Category Archives: Unschool

People Don’t Understand Schooling

In relatively recent news, a high school valedictorian really criticized the nature of compulsory schools, and advocated a changed system of choice and autonomy. In response, I have seen many people say that she was wrong for this, and that although schools aren’t perfect, they do serve a great goal of educating all citizens. When people are critical of compulsory schooling, the response is generally this, “So what, you’re against education? You’re defending ignorance, and blind rebellion.”

No. People like myself, those proposing alternative free schools/democratic schools/holistic schools, or the “Valedictorian [who] speaks out against schooling,” are not against education or learning. We are against compulsory schooling. There is a difference between all these things. Learning is a process, or experience, that leads to education – the acquisition of knowledge. Schooling is a system, a specific environment (school) in which the acquisition of specific subjects and information is obligated to take place at specific times with specific outcomes for all. People against this system realize and propose that learning is not as narrow as we think it is. Learning is not something only invoked in a controlled environment. It happens outside of school buildings. It happens on the internet. It happens in a conversation, on a trip, or through reading a book. People against schooling encourage learning, not by the force of standards, curriculum, or career prospects, but rather, through will and intrinsic motivation. External motivation can be a jump-start toward a goal, but is only valuable up to a limited point. In order to learn and succeed, one seriously has to want the end result.

People also try to argue that without school, there would be no base of knowledge to rely on, and that people would be clueless and ignorant. This would be true – before the advent of the internet, and global electronic communication. In his “Open Letter to Educators,” Dan Brown highlights a great point that many people miss when they defend schools – facts are no longer restricted to schools or things such as physical libraries. We are reaching a point in our existence in which holding in all those facts is not necessary to survive in society. We have that breadth of information available to us for free AT places like libraries, and we can pay to buy laptops and internet connections at home. All cell phones now feature internet access. You can read news papers on smart phones, and phones such as the Black Berry have built in dictionary searches. Now sure, we are in the early stages of this eworld of information and communication, but we can only move forward. Point is, as the world of information and communication opens up for free more and more, the need to go to compulsory school to learn a base of knowledge will be useless. In a sense, it already is, but the government pitifully tries to hold to standards and rigid expectations of how information needs to be obtained, and where. People against schools realize that education is a free form occurrence hardly dependent on a physical space to learn in UNTIL you need to specialize, as with higher education. So schools are only necessary for depth, not breadth, and in lieu with the previous paragraph, that breadth is only meaningful if it is brought about by personal will and interest.

“Shakespeare is the greatest playwright. Everyone should read his work.” “Students need the classics. Students must be well rounded.” Humans are specializers, not generalizers. What use is it for our society to function, for everyone to be required to know the same amounts of things at the same time? Especially when much of this information is now readily accessible, and when people are expected to go off to study and work on what they care about anyway. Some people really like cooking, others really like math, or buildings things, and there are artists and writers. Some people like money and the way economics works. We all have inclinations and talents that push us one way or another. Although standardization’s goal is to have everyone learn the same thing and be on the same path for average knowledge, it fails because again, everyone is different and has a brain for grabbing different information, and it is not necessary to be standardized in “the real world.” The only place in which standardization and not deviating from the norm is valuable is in industrial, “blue collar” jobs, and at the typical “desk job.” But as more technology takes the place of human labor in these areas, creativity and innovation is needed more and more for the eworld of communication and exploration, for space exploration, for art jobs, for new technology, for architecture, for industrial DESIGN. Increased and changing aesthetics and efficiency is very valuable for the new way of society. The government mistakenly thinks that more standardization and indoctrination into our society of information is what will bring about innovators in these fields, but freedom and intrinsic motivation is more important. People need room to breathe, think and experiment outside of standard ways of doing things in order for the tweaks and creativity necessary for our lives to be enhanced. Change does not always come from standardization and knowing the same things. Those opposed to schooling see the detriment of standardization that is praised and enforced on the impressionable youth of our rapidly changing society.

