Dave Pollard's chronicle of civilization's collapse, creative works and essays on our culture.
A trail of crumbs, runes and exclamations along my path in search of a better way to live and make a living, and a better understanding of how the world really works.



April 25, 2009

An Unschooling Manifesto

Filed under: How the World Really Works — Dave Pollard @ 09:01


kelvin high school
a photo of my high school, c. 1969

In Grade 11, my second last year of high school, I was an average student, with marks in English in the mid 60% range, and in mathematics, my best subject, around 80%. Aptitude tests suggested I should be doing better, and this was a consistent message on my report cards. I hated school. As my blog bio explains, I was shy, socially inept, uncoordinated and self-conscious. My idea of fun was playing strategy games (Diplomacy and Acquire, for fellow geeks of that era — this was long before computer games or the Internet) and hanging around the drive-in restaurant.

Then in Grade 12, something remarkable happened: My school decided to pilot a program called “independent study”, that allowed any student maintaining at least an 80% average on term tests in any subject (that was an achievement in those days, when a C — 60% — really was the average grade given) to skip classes in that subject until/unless their grades fell below that threshold. There was a core group of ‘brainy’ students who enrolled immediately. Half of them were the usual boring group (the ‘keeners’) who did nothing but study to maintain high grades (usually at their parents’ behest); but the other half were creative, curious, independent thinkers with a natural talent for learning. The chance to spend my days with this latter group, unrestricted by school walls and school schedules, was what I dreamed of, so I poured my energies into self-study.

To the astonishment of everyone, including myself, I did very well at this. By the end of the first month of school my average was almost 90%, and I was exempted from attending classes in all my subjects. I’d become friends with some members of the ‘clique’ I had aspired to join, and discovered that, together, we could easily cover the curriculum in less than an hour a day, leaving the rest of the day to discuss philosophy, politics, anthropology, history and geography of the third world, contemporary European literature, art, the philosophy of science, and other subjects not on the school curriculum at all. We went to museums, attended seminars, wrote stories and poetry together (and critiqued each others’ work).

As the year progressed, the ‘keeners’, to my amazement, found they were struggling with this independence and opted back into the regular structured classroom program. Now our independent study group was a remarkable group of non-conformists, whose marks — on tests we didn’t attend classes for or study for — were so high that some wondered aloud if we were somehow cheating. My grades had climbed into the low 90% range, and this included English where such marks were rare — especially for someone whose grades had soared almost 30 points in a few months of ‘independent’ study. The fact is that my peers had done what no English teacher had been able to do — inspire me to read and write voraciously, and show me how my writing could be improved. My writing, at best marginal six months earlier, was being published in the school literary journal. On one occasion, a poem of mine I read aloud in class (one of the few occasions I actually attended a class that year) produced a spontaneous ovation from my classmates. 

The Grade 12 final examinations in those days were set and marked by a province-wide board, so universities could judge who the best students were without having to consider differences between schools. Our independent study group, a handful of students from just one high school, won most of the province-wide scholarships that year. I received the award for the highest combined score in English and Mathematics in the province — an almost unheard-of 94%.

The experience spoiled me for university — I graduated in two years, which was all I could bear, by taking extra courses and summer courses, just to get through it. And the independent study program, despite its extraordinary success, was not repeated in subsequent years. Part of the justification for the pilot program had been to free up teachers’ time to spend with students who needed more individual attention; yet the dubious reason we were given for its cancellation was that “it was unfair to deprive the average students of the presence and example of the more outstanding students”.

All this is by way of introduction to my thoughts on PS Pirro’s excellent new book on Unschooling, which is in effect what my belated “independent study” experience was an example of. Here’s an excerpt to give you a flavour of the book:

The world of the classroom is so unlike anything the real world has to offer – with the exception of other classrooms – that kids can excel at school only to find themselves utterly lost in the real world. Some people think this is the result of failed schooling, but a few of us suspect otherwise. We suspect that this sense of displacement and confusion is actually the result of schooling that succeeds in its most basic unwritten objective: to keep you dependent, timid, worried, nervous, compliant, and afraid of the World.  To keep you waiting. To keep you manageable. To keep you helpless. To keep you small.

Educated, confident, creative people are dangerous to the status quo, dangerous to a centralized economy, dangerous to a centralized system of command and control. Those in power don’t want you educated. They want you schooled.
 
It is not up to teachers or school administrators to figure out what you should be or do. It’s not up to the State, it’s not up to your guidance counselors. It’s not up to your parents. What you do with your life ought to be up to you. What you learn ought to be up to you.  How you navigate the world and create your place in it ought to be your decision. Your life belongs to you.  School does its best to disabuse you of this notion. Unschooling celebrates it. Unschooling puts the responsibility for creating a satisfying life squarely where it belongs: in the hands of the one living it.

