Is "Unschooling" a
Taking Possession of Our Lives and Our Learning By Wendy Priesnitz
I find language to be a difficult thing. As a writer, I spend a
great deal of time choosing my words, wanting to find just the
right ones. Some words seem inappropriate; others seem
inaccurate; still others have too many meanings. That pickiness,
coupled with my belief in the power of words to create change,
often makes me a lot less prolific than I would like to be.
I especially struggle with the terminology that relates to the
topic I write most about: education (even that word can be
problematic!). For instance, anyone who has read this magazine
for awhile, or my blogs, or any of my books will know that I am
not fond of the word “unschooling.” As the term and what it
stands for have become more public in the past year, people have
been challenging me about that, although I am not the only one
who experiences difficulty describing this way of life.
Those who favor the term “unschooling” argue that it is positive
and liberating, in the way that “unleashing,” “unbinding,”
“unfurling” are. As yes, the process is all those wonderful
things. In fact, I think “unschooling” is a fine description of
the process of liberation from school and its mindset and
trappings. And since that process is a continuum, its use is
helpful on an ongoing basis. (Its increasing popularity also
makes it necessary as a website search keyword, whether I like
it or not.)
The term can be traced back to John Holt. From what I remember of
the discussions I had with John in the 1970s and early 80s, I’m
quite sure he coined the word (based on a 7-Up commercial
branding it the “un-cola") to describe
that very process of taking/keeping kids out of school – away
from the school mindset – and allowing them to learn naturally.
However, ever since I first heard John use “unschooling,” I have
thought that it’s an inadequate descriptor of the way of life
that results from that liberation process. I doubt many
observers – friendly or otherwise – think of its similarity to
those other “un” words without prompting. And I see that
everyone spends a lot of time trying to define it. The fact that
it has been extended in recent years with terms like “radical”
and “whole life” points to the need to remedy its inadequacy.
Unfortunately, those very valid attempts to move the word from
mere academics to other aspects of life just result in the very
sort of slicing and dicing that school creates!
And they also, I worry, lead people to believe that
"unschooling" is a thing in its own right, with a clear
definition and parameters – that there is a right way or a wrong way of doing it. (And
there really isn't, except in the minds of some who seek to
redefine the term beyond Holt's original usage, or to claim it
Perhaps describing this way of living with children (and learning
as an adult) is impossible using just one word or a phrase. And
that certainly limits attempts to help others understand what
we’re talking about!
But my problem goes deeper than that. Beyond my sense that
“unschooling” is an inadequate term, I feel that when it is used
in certain ways it becomes misleading. I cringe when I hear
young people saying they’ve been “unschooled” or parents saying
that they “unschooled” their kids (meaning, of course, that they
were freely living, doing, being, developing…without attending
school, without rules or compulsion, etc.). So why does that
bother me so much? Aside from the obvious suggestion that the
“unschooled” person has grown beyond compulsory school age, it
has to do with activity versus passivity, and with doing
something rather than learning to do it – both of which I think
are key components of this difficult-to-describe way of living.
The way of living that we’re talking about (and the “education” or
“learning” that’s part of that life) is an active one. It is not
done to us or for us. It is something we do, rather than
something we are given. Yes, children and young people must go
through the process of being “unschooled” – or perhaps
“deschooled” (presuming their parents favored the school mindset
when they were born) in order to live in this autonomous manner.
And that advocacy, protection, etc. is a gift, for sure. But after and
beyond that, and if we really mean what we say we mean when we
try to define the terminology, everyone is on his or her own.
There is a Buddhist saying: “When the student is ready, the
teacher will appear.” That means that when we’re ready to
understand (to learn, as we say) or to do something, we will.
Things that others say, observations of our environment,
passages read in books, will all come to our attention as
opportunities to make things “click.” Life learners like to
define “ready” as when interest, curiosity, and need are
present. It’s all those things and probably more, including a
bit of serendipity.
That’s why most of us life learners don’t know – or can’t
describe – how our children learned to read. Those kids just began to do it. And I
don’t think it is even necessary to try and understand or
describe how the learning took place.
Secondly, does learning ever end so that one can say a person’s
“unschooling” is in the past? Learning is not a finite thing.
When exactly does the process of learning to read end? When we
can identify a stop sign? Read Dick and Jane books? A newspaper?
A games manual? War and Peace? Like you, I am still learning to
read, to comprehend more, to expand my vocabulary, to read more
quickly when I want to, to explore different genres and styles
of writing, and to retain the focus and attention span that are
being eroded by reading short online pieces. My learning to read will probably never end; at some
point, I may have to learn to use Braille!
The popularity of, and trust in, the institution of schooling in
our culture means that something so simple is so difficult to
explain and to understand. We’ve been brainwashed by the
education industry to think that knowing results from learning,
which is orchestrated by teaching. And that good teaching is
created and supported by a whole infrastructure of curriculum,
manipulation and motivation techniques, teacher educators, text
book writers and publishers, and so on.
So where does that leave me as a writer grasping for words? These days, I like
“self-education” and “life learning” as short-forms. Give any of us two
hundred pages or an hour or two of conversation (or the many
hundreds of articles on this website!) and we’ll be
able to make a good start at describing this way of living and
being. Maybe “living” is the best word of all – if only we can
help people get their heads around the idea of letting kids be!
Wendy Priesnitz is Life Learning’s
founder and editor, and the
author of thirteen books, including
Challenging Assumptions in Education: From Institutionalized
Education to a Learning Society and Beyond School: Living as
If School Doesn't Exist. She has been an advocate for
children's rights and life learning since the 1970s, and is the
mother of two grown daughters who grew up without school.