Letters

To school or not to school: Readers sound off on the subject of unschooling.


Salon Staff
October 5, 2005 8:13PM (UTC)

[Read "Endless Summer," by Sarah Karnasiewicz.]

Your article "Endless Summer" was a great introduction to unschooling. There are many other alternatives to public schooling than unschooling and home-schooling. There are democratic schools, learning co-ops, charter schools, independent study programs and many more. They are growing rapidly and provide better learning than government-controlled bureaucracies. I'll look for more articles on why we learn, how we learn, when we learn and what we learn.

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Deschooling society is now more than a book by Ivan Illich. It is the most important social transition in the history of humanity.

-- Bill Ellis, A Coalition for Self-Learning, Rangeley, Maine

I think the heart of the issue is summed up in this sentence: "In a make-or-break world where kids are measured by advanced-placement credits and varsity letters, if an interest can't be showcased on a r&eacutesumé, is it a waste of time?"

The problem isn't a world where "kids are measured" -- the problem is a world where adults are measured. Childhood training is just getting you ready for adulthood. The regimented, résumé-centered focus on production and measurable goals in adult life is often best learned in the restrictive setting of traditional schools. As long as we focus on adults "succeeding," we'll only ever be able to focus on kids' success.

-- Frank LaFone

Perhaps one of the best arguments in favor of unschooling is a scene in the 1986 film "Peggy Sue Got Married." Peggy Sue has traveled back in time from midlife to her high school years. She is being compelled to take an algebra test for which she is completely unprepared. Terrified at first, she finds the courage to look the teacher in the eye and say, "Well, Mr. Snelgrove, I happen to know that in the future I will not have the slightest use for algebra, and I speak from experience." This line elicited the laughter of recognition from the audience when I saw it in the theater. Most people understand the tedium and futility of compulsory school curricula, and yet they don't trust their children enough to set them free of this gilded prison. In my more cynical moments, I wonder if they're chiefly motivated by the fact that misery loves company.

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-- Brian Sorgatz

I was happy to see an article about unschooling on Salon.com. I am the mother of three daughters who have all been unschooled. My two oldest daughters are now at university. One is a junior (on the dean's list) and the other is a freshman just starting this year. The youngest is 16 and still at home.

When making decisions about children's education, one of the most important criteria is the parents' definition of terms like "learning" and "success." Unschoolers define those terms for themselves, and definitions vary from family to family. For us, unschooling meant allowing our kids the freedom to learn according to their unique internal timetables and using whatever methods worked best for them. For example, two of my kids learned to read around age 5, using typical early-reader books like those by Dr. Seuss. One of my kids learned to read at age 11 using the "Calvin & Hobbes" cartoon books. All of them read equally well now, and spend hours reading for pleasure. The child who learned to read at 11 never experienced the sense of being a failure that I am sure she would have felt had she been in school. For us, "success" means not only did all of our children learn to read, but they learned to read in ways that suited their individual learning styles and without any of the tears or humiliation that could have been the fate of the "late" reader in a classroom. In our family, success in the area of self-esteem was as important as, if not more so than, success in academics.

Although some of the information in Sarah Karnasiewicz's piece presented unschooling in a favorable light, there is so much more to it than can be covered in one short article. And I do have a problem with her characterization of unschoolers' interactions with the world as being "casual" and their approach to learning being "laissez-faire." My kids' projects and passions were, and still are, well considered and intentional. And to me, a "laissez-faire" attitude has the connotation of not caring or being closely involved with someone or something. Unschooling my kids is what I chose to do with 25 years of my life. I certainly wasn't "laissez-faire" about it.

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I am approaching the end of my career as an unschooling parent, and I have been considering options for what I want to do next. After reading this article, I think I may take my kids up on their suggestion that I write a book about our family's experiences. One of the best rewards of unschooling, not mentioned in the article, is the excellent relationship many unschooling parents have with their children. Our family can certainly attest to that. No one can put a value on it that would come even close to its true worth.

-- Susan McMinn Seefeldt, Fairbanks, Alaska

It was a breath of fresh air to see unschooling featured in Salon. It's wonderful to see liberating forms of education getting some attention in the American media -- it reminds me that no matter the prevailing doctrine, human nature is relentlessly creative. In the early '90s I attended an excellent public high school in Toronto, Seed Alternative Secondary School, which followed some of Summerhill's precepts. I will always remain thankful for the precious time I spent there -- not only did I leave with an unflagging confidence in my intellectual ability, but the rigor of helping to shape a community has imprinted on me an enduring sense of what it means to be a citizen. While a small community may seem inconsequential to the mounting obstacles currently facing us -- declining public education, a dysfunctional healthcare system and a proliferation of overcrowded prisons -- these pockets of free thinking enable learning to exist without being made to serve corporate interests. Chances are the political leadership we are so desperately lacking is likely to come from such a source.