PS presents 50 reasons why schooling is, in every imaginable way, bad for us and our society, and then 50 reasons why unschooling, which she defines as “learning without formal curriculum, timelines, grades or coercion; learning in freedom” is the natural way to learn. She argues that we are indoctrinated from the age of five to cede our time, our freedoms, and what we pay attention to, to the will of the State, so that we are ‘prepared’ for a work world of wage slavery and obedience to authority. We are deliberately not taught anything that would allow us to be self-sufficient in society. And in the factory environment of the school, where teachers need to ‘manage’ thirty students or more, ethics and the politics of power is left up, from our earliest and most vulnerable years, to the bullies and other young damaged psychopaths among our peers, to teach us in their grotesquely warped way. As PS explains, it is in every way a prison system.

Unschooling, by contrast, starts with the realization that you ‘own’ your time, and have the opportunity and responsibility to use it in ways that are meaningful and stimulating for you. When you have this opportunity, you just naturally learn a great deal, about things you care about, things that will inevitably be useful to you in making a life and a living. Your learning environment is the whole world, and you learn what and when you want, undirected by curricula, textbooks, alarm clocks and school bells. You develop deep peer relationships around areas of common interest, once you’re allowed to explore and discover what those areas of interest are. And the Internet and online gaming allow you to make those relationships anywhere in the world, to draw on the brightest experts on the planet, and to communicate powerfully with like-minded, curious people of every age, culture and ideology.

Many people argue that unschooling will only work for the very brightest and most self-disciplined children. On the contrary, I think we are all perfectly suited to unschooling until the school system begins to beat the love of learning, the ability to self-manage, curiosity, imagination and critical thinking out of us. By the time we have reached the third grade it becomes much more difficult, and my success in unschooling in twelfth grade was, I will agree, due to my above-average intelligence and initiative — most of my intellectually-crippled peers just couldn’t manage by that time without the strictures they’d become accustomed to. They had long ago lost the desire to learn, and to think for themselves.

If every child was unschooled — given the chance to explore and discover and learn in the real world what they love to do, what they’re uniquely good at doing, and what the world needs that they care about — then we would have a world of self-confident, creative, informed, empowered, networked entrepreneurs doing work that needs to be done, successfully. We would have armies of people collaborating to solve the problems and crises facing our world, instead of going home exhausted at the end of the day seeking escape, feeling helpless to do anything that is meaningful to thems or to the world. We would have a world of producers instead of consumers, a world of abundance instead of scarcity, a world of diversity instead of what Terry Glavin calls “a dark and gathering sameness”. We would have a world of young people choosing their lives instead of taking what they can get, what they can afford, what is offered to them. We would have a world of people who are nobody-but-themselves, and who know who they are, and how to live and make a living for themselves.

In the final part of her book, PS encourages us to check out unschooling gatherings in our own area, and find out more, find out what we can do to grow this important movement. She describes some of the groups that are organizing travel adventures to enrich unschoolers’ experiences even further, and provides a host of resources for further reading and exploration of the unschooling movement.

I’m growing increasingly convinced that if we have any hope of coping with the crises that we face in this century, it lies in the generations now in the “school system”.

More precisely, it lies in getting them out of that system, and making this the last generation of “schooled children”.

Given the damage we’ve done to the world — due in no small part to the “education system” that has molded us — damage that future generations must reverse, it’s the least we can do for them, and, at last, for ourselves.

39 Comments

  1. speaking as a long time teacher in the public system and with a son who chose to be unschooled since gr1, i think we cannot overstate the importance of unschooling. the school system has been perverted by industry to churn out workers – it ‘trains’ not ‘educates’. while there are bright lights in an otherwise murky pond, these teachers are few and usually have to contend with the restraints of a system that also imprison the minds of its children.

    Comment by prad — April 25, 2009 @ 12:24

  2. Bravo Dave!The damage from conventional schooling goes deep indeed. I will do everything to protect my children from the effects of this plague of disempowering ‘education’.

    Comment by Avi Solomon — April 25, 2009 @ 20:15

  3. Thanks for sharing your school story, Dave, and for saying such nice things about my book.Your experience with independent study doesn’t surprise me at all, nor does the fact that the program was discontinued. Freedom scares the hell out of some people (like your “keeners”) and the thought that kids will learn what they need without formal instruction presents an existential crisis to those whose livelihoods depend on the continuation of the existing system. Kinda like civilization in general. ~ps

    Comment by ps pirro — April 25, 2009 @ 22:52

  4. I assume you’ve all heard of Montessori? I was in a Montessori school until grade 4 and absolutely loved it. My brother couldn’t handle the freedom though, and didn’t like it much.I think you make good points that have been brought up before about the benefits of independent learning. I also think that many people can’t guide their own education. Those “keeners” you mentioned for example. So I think the challenge is to create a system flexible enough to allow students to choose the learning style that works for them. Such a system exists, if you can afford a Montessori education.