Now, those opposed to standardization do not deny structure, for the most part. Humans are very sensitive and complex beings, and as our societies advance, we must deal with equally complex and sensitive systems. Having a certain amount of structure and familiar procedures in our daily lives can actually have us prepared to think outside the norm. Routines are valuable, but again, in most situations, being standardized in the same way becomes a problem. In many situations, having a variety of personality types and thinkers is critical to problem solving. One major qualm that opponents of compulsory schooling have is that uniform standardization does not prepare youth for the random occurrences of “real time” and “the real world.” The government needs to loosen up or break down the standards, allowing enough diversity of thought and action to penetrate school relationships and actions. Standardization does not take emotional and behavioral factors into account. School is often too much of a controlled environment, far different for what happens in the various environments outside of school. While standardization works for this environment, once youth move on to a different stage, or even a different controlled environment, such as college or a job, the rules change, and many are left unprepared to adjust quickly and appropriately, after 12 years of the same methods and treatment.

Another thing defenders of school don’t realize is that everyone is different. Now this seems obvious, but when you look at the nature of compulsory schools, the goal is to have everyone be the same in what they know or aspire to do. Government standards invariably describe what each student should know at each stage of the schooling system and process. It also sets the prescription of what level they should understand the favored information. Advocates of alternatives and learner centered education assert that this isn’t possible, and since the standardization of schooling, it doesn’t appear that the model student is ever lived out truly. It can appear as if standards work because many people graduate from the school system. However, democratic and alternative education advocates don’t see that as a success. Most students save for the valedictorian and a group of contenders probably did the basics to get by, or more realistically, performed at various levels of competence while still meeting the basics of the standards. In “low performing” schools, students get by to the next grade automatically, whether they individually meet the standard or not. People opposed to schooling assert and show through various alternative school models and programs, that learning and education takes place on a case by case basis. People learn in various ways, on various levels. Just look at multiple intelligence theory, emotional intelligence, and learning style theory. People have the aptitude and competence for some areas over others, and demonstrate their education in different ways. This intellectual diversity is crucial to innovation and creative developments, and trying to marginalize this leads to a lessening of creativity and out-of-the-box thinking.

Then there is the argument that, “If it was left up to me at that age [high school, middle school, etc.] I would have sat around and done nothing.” Now, this argument holds some weight and validity. Most youth as they get older in the schooling system probably would do nothing for a while if they suddenly stopped schooling. Actually, many youth do that while they are IN school, and IN a classroom. When a teacher is absent, the class slumps into apathy. On school breaks, students forget everything and they seek opportunities to play and do things relevant to them. The argument goes awry however, because of the reason for this apathy. Think about the lower grades, and children. Years of being told what, how, when, where, and why to learn have not settled into to these youths minds. What to THEY do when given a break? They play, explore, and discover. They are prone to asking more questions, and engaging in conversations about fantasy and possibility that lead them to wonder about life and the world around them. The very young are always looking to discover something that captures their interest. They may not go for depth right away, but they do search a wide array of things until eventually something does stick. But over time of having the learning process being decided for you by everyone but yourself, it starts to sink in that discovering things on your own is not possible, and maybe even useless in the face of the agenda set before you. When a youth seeks to learn something outside of the curriculum, it often is penalized and scorned as “slacking off.” Extracurriculars not done for college resume one-upmanship are also seen as useless. After having your outer school goals and interests put down continually, the experience can lead to apathy, a sort of learned helplessness brought about by lack of autonomy. Youth have no meaningful or powerful stake in their education. Proponents of alternative education assert that youth should have more to input.

