June 2, 2009

Unschooling, like all methods of education, has its advantages and drawbacks – even for the student.

I can speak here only of first generation unschoolers; perhaps in thirty years I will have the perspective (and the children) necessary to discuss second generation unschooling, but for now I must restrict my inquiry for obvious reasons.

It is true that unschooling provides near-limitless opportunities to pursue one’s passions, and is consciously designed to promote the discovery and pursuit of that passion. It is also true, therefore, that one can come to excel in that field – clearly, as does anyone given an opportunity to explore a subject with great depth and breadth.

But these opportunities come at some price: with very few exceptions, unschoolers tend to be remarkably insecure about their education. This is not to say that they doubt the wisdom of their choice, but rather that it is a reflexive response to the endless implicit criticisms faced from all corners. This criticism comes in many forms, and is often neither ill-willed nor even necessarily intended as criticism. It is rather the product of people’s curiosity about a crucial life decision that varies greatly from their own. This powerfully reinforces an urge in the unschooler to strongly and eloquently defend their choice to self-educate. Unsatisfied with mere words, unschoolers tend to pursue academic (and athletic, and creative, and sometimes social) excellence, sometimes at the expense of a more balanced system. From this is drawn the archetype of the socially inept homeschooler – often one who has chosen academic or creative excellence, at the expense of social development.

Furthermore, and this is particularly the case with first-generation unschoolers, there is a sense of venturing into the unknown. Without suitable guides, the unschooler experiences the feeling that they face the oceanic prospect of exploring the entire corpus of human knowledge and human experience without any external recognition and feedback on their choices. Of course, this is a ludicrous sensation, because as humans we recieve detailed and subtle feedback at all times from all sources, including ourselves, but in the face of the external recognition awarded to members of more organized and entrenched institutions, it can be difficult to recognize this ludicrousness.

Of course, these difficulties can be surmounted. Not every unschooler chooses to forsake social interaction, and the oceanic feeling can be overcome, or can be turned into a strength rather than a weakness. The important realization is that they do exist, though. When one is actively practicing unschooling, it is nigh impossible to demolish the walls of dogma that secure one’s belief in the complete superiority of unschooling. In fact, it has taken me years – nearly three years in an entirely different environment – to recognize and come to terms with these shortcomings. I know that I would choose to unschool my children, given the chance, but I am glad to make the choice with eyes open, and to recognize that there remains a touch of humanity in unschoolers yet.


3 Responses to “Unschooling”

  1. Idzie Says:

    For the most part, and as an unschooler, I’d say I agree with you. However, I totally disagree with you on the social issue! I wouldn’t say that applies to any of the unschoolers I’ve met…

    I find it rather sad that what I see as the only problem with unschooling is external social pressure to “do well”, thus proving that unschooling really does “work”! That’s one thing I’m very determined to not let affect me personally…


  2. thehamp Says:

    Hi Idzie!

    Thanks for the comment – looking over your blog, I can see that you’ve thought a lot about this issue. If by “the social issue” you mean unschoolers with an absence of social development, I would like to clarify. I do not in any way believe that socially underdeveloped unschoolers are in any way typical of unschooling writ large. On the contrary, I agree with you: nearly all of the unschoolers I’ve met have been perfectly eloquent, outgoing, and friendly people.

    However, there is a small minority who are noteworthy for their social difficulty. They are no more statistically prevalent than socially challenged and challenging people from other backgrounds, but they are sufficiently high profile and abrasive, and they justify certain prejudices so effectively, that they have become the straw-man of choice for underinformed anti-unschooling viewpoints.

    I commend you for rejecting the aspiration to “do well.” As any unschooler eventually learns, there are far too many standards for judging excellence to satisfy all of them simultaneously. Choosing to follow your own passions and determine your own criteria for success – the true unschooler’s approach – is certainly a worthy choice.


  3. Idzie Says:

    Thanks for the clarification!

    Huh, I haven’t really encountered any “high profile and abrasive” unschoolers either, but perhaps I just haven’t been in the right place at the right time (the wrong place at the wrong time? :-P).


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