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-- Zoe Greenberg

One thing that people need to keep in mind with the unschooling idea is that what works for some kids doesn't work for others.

Unschooling works for children who tend to be bright, curious, self-motivated and reasonably organized and whose parents are the same. In the end, above-average people will generally end up doing pretty well even if left on their own, and formal education represents only a fraction of our life knowledge. Furthermore, with the public school system's emphasis on dumbing-down classes and treating bright students almost as an embarrassment, self-oriented learning lets above-average learners go at a faster pace and study what they really want.

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But I can tell you that if most kids were left to do whatever they wanted to all day, they would probably spend most of it watching TV, playing video games, throwing a ball around or hanging out with their friends. I had a friend who went to one of those free schools and left after a year because she wasn't doing anything.

-- Kirk

I'm afraid the parents of these unschooled children are doing them a great disservice by neglecting an important part of the schooled child's education: the ability to accept arbitrary rules and brainless restrictions as given. Whether by a government employee or a religious fanatic parent, the schooled child is given the benefit of learning that he will have to submit to authority nearly every moment of his day.

Lacking that necessary skill, how can the unschooled child make his way in this world?

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-- John Guilt

Very refreshing to see an article about home-schooling, though it's too bad that when we talk about home-schooling there are understood to be only two positions -- the conservative position that is stricter than public school and the supposed liberal position that is "looser" than public school. Kids must follow orders, or kids should do whatever they want. William R. George began a movement of junior republics in this country over a century ago, which grew to include about 11 boarding schools in the U.S., one in India, one in China and another in England that actually became the inspiration for A.S. Neill's Summerhill -- though its headmaster had twisted the original intent to something very different from George's principal idea.

George wrote three books about it the "George Junior Republic" and "The Adult Minor" were the two best. His idea wasn't that kids should "do whatever they want," but that the conditions which best serve an adult society -- democracy and free enterprise -- also best address the motives and needs of children. We don't magically change at age 18 from one kind of creature into another. So why should we assume, if our form of democracy and capitalism suits adults best, that it doesn't likewise suit children?

So George's boarding schools had kids going to school for half a day and working for half a day and getting paid for both portions of the day, based on merit. With the money they were paid, they could choose housing accommodations ranging from a dorm room to a private room, and cafeteria meals or meals served on fine china, and offer or buy services from selling shoes to acting as a lawyer for those who broke the laws that the kids made.

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The government was in the form of town meetings, with fines or jail time specified in most laws. Trial by a jury of one's peers, with representation, was what those who broke the laws faced. If they were given jail time, their jailers escorted them to school and to menial labor positions, then back to their cells. They were housed and fed but with no additional amenities, no additional money. My study of how these children fared in the 1920 Census revealed a Pulitzer Prize-winning newspaper editor, a New York State Supreme Court judge, several authors, a California congressman, and a rate of professional jobs that was about three times the national average for their age range. They also had a tendency to win scholarships and graduate near the top of their class from prestigious universities. This despite the fact that these kids had all come from a slum in New York. A Boys Town-like movie was going to be made about them, before the "Boys Town" movie got made, but the graduates who had become so successful killed the project because they were afraid it would suggest their backgrounds were criminal.

Summerhill kids, whose parents were upper-middle-class lefties, tended to have a tough time if they went on to college, as many of them never bothered to learn much. They pretty much all steered clear of politics and civic participation. In Summerhill, while the kids supposedly operated a democracy, in fact kids who were brought up on charges were generally given a fine that their parents paid, or Neill told the kids that this was a matter for private psychological counseling with him, thus nullifying their participation.

The very left-leaning educational establishment in the United States in the 1920s didn't like that George was anticommunist. They also didn't like that he campaigned against the child labor amendment. (Imagine if instead of giving women the vote we had mercifully campaigned for laws that didn't allow women to work. Labor organizations actually tried to get some of these going.) In any case, George's amazing work was consigned to juvenile reform in our libraries, instead of to education, and he has been written out of the history of childhood in this country.

And it's a damned shame.

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-- Catherine Dong

I find it very interesting that the main complaint is that the children involved in the unschooling movement have trouble with math. How many children in the public schools have the same problem? This article leaves the sense that the lack may not be with unschooling but with the availability of entertaining math-related materials for kids.

I personally credit my own skill with math to a TV show no longer on the air, "Square One," which did a wonderful job of making it nonthreatening and fun. Good books that make history and science accessible to children are far easier to find than those that explain algebra and geometry in friendly terms, though neither is inherently more difficult.

There was a point when I was in middle school that, after struggling for a long time with algebra, I hit an "Aha!" moment: "Why didn't they just say it worked this way?" I suspect that unschooled kids could succeed in math as well as anything else if the adult world would stop treating math like it's so difficult and scary.

