Uncollege, Hackschooling, and When Success and Profit Hijack the Message

I've been grumbling and grumping periodically (on the blog Facebook page, Twitter, and other online haunts) about the problems I have with the uncollege/education hacking movements for over a year now. People have reacted differently, some saying I'm being overly critical, some agreeing, and some just saying then WRITE something already explaining your stance instead of just complaining! Those latter people are probably right, in that perhaps it would have been a good idea to write about that ages ago, but at the same time, I don't think the timing was right. I haven't been in quite the right head-space.

I finally got the push I needed when I read a post a few days ago by Jessica over at College Rebellion. Several things came together: that post, the post she links (When "Life Hacking" is Really White Privilege, which I read a month or two ago and which has really stuck with me), and a quote I remembered posting many months ago. Suddenly it wasn't just that I felt vaguely uncomfortable almost every time I read something about uncollege or education hacking, now I had an actual post in my head. A place to start.

"Everybody, and I mean EVERYBODY, [is] jumping on the 'self-directed learning' bandwagon these days.

And they are bringing to it all the same old bullshit - children who are 'more'. More curious, more motivated, more more more.

So let me put my position out there. For me this lifestyle is about a principle and that alone - offering as free a life as possible to my children and myself. It's not about making a little super genius, super diverse interest, super engaged human. These children are not circus performers. So stop showcasing who did what at the youngest age, who gives the best TED teen presentations and not think that to me it will look no different except now the child is at home.

Unschooling, self-directed lives, natural learning, call it what you want. If it's 'about' results then it's not my cup of tea. Into flow or no expectations? Then I can engage even if the flow includes results." -Gillian Goddard
I think expecting that once grown someone has the skills to support themselves  is reasonable (if there are jobs to be had, and if disability, mental illness, or other serious things don't impede someone's ability to do that... So even that expectation isn't cut and dried). Nevertheless this perfectly highlights, to me, one of the biggest problems I feel there is with the uncollege type movement.

People have taken a philosophy about learning more freely, a philosophy that should be exciting and comforting at the same time (following what interests you, combined with the comfort of choosing how much or little you feel able to do, free from the stress of a heavy college course load), and turned it into just the newest way to claw your way up the corporate ladder, become a wealthy entrepreneur, or otherwise become "successful" by the most capitalistic measures out there.

Who are they speaking to?

I say "movements," plural, in this post because it isn't necessarily one movement, but a collection of trends moving in generally the same direction, that share a lot of commonalities in attitudes and views.

Generally, there's lots of talks about how college is a waste of time and money; college is conventional and makes someone boring, and to truly stand out from the crowd you should do impressive things instead (like travel the world or start a business); corporations prefer people who are involved with business from a young age instead of going to college; you'll learn more than your peers in college; the way of the future is technology, and schools are outdated and lacking in technology...

A couple of those I agree with (like the fact that college is really ridiculously expensive in some parts of the world, and most definitely in the US, for instance, though it's not as bad where I live), but many other seem like pretty bad points, to be honest, and points that only seem especially relevant to a select group of people.

While not going to college is cheaper than going, for many people doing anything but directly entering the job market is a struggle. Many people don't come from families where parents can support either college or expensive travel adventures, for instance.

Underpinning at least my understanding of unschooling has always been life learning as a, perhaps, liberatory approach to education. An unschooling influenced by Wendy Priesnitz' talk of life learning as an important part of saving our planet and re-imagining ways of living together, and unschooling as an important part of decolonization. The uncollege-and-hacking-your-education movements don't even seem to realize social inequalities exist, or if they do they don't seem to care. Ignoring the existence of institutionalized inequalities doesn't erase them, it just means that those considered the default, those already most privileged in our society, continue to be those best served by an oblivious or uncaring movement: white, male, straight, middle and upper class. No, not everyone involved falls into those categories. But everything I've seen seems to show that many people involved fall into at least a couple of those, and that there's very little to no representation from those most marginalized.

In prioritizing corporate and business ideas of success above any type of societal shift for a more just, more egalitarian, more sustainable world, I think it's clear that this movement isn't and has never been for everyone. It's just a new way for those already in the lead (of a race that was rigged to start with) to pull even further ahead.

Money talks


With the surge in popularity for unschooling, uncollege, hacking your education, edupunking, the whole learning-more-independently-outside-of-educational-institutions thing, there's been a corresponding surge in people trying to make money off of this trend. A "trend-spotting firm" (something that, until very recently, I did not know existed) even predicted recently that unschooling counselor will be one of "8 new jobs people have in 2025." I think it's fair to say that job already exists, with numerous people offering unschooling and uncollege coaching over phone, Skype, and through online programs. New events and alternative programs claiming to support this type of education are popping up all over the place.

I don't think this is necessarily bad in and of itself. In fact, in plenty of cases this is a good thing! But it does point to a worrying trend of both turning unschooling into yet another specialty held by experts, and something you need to pay for to receive, instead of something everyone can do without any type of expert intervention (finances to have the time to pursue education permitting).

It also leads to some people misrepresenting their credentials, their success, and their experience in order to take advantage of a new market. I often feel like those claiming to want to help the unschooling or uncollege community--for a fee, of course--are far less concerned with helping and far ore concerned with that fee. Who's genuine and reasonable when it comes to the numerous books, programs, and coaching available is, of course, something each individual can only decide for themselves. If you trust someone, can afford their services, and gain positive things from it, that's great! And if you love something you're knowledgeable about and want to help support yourself through the sharing of that knowledge, I also don't think there's anything wrong with that. I'd just like to see maybe a bit more accountability to the community, and more openness about an individual's experience and troubles. If someone's life seems too good to be true, it might be because it isn't true.

Either way, I find it alarming that unschooling is being turned into a commodity, information and expertise to be bought and sold, instead of a free-form philosophy about living and learning.

I've never felt like there's much room for me

I'm not attending college or university, and I never have attended any type of educational institution. So initially, I got excited about all this new stuff. I joined groups on Facebook, followed blogs, read articles. And quickly started feeling disillusioned. Nowhere was I seeing the concern for humanity as a whole I was more used to seeing in unschooling circles. I was just seeing a lot of Success! And tech! And success in tech! And entrepreneurship! Business is good! I saw posts suggesting pursuing learning in ways that didn't appeal to me at all, grand adventures that I'd never want to go on (and in fact with my struggles with anxiety probably couldn't go on without suffering a breakdown) and couldn't afford. I didn't feel like my anxious queer hippie feminist self had a place in that movement at all, and I still don't.

Not a condemnation

All that said, I think the college-free movements have helped popularize some important ideas. I think popular advocates have said plenty of good and helpful things. I think plenty of people have gotten a lot of good out of being a part of these movements. I don't think they should cease to exist. I just think there are a lot of largely unacknowledged problems, big blind spots, and goals I can never get behind. I want to like seeing unschooling ideas for college aged people getting so much attention and support, but I just feel uneasy and uncomfortable by so much of it that I see and read. And I really just hope to see more awareness in the future of social realities, and goals more closely aligned with the true success of all people, not just the wealthiest, whitest, most male of the lot.

[Edited March 19th] The note about comments that was originally posted here was taken by some as an attempt to dissuade criticism or disagreement with this post, which was not my intent at all. So instead I'd just like to remind people, when discussing this potentially loaded topic, to please remain respectful in the comment section, and to note that I will be moderating it and deleting hostile/disrespectful comments. Thank you for your understanding!

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