I Do Have a Problem with Authority. I'm Just Not Convinced That's a Bad Thing.

A common criticism of unschooling is that "those kids" will never learn to respect authority. My reaction tends to be well, if so, is that really a bad thing?

Automatic respect for authority shouldn't be the goal

Why on earth should respecting authority, just because it's authority, be a good thing? That type of attitude leads people to stand passively by while great wrongs are committed, because they're being committed by people and institutions in positions of power. It's an attitude that leads to the continuation of existing oppression and marginalization, a continuation of the current status quo, simply because it's maintained by those with the greatest authority. It leads to individuals not speaking up when they feel they're personally being treated unfairly, or when they have ideas of how to do things better. It leads to people sticking with the path they're told is the best or only way to do things, instead of standing up to authority and building alternatives.

Basic respect for each other as human being is important. But beyond that, respect needs to be earned, needs to be built through solid relationships and trust. No one deserves widespread respect just because of the position they hold.

Change--positive, real change--only happens when people are forming their own opinions and making their own choices, and working with others to make their ideals a reality, instead of just following authority.

Important life skills include learning how to deal with people in positions of power or authority, and how to navigate hierarchies

This is true, I think, no matter your political views or educational choices (and these skills can definitely be learned without children having to be institutionalized in an authoritarian environment for 12+ years).

I may be an unschooler and an anarchist, but I am the most polite, calm person you will ever meet when dealing with people in positions of authority, from police, border guards, and airport security to bureaucrats with the power to deny me what I need. I can participate in traditional style classes with a teacher presiding over them with no problem. I rarely break rules. In fact, I've jokingly said that I'm the most rule-abiding anarchist I know (funny, but true)! I hate conflict, and hate making people unhappy. That should give you some idea of the reasons I was drawn to anarchist schools of thought (pardon the pun), namely that it wasn't a desire to rebel, break things, and piss people off, but instead because I strongly believe that humans are, at their core, cooperative social creatures capable of organizing in humane, non-hierarchical ways. I'm an anarchist because I believe that, given the right set of circumstances, people are basically good, and basically equipped to live well with others.

I've learned how to handle myself in situations where others have authority over me because it's an essential skill to have (more so even for groups of people frequently targeted with violence by police and vigilantes alike).

But, that doesn't mean I have to like it. It doesn't mean I can't or shouldn't be outraged that authority figures with guns regularly get away with shooting unarmed people, or that many other people can so easily be denied housing or healthcare because someone else (or an institutional someone else) decides to withhold it.

I'm distrustful of people who seek power over others

To me this seems a very reasonable and automatic response. I tend to assume people are drawn to professions and positions that give them power over others at least in part because they're drawn to power, which makes me wary. I learned this distrust young, and it's generally served me well. It leads me to trust people who are more trustworthy, namely those treat the people around them as equals, and allows me to avoid people who don't have such good intentions.

I really liked working in a coop. (Photo credit Kat, I think, from Le Milieu)

Does unschooling make us more sensitive to institutionalization and authoritarianism?

A friend tagged me in a post on Facebook ages ago, asking if fellow grown unschoolers also felt as sensitive to institutionalization as she did. She was wondering if that might be an effect of the lifestyle we grew up with. I didn't respond at the time, but that question lodged in my brain, and is something I've pondered quite a bit since then. It's certainly not the sole or only contributor, but I do wonder if my friend wasn't on to something. My sister can't watch, read, or listen to anything about prisons or similar forced confinement without crying. We both feel very, intensely aware of when another person has social or institutional power over us. We both feel very emotional about people being institutionalized in any way, about schools and a lot of workplaces and various other institutional environments. I can get distressed about that type of thing really easily, and having to deal with authority figures, people who feel they are somehow more important or more powerful than me, ties my stomach in knots.

The ideals I have and the types of communities I'm drawn to are in large part an instinctual draw to the exact opposite of the people and places that make me feel so deeply uncomfortable. Perhaps, had my childhood been different, I would have become more numbed to that discomfort, more used to others having intimate control over my life and my choices. Growing up the way I did, however, I know that there are better ways of doing things, starting with how we raise children.

Visions of a different world

One of the reasons I've remained so passionate about unschooling is because I genuinely feel that within this philosophy and way of life lies a lot of potential for beginning important change. I don't see it as an either or between a connected and social world of entrenched hierarchies and government on one side, and a rugged and violent individualism on the other. People can and already are organizing in cooperative and collectivist ways, while working to deconstruct social hierarchies and inequalities.

I see unschooling as a potential first step, where instead of being warehoused from a young age in an authoritarian environment, children are treated with a great deal of respect and kindness, and learn how to be in the world and live in community by doing so from a young age. It's certainly not a solution to all the world's problems in and of itself, but it does seem like a pretty good start.

We all have different skills to share, different strengths, and different experiences. This means that sometimes one person will be in a leadership position, and sometimes someone else will. It's only when a position becomes entrenched, when someone ceases to be a member of a community of equals and becomes, instead, an authority figure--someone with a heightened position of power and control--that I start to feel uncomfortable.

I believe strongly that there are better ways of organizing, living, and learning together than those currently found in the dominant culture. Unschoolers are just one group among many who are working to change the way we relate to and live with each other.

I will always strive to live in a way that's in line with my ideals of social justice and egalitarianism, which is why I'll continue to have a problem with authority. I just don't think that's such a bad thing.

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