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-- Susan Tussing

Considering that public school children receive at most 1,050 class hours per year, and considering that half of that, if that, is productive, and considering that teachers are essentially proctors and not educators and the burden for education falls mostly on those parents who are motivated and capable anyway -- I say, who cares? Or more precisely, what's the difference? We wallow in mediocrity when it is foisted on us by programs literally woven out of whole cloth, so why is it any different if we do it at home?

-- Stephen Rifkin

"A child-led approach may develop the child's strengths but does nothing to develop his weaknesses and broaden his horizons," she writes.

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Indeed, school does develop a student's weaknesses, but it more often than not does not broaden his horizons.

Years of boredom, the pressure to obey authority without question, the fear of failure and ridicule, the dependency on a rigid curriculum and the drugging of "problem" kids do, however, prepare the student for the corporate workplace.

-- Jeanne Doyle

"Kids in traditional school spend a whole lot of time learning penmanship, and things like that don't really matter in the long run." Really? Tell that to patients who receive the wrong medications because no one can read the doctor's writing. Tell that to anybody who has tried to puzzle out edit notes on a corporate report. Penmanship is a valid area for children to study, for the hand-to-eye coordination if nothing else.

And that is my problem with unschooling, because I'm not sold on the idea that because a child or the parent doesn't deem the subject relevant to them doesn't mean that it won't be later on.

-- Camille Ball

I wonder how many unschooled kids have trouble with math, and how many end up essentially math-illiterate. Math is a kind of subject where you must practice regularly in order to acquire the skills. As a math tutor, I see some formerly unschooled teenagers -- not a single one of them can solve a linear equation, let alone do anything more complex. (Calculate a percentage? Forget it.) And by the time the kid is 18, there's only so much a tutor can do.

I am an advocate of home-schooling (I coauthored two math textbooks for home-schoolers), and I do not think that American schools do a terribly good job of teaching math, either. But my worst public school student was still much more knowledgeable than any of the unschooled kids I've tutored.

As a result, many bright kids end up completely at sea in the world of numbers, to the delight of credit-card companies, loan companies, politicians and others who prey on the math-illiterate. I find very little to celebrate about that.

-- Larisa Migachyov

I'm glad Salon is taking an interest in unschooling. Here's the scenario I really worry about, though: Everybody gets to arguing about what's best for gifted, motivated kids who come from educated families. Which option turns out kids who are more creative, more confident, more genuinely literate?

Then, a couple of trendy professors at the Columbia or Harvard education programs get interested. They preach the gospel -- let kids teach themselves what they need to know, or whatever it is this week -- to a couple of years' worth of inexperienced future teachers until they get tired of the idea and/or large-scale results-oriented studies are published.

Those inexperienced teachers go on to work in inner-city schools for which they have been told they are being groomed. However, they have in no way been prepared to educate those students, because their graduate schools did not feel politically comfortable explaining to them that some educational philosophies rely on the assumption that kids are learning the basics they absolutely must know -- how to exercise self-discipline, how to behave in a formal or classroom setting, how to ask questions -- at home. They don't know how to teach any of these skills; in fact, they can't visualize or plan for students who need to learn these skills.

Result: Yet another generation of inner-city kids acts as guinea pigs for yet another cute but fundamentally frivolous system for enriching the minds of kids who don't have to worry about learning to read in the face of overwhelming obstacles.

Side effect: Yet another batch of fresh-faced potential teachers moans, "I spend so much time on discipline that I never get to actually teach!" and drops out.

-- Lelac Almagor

As the mother of seven unschooled children, my own conventional education was a compelling reason to home-school. Back in 1985, when we began this journey with our then 5-year-old son and 3-year-old daughter, all attempts at school-like structure were met with resistance, and eventually ditched. It was not fun, and I noticed early on that the largely uninterrupted hours my children spent outside looking for bugs or playing with Legos seemed to produce happier, more creative, dare I say, smarter children than those packed off to a building full of peers every day. As a parent, my role is facilitator rather than teacher. In the early years we felt anxious, wondering if the lack of structure and curricula was doing them a disservice, but were calmed as we watched our older children build incredible résumés of academic and artistic accomplishments, and become happy, productive, creative adults.

Now I watch the younger ones with great excitement. True education is the ability to learn something on one's own, and children, whether in an institutionalized setting or at the kitchen table, who have been spoon-fed a bunch of knowledge are hampered. Most critics of unschooling have probably never met a human whose innate curiosity and natural ability to be self-taught have been left intact. And as far as the criticism that unschooled children have weak areas or gaps in their education -- well, as I survey the landscape I notice that most adults, whether the products of public or private educational systems, are not uniformly educated in all areas or experts in everything. That's the human condition!

-- Karen Mueller


Salon Staff

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