 that everyone should learn, or at least be exposed to. The second is that the way to educate children is to sit them down and tell them what some authorities, typically teacher and textbook, have decided they should know.

The first assumption is, I think, not only mistaken but indefensible. Most people will find the ability to read and write and do arithmetic useful. Most will not find the ability to do trigonometry useful. Geometry and algebra, part of the standard curriculum, will be useful to some, but probability theory or statistics, not usually included, will be more useful to others. Biology is an interesting subject, but it is not clear that the amount of biology that most students learn in high school is of more use to them than the amount of economics they could learn in the same amount of time. American history teaches some useful lessons, although, given the inevitable biases of any one source of information, some of the lessons will probably not be true. But Roman history, or Greek history, or British history also has lessons. And, as some evidence of how much American history students actually learn, the man who is, as I write this, vice president of the U.S., asserted in a television interview that when the stock market crashed FDR got on television to speak to the nation. In 1929, when the crash occurred, Herbert Hoover was President and television still in its early stages of development.

As further evidence of how much of the curriculum actually gets learned, consider my wife’s experience teaching geology labs as a graduate student. She was at VPI, probably the second best state university in Virginia, which meant that her students were drawn from about the top quarter of high school graduates. A sizable minority of them did not know that the volume of a rectangular ore body was height times width times depth.

The second assumption is also wrong. As all students and most teachers know, the usual result of making someone study something of no interest to him is that he memorizes as much as he has to in order to pass the course and then forgets it as rapidly as possible thereafter. People learn things much more easily and remember them longer if they are things they want to learn. Consider the case of a child who actually gets interested in something, whether D&D, batting averages, or dinosaurs.

Museum of Natural History volunteer to almost two year old in his mother’s arms, pointing at an arrangement of two dinosaur skeletons: “What do you think that is?”

“Albertosaurus eat Iambeosaurus.”

True story. He was still having trouble with l’s at the time.

Not only is the assumption about how children learn wrong, it teaches a dangerous lesson—that the way to find out what is true is to locate an authority and believe what he tells you. One of the crucial intellectual skills is the ability to judge sources of information on internal evidence, to learn to distinguish between an author or speaker who cares whether what he says is true and one who does not. The conventional model of schooling anti-teaches that skill. The student is presented with two authorities, teacher and textbook, and, unless the teacher is unusually good, expected to believe them. Quite often, judged at least by my experience, that is a mistake. Much of what is taught in school is not true.

When the two children of my second marriage approached schooling age, my wife and I faced a decision. I had gone to a first rate private school, my wife to a good suburban public school. Each of us had had a few good teachers and classes, but what we most remembered was being bored most of the time. I learned more about the English language reading Kipling’s poetry for fun and going through a book or two a day, largely Agatha Christie and her competitors, during summer vacation, than I did in English class. I learned more about political philosophy arguing politics with my best friend than I did in social science. My wife learned geology, a subject not much taught in school, following her geologist father around rock outcrops and mineral shows. We both agreed that we ought to be able to do better for our children.

Our solution was unschooling, first in a small and very unconventional private school and then, when problems developed with that, at home. In the school, students controlled their own time. Classes occurred only if the students went to a staff member and asked to be taught something. Later, at home, there were no classes, just books, conversation, unlimited internet access. When our daughter decided she wanted to learn to play harp, we found her a teacher. She audited several of my law school classes. When she decided to learn Italian, we arranged for her to take advantage of a program at the university where I teach that let high school age students enroll in college courses over the summer. She worked harder than I can ever remember working at a class, high school or college, took advantage of not being in school to take two more quarters of Italian during the year, ended up majoring in Italian in college.

