How Far Can We Take the Unschooling Approach?

How Far Can We Take the Unschooling Approach?

Posted in Teaching Tips

A New Zealand mum asks:

At what point can a parent be said to be no longer “purely” unschooling? At what point does what they’re doing become coercive (or pushy) in some way? Say you leave materials around that you hope your child will pick up. Is that just part of providing the “stimulating environment” they need? Or is it coercive because you start to convey to them that you’d really like them to pick up those materials? And then I wonder – is it ever even possible to purely unschool? Because surely we’re often conveying subtle expectations to our children even when we’re not trying to?

It seems an extreme view of unschooling is based on ideas I believe were popularised by John Locke (1632-1704), who theorised that the mind of a newborn is like a clean sheet of paper (a blank tape), and is all innocence. It is the adults who are all screwed up, especially parents who are not only emotionally involved with the child, but also generally insist on passing on all this traditional family, church and society stuff. Let the professional educators have the child as soon as possible, and they will write only the things that are good and proper for any child to learn on that blank sheet of paper.

But it seems some strands of unschooling take this even farther by saying get all adults out of the way as much as possible, and the child will learn all it needs to know without all the confused morality, double standards, superstitions and extraneous bits of nostalgia. In other words, get rid of the past, and allow the child to live completely in the present pressing on to the future. Let the child construct his or her own reality and future, their own set of values and standards.

There are some unspoken assumptions behind these theories. One is that the child is pure innocence, with a tendency toward goodness. Another is that although the mind is a blank tape, it is somehow formatted in such a way as to always select the best options presented to it and to always put them together in the optimal fashion. Another is that neither parents nor any adults have anything worth knowing that they can pass on, and that even if they did, it is best to let the child learn it for itself. It is like the contempt certain animal rights people have for trained dolphins…leave them alone, totally unexposed to human influence, and they will develop to their proper, natural potential. The tricks they are taught have no place in the animal’s “natural” life, so can add nothing of value to it’s existence.

The problem is that it is hard to leave a human baby alone to develop without any contact with other humans. There have been ferral babies reared by animals, but their development was found to be grossly stunted. And I suspect most parents feel they have quite a bit they reckon should be passed on to their children. Even the one who wants to interfere as little as possible with his/her child is passing on that very concept. So ultimately, the theoretical ideal is an impossible quest; so you might as well build into the child all the best you are convinced of and do it the best way you know how, and enthuse the child to love learning and to pursue knowledge and excellence…and altruism, and service and kindness while you’re at it!!

My mum is still a voracious reader, at age 74…with only one good eye. When I was a kid, she and I were in a library having a ball getting out some new books. She motioned to the vast shelves and the several rooms and expressed her frustration that she will never be able to read them all, nor keep up with all the new stuff being produced, nor find all the fantastic stuff from the past out of print and only in museums. That had a lasting impression on me. Being a door-to-door salesman for 13 years also made a lasting impression on me: in both cases, I realised I don’t know it all (or even very much), and I can always learn something from anybody, no matter who they are. I have also discovered that only my mum and very close friends will bother to share some of those really important and personal insights with me that make such a difference in knowing how to cope with various situations.

So do I see it as coercive to nudge my children in a certain direction? Is it unfair to blatantly suggest one set of interests or activities in preference to others? Is it wrong to exclude certain things from their lives? Should I share the life secrets I’ve learned and that others have taught me or not?

Well, it seems that a whole lot is going to be excluded simply for logistical reasons (we are not likely to visit the North Pole; they will never experience life in the Hakataramea Valley of the 1950s; there are more books in existence than they will ever see, let alone read). So I will accept exclusion as a part of life. And logistics means I cannot expose them to the things I reckon are the best, for time and limited resources prevent that. So I will accept that they will only ever be exposed to a limited number of things in this life anyway.

So what to do? I will further assume that NOBODY is as motivated for my child’s best welfare as my wife and I am. That means I would be silly to leave it up to chance or the beneficence of others to see that my children get the best deals in life. No, here is what I will do: I will take hold of my position as parent with both hands and strive to give my children the best knowledge, experiences, attitudes, values, friendships, advice, guidance, etc., that I can, knowing that it will only ever be a start, and that my children will have to take up from where I left off.

Now this theory I’ve just explained also has a lot of unspoken assumptions behind it. One is that life is linear, with a starting and an ending on this earth. Another is that the time here counts for something. A third is that there is propositional truth, unchanging rights and wrongs. If life were cyclical, with no ultimate end or purpose, then eat, drink and be merry would be my theme song. But you know, I have already learned from 48 years of experience that discipline is more pleasureable than sloth, and that work is more satisfying than relaxation.

Seems to me the Bible has it right when it indicates that the world and ourselves were created a certain way, and try as we might, certain things simply will not change and refuse to conform to our wills, to the way we would like things to be. One is that children desperately need committed parents and other loving adults to train them up in the way they should go, for a child left to himself will bring shame to his mother.

From Keystone Magazine
March 1999 , Vol. V No.II
P O Box 9064
Palmerston North
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email: craig