Guest Post: The Future of Unschooling by Jeff Landale

I found this post to be very relevant personally, as when I received it a couple of nights ago I was in the middle of writing in my unschooling book about how we present unschooling, and how I feel we often sell it short, in not recognizing how much of a truly radical impact it could have...  I feel that Jeff really illustrates some interesting and important points here, and I hope you like this post as much as I do!

The New York Times had an article it published earlier this year, titled “After Home Schooling, Pomp and Traditional Circumstances”, which, in my mind, illustrated a few of the dangers alternative education movements can encounter as they grow, and also some roadblocks to a greater role these movements can take in transforming the world. The article describes 26 Floridian homeschoolers participating in a graduation ceremony, saying that “just as more home-school families now join co-ops offering weekly field trips and chemistry labs or use the local public school for sports, band or a class, so too do many of them embrace all the trappings of graduation season.” While I don’t want to deny parents the joy of seeing their child participate in a ritual marking their entry into the world (especially given the overall lack of rituals we have in our world), I hesitate when I see alternative education taking the same path that alternative music took in the 90s: a different surface aesthetic, but fundamentally following the same model as what it was ostensibly supposed to be an alternative to.

The article describes how each graduate was given a “Certificate of Completion”, speeches were given, photographs were taken of the graduates in gowns and those square hats with the tassels, so that the homeschoolers can say “I graduated, just like everybody else.” Homeschooling, for these homeschoolers and their parents, seems to be a way of schooling, just by other means: parents instead of teachers, a graduation at the zoo instead of the gymnasium, and so on. By wanting to participate in the cultural touchstone of a graduation ceremony, these homeschoolers are still allied to the ethos of school. There is thus only a superficial rejection of schooling, because the school is simply reconstructed at home. For the students and parents, this can make a huge difference in their lives, but structurally things are the same. Homeschooling, in this way, is a private affair, and a private decision, with no implicit or explicit social ramifications.

While this article does not make a big deal about the pros and cons of homeschooling (Will they be socialized? Will they have friends? How will they live in the real world? Will they learn anything?), it does open up the possibility that these questions are increasingly becoming an irrelevant distraction for people interested in truly radical alternative modes of education. If homeschoolers spend so much time and effort imitating the rituals, structures, symbols, and outcomes of industrialized compulsory education, if homeschoolers work hard to be able to answer the mind-numbing litany of inquiries into the success of homeschooling, then homeschooling itself will be nothing more than school outside of the school building.

And this is where Unschooling comes in. Unschooling runs the same risk of becoming superficially different while structurally similar to the forms of education and learning which we are aiming to break free from. Unschooling as a pedagogical philosophy has the advantage of being able to differentiate itself from both industrial schooling and homeschooling, but only if it differentiates itself critically, and not merely superficially. What are the structural changes we want to see in our lives as a result of Unschooling? What kind of relationship do we want with learning? What are the social changes that would inevitably result from Unschooling, if the logic of the philosophy was allowed to unfurl itself completely?

Writers like John Taylor Gatto (Dumbing Us Down) and Ivan Illich (Deschooling Society) showed not only how schooling damages individuals, but also how it supports so many of the oppressive and exploitative aspects of our society. If we find ourselves engaging in radical modes of alternative education which don’t inherently challenge and disrupt crucial aspects of the world, then we should be concerned that we are actually reproducing the same structures which Unschooling was originally supposed to allow us to escape from. Thus, rather than having Unschooling be that thing which isn’t school or homeschooling, we should have Unschooling be something which, while growing out of critiques of industrial schooling and its sibling, homeschooling, defined in terms of what it allows us to become, and how it allows us to change the world. And this means that in a lot of cases, we should simply disengage from conversations with Unschoolers and with all of those annoying talking heads on TV who ask over and over again whether Unschooling will create the same sort of individuals as school does (except smarter, and harder working, or whatever). With the legal status of Unschooling being mostly settled in the United States and Canada, now might be the time to stop reassuring others and ourselves that Unschooling won’t screw up lots of kids, and start focusing on how self-directed learning can lead to, and be a part of, much broader social movements throughout the globe.

Jeff Landale is an elementary school drop out currently studying Politics and Classics at Simon's Rock College in scenic Great Barrington, Massachusetts. Ostensibly, he is writing an undergraduate thesis on Unschooling and its role in emancipatory struggles, but in reality he spends his time thinking about Indian food. He can be reached at jefflandale@gmail.com

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