    Comment by Andrew — April 26, 2009 @ 16:21

  5. I was comforted, and still am, by the words of a wise woman friend as I struggled with unschooling my two. She said (paraphrasing) that each child does NOT need to know everything; the next generation needs to know everything. This allowed me to quit worrying that they weren’t getting enough X,Y, or Z, as long as they were pursuing A,B, and C with gusto.

    Comment by chrish — April 26, 2009 @ 19:17

  6. I’ve experienced this phenomenon first-hand. I was home-schooled for my early years, and mostly did my own thing during high school (showing up primarily for the tests.) During college I grew increasingly frustrated with the narrowness in scope and mind-numbing presentation of the material.I’ve since left the formal schooling system and am heartily enjoying pursuing any and every topic that sparks my interest. In my case, as I am still of a college age, I’ve been able to slip into classes in my local university that interest me. While many university courses are little more than fact factories, a few of them provide interesting, stimulating discussion and are worth attending.The one problem I’ve had is the continuing dearth of interesting peers with whom I can interact and bounce ideas off of. I would love to surround myself with dynamic, intriguing personalities, but such people seem to be few and far between…

    Comment by Dave — April 26, 2009 @ 20:07

  7. I graduated from a small town school in Iowa in December of 08. Today I read your idea of unschooling. I am most intrigued by this because I had created my own learning system for my last semester of high school. Unlike yourself I did not have the consent of my school or my parents. Instead I decided I was fed up with the rate at which I was being tought. I Recieved Straight A’s on all my tests throughout high school without studying or doing homework. So during my senior year I decided I was going to do my own thing. I went to 3 classes a day and spent the rest of my time doing research of whatever little thing I could think of. I comment this now to tell you that what I became most interested in was creating a better planet. In one semester I descovered my religion to be Taoism as well as gained a deep apreciation for the simulrities between all religions. I learned numerology and through it how to better understand myself and went very in depth into philosophy of all sorts starting with Plato and working forward. I read books by steven Hawking and became fascinated with the Universe and Physics especially string theory. I even exceeded in Calculus. My point is simple. I want to help with this cause. I believe Unschooling is an idea that needs to be implimented fast. The current system is too represive and the greats of our society are too stiffled. If I had been Unschooled my whole life I can not imagine the what could have been.

    Comment by Gjordon Zealand — April 26, 2009 @ 20:25

  8. Please contact me if there is any way I can help. ezbeingz@yahoo.com

    Comment by Gjordon Zealand — April 26, 2009 @ 20:29

  9. Thank you for that. Brilliant. Beautiful. Inspirational. This is going into my “homeschooling philosophy” file.

    Comment by MadInOz — April 27, 2009 @ 05:13

  10. Anyone who wishes the best for their child should be familiar with two authors: John Taylor Gatto and Charlotte Iserbyt. In a nutshell, Iserbyt documents the horror of our current system, and Gatto does the same plus he gives a glimpse of what is possible via alternatives.Gatto, a former NYC and NY State “teacher of the year” is an outspoken, fierce opponent of government education ‘systems’ which chiefly serve to destroy the natural eagerness to learn. Gatto explores these ideas in his books and numerous splendid articles, a few of which I’ll reference:1st, “Dumbing Us Down, The Hidden Curriculum of Compulsory Schooling.” (preview @ http://books.google.com)This should be mandatory reading for every parent of a newborn baby. If it were, the education “system” would be disassembled overnight.The six-lesson schoolteacher: http://www.cantrip.org/gatto.htmlHow to destroy a child, in six easy lessons.Another brief essay. http://www.spinninglobe.net/againstschool.htm

    “I taught for thirty years in some of the worst schools in Manhattan, and in some of the best, and during that time I became an expert in boredom. Boredom was everywhere in my world, and if you asked the kids, as I often did, why they felt so bored, they always gave the same answers: They said the work was stupid, that it made no sense, that they already knew it. They said they wanted to be doing something real, not just sitting around. They said teachers didn’t seem to know much about their subjects and clearly weren’t interested in learning more. And the kids were right: their teachers were every bit as bored as they were.”…”H. L. Mencken, wrote in The American Mercury for April 1924 that the aim of public education is not ‘to fill the young of the species with knowledge and awakentheir intelligence. … Nothing could be further from the truth. The aim … is simply to reduce as many individuals as possible to the same safe level, to breed and train a standardized citizenry, to put down dissent and originality. That is its aim in the United States… and that is its aim everywhere else.'”