I like to describe unschooling as throwing books at kids and seeing which ones stick. Early on, both our children read How to Lie With Statistics, a good popular book on how not to be fooled by bad statistical arguments. Our son liked D&D and similar games, so was interested in learning probability theory. It turned out that the author and illustrator of How to Lie with Statistics had a book on that subject too: How to Take a Chance. We may have ended up with the only eleven year old in town who could calculate the probability of rolling five or less with two six sided dice. Our daughter’s reading included The Selfish Gene, a biography of Talleyrand, and much else.

One Christmas the children got Gameboys with Pokemon cartridges. I heard a radio talk show host, commenting on high tech toys, observe that children played with them for an hour or two and then got bored. Ours must have logged easily forty hours a month, possibly forty hours a week, for many months after getting those Gameboys. From one point of view they were learning a useless skill, since neither Pokemon nor the world they live in are real. From another point of view, they were learning the useful skill of how, dropped into a new environment, one figures out how to find one’s way around and function in it. The amount of intellectual energy they put into doing so was enormously greater than what children, judged again by my observation, are willing to put into schoolwork, learning things other people have told them to learn.

My wife taught our daughter to read with the help of books by Doctor Seuss designed for that purpose, including a subversive tract entitled Hop on Pop. It took a few weeks. Her brother, three years younger, observed and taught himself. We discovered that he had also taught himself to type when we were playing Diablo on the house network and misspelled words started appearing on the screen. They eventually stopped being misspelled because he did not want the people he was playing Starcraft with online to think he was stupid. At a somewhat later stage, our daughter practiced her writing skills composing battle reports for World of Warcraft encounters.

When the children were little, home unschooling meant that one of us always had to be home. Then and later it meant being willing to talk with our children more or less without limit and point them at books or subjects they might be interested in. My wife and I took turns putting the children to bed, spending about half an hour each evening doing it—I recited poetry or made up stories, she sang or told incidents from her childhood, both of us talked with them about whatever they wanted. The nearest we came to anything like a required class was nagging them into learning the multiplication tables—which our daughter, now an adult, thinks was a mistake.

Judged by our experience, unschooling not only saved our children from having to spend a substantial part of every week sitting in class being bored, it also gave them a better education. There were parts of the standard curriculum that they never learned or learned less well than they would have at a good school, most notably mathematics, which neither of them found all that interesting. Some of the holes in their education they filled by studying for the SAT exams, which they wanted to do well on so that they could get into the sort of college they wanted to go to. Some were never filled and probably never will be. On the other hand, they ended up learning a great deal more about a wide range of other subjects, from evolutionary biology to economics to history, than they would have in a conventional school. If at some future point they discover that they need something that was left out of their education they can learn it then, a more efficient strategy than trying to learn everything they might ever find useful, most of which they won’t. And a strategy that works better for people who have grown up educating themselves than for people who have grown up being schooled.

Perhaps more important, they did not learn that education was something rather like cod liver oil, good for you but bad tasting, or that reading books is something you do because you are assigned to do it. When my daughter got to college she was shocked to discover that when her favorite class was cancelled for a day, the other students were glad instead of disappointed. One of her chief objections to the college experience was that it was not real. She was spending time writing papers that would be read by only one person and only because it was his job. Oberlin, where she spent two years before transferring to the University of Chicago, has a one month winter term during which students can do a project of their own invention with the approval of a professor, not necessarily on campus. During her second year she came home for that month and translated a 15th century Italian cookbook.

That was real. It is now on the web.

Lessons from Reality

One argument I have seen offered against unschooling is that, in the real world, you sometimes have to do things you don’t like, a lesson we can teach our children by making them study things they are not currently interested in studying. It is an interesting point, and I think reflects a serious error.

One way of teaching children about the real world is to construct a synthetic world designed to imitate the real one. To teach them that they will sometimes have to work to accomplish things even if they do not want to we assign them homework they are not interested in doing and reward them with grades. If grades don’t work well enough, we reward good grades with cash, as some parents do.

