A Life of Learning:
Empowering and Trusting Children A Memoir by Wendy Priesnitz
have a vision of a world where children and young people are equal members
of society, where they are liked, respected, trusted, and empowered to control
their own lives and to make their decisions about learning and life. And,
for the past forty-five years, it has been both my passion and my work to
give life to that vision. My vision challenges many closely-held assumptions
about how we nurture, educate, and live with the younger generation. It
also, by necessity, challenges assumptions about economics, women’s role,
and many other aspects of life on this planet. Being a relentless challenger
of those assumptions is the way that I contribute to fundamental change
– radical change that, true to the Latin origin of the word radical, digs
at the root cause of what’s wrong with how our society educates its young.
* * * * *
Like most other people, my upbringing and my schooling in the 1950s and
‘60s taught me to accept what I was told by my parents, my teachers, and
everyone else in my life. I did that well. I was the only child of working
class parents living in a Canadian mid-sized industrial city. My parents
had waited out the Great Depression to get married, only to have difficulty
conceiving, so they were forty-one and forty-eight when I was finally born.
I was a good little girl who got good grades in school with little effort
– thanks, I imagine, to good test-taking
skills, which were grounded in my strong reading and writing abilities.
One of my early memories of school is wondering when they were going to
start teaching me the things I didn’t know, rather than what I already knew.
Many years later, I began to understand how, insidiously, school had reinforced
my inadequacies and had left me with what I now called “learned incompetency”
and a fear of not being able to do things “right” the first time.
Nobody in my family had gone to university and nobody suggested I go
there either. My dream was to be an airline stewardess. But I had not been
encouraged to go after my dreams; instead, I was supposed to know my place.
And, in my mother’s mind, school was my place because teaching was a suitable
job for a woman and, as I realized much later in life, it had once been
her dream. So, as a relatively naive nineteen-year-old, I went to teachers’
college. I was a good little girl there too, and got good grades once again.
I did especially well at lesson planning and bulletin board decorating.
And, bolstered by my winning of public speaking awards in elementary school,
I actually got quite excited about the prospect of standing in front of
a class and filling those adoring and adorable little heads with important
When I graduated, I got a job teaching working class kids in my old neighborhood.
What disappointment and disillusionment to discover that I was spending
most of my time yelling at ten-year-old boys to keep them from swinging
from the lights and jumping out the windows! They were not interested in
my carefully planned lessons and colorfully decorated bulletin boards. In
fact, they didn’t want to be there at all. And, I quickly realized, neither
did I. So, contrary to everything I had been taught, I took a risk and terminated
my career as a school teacher.
Then I did what I should have done while I was attending teachers’ college:
I began my self-education. I started to think about how people learn...as
well as what they need to learn and why – and what gets in the way of learning.
As part of my research, I spent some time working at a daycare center.
Daycare centers were not prevalent in the early 1970s, but my developing
feminism led me to believe they were crucial if society was to move beyond
the nuclear family and its smothering hierarchy. But I was astonished at
how undervalued and underpaid the entirely female staff was, especially
for work that was so stressful and so important. I was also surprised to
realize how uninspiring the spaces were. I am a questioner by nature and
that experience inspired a lot of questions: Why was our society apparently
undervaluing this work? Was it because women were doing it? Or did we value
the care of the next generation so little? Did caring for the next generation
involve more than Kool-Aid and regimented “play” time? What is “liberated”
about paying other women a minimal wage to look after our children so that
we can have high paying careers? Why do women have to embrace the male model
in order to challenge patriarchy? Is there a third way? And where do the
children fit into all of this?
As for education, I decided that all those lessons I had so carefully
memorized in teachers’ college about how to motivate students to learn were
absolute nonsense. I realized that people (those kids in school and the
daycare, as well as myself) learn things better if they are not compelled
and coerced; if they are given control over what, when, where, why, and
how they learn; and if they are trusted and respected. I realized that until
schools get in the way, children do not need to be forced to learn…because
curiosity about the world and how it works is a natural human trait. I realized
that memorizing material for a test (which I had done so well in school)
isn’t real learning.
Fortunately, around the same time, I met and married a man who somehow
intuitively knew all of this, although he hadn’t articulated it before.