This ties into the rebellion argument, saying that those against schooling are romanticizing opposition to authority, and encouraging rebellion for rebellion sake. This is far from the reality of views on this topic. Many, if not all alternatives usually seek to create an environment of empowerment and having a stake in choices made in ones life. Through learner choice and voice in education, students gain responsible freedom and understanding of their personal goals and desires. Many alternatives seek to create an environment of inquisition, in which students don’t take rules and those doling them out at face value. At democratic schools for instance, students vote on the rules of the school, and the hiring of staff. If offenses are committed, legitimate school trials are held to solve the matter and everyone present has say in how the conflict will be resolved. Often at these schools, other barriers such as age segregation are removed for more equality and realistic interactions. In unschooling, a form of homeschooling in which the youth has free reign and guidance from those around him or her to learn what he or she pleases, respect for the youth’s choices is a given. Again, running a muck with TV, video games, and apathy will most often occur in those who have been oppressed. It is a means of escape to finally do something, anything, of your own will before you have to go back to doing merely what you are told and expected to do. Now, for most who have been in the compulsory system, giving power to youth seems silly, but think about the society we live in. Isn’t the United States a democracy? Isn’t this country founded upon the motto of  “power to the people,” and “individual liberty?” Those against schooling argue that compulsory and standardized schools do not allow the freedom of choice and the power of voice necessary to raise citizens of a democracy. They are in opposition to the blatant authoritarianism and top down lack of freedom inherent in most schools.

Many arguments against the learner centered approach are weak if thoroughly examined. I make this bold claim because the rhetoric for their arguments often goes towards the easiest assertions based on the way things were in the past. We need basic facts and skills – but they don’t only come from schools. Technology has changed this access. Most kids would do nothing if given a chance to learn – only if their personal attempts to learn and discover are thwarted by the expectations and systems of those with power. You just want a rebellion – only if that’s what it takes to give youth the early experiences with power, choice, and autonomy necessary for democracy. People won’t even know what the basics are without school’s telling us what the basics are – as if we don’t realize that you cannot get along in modern society without reading, writing, comprehension, and basic math. Kids can’t just learn by themselves – as if parents, books, the internet, libraries, friends, mentors, internships, community organizations, tools and materials don’t exist or cannot be found without school.

Lastly let’s take a look AT computers and AT the internet. Who really taught those who grew up in the information age how to use the internet? Aside from educational games and sparse typing courses, many of use have self taught when it came to the internet, and we still do it. When the latest operating system comes out, do you learn how to use it at school? No, you need to get a feel for it and read the instructions on your own. Do teachers make you learn how to host a website, or do you delve into instructions, css, and html on your own? Is it necessary for everyone to know html and css to navigate the Internet at this point? Not really. Do you need to be a computer programmer to run anti-virus software? No. These are some of the most complex systems in our society, and we have come a long way through experimentation, with some taking interest in more complex parts of the system, and learning along the way. Education is a process and an experiment. It is not final or fixed, and that is what those against schooling really stand for.


The *Right* to be Forced to go to School

Does the right to a formal and compulsory education make any sense at all? Even if you claim you’re doing it in the person’s best interests (assuming you know what that person’s interests and desires are), that doesn’t put the person in any sort of choice in the matter. So what is a right? A dictionary definition of a right is: Conforming with or conformable to justice, law, or morality.


Rights obviously aren’t what I thought they were. I thought a right was a choice, you know, like the right to remain silent before you are put on trial for something (which has to do with the law doesn’t it?).

Here is an unnecessarily long confusing “legal” definition:

In an abstract sense, justice, ethical correctness, or harmony with the rules of law or the principles of morals. In a concrete legal sense, a power, privilege, demand, or claim possessed by a particular person by virtue of law.

So people can only live by the rules of law even if what they would do otherwise is totally harmless to the life and well being of other citizens. By choosing to be self educated in any way not authorized by government regulation then, a person is not acting in accordance to the law. OOOOhhhhh, so that’s why people can be fined or jailed for not sending youth to school. That’s why “unschoolers” have to dive under the ruse of a government authorized homeschooling license in order to allow themselves to grow learn and develop in unhindered ways.

If people simply allowed youth to just grow up and learn from their parents and outer community, from visiting museums and libraries and other places, by choice of desiring such experience, they are being unlawful, and therefore punishment is necessary.