    Gatto’s “The Underground History of American Education” is a treasure of information, for it documents in detail why our current crummy, soul-damaging system exists and persists. One additional book I would recommend is “the deliberate dumbing down of america” by Charlotte Iserbyt (Senior Policy Advisor in the Office of Educational Research and Improvement under Reagan). Her book also documents the evolution of our current pathetic prison-like school systems and proves that the current results are not an aberration, but the desired outcome, therefore no amount of minor tinkering or fine-tuning can substantially alter the results. A completely different approach to eductation (not mere ‘training’) is necessary.www.deliberatedumbingdown.com/

    Comment by Jon — April 27, 2009 @ 08:18

  11. I believe behing the training vs education debate is the deep seater paranoia that makes people believe that if we let loose the rules that hold the world together everything would break apart. I believe that beyond paranoia it is little else, wikipedia being a great example, it is a loose group of individuals, and no it didn’t fall into anarchy and vandalism, and more often than not it has worked wonderfully well. That should put some faith into people that freedom in not a bad thing and beautiful things come out of it.

    Comment by s — April 27, 2009 @ 10:38

  12. Great Story… I was quite an achiever at school even though I was stuck in the conformist school… I did remedial english because I didn’t get taught the structure the first time around, but because I was not failing didn’t have any attention. Anyway, when it came to University I excelled, I didn’t need to go to lectures, because I could learn better my own way.My nephew recently confided in me that he was bored in school. He said ‘its too easy’ so I told him to sneak his own work or something he likes to do like soduku so when he is finished he can take out his own work and continue. He was worried that his Teacher (which I know personally, to be an half wit who couldn’t be a professional sports man so he got a teaching degree) would tell him off… So I told my nephew, if he says anything… don’t answer back… just go and speak 1 on 1 with the principal.Not sure if he took my Advice. I hope so.Now a father, I plan on taking an active role in my kids education. I believe the system to be broken, so the only way to do anything is to help my own kids.

    Comment by Mark — April 27, 2009 @ 10:59

  13. I greatly enjoyed reading this! My only experience with school was half a year of kindergarten, and I’m eternally grateful to my parents for getting me out of there before it was too late. I’m now a healthy, happy 18 year old who delights in learning, and loves writing about unschooling, sharing my experience with others in the hopes that they’ll choose that path. I honestly believe that the state schooling system is the main reason things have been allowed to get this bad in the world, so I think it’s a top priority to get rid of the schooling system as soon as possible.

    Comment by Idzie — April 27, 2009 @ 13:05

  14. As a longtime reader of your blog, I was delighted to find this post on unschooling. We have been unschooling our teen daughters for more than six years and LOVE it. What was initially a method of homeschooling has instead become a lifestyle, transforming the way we interact with each other and the world. Abandoning school attitudes and priorities was the best thing we ever did for our kids and, as it turned out, ourselves.And it does work for all children. We are part of a large and growing worldwide unschooling community, peopled by parents and children from all walks of life and all levels of so-called intelligence. The reality is that even the most schooled people, once free to follow their passions and given resources and support to do so, can heal and rediscover their curiosity and love of learning.

    Comment by Ronnie — April 27, 2009 @ 14:06

  15. This is a really interesting article. I have worked with people who have been completely turned off by the education. Creativity has been marginalised in the English education system.If in the unlikely event that I have children, I definitely want to homeschool them.

    Comment by Stacey Riley — April 28, 2009 @ 12:46

  16. First I want to say that even though I disagree with much of the rhetoric and many of the ideas presented in this post, I found it fascinating and thought-provoking, and I’m glad I read it.As a public school teacher, I am the first to admit that the educational system in our culture is a shambles, for quite a number of reasons. I don’t think it’s a lost cause, but I do think it won’t work correctly without massive overhauls of our society’s attitude toward raising and educating children.I sincerely wish that my high school would try an independent study program similar to the one you enjoyed. It’s a shame — although unsurprising — that the effort was abandoned. The school’s rationale that the less-able students were being “deprived” because students like yourself had been removed from the classroom is pure bunk, and they should be ashamed of themselves.However, I believe that “unschooling” as you describe it would most likely not work in our culture. Despite idealistic claims like Pirro’s, school — with its often-ridiculous and outdated rules, tightly controlled environment, and stringent requirements to produce X amount of (probably meaningless) work in Y amount of time — DOES resemble the real world… quite a bit, actually. “Unschooled” children, who presumably won’t get any of that overly structured, quantity-over-quality training, will be quite shocked when they enter any of the many careers that require the school mentality.This leads me to another point… your rhetoric toward the end of your post seems to idealize a society of entrepreneurs, “a world of producers instead of consumers.” A grand vision that may be, but is it realistic? Can a modern society function where everyone is self-employed, or even where everyone is in a position of authority?Even without the damage done by traditional schooling, could all of your classmates have survived in the independent study environment in which you thrived? Could all have pieced together a satisfying adult life afterward? Do all have the ability to learn what you have learned and achieve what you have achieved?My experience tells me that many — perhaps most — could not. I do not have the faith in humanity that you seem to have. As I wrote above, the “unschooling” experience might work for the best of students (as it apparently worked for you), but the majority would be disserviced by it… and what would they do then? Lacking the talent or opportunity to become successful as an entrepreneur, most would fail at far more than self-guided studies.Again, I want to state that your post was thought-provoking and offers possible solutions that I believe will help *some* students… possibly more students than I realize. As well, I would like to repeat that I am very dissatisfied with the educational system even though I am a part of it. I hope that my thoughts are even a fraction as beneficial or interesting to you as yours were to me.