In the early days of our relationship, Rolf and I spoke often about how
and why we would not send our future children to school, not quite understanding
what a monumental decision that was. While I took my first tentative steps
towards believing in myself as a writer and change-maker, he and I started
a family. When I was pregnant with our first daughter Heidi in 1972, I fought
anger, frustration and sometimes despair at the state of the world into
which I would bring her. As it does for many women, motherhood was focusing
my early political consciousness. It was helping me understand how the choices
I make in my personal life are linked to those I make on a larger scale.
Propelled by a desire to create a better world for our children, we decided
that Heidi and her sister Melanie, who was born 18 months later, would grow
up not only absent from school, but unfettered by many of the assumptions
people make about children’s subordinate place in the world. Rolf and I
began to create a life that would affirm the rights of all members of our
family. With that, I embarked on my life’s work to advocate for children’s
right to be raised and educated with respect and without the “isms” – sexism,
racism, classism, ageism, consumerism, and other elitist or destructive
Then, in 1976, when the girls were ages three and four, Rolf and I started
the home-based business that remains
a vital part of our lives and my work to this day. With a small credit card
advance, we launched a company that would publish both books and magazines,
Natural Life, and would allow us both
to stay at home with our daughters. We were in our mid 20s, with no training
or experience in the media world. He was a plumber and I was an unemployed
teacher/fledgling writer. But we had the panache of youth and we knew from
experience that there was a need for information and inspiration to help
people question the status quo and the conventional, consumer-oriented ways
that were damaging our Earth. In those days, questioning the status quo
meant joining the back-to-the-land movement, growing one’s own food, and
learning about non-conventional methods of parenting. So that is what those
first few issues of Natural Life were about, with articles about
how to plant cabbages, have a home birth, and construct a wash bucket bass
Our home business was, itself, a deliberately alternative economic, social,
and environmental choice. But little did I know that the experience would
have ramifications far beyond the value of putting food on our family’s
table – or that it would teach me to challenge assumptions...about economics,
education, and food production, about what is truly important in life. Since
my business education was self-directed, it also provided me with a living
model of the sort of life-based learning experience I was beginning to envision
for children – one that involved a combination of motivation, hands-on experience,
questioning, mentor seeking, reading, error making and correction, and discussion.
(It also provided me with the ability and the impetus – a decade later –
to create The Home Business Network, which would legitimize home business
and help other women create careers for themselves while staying at home
with their children.)
Along the way, my family and I lived a good life, while being true to
our principles, at least most of the time. Instead of writing advertising
copy to sell breakfast cereal or press releases to “greenwash” the public
images of various multinational corporations, or composing mind numbing
speeches for well meaning politicians, I plugged away at semi-profitable
alternative journalistic pursuits, using my talents and skills to create
change. We walked or rode our bikes whenever possible. We recycled and reused
long before it became chic. We grew some of our food and bought locally
grown organic food when we could. We started a food co-op. We made our own
clothes or purchased them with no concern for brand name labels (and a fierce
desire to avoid advertising those labels on the outside of our clothing).
We also made our own entertainment. And for our young daughters, we facilitated
life-based, self-directed exploration instead of sending them to school.
By the late 1970s, I was feeling the need to reach out, to communicate
with other families who were challenging the assumption that children must
attend school. But there was no mechanism for that. So, using my editorial
platform in Natural Life Magazine, I went public with our family’s
educational choice. Soon, we were in contact with a few other like-minded
families who were pioneering homeschooling. And I found myself to be in
demand for media interviews, endlessly explaining how children learn without
being taught, that a self-directed education does not equate with poor socialization,
and that non-academic does not necessarily mean anti-intellectual. My speaking
out led directly to a couple of run-ins with school authorities who mistakenly
assumed that their authority legally and ethically extended into our home.
At that point, I realized there was a need to educate school boards and
their employees about homeschooling law, to advocate on behalf of homeschoolers,
and to more
formally organize what was becoming a movement. So, I founded the Canadian
Alliance of Home Schoolers (CAHS). It was a national network that provided
both advice and credibility to homeschoolers, and that nurtured many of
the provincial support and advocacy organizations that are in place today
In those days, my thinking was developing apace, helped along by discussions
with John Holt, who was kick-starting a parallel American movement and sought
our publishing advice as he launched his
Growing Without Schooling newsletter,
and with many strong homeschooling mothers on both sides of the border.