Is this good and fair, especially to young children who have no idea of what they are being put into – no chance to grow and make some sort of decisions on their own? And no, school is the LAST place where you learn to make your own choices. In school everyone BUT YOU matters:

When it comes to time

When it comes to food

When it comes to the people you’re with half the day

When it comes to receiving information and knowledge

There are NO choices.

This same concept is now slowly being applied to college attendance. Oh sure, you don’t HAVE to go to college, but if you don’t you will be deemed incompetent  and rejected by “potential employers.” You will be shunned by all of your closest friends and family for not having obtained the highest honor in the United States – more certification to prove to others that you are worthwhile.

Or this get up for boys: It’s either college or the military! People are so used to a lack of choice and a lack of creativity that they say these sorts of things often. And that’s another thing, why do men HAVE to sign up to kill other people, even if they may not want to? Why do they get in trouble if they don’t? So what, they have the RIGHT to sign up to kill?

Are these “rights” safeguards? Do they really help advance humanity? Oh let’s force everyone to do what we the government wants them to do. That way we increase the chances that they will do it better and the way we want them to, in our own favor, and a bit in their own favor over time. And what’s the favor? The accumulation of money, credit (digital or otherwise), and wealth!!! That’s why we have systems in which the citizens must go through long trials of providing ever-increasing proof that they are worthwhile according to the standards WE set for them! Glorious intangible money dressed up as something actually there to guide our tangible lives by! The global economy! The American dream! And besides, we can’t possibly be acting wrong because they have CHOICES! They could have voted us out if they weren’t pleased! They have inalienable RIGHTS, which really means they have the inalienable opportunity to act in accordance to the ever changing laws that we hold over their lives!

Maybe I’m taking this out of context. Maybe these rights ensure that I really do get happiness. Maybe war is good and necessary to solve our complex problems. Maybe choice doesn’t exist, especially for the youth! By being young, foolish and unaware of life in any way beyond my own, I deserved to have things imposed on me beyond basic necessities. I deserved not to be taken seriously or have a say in my life. Now that I’m an adult I shouldn’t fret because I finally get the choices I was never allowed to make (except  drinking, in which I must be a slightly OLDER adult to have the “right” to participate in). By going to school for twelve years and receiving lessons against my will, things that have no effect on my memory, learning to follow the will of authorities often seen to be incompetent and intolerant of other views, I can flourish into a respectful and accomplished citizen. I am equipped with the tools to provide a comfortable life for myself physically, emotionally, morally and intellectually because of this. And now I am grateful to go to school some more (with a few freedoms now) to improve upon this and contribute to the nation. Gee, I sure do have a lot to learn about the democracy I live in. With all of this inherent undeniable freedom I have clearly missed the points!

I’m not asking for perfection – but is reasonable improvement too much to ask for?

“The Apple and the Arrow” – Freedom and Schooling Pt.3

Ridicule and Ridiculous Tasks

In the middle of the story, William and Walter leave the inn and are walking through the village when they see a man bow before a hat on a pole. It is a “ducal hat” representing King Albrecht’s Austrian heritage. William feels that the man is acting lowly for bowing. He proudly walks by the pole and the soldiers stop him. They feel that he is being disrespectful for not bowing. William explains to the men that he is a “man of peace” and also finds it unnecessary to bow before mere cloth. The men try to make William bow. They put force against him and Walter and call them “braggarts and fools.” People of the town gather and eventually Governor Gessler comes.

Gessler’s first strategy was reverse psychology and he tried to paint a picture William as being too snooty to bow before his leaders. William resisted and insulted Gessler by saying he is a “man of peace” and that he will only bow humbly before true nobles and people that deserve respect like the holy men “and the good Lord himself.” This causes villagers to shout insults to Gessler, causing him to move on to his next strategy – the ridiculous task. He highlights William’s archery skills and challenges him to shoot an apple on Walter’s head. This puts villagers in a state of fear and even William feels weakened by this challenge, even calling Gessler “my lord” to give in, but Walter encourages him to go through with the task.