    Comment by Aylad MacOdys — April 28, 2009 @ 14:51

  17. I think the experience of young people today is considerably different than it was then.Anyone here taken a look at these student videos? Tomorrows World sponsored a contest and these were the winners: http://www.tomorrowsworldcompetition.com/ It’s amazing what kids can accomplish when someone gives them the opportunity. I think we should encourage this more. Check them out and spread the word!

    Comment by Mark — April 28, 2009 @ 15:41

  18. Great article! The subject of “unschooling” was talked about in great length in the seminal book, “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance”. Robert Pirsig totally agrees with your stance taken in the article. Schools do not inspire people to learn, they just force people to “learn” what the system wants them to learn, and to “learn” things HOW the system wants them to learn. Yet another example of how our world is needlessly horrible – orchestrated by the fascist oligarchy of Elite that own and control the Empire of America. I’m reminded of what Phaedrus discovered in Pirsig’s brilliant book: What is Quality?

    Comment by JL Wallace — April 28, 2009 @ 16:41

  19. In your blog post you write with a lot of faith in humanity that unschooling would, done properly, open everyone up to be more imaginative and interested in the world around them…and I totally agree. But I also think you’re missing the clearest way to cut down the argument that it would only work for the best and the brightest: the hierarchy of brightness and the concept of success in education is largely something printed onto the children through the reigning process.In other words, not every student would naturally pursue a well rounded education that engaged in the liberal arts and sciences. Maybe a kid with an affinity for working with his hands and building things would become interested in construction. Then in an organic way would pursue those things that support this interest. Sure, he may not end up knowing the first 10 lines to Canterbury Tales, but he would have engaged in active, self-motivated self-education. And that is a more important goal.

    Comment by Bill G — April 28, 2009 @ 22:04

  20. Nice post but lengthy

    Comment by care — April 28, 2009 @ 23:53

  21. Aylad said, “‘Unschooled’ children, who presumably won’t get any of that overly structured, quantity-over-quality training, will be quite shocked when they enter any of the many careers that require the school mentality.”Unschoolers hear this argument all the time, and it simply doesn’t hold water. The reality is that our unschooled children live in this world: a certain amount of tedium and repetition and banging of heads against walls is built in. There is no need to subject them to 13 years of industrial education to prepare them for what can and should be a very minor part of life. Our kids encounter obstacles as they pursue their goals. They deal with bureaucracy, rigidity, and structure all the time. The difference is, they deal with these things in pursuit of something they care about, to obtain results that *they* value. That makes all the difference.

    Comment by Ronnie — April 29, 2009 @ 02:33

  22. If the power to learn is such a natural process, then how does school destroy it? If school can destroy it, couldn’t peers, greed, lethargy, unfair circumstances, etc. also destroy a child’s ability to soak up the world through free form exploration of networks? If a community of adults focused on a child’s development of important skills and knowledge (aka school) destroys curiosity, then what won’t?Schools have issues, but I find it difficult to accept the assertion that the majority of teachers and schools are actually hampering the intellectual growth of the majority of individuals. I assume that if we create unschools, many of them will be less than ideal as well.I think there will always be conflict during the transition period as a person changes from a mostly free youth to an increasingly responsible adult. That conflict happens in school, but that doesn’t mean that curicullum is to blame.

    Comment by Colin — April 29, 2009 @ 10:37

  23. Now we have content and performance standards for each subject and each k-12 grade level. I’m sick about how No Child Left Behind creates the miserable state of “behind.” The Obama Administration–wildly successful products of said system– is putting $100 billion into perpetuating it. It makes my high school experience — the class of ’69 — look relatively benign. I’m dedicating my life to respectfully and joyfully wiping our current system off the face of the earth.

    Comment by Lynn Rasmussen — April 30, 2009 @ 01:53

  24. When I left school, and for many years after, I swore I’d never subject my children to the same experience. I had a dream that a group of like-minded families would get together and unschool their children together, with each parent taking one day a fortnight to hang around and offer whatever guidance or help was needed. And yet, I have two children in school. The idea of unschooling is so wonderful and so appealing, and yet I am defeated by the practicalities. Finding a group of like-minded families was a non-starter, especially with the growing realisation that unschooling would mean a lot of work – you can’t just leave a group of six-year-olds to their own devices. Most of all, I’m scared of the personal sacrifice I would have to make — I can’t see any other way to unschool than for one parent pretty much entirely to give up earning an income of anything but the most basic sort. That would also mean giving up participation in a lot of stuff that gives my life pleasure and meaning. How do people do it?