With the help of this growing network, I formulated a list of the questions
I was most often asked – and was most curious about myself – and contacted
as many homeschooling families as I could find with the first Canadian homeschooling
survey. This early research, which I published in 1989 – as imprecise and
unscientific as it was – put a face to the movement in Canada, allowed me to estimate the size
of the homeschooling population, and provided the basis for future studies.
All the while, I struggled to reconcile my trust in children’s ability
to learn about the world unrestricted with the growing number of religious
families who were choosing homeschooling in order to control how and what
their children were exposed to. As uncomfortable as I was with enabling
school-at-home, I felt that the small and fragile movement needed to support
all motivations and styles.
Truth be told, in 1979 I had not yet fully slayed the schooling dragon
in my own mind. If I had, I might have given the Canadian Alliance of Home
Schoolers a different name! After all, the learning experience that my family
was living had nothing to do with school (except for a determined lack of
it!) and it was more community- than home-centered. Nevertheless, when I
wrote my first book on the subject, I gave it what I now see is an oxymoronic
School Free – The Homeschooling Handbook (1987, The Alternate Press).
I eventually came to understand that what we now popularly call “homeschooling”
or "unschooling" is not meeting its full potential – and, in many
instances, is becoming more like school and therefore less of a real alternative.
And a decade later, Rolf coined the term "life learning." But
in those days, homeschooling was not at all common and I was trying to reach
as broad a spectrum of readers as possible with the message that, since
public schools were not meeting children’s needs, alternatives had to be
created and supported.
I have since become more precise about my use of language to describe
my vision. But that early “big picture” thinking led me understand the need
to reach out to people espousing other alternatives to public school. (I
had already decided that the public school system was so broken it could
not be fixed, so I never contemplated working for change within the system.)
My work as editor of Natural Life connected me with many wonderful
people and a few organizations which shared the holistic view that everything
– including education – is woven into the fabric of life (a notion that
I find somewhat lacking in many of today’s progressive organizations, which
often ignore public education’s problems). One of those that inspired me
in the 1970s was the School of Living, with its focus on organic agriculture,
cooperatives and worker-owned businesses, appropriate technology, local
self-reliance and, of course, self-education, which was, arguably, its core.
(Jerry Mintz’s organization AERO continues
to function under the School of Living umbrella.) Ed Nagel’s National Association
for the Legal Support of Alternative Schools (which was an early legal advocate
of homeschooling) was another part of my outreach, as was Education Otherwise
Closer to home, the Ontario Association of Alternative and Independent
Schools (OAAIS) attracted my attention and some of my time. In the same
way that homeschooling was (perhaps still is) an awkward member of the alternative
education community, I was somewhat of an outsider on the OASIS board, which
was mostly populated by middle-aged male representatives of religious schools
who were seeking government funding for their institutions. Nevertheless,
I ended up serving a term as president of the association in the late 1980s,
in the interests of solidarity for alternatives to the warehouse-model of
Combining my love of writing and editing with my activism also resulted
in more publishing endeavors, notably Child’s Play, which
I published in print from 1983 through 1992. Child’s Play – first
a newsletter and later a magazine about play – was a source of support,
resources and inspiration for families interested in home-based learning,
alternative schools, and natural parenting.
Over the years, as I found my writer’s voice, became a broadcaster and
conference presenter, and interacted with the media about home-based, self-directed
learning, I gained some insights – and strong opinions – about how
our use of language can either reinforce the status quo or nudge change
to happen. I began to understand how words like “teaching” and “schooling”
imply that some people are doing things to other people, that people at
the top are acting on those farther down the totem pole. I realized that
our public education system reflects a paternalistic worldview, which puts
Man at the top of the hierarchy, controlling everything underneath, including
women, children, animals, and the earth’s resources.
With my daughters growing up and leaving home, and the years passing
more quickly, I began to wonder if the small, personal choices my family
and I were making went far enough. I watched child poverty and the abuse
of women and children grow to epidemic proportions globally, while social
safety nets were being torn apart in the name of fiscal responsibility.
