My response to Seth Godin’s “Stop Stealing Dreams”

A couple of weeks ago I wrote a post about the beginning of Seth Godin’s education manifesto titled “Stop Stealing Dreams”, because I liked what he was saying and thought much of it applicable to unschooling.    Then,  a day or two ago I read a comment on Facebook by Wendy Priesnitz (editor of Life Learning Magazine and author of several books on life learning) in which she criticized Godin for thinking schools can be reformed, and for dismissing homeschooling as unworkable.   He does not mention unschooling at all, which was seen by Wendy & those joining her in the discussion as the result of either arrogance or a lack of research.  (I have no opinion about that, although arrogance doesn’t fit with what I know of the man in general.)   At the time I read her comments, I hadn’t yet gotten to the part in the manifesto where homeschooling was discussed, so yesterday and today I made a point of sitting down and reading “Stop Stealing Dreams” from beginning to end.

My general feeling is that Seth Godin is a very intelligent, perceptive man who has a lot of knowledge about how and why schools currently function the way they do.   He is also optimistic about “our” ability to change schools for the better.   He clearly does not see a world in which schools do not play a major role.    Also, based on what he wrote in “Dreams”,  his exposure to homeschooling seems limited to those who follow a rigorous curriculum.  I will give him the benefit of the doubt and say that he does not know about unschooling or life learning , although one might hope he would have, at some point in his research, stumbled upon the works of John Holt.  Holt began as an educator, then became an advocate for school reform and finally decided that unschooling was the only viable path to real systemic change.

However rather than dismiss Godin as arrogant or uninformed, I would like to take this opportunity to educate him about life learning, since there are many passages in his book which directly correlate to the way unschoolers live and learn.

For example:

A kid in love with dinosaurs or baseball or earth science is going to learn it on her own. She’s going to push hard for ever more information, and better still, master the thinking behind it.

That quote is dead on.   It describes the self-directed learner, which is what all life-learning, unschooled kids are.

Or how about these:

In an open-book/open-note environment, the ability to synthesize complex ideas and to invent new concepts is far more useful than drill and practice.

Real learning happens when the student wants (insists!) on acquiring a skill in order to accomplish a goal.

Give me a motivated block builder with a jumbled box of Legos over a memorizing drone any day.

Real learning happens in bursts, and often those bursts occur in places or situations that are out of the ordinary. Textbooks rarely teach us lessons we long remember. We learn about self-reliance when we get lost in the mall, we learn about public speaking when we have to stand up and give a speech….Is there a better way to learn than by doing?

Our job is obvious: we need to get out of the way, shine a light, and empower a new generation to teach itself and to go further and faster than any generation ever has.

All of those quotes are versions of things you’ve heard me say; or Wendy Priesnitz, or Peter Gray or Sandra Dodd or Blake Boles or any number of other people who advocate, parent and/or spend time with self-directed life-learning kids.    The only difference is that for Godin, these are hypothetical things that “we” need to do, and in the unschooling community they are already the norms of everyday life.

Godin thinks homeschooling is unworkable on a large scale.  He says that most parents would make mistakes, would not have the patience to “teach” their kids the things they need to succeed, and that the biggest obstacle to effective learning outside of school is:

Providing a different refuge from fear. This is the biggest [problem], the largest concern of all. If the goal of the process is to create a level of fearlessness, to create a free-range environment filled with exploration and all the failure that entails, most parents just don’t have the guts to pull this off. It’s one thing for a caring and trained professional to put your kids through a sometimes harrowing process; it’s quite another to do it yourself.

This is where Godin gets it wrong.  He is convinced that fearlessness, motivation, passion and curiosity are things that must be taught.   He talks throughout the book about “teaching” kids to be passionate.   He misses the point that kids ARE fearless, motivated, passionate and curious until school teaches them not to be. Life learners never have those traits beaten out of them by industrialized schooling, wherein lies the great advantage in unschooling.   Life learners are empowered and self-reliant, passionate and motivated because that’s the way kids are until taught otherwise.  As parents our job is not so difficult.  We need not be “caring professionals” who have special skills to spark kids’ imaginations; we just need to be caring parents who lead, facilitate, encourage and help (when asked).

Near the end of the book, Godin says the following:

When we teach a child to make good decisions, we benefit from a lifetime of good decisions.

When we teach a child to love to learn, the amount of learning will become limitless.

When we teach a child to deal with a changing world, she will never become obsolete.

When we are brave enough to teach a child to question authority, even ours, we insulate ourselves from those who would use their authority to work against each of us.

And when we give students the desire to make things, even choices, we create a world filled with makers.

I suggest a slightly altered version of this text, which reads as follows:

When we allow a child to make decisions and learn from them, we benefit from a lifetime of good decisions.

When we allow a child to learn what they love, the amount of learning will become limitless.

When we allow a child to deal with a changing world, she will never become obsolete.

When we are brave enough to allow a child to question authority, even ours, we insulate ourselves from those who would use their authority to work against each of us.

And when we encourage a child’s natural desire to make things, even choices, we create a world filled with makers.

Seth Godin’s goal is admirable, and although he wants to be innovative, he is hampered by his own belief that children must be taught and that the teaching must happen in school.   School reform on any large and effective scale will not happen.  Too much money and too many jobs are vested in keeping things as they are, no matter what any politician or reformer says.   John Holt figured that out and became a homeschooling advocate, coining the term “unschooling” for what he saw as the most effective type of learning, which is always self-directed.

My message to Seth Godin, then, would be this.  Thank you for your willingness to write about the real problems in our current educational system.   Now throw out everything you believe about schools and how they might change.   I challenge you to read the works of  John Holt,  Peter Gray, Wendy Priesnitz, Sandra Dodd and Blake Boles and to speak out for real change, which can only come one family, one self-directed learner at a time.   Rally your extensive tribe and give us a purple cow for self-directed learning.  I’ll be behind you one hundred percent.

One comment on “My response to Seth Godin’s “Stop Stealing Dreams”

  1. Godin includes Clark Aldrich’s Unschooling Rules and Laura Weldon’s Free Range Learning in the bibliography at the end of his “manifesto.” Assuming he’s read them, he should know more than a little bit about “unschooling” or life learning. My impression is that, in his (very common – for the reasons you cite) adult arrogance, he has rejected the notion as a solution to the problem that he so eloquently describes. I hope he will read and accept your suggestions, Amy!

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