    Comment by Pam — April 30, 2009 @ 13:21

  25. My oldest (almost 4yo) has Down syndrome and right now we have him in preschool 2 hrs/day, 2 days/wk. He loves it, and I love his teacher and the other aides in the class. I struggle against my personal love of unschooling and learning and reading and writing — because the other families of kids with Down syndrome are all waging the inclusion war still. If I don’t send my kid to school and battle to have him included in a “typical” (wow, lots of meanings of that word) classroom, then I truly feel that I’m letting down the cause. What kind of society will be produced if those typical kids aren’t around an kids with disabilities? Perhaps we will be the family that works to be included in the unschooling groups around town? Such a struggle in my heart. I appreciate the food for thought and the links to more resources.

    Comment by KYouell — April 30, 2009 @ 13:47

  26. Summerhill School in Suffolk, UK has been unschooling since the 1920s.http://www.summerhillschool.co.uk/I spent an afternoon there last year and was blown away.

    Comment by G Eden — May 2, 2009 @ 16:17

  27. Uh, which province was this in, Dave? You didn’t specify.

    Comment by Dave — May 2, 2009 @ 21:49

  28. Additional comment from Kevin Carson:Andrew: You’re right that some people can’t guide their owneducation, but it could be that “guiding” them against their willwon’t result in any real learning anyway. On the other hand, if somekind of learning is needed the experienced lack may be what eventuallydrives people into self-directed learning. Robert Pirsig’s comments(as “Phaedrus”) on the “Church of Reason” might be relevant here:http://mutualist.blogspot.com/2006/02/phaedrus-on-church-of-reason.htmlI can relate, from personal experience, to the scenario “Phaedrus”describes. When I was in high school, I was signed up forPre-Calculus Algebra against my wishes, with my complaints brushed offdismissively: “Well, you need math to get any kind of a good jobthese days.” At the time I was interested in history and politicalphilosophy, and read extensively in those subjects on my own time.When my own reading interests competed with the hated Pre-Cal for mytime, I wound up dropping out of Pre-Cal with a failing grade, andhated math for years afterward.Then a few years ago I wrote a book defending the classical politicaleconomists’ labor theory of value against marginalism. My review ofmarginalist literature focused mainly on the Austrians because oftheir relative freedom from higher math apparatus, and largelyneglected neoclassical econ after Marshall. I sorely felt the lack inthe first edition of the book, and decided it needed to incorporatethe neoclassical version of marginal analysis. So now, after morethan twenty years, I’m reteaching myself algebra and trig so I canpick up enough calculus to read 20th century econ. It didn’t becomeinteresting to me until I perceived its relevants to my own,self-determined needs.Another anecdote: A couple years ago, I saw a sign at a localbookstore announcing it carried Watership Down and therest of thepublic schools’ summer reading list. Thank God, I said to myself,that we didn’t have mandatory summer reading lists when I was inschool. I first read the book when I was about 40 or so, and lovedit. But if I’d been forced to read it against my will, via an actthat I regarded as school bureaucrats stealing summer time that wasrightfully my own, I’d have hated the book and cursed it to my dyingday.I can’t count the number of instances when I was confronted withsomething before I was ready to assimilate it, and then turned aroundyears later and eagerly absorbed it when it became relevant to myinterests.The problem is that coerced learning based on someone else’s agendacan be pretty efficient at instilling a hatred of “learning,” as muchso as if that was the actual goal. But then I’ve almost always beenthe sort of person who instinctively hates anything assigned to me bysome authority figure sitting behind a desk (genuine work is to jobsas genuine learning is to schools).

    Comment by Dave Pollard — May 4, 2009 @ 16:13

  29. Aylad:The problem is that the “school culture,” by overproducing people who are conditioned to jump through hoops to please an authority figure behind a desk and have all their time and goals structured by others, makes the kind of authoritarian business currently predominating artificially feasible.If the public schools didn’t operating as a taxpayer subsidized human resources processing factory, such businesses would find the supply of docile and compliant workers to be much smaller and pricier. As a result, this business model would become more costly and less profitable compared to self-management.As for the technical side of it, a whole host of developments (from the decentralizing effects of electrical power that Kropotkin and Lewis Mumford remarked on, to the effects of cybernetics, to the progressive miniaturization and cheapening of small-scale, general purpose production machinery) have shifted the competitive advantage from the large factory to the small shop and even the home. The overwhelming majority of what we consume could be produced either in very small cooperative factories on the Emilia-Romagna model, or in microenterprises in the household and informal economy using spare capacity of ordinary capital goods most people already own. The legislation railroaded through by the Copyright Nazis at the MPAA/RIAA/Microsoft are the main thing keeping the corporate dinosaurs software and music industries from being destroyed by open-source peer networks.So absent government-enforced privilege and artificial scarcity, and absent government subsidies to large scale and centralization, that’s *exactly* what I think we’d have: almost universal self-employment and self-management.

