Unschooling’s P.R. problem

Unschoolers have a P.R.  problem.

The public – at least, those who have heard of unschooling – often perceive young unschooled children as feral; unsocialized, dirty, wild creatures who follow no social conventions and for whom there are no rules, even when out in public.

And you know what?  To a degree, they are correct.

I’ve had an unschooled child who was a guest in my home find a marker and write on my furniture with it, while the parent did nothing but smile and shrug and tell me how much their child likes to draw.    I’ve been with another unschooled child who refused to stand while we were in line at Starbucks and who instead sat in one place and would only scoot forward (on her butt and with her feet in the air) when the person behind her mother asked them to please move up.

So when I read an article like the one printed on the Atlantic monthly website this week titled, “School’s Out Forever: Parents Who Don’t Believe in Education” I cringe.

I cringe because even before reading it I know that a lot of it will be misleading or just downright incorrect.  I also cringe because I know there will be things in it that are true.

The Atlantic article was adapted from a book written by a woman named Quinn Cummings. (The author’s blurb says she is an Oscar nominated actress.  Having never heard of her and being something of a filmophile, I went and looked her up. Turns out she played Marsha Mason’s daughter in “The Goodbye Girl” in 1977 and was nominated for that role at the age of 10.  I’m not sure why this is relevant or would make me want to read a book she’s written 35 years later, but whatever.)  The reviews of the book on Amazon talk about how funny it is and how it has made people want to homeschool their children.

Which I guess is good, but if the Atlantic article is any indication, that interest would NOT extend to unschooling.  Actually, I should say that Cummings singles out “Radical Unschooling”, which she explains,  is an extreme form of unschooling that extends beyond learning and in to every aspect of life.  I could argue this distinction as non-existant.  All unschooling, or life learning, is by its’ nature inseparable from life and so it is all equally radical, or not, depending on how you look at it.   However, she is simply going by what she saw on the “Radical Unschoolers Network” which does separate itself from “regular” unschooling.

This is all part of the P.R. problem I mentioned earlier.

But back to the article.  The first issue is of course the title.   Can’t blame Cummings for that one, probably.  It is usually the editors who choose the title, and they are going to pick the thing that will make the most people read the article.   So in that case the title is successful if completely inaccurate.  The editors (or whoever picked it) are making the mistake of equating schooling with education.  As if the two are synonymous and the words interchangeable.   Make no mistake, unschooling parents are all about education – primarily of a self-directed nature.   What they don’t believe in is school or compulsory schooling.

In the article itself, Cummings initially talks about unschooling in positive terms, mentioning John Holt and John Gatto and their opinions regarding how children learn and the negative aspects of structured schooling and testing.

Things go downhill rapidly from there, however.  Writes Cummings:

“In website after website, scores of unschooling families lined up neatly for inspection, and they appeared to be a crafty lot. Here was an unschooling family showing off their weaving. Here was one with homemade ceramic wind chimes. Here was one daughter making all the family’s clothes. Oooh, and so much animal husbandry. If nothing else, it seems to unschool is to never suffer the taste of a store-bought egg.”

I wish she had cited which websites she looked at.  “Scores of unschooling families?”   A score is twenty, so “scores” would have to be at least 40.  She must be some kind of master researcher to find 40 or more unschooling websites.   But it’s true, the 10 or 15 that I regularly check out are heavy on the crafts and nature aspect of unschooling.

But so what?  Parents of schooled children talk a lot about classes, teachers and homework, and I bet if I wanted to I could find more than 40 websites as evidence.

Cummings continues:

“Then, one late night while I was trying to find a group of craft-fearing, poultry-free unschoolers with whom I could identify online, I stumbled across a subspecies called “Radical Unschoolers.” As it sounds, Radical Unschooling is an extension of the basic unschooling model taken to the extreme. If unschooling was, as they believed, the best way to learn, then wasn’t it also the best way to live?

Radically unschooled children are allowed to live each day in freedom, being exactly who and what they are at that moment. They have no bedtime, no mandatory foods, no off-limit words. If your child is tender-headed and shrieks like a parrot when her hair is brushed, the Radical would suggest you not brush her hair. If she prefers to let it mass into a giant dreadlock that collects food and gnats, well, it’s really not your problem, is it? After all, it’s not your hair; it’s hers. The basic operating principle is that you should not treat a child any differently than you would treat another adult, which is to say without guilt, coercion or threats.

Several mouse clicks later, I learned that the Radical Unschoolers were going to have a conference. For me it was a perfect excuse to make Daniel the primary educator for three days. Alice couldn’t come because she was taking an online class and had a midterm exam scheduled for that week. I decided I wouldn’t bring any of this up to my new theoretical friends, because it made our life appear less than blissful.

Entering the hotel lobby, I immediately recognized the Radicals. They weren’t hard to spot. Most of them sported a look best described as part dairy farmer, part Deadhead, part Renaissance Faire employee. Had I needed a way for someone to identify me among this group, I’d have said, “I’m the one with the shirt collar.”

Big, enormous, sigh.