Youth crime appeared to be increasing, fueled at least partially by the
violence that surrounds us, in both real life and in the media. Indigenous
peoples were still fighting for their basic rights. I saw logging companies
continue to ravage forests, tobacco companies cynically buying their way
out of responsibility for their deadly product, global warming wreaking
havoc with world weather patterns, garbage dumps overflowing, nuclear power
plants and oil tankers leaking, and toxic chemicals being found in mothers’
milk. I saw schools being overtaken by bullies, standardized testing, and
“dropouts” who were shunned by their communities. This was in spite of decades
of effort on the part of activists around the world.
My need to “do more” led me, in 1996, to accept an invitation to run
for the leadership of the Green Party of Canada. Although I had no formal
experience with politics, I remembered that, as the feminist slogan goes,
the personal is political...and many of the choices I had made in my life
were most definitely political.
The Canadian Greens were only 13 years old at the time, and I took on
the daunting task of trying to build a truly progressive, grassroots alternative
to the mainstream political parties. Unfortunately, I quickly learned that
many in the tiny party wanted a party that was not a party, an organization
that would not organize and a leader who would not lead. Disillusioned with
other political parties, they were understandably wary of anything that
could be construed to be hierarchy or bureaucracy. To the party’s disadvantage
and my frustration, this translated into a distrust of initiative, which
resulted in lack of action and in endless conflicts about structure and
Feeling virtually alone in my desire to build the party from the bottom-up
and tired of butting my head against a wall of testosterone, I once again
cut my losses and resigned, disillusioned by the party’s lack of ability
to walk its talk, in spite of some wonderful policies and dedicated people.
I tried to write a book about the experience, but soon realized that the
experience had taught me something important, in the same way my brief school
teaching career had done: I had learned that only when we have truly rejected
the top-down model of ideological change will we be able to concentrate
on building sustainable alternatives.
And surprise, surprise, I realized that I had known the source of the
problem – and hence the solution – all along! One of our most revered and
supposedly democratic institutions uses the tool of compulsion to subject
children to a standardized curriculum, molds them into obedient consumers
and fits them into their places in the hierarchy, leaving few of them able
to do anything except keep paddling. So I ended up back where I had started
from – thinking and writing about children and how we can best equip them
to save the world, or at least to live happily and productively in it. The
green politics book I was trying to write quickly became Challenging Assumptions in Education
– from Institutionalized Education to a Learning Society (2000,
The Alternate Press).
In 2002, I decided that the time was ripe to launch a magazine on the
subject of what I was, by that time, unwilling calling unschooling. We named
it Life Learning, and the phrase quickly began to be used as a substitute
for “unschooling” and “radical unschooling” by those who were, like me,
uncomfortable with a term that was non-descriptive at best and negative
at worst. In 2009, I edited an anthology of essays from the magazine entitled
Life Learning: Lessons from the Educational
Frontier (2008, The Alternate Press). Over the years, the
magazine and its website have nurtured an international community of wonderful
readers and writers who believe children learn best without coercion, and
based on their own interests, motivations, and timetables.
* * * * *
In the mid-2000s, a PhD student successfully defended her thesis entitled
Reflections on Homeschooling, Mothering and Social Change: The Life History
of Wendy Priesnitz. However, neither my life nor my work in support
of homeschooling, mothering, and social change are over! My mission for
the next decade involves using traditional networking, social networking
technologies, and the printed word to continue to influence both parents
and educators to support children and young people as they educate themselves
about the world and rescue it from the mess this and previous generations
have made of it.
is an editor, book author, journalist, former broadcaster, and mother of
two adult daughters. She is the owner of
Life Media, which she co-founded with
her husband Rolf in 1976 to publish books and magazines. She is recognized
as a pioneer in self-directed education, independent publishing, environmentally
sustainable business practices, and home-based business. Her work is rooted
in her experience of motherhood, which taught her about the emotional, social,
cultural, economic, educational, and environmental responsibilities involved
with bringing a child into this world. A prolific writer who has penned
thousands of articles and radio and television scripts, in addition to tweleve
books, Wendy edits Life Learning
Magazine as well as Natural
Life Magazine, Child's Play
Magazine, and Natural Child
Magazine. An earlier version of this memoir appears in the book
Points: 27 Visionaries in Education Tell Their Own Stories.