    Comment by Kevin Carson — May 4, 2009 @ 16:41

  30. Great points about the stifling nature of much of the conventional educational system. A few points, though, toward a happy medium somewhere: There are some things citizens should know but won’t ever tackle if left completely to their own devices. Witness adults who don’t understand compound interest or mortgages or registering to vote or what a congressional district is or that New Mexico is part of the U.S., or that evil spirits cause disease; we could go on and on. Similarly, schools are often the only place people are forced together for some common purpose, as dubious as that purpose might often be, and without a touch of that experience, they’ll never pick up civic habits and will leave running communities to others. Finally, there are kids who simply will not learn a damn thing because their families don’t care, don’t value learning of any kind whatsoever, and left on their own, they’ll goof off, play games and fight with the productive kids on their way to real prison. Schools, even with their shortcomings, offer some hope to young people from such families. It’s hardly a perfect system. It’s a base: It’s there for those with no other options, and as for those who want more, go for it. But don’t blow it up because it’s not as good as it could be. It still does a lot of people a lot of good.

    Comment by David — May 5, 2009 @ 08:54

  31. Really interesting post, came to it through givemesomethingtoread. I agree with many of the criticisms of our current school system. However, the solution (or dissolution) is troubling for several reasons. First, it not only dismisses our current system of teaching, but also teaching as a profession and as an expertise. Destroying the structure which supports teaching as a profession will destroy the profession. Note that this isn’t all that dissimilar to a lot of current reformers who want to supplant all teachers with 2-3 year Teach for America college grads. Saying that there are some teachers who are not effective is one thing, but saying that teaching is not a profession is another.I am a college teacher (of cognitive science), and a parent, and the proposals above seem to say that decades of research on learning and cognitive science conclude that natural curiosity is sufficient for learning anything. The above case says that my own efforts to help guide my students through the difficult path to disciplinary reasoning in psychology are no better than them reading a book and doing an experiment on their own, and visiting a museum. They say that my wife’s efforts to teach people who come to this country not knowing English are misguided. If they are “unschooled,” they will get motivated and do it themselves.I agree that motivation is necessary, which is why it is such a tragedy that our current school system drills it out of so many students. However, I disagree that motivation is sufficient for learning. Mark Twain famously said that he never let his schooling interfere with his education. But I don’t think that is a reason to throw out schooling entirely, along with the profession of teaching.If you have read a excellent book, teaching you how to do something, the author of that book didn’t learn how to write that way in a vacuum, she had a teacher.I will add one final point. If you are a motivated enough parent to unschool your child, and youare interested enough in his/her education to do that, then your child will likely find professional success. However, when you do this (this again, is not that dissimilar from affording a private montesori school) the children whose parents have not made this choice, and remain in the public schools, they suffer. Despite any utopian fantasties to the contrary, the public schools will continue to exist. What may or may not continue is the segregation between parents (such as myself and many of you) of educational means and those without. Such unschooling (or private schooling) measures exacerbate the social inequality and stratification which needs no help to do so.I would urge you to enroll your child in public school, and help motivate your child, and share that motivation with his/her classmates. Volunteer in the classroom and bring it in yourself. Most teachers are happy to acknowledge the role of parents as positive forces in education, even if parents don’t return the favor.

    Comment by Cedar — May 5, 2009 @ 13:28

  32. I wondered when the “don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater” supporters of formal education, teaching approaches and even school infrastructure would be heard from. Unfortunately on this subject I am somewhat uncompromising: I really believe that any vestiges of the old system left behind will allow the old rot to reestablish itself. The skills and approaches needed to mentor self-directed learners are UTTERLY different from those needed to teach. Of all the best books I have read, that have taught me important lessons (e.g. my How to Save the World reading list on the right sidebar), NONE are written as ‘textbooks’. Classrooms pull you out of the real-world learning environment and let everyone else (entrepreneurs, parents, elected officials, and front-line workers) off the hook for their essential role in showing young people what the work world offers and requires, so that young people can actually learn (a) what they’re good at, (b) what they love doing, and (c) what’s needed in the world that no one is doing — the intersection of which is what they’re meant to do, to make a living.