See, there is truth in this part of the article, but it is a small sliver of truth magnified to look like the whole.   I know unschoolers who fit her descriptions to a T, right down to the unwashed child, the dreadlocks and the Renaissance Faire style clothing.

I also know unschoolers who could have stepped out of an ad for The Gap or J.Crew.   Maybe none of them were at the conference.  Or maybe the author didn’t notice those people (or they don’t make for as good an image in what purports to be a humorous essay).

She goes on to talk about the conference; how toddlers were allowed to undress and run out of the room, or disrupt a yoga class or breastfeed at will.

For an article that was supposed to be about the approach to education, there isn’t really much focus on that part of unschooling at all.   Except at the end, where Cummings wraps it all up by saying:

“In the restaurant that night, I contemplated this new tribe I was test-driving. Maybe Gatto is right. Maybe school is stupid, soul crushing and irrelevant. But what if these traits are not liabilities of modern education, but features? How many of us are continually delighted by our work? Maybe school is designed to acclimate humans to enduring long stretches of tedium.

It started to occur to me that whatever you think education should be is probably analogous to what you think life should be. People who prefer structure and order will thrive in an educational experience that is structured and ordered. Radical Unschoolers see the ideal life as a being filled with unbridled enthusiasm, inspiration, and discovery, but few rules, so they approach their children’s education with a heady balance of anarchy and delight.

The Radical Unschoolers, I thought as I reached for a chip loaded with hot cheddar, were certainly right about one element of basic human nature: Education is best soaked up, not crammed in. Every young person deserves the time and encouragement to discover his or her own gifts. But for every person trying to get their needs met by, say, making a friend or sharing an insight, there is another person perfectly happy being left alone and not hearing anyone scream about her genitals.”

It’s sad to me that Cummings thinks that to “acclimate humans to enduring long stretches of tedium” is a necessary and even good thing.   Wow.  “Hey kid, life is pretty boring; get used to it  now,” is not the message I want to send my children about education.    Her subsequent attempt to be positive by saying that Radical Unschoolers are right that education should be soaked up and not crammed in is kind of ruined with the crack about genitals at the end.

Because truly, what part of the article do you think people will remember?

However, much as I want to just hate on this article, I know that the image Cummings got of radical unschoolers is partially, if not entirely, brought on by the unschoolers themselves.

Unschoolers have a bad habit of being exclusionary and even somewhat close-minded.  Many in our tribe are against capitalist ventures, making too much money or doing anything that is perceived as “mainstream”.   Unschooling conferences are not really for the uninitiated, and they make no attempt to explain what is really going on to someone like Cummings who wants to check out unschooling and who unwittingly wanders in to such a conference.

See, if we want unschooling to be our own little secret tribe, with our own secret language and code of behavior  (or lack thereof), then fine.  We can all go happily along and say “F*%k you” to anyone who questions what we’re doing.

I’ve always had the impression, perhaps in error, that unschooling families would like more people to understand this way of thinking and to maybe even choose it for their own kids.

If that’s the case, we are failing miserably.

All those rowdy toddlers Cummings talks about?  They typically grow into amazing young people who are kind, generous, creative and motivated.   I doubt there were any unschooled teens at that conference who ripped off their clothes or started brawling in the middle of a yoga class.

But Cummings didn’t see that aspect of things, and nobody made an effort to show her.

I’ll probably read her book.  I hope it’s more positive than not regarding homeschooling.  And I’ll keep plugging along, reaching out, trying to dispel the myths and explain what we’re doing;  to educate people about it so that they realize it’s not about what you wear or the hair on your toddler.   Those things vary wildly among the unschooling community just as they do in any other.   So many people write about unschooling in a way that is positive and accessible.  Sandra Dodd, Wendy Priesnitz and Blake Boles spring to mind.    Maybe if Cummings made the effort to read their stuff or to hang out at the Not Back to School Camp for a week, her perceptions of unschoolers would change.

And maybe then the “Oscar nominated actress” would write about that.

God knows we can use all the positive P.R. we can get.





2 comments on “Unschooling’s P.R. problem

  1. Miriam says:

    Here, the home schoolers are easy to spot also. They are universally polite, clean, quiet, self confident and quick to help if requested. I have seen them in groups and the older ones, alone. Some are small family groups. Some are obviously “field trips” of a dozen or more that have a wide range of ages and accompanied by adults. Noone (not even the adults) are shouting or as they say “acting out”. The ones I see that fit the above description are usually in a convenience store at around midnight, with parents who are dressed in the “gangsta” mode and loudly discussing the merits of which cigarette to buy or what lottery ticket pays the best while consuming/buying large amounts of junk food. And yelling at the kids to “SHUT UP”. Maybe she should investigate another venue.

  2. Natalie says:

    “Unschooling” isn’t an organization. There’s no P.R. because there’s no Club Of Unschoolers. We’re mostly autonomous families, and we’re gathering to be with like minded people. We aren’t educators here to be interviewed.

    If you want to meet “Unschooling”, find the unschooled adults in the world. Check in with the grown children if you want to know the measure of their freedom to learn from life.

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