Many a time, when one enters a discussion with someone who opposes unschooling
or simply doesn’t know or understand what it’s about, or when you read a
critique about life learning, the opposition takes up infallible position
of “The Things You Have to Know.” Schooling, they argue, will teach you
all these things you need to know – the things you cannot go through life
without. These are things that, obviously, you wouldn’t learn if you were
solely guided by your own selfish interests.
They’ll offer a list of things like national anthems, historic facts,
the complete work of this or that author, arithmetic… Writing them all in
capital letters and making them seem like Universal Knowledge You Cannot
Let me tell you a little something about Universal Knowledge. It is true
that there are things in life that one must know in order to survive. I
guess we can call them universal knowledge. These are things like fire is
hot and rain is wet and if you stand in the cold barely clothed, you might
get sick… but a child acquires this knowledge long before he enters school
and they are not taught explicitly. They are learned through experience.
(Believe me, there are many children who have to experience the cold/barely
dressed/sick cycle before they will believe it, and some adults even struggle
with this notion!)
Everything a child learns as she steps over the threshold of The Irreplaceable
Institution That Is School is trivial and negotiable. It is all very dependent
on the specific institution the child will be attending, the teacher, and
even the country in which the child is born or lives. Surely, there are
some things all schools try to teach their pupils, like colors and shapes,
but these are things a child either already had a notion of, or would learn
on her own when decently surrounded.
All the things the life learning opposers call necessary for survival,
or for obtaining some sort of status in society, or being a credible person
– or whatever the reason they think you need that specific fragment of knowledge
for – are extremely fluid. Each discussion partner will give you a different
list (which already points you to the fact that they are not so Universal
or Indispensable after all).
But let’s look at some of these so-called Essential Pieces of knowledge.
National anthems are just that – national – and I can show you an entire
nation where hardly anyone knows the national anthem. That nation is my
own – Belgium. The last time we had a prime minister, he even started singing
another country’s anthem. So what does it boil down to when someone claims
that a national anthem is an essential part of human knowledge? Patriotism.
Patriotism isn’t an indispensable part of character; many people live well
without it and aren’t lesser humans or ignorant twits because of its lack.
Patriotism can also be a very dangerous thing, setting people up against
others, solely because of the arbitrary borders on a map. Maybe if one day
we create a global anthem and that could be considered a part of essential
History – like national anthems – is highly dependent on where you are
located. Indeed, history is in the eye of the beholder. (The same goes for
geography, another topic that is often described as Knowledge You Cannot
Live Without.) There are a great many things I know about history, but they
are probably incomparable with what someone from another country knows about
history. And often even the things we claim to know are deeply flawed and
shaped by Eurocentrism or Western Imperialism. So is anyone who comes from
another part of the world and knows another part of history a nitwit? Or
are they excused because they have a different nationality? What then with
expats and travelers? What about people who only know ancestral history
and not academic history of battle dates and royal successions?
Knowledge of this or that author’s works is another concept that is highly
dependent on the culture in which you were born. And whenever this topic
is raised, I can’t but think of an anecdote a friend of mine told when returning
from a year of schooling abroad in the States: one of the students asked
her (a Belgian girl) if we too have famous authors like they have Shakespeare.
Notably, the U.S. formal school system isn’t that great at teaching children
about this or that author either (nor are they about geography as another
student asked her if Belgium was the capital of Brussels).
Now if all of these topics are covered and uncovered as trivial, arbitrary,
and highly regional, it is most likely that the opposition will throw their
last stones: the Holy Trinity of Reading, Writing, and Arithmetic. Surely,
these are essential parts of knowledge one must have in order to survive
in the modern world. And next to the claim that they are indispensable,
they also have to be acquired at or before a certain, yet again arbitrary,
When one claims that this trinity is imperative, they are pushing aside
the fact that millions of people all over the world grow up with knowledge
of none of these topics and, yet, continue to thrive and even have jobs!
So what they are telling you is that not only are all people in developing
nations, all people who are illiterate or can’t count to ten, ignorant imbeciles,
they are basically suggesting that the Western model of life is the only
one of virtue and clearly the one we should all aspire to. And often this
suggestion goes by without a grasp of the richness of analphabetic cultures;
after all they’re savages, right?
All in all, it’s about your chances of survival in the Western dominion.
This, in itself, demonstrates that the critic of life learning who is
uttering these remarks knows very little of unschooling, for isn’t unschooling
also a movement that wants to change Western society as we know it? But
even if we look at the topics of reading, writing, and arithmetic, we see
that our opponent has little grasp of the essence of unschooling. Unschooling
or life learning understands that a person will learn what they need, when
they need it, if only the opportunity is there. And even though unschooling
parents are often depicted as lazy nitwits who leave their children to run
wild while they are enjoying cocktails while lying in a recliner on their
lawn, most life learning parents are very keen on creating a fruitful environment
in which their children can thrive. Why, most of us are even very literate
and intelligent ourselves! We must be to have considered such a radically
different approach to education.
Ergo, when a child grows up in a reading, writing, counting environment,
especially an electronically driven society such as ours, he will one day
find the need to pick up all these skills, at least as much as he needs
them. Does it matter that he might not learn functions? Not if he’ll never
use them. I, for one, have finished a Master’s degree without ever using
functions once, even though they were an essential part of my math education
in secondary school.
Nevertheless, I am a big fan of knowledge and I find it neat to “know
things.” But I have met many a person who went through university flawlessly
but didn’t know what an antelope is or who thinks “Je te Flouff” is French
for I love you. They are highly functioning, respected citizens with Masters
degrees (both examples hold even multiple Masters). So even for academic
studies, the knowledge of such topics isn’t required.
Aside from the very rudimentary, there is no Basic Knowledge All Must
Know. So why not fill your head with things you actually need and things
you are actually interested in, no matter if anyone thinks you are just
a nitwit? Simply because of our different interests, there will always be
someone who thinks your knowledge is less than theirs, mostly because they
don’t understand or don’t care about what you’re interested in. But that
is their loss, not yours.
Education is power, yes, but when it comes to formal schooling, this
power is often misunderstood. The power does not lie with the recipient,
but with the creator. Surely, the person who decides what you should and
should not know has more power than the empty vessels the schooling system
sees its students for. There is no better person to decide what you should
know than yourself.
After studying communication sciences in Brussels, Laura
Schuerwegen escaped Western life to tend to her family in Sub-Saharan Africa.
She writes at Authentic Parenting