    Comment by Dave Pollard — May 5, 2009 @ 14:27

  33. Sorry, but this idea is simply baloney. I taught in the American public schools for several years and learned that yes, there are self motivated students, but the majority are not. To begin with many students come from homes where education is not valued. Their peer groups also see little use for education. Sure they may value football, television and maybe fast cars or girls, but that is about it….and they cannot read well enough to learn how to maintain the complex cars they want to work on. Anything like math, art, science or literature simply does not enter into their interests.The author of this blog makes the fatal mistake of assuming that all are like him. Sure Mr. Pollard may have been a very gifted and self aware child and naturally gravitated towards a group of like-minded peers, but if your peer group is only interested in “sex, drugs and rock and roll” this self education and self criticism will have no positive benefits. This is an utopian vision that has no application to reality and to the world as it exists.

    Comment by Mark — May 5, 2009 @ 15:31

  34. For an idea that has ‘no application to reality’ it sure seems to work well for people who try it early enough, no matter how bright they may be. It’s been used in Latin America (Google Esteva to read about ‘radical de-schooling’ in Mexico for example) where, once freed from the education system, young people suddenly rediscovered that they LIKE learning, and with some trial and error are perfectly competent to take control of their own learning. Like anything, it will take practice, and it won’t be an easy transition since we’ve been brainwashed to believe we can’t do it ourselves and the only way is ‘formal schooling’. But not only is it NOT Utopian, it’s the ONLY way to free up billions of mis-educated people to do what we need to do to make this world sustainable.

    Comment by Dave Pollard — May 5, 2009 @ 15:42

  35. “…if your peer group is only interested in “sex, drugs and rock and roll” this self education and self criticism will have no positive benefits.” I think we need to ask, “Why are they *only* interested in SD&RR?” Does it have anything to do with their schooling? I think it does. But really, I don’t believe they are *only* interested in SD&RR. A creative teacher (one likely not using a textbook) would use SD&RR to connect students the worlds of biology, psychology, physiology, chemistry, art, physics….(ad infinitum). However, it only seems natural, that in a system that believes it needs to grind up and extrude students so that they fit into cubicles and assembly lines, many of them will relieve the pain by escaping into SD&RR.I’m trying to see if I can do some online free choice learning atplearn.netMaybe it’s too radical. Maybe not.

    Comment by bill farren — May 5, 2009 @ 19:27

  36. I think schooling is fundamentally a “judge not, lest you be judged problem.”What is education? Shouldn’t we define that before we coerce others into sitting still and hitting them over the head with the baseball bat of knowledge(an homage to basicinstructions.net)?I’m a bit of a keener. I admit it. But when I had to deal with my son’s education I had to confront my own delusions about what it is that I require of him. At first I wanted him to relive my life (learn everything I ever loved or found useful)so that he’d never make mistakes; I’m past that now. Now, I’m at stage two where I just want him to be able to hunt and gather information, see what it means to him, and then trade it with other people. Still I’m “judging” his gathering and his seeing and his trading. Where I want to be is stage 3, where I become a good parent. I think a good parent doesn’t stop mistakes. I think a good parent is available to help fix the mistakes when they occur. I think all the times you show up and make things better… I think that’s learning. And, I think showing up is just as important as fixing things.

    Comment by Honey — May 7, 2009 @ 06:52

  37. Very nice post. I might be able to help you here. In India, the Krishnamurthy Foundation (J.Krishnamurthy Foundation) runs ‘The School’ in Chennai and ‘Rishi Valley School’ in Andhra State. ‘The School’ kind of follows the ‘unschooling’ principle you talked about. They have been doing so from the time they started. You might get lot of pointers from them.

    Comment by Subbu — May 11, 2009 @ 06:42

  38. In the Netherlands some schools are trying this already and it is a shambles. Even worse our parliament investigated decades of education reform, and concluded it did not work (http://www.dutchnews.nl/news/archives/2008/02/school_reform_damaged_standard.php)And yes they did reform along the lines you suggest. Please stop doing this: the Dutch education system has already been irrevocably damaged by people with lofty ideals that have no practical value: do not do this to other countries.Quote from the article:”The reforms focus on the educational process rather than the end results, requiring pupils to work largely independently in their final years at secondary school rather than follow formal lessons.The commission, led by Labour MP Jeroen Dijsselbloem, warns that there is no scientific basis for this approach to education”

    Comment by Ronald — May 24, 2009 @ 12:19

  39. Ronald, the problem stems from “*requiring* pupils to work largely independently” rather than *not prohibiting* them from doing so._There is a social function that schooling seeks to serve that isn’t entirely ignoble — cleansing youth of their inherent solipsism*. But rather than impose a harsh coercive reality of unyielding authoritative strictures, unschooling seeks to engage the individual with the larger world in a collaborative and participatory fashion. It is a choice between knowing the world outside oneself exists because; – it struck you with a yardstick, or – it offered you an unexpected discovery.*To see the world as harsh and rigid AND believe (however erroneously) that this cruel reality emanates from within ones mind, has self destructive and nihilistic implications for the individual and society on many levels.

    Comment by Jason Gordon — September 3, 2009 @ 12:57

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