[The School Inspector] came marching into the kitchen, saying in an exasperated tone, “Now what’s this all about? Why aren’t your children in school?”
“Well,” I said, and put some coffee on to heat, stalling for time. “The reason they’re not in school,” I said–and decided, win or lose, this was the moment of truth, I’d better give it to him straight — “is that we want them to be educated.”
We looked at each other, squaring off.
“You do, eh?” He sat down carefully.
“Yes, we do. And we want their education to go on till the day they die. That means self-education, and it means preserving the love of learning they were born with. We believe all children have a great desire to learn…until they go to school, and get it systematically destroyed…. You know what happens in the average school, ” I told him. “They take the attitude that children are little brats who don’t want to learn. Then they shove the stuff down their throats, and pretty soon they’re right!….Our children are learning all the time,” I said. “All day long. They’re learning what interests them. What doesn’t interest them they’re not ready for, so they’ll learn it later. Maybe next year or maybe at age fifty. When they’re ready. And they’ll know when they’re ready. I mean, who else could know?… If you really want to know what I think, ” I said, “I think it’s presumptuous to try to teach children anything. They possess all wisdom within themselves, and all it has to do is unfold. The only thing we can do for them is provide the right environment for that to happen. Wisdom is something you have — and knowledge is something you get. If children can keep their wisdom, they can get knowledge any day of the week.”
In 1975 Patricia Joudry published a book titled, And the Children Played, detailing how she and her husband John chose to keep their daughters out of school and allow them to be unschooled. (Although that term is never mentioned – I don’t think it was coined yet.) This was in the 60’s in England, and the above excerpt detailed one of many times that Patricia or John had representatives from the Education Authority in their home, though they were never able to find reason enough to force the children into school.
It’s a great book. It’s also out of print, so I have my friend Kristin to thank for loaning her copy to me.
The ideology behind life learning/unschooling has been around for a long time. Rudolf Steiner, Waldorf, Montessori, Summerhill – all schools founded by people who believed children learn best when not coerced. And they were right, of course, but a school of any kind can only allow so much freedom. Which is why the purest form of non-coercive learning is life learning.
Patricia Joudry was a playwright – a very successful one at times – and at one point in her book she talks about being in the States on a writing fellowship. She says, “..I read a newspaper report on American education. It said that educators were in a state of alarm: they had just discovered that an awful lot of schoolchildren didn’t know how to think! Think of that!”
If I’ve got the timeline of the book correctly, that would have been in 1970. In 1970 American newspapers were discussing the problem in schools; that kids no longer knew how to think. In the 40 years since, what has been done to change that? If anything, children on the whole are even worse at thinking for themselves now than they were then. There is even more emphasis on standardization, conformity and rule-following. None of which fosters independent, creative thought.
So even though the philosophy behind self-directed education has been around for a long time, I find it even more vital today. Conformity and an unwillingness to think for ourselves is, I believe, at least part of what has gotten us into the mess we are in both economically and socially.
In 1975 Patricia Joudry wrote, “Kids Lib is coming. It’s the next, natural step. The kids are just waiting for us to wake up.” Almost 40 years later, much of the adult world is still sound asleep.