This scene reminds me of what happens at school when students stand up for themselves or others. The first thing the person in power will do is try to twist the students motives around with a “but I thought you were,” or, “it seems to me” sort of statement. Or the adult may try to forcibly move the student away from where they were. If the student untrips the statement the adult scrambled and students notice, thus rallying around with their full attention, then the teacher will resort to “making an example” out of the student for all to see. He or she will either give a authoritative speech, glare at the student, send them to a corner, or present a “prove how big you are” challenge that they hope the student will slip up on so that other students will know better than to challenge he or she next time. More often than not, the student will choke up and not know what to say under the intense stare, they back down, or they screw up on the challenge causing his or her peers to laugh or take pity while the act of oppression flies straight over their heads.

William suceeded and everyone cheered and called him a hero. If the student succeeds at proving themselves to the teacher or administrator, there is cheer, but just like Gessler in the story, that adult will keep going with more distracting tasks until the youth is put in their place. After the applause Gessler prodded on and it was discovered that William hid a second arrow to kill Gessler if he shot his son, Gessler sent William off to be imprisoned and finally made an example of him.

The Daring Few

Although William is captured he manages to retain enough ingenuity to still resist in any way he could. Very few students are like William. The only youth who would resist harsh treatment may only be those from non-restrictive schools, like democratic schools, or unschoolers and worldschoolers. Essentially this resistance can only come from people who are used to more freedom and independence in life, like William. When people grow up thinking for themselves and being largely responsible for making choices, they are better at critical thinking and coming up with innovative self-preserving solutions.

Into the Storm, the Mess Schools are in

Gessler and his soldiers are preparing to ship William off in chains on a lake that goes toward the castle. They notice that it is raining in the distance and that the waves look really high. “There were many hidden rocks, men said, where boats had sunk.” The soldiers expressed their concerns, but Gessler, intent on carrying out authority at all times remarked, “‘Enter the boats, men, and let us be off!'” Immediately they are out on violent waves, making them sick to the point of vomiting. For a while they go on like this until one soldier, Peter, pleads to let William, who knows the waters well and is not sick, to man the ship. One soldier’s pleas were not enough and so the few others present rally around Peter’s cause. Gessler is very sick at this point and allows them to unchain William.

I am not sure yet of who was doubtful of compulsory schooling and why, but as we can see, laws were passed and the system was carried into being. The state of this system today is like the storm Gessler ordered his soldiers into. We all know that things aren’t working in public schools (the world of private traditional education remains hidden to me at least). The testing, competition, and factory style course systems are wreaking havoc on students, teachers and parents emotionally and psychologically. There are constant waves of layoffs and budget and program cuts out here in California. The drop-out rates are not improving and there’s even talk about the “school to prison pipeline” for underachieving students in disadvantaged low income areas. We’re in peril, but it seems that the government wants to cover up this storm. People speak about education reform, but all I hear from such reformers is talk about charter schools, more discipline, competition, and more assessment or accountability. I only hear about using schools as preparation for yet another level in the future, rather than living life for what it is today. College. The workplace. Jobs. Money. That’s all the government cares about when it comes to school.

The Peter’s of this situation would be those of us who care about reform for the sake of the learner, not the institution and powers that be; we want dignity for the youth. We understand what is happening and in ways that go unnoticed, we plea for true change. Education is not about money or global schemes – education is about education. It is about practical life experiences and meeting friends and mentors along the way in developing a learner’s interests and inclinations. So now I ask, where are our other soldiers to rally with us? Alternative education is a fairly populated but slow moving movement that needs to be dropped on more ears, placed before more eyes, and ignited in more hearts.