What this approach leaves out is the causal connection between the work and the accomplishment. Someone else has told you to do unpleasant work, someone else will reward you for doing it, but there is, from your standpoint, no logical connection between the two. Doing homework does not, so far as you can tell, actually produce money.

The alternative to a synthetic world is a real world–the one we and our children are living in. If you do not tune your harp, it will not sound very nice when you play it. If you do not tidy up your room at least occasionally, you will not be able to find things you want. If you do not sometimes do things your younger brother wants you to do, he will not do things you want him to do. That world also teaches the lesson that getting what you want sometimes requires doing things you would rather not do. And it gets the causal connection right.

For a year or two, our son was running a weekly D&D game for some of his friends. That meant that, each week, he had to spend time preparing that week’s adventure and get it done before his players showed up. He did.

I do not want to overstate my claim. Unschooling worked for us, but two very bright children brought up by highly educated parents are not exactly a random sample of the relevant population. There is evidence that it works for quite a lot of other people; interested readers may want to look at the literature on Sudbury Valley School, the model that the school where our children started their unschooling experience was built on. There may be some children who would learn more in a conventional school, even children who would enjoy the process more. But, judging by our experience, unschooling, home unschooling if no suitable school is available, is an option well worth considering.

An Argument Against Home Schooling. And For It.

Home schooling and unschooling fit well together, but they are not the same thing. Much home schooling follows a conventional model, complete with curriculum, textbooks, and exams. Unschooling can be done in a school; Sudbury Valley school has been doing it for more than forty years. This chapter is mostly about unschooling, but since we were also home schooling I think it is worth saying a little about that as well.

One criticism of home schooling is that home schooled children fail to be properly socialized due to insufficient exposure to others of their own age. There is some truth to this. Home schooled children can and do get together with other home schooled children or, in contexts such as boy scouts or church, with children who are in school. But they are likely to interact less with their peers and more with their family than if they went to school.

When our daughter arrived at Oberlin, American teen culture was an alien world to her, with the result that she made some adult friends but none of her own age. On the other hand, she was more comfortable with adult society, including her teachers, than most of her fellow students. The year before she went to college, when she was taking Italian classes at the same university where I teach, she spent a lot of time in office hours. Her professor’s comment to me was that it was wonderful to have a student who really challenged him.

Consider the standard model from the standpoint not of education but of socialization. It is rigidly age segregated—almost all the people a student associates with at school, with the exception of the teachers, are the same age. A fifteen year old does not have to prove that he is stronger or smarter than a ten year old. A ten year old does. The model of social interaction that comes out of that environment, a world where everyone is in direct competition with everyone else, is not an entirely attractive one. Nor very good training for life in an age mixed world.

Judith Harris, in her very interesting The Nurture Assumption, argues that how children are brought up by their parents usually has little effect on their adult personality. Her explanation is that humans are good at realizing that different environments have different social rules. The child at home adapts to the social rules of the parental environment, at school to the rules of the peer group environment. It is the peer group version that ends up forming most of the adult personality.

Harris mentions, as an unusual special case, children for whom the family is the peer group. Home schooling might be one way of getting there. If so, the socialization argument cuts in both directions. Having my children end up with personalities rather like those of myself and my wife rather than personalities modeled on mass American society strikes me as a plus, not a minus.

I suspect that many who criticize home schooling along these lines are working from the unstated assumption that the home culture is worse than the school culture, probably that the typical home schooling parent is an uneducated Christian fundamentalist trying to protect his children from being taught evolution. Such evidence as we have suggests that that is wrong, that home schooling parents are somewhat better educated than average, not worse, and that religious concerns are not their most important motive. The critics might reach a different conclusion if they were imagining home schooling as they themselves would do it.

One more point about home schooling is that whether it works may depend in large part on the relation between parents and children. If they do not get along, something unfortunately pretty common, it might work very poorly. Of course, one reason they might not get along, although not the only possible reason, is that the children have been socialized in school into viewing their peers as “us” and adults as “them.”

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