Summary of things that can Help

Democratic Education And Free Schools

  • The personalized and dynamic nature of democratic education makes it difficult to define. There is no “accepted” definition of what exactly democratic education means (and, in our opinion, we hope no authority ever presumes to claim an exact definition). However, it might help to provide a brief description of what it is not as well as varying perspectives on what it is. Democratic education, as we see it and in the context of this directory, does not refer to an authoritarian approach involving a hierarchical structure and pre-determined course-work designed to create “citizens of a democracy.”
  • Democratic education is an educational approach grounded in respect for human rights and a broad interpretation of learning, in which young people have the freedom to organize their daily activities, and in which there is equality and democratic decision-making among young people and adults.

– A.E.R.O.

Specialized Schools

  • Schools that have their curriculum concentrated into one or a few fields and crafts, such as science or art.

Homeschooling or Unschooling

  • Homeschooling is when parents take charge of teaching their children. The trickiness with this type of education is that if the parents have been traditionally schooled, the child will suffer under some rigidity (required textbooks, or even insistence on taking tracking tests). There is also the slight concern that the parents may only be schooling their kids as a means to impose their own ideals and beliefs onto them, which doesn’t really help a child’s intellectual growth or social maturity. If homeschooling is taken liberally, and is not always conducted at home then that’s great. Even the parents can learn at that point.
  • Which leads to my next explanation: unschooling. This is “homeschooling” generally, but it is “child-led.” The kids make up their day in terms of what they’d like to discover or learn. Parents and others available, including fellow children then proceed to give the learner guidance. The things unschoolers do are different from person to person, even within the same household. It’s for all ages, and in the end gets counted down as life experience.

Holistic Education

  • Holistic education aims to nurture and develop the varied but interrelated capacities of the human being .  Thus while it addresses the intellectual development, it is equally concerned about the child’s development as a physical, emotional, artistic, social, moral, and spiritual being.  It aims to create a person who is well-rounded — in a broad sense — healthy, a human being who has developed each aspect of his or her humanity.  The aim of holistic education is not merely to fill the child with information, to develop academic  and job skills, and to prepare the child to fit into the prevailing economic and social system.  Rather it is to help the young person develop into a free, creative, compassionate being who can participate fully in the life of the community.  — Dr. Ron Miller, Goddard College, VT
  • This is why since I am being pressured to go to college right away, Goddard is one of my main choices. They value liberal education and intellectual freedom and diversity.

Liberal Boarding Schools

  • The Highland School is the closest I can find to a liberal boarding school. The biggest issue with boarding schools is money. Since we unfortunately live in a world dominated by an infinite and constantly unattainable supply of this inanimate object, life must be a struggle. If boarding schools were free, as all education institutions should be, they would suck, because the government just can’t take on that much financial responsibility in the realms of education. If they were also tax (or tuition?) free, then they’d really suck, because people would not spend their time donating to the point that all boarding schools can be highly sophisticated.
  • Secondly, boarding schools have to be strict since, before the student arrived time management and responsibility was handled for them in k-x years of schooling. They wouldn’t know how to handle the freedom.
  • Plus sides: You’re more likely to achieve specialization at a boarding school. You eventually gain more maturity once you get used to being away from your parents. The curriculum is more mature. It’s like mini-college (although I detest what colleges have become, I do acknowledge that it’s better than anything traditional k-12 can provide enforce).

Elimination of standardized tests. Intelligence is NOT a sport…unless you’re on a debate team. Trivia retention is, but remembering trivia is not learning, but merely storing. Learning should not be a big competition, because naturally some people will be left out and ultimately deterred from learning and will lose faith in themselves. It’s inevitable that we will have an average person with limited ability or skill, but if testing and competing is eliminated that won’t be of concern. The real deal would thus become a task of working with what you have and accepting differences.

There’s more to think about of course, but I’ll leave my ideas and opinions for another day. Oh by the way, I am now an academic tutor for an elementary school. What a fateful opportunity to go back and see how things are going on the lower levels of traditional education. I’ll be reporting.

Update – 2010: There is also A.S. Neil’s Summer Hill School in the UK. It is another democratic boarding school. A great one at that, that I hear has really influenced democratic education here in the States.