Wednesday, December 24, 2008

An unschooling post

Yes, I'm an unschooling dad and we're an unschooling family but I rarely write about that specifically here on my blog. Ronnie covers it so well, so thoroughly, on the ZP blog that I have very little to add. There's also the fact that I specifically try not to overthink unschooling because I tend to overthink everything in my life so pathetically that I want to allow unschooling to simply be. Nonetheless, Jon Gold, spousal unit of the Zenma, asked me to write an essay about unschooling for him.

It was an interesting exercise for me because I found it very difficult to actually commit myself on paper (in electrons, anyway). I wrote up to it. I wrote around it. I laid out paragraph after paragraph of preparation. I finally had to actually force myself to write something specifically about unschooling per se.

And I was very unhappy with it.

I don't think I'd be happy with it no matter what I managed to finally say, even if I took a decade to rewrite and rewrite and rewrite; so I went ahead and sent it to Jon just as it was, the entire thing I wrote, simply because I had to. I expect he can and will edit it down to the actual unschooling material with perhaps a brief paragraph or two of the introduction for context. The other 4000 or so words it took me to get to the place where I still couldn't really bring myself to commit to writing about unschooling can easily fall to the editing room floor. It was a fascinating emotional exercise for me and I now hafta admit to myself, and you, that I don't write about unschooling here, not simply because Ronnie covers it so well but because I'm intimidated to do so.

Therefore, because my preferred response to being afraid is to step into the fear and embrace it no matter the outcome, I'm gonna throw my essay out here in its raw form for the entire world to see. Alea iacta est.


And Now for Something Completely Different
a parable in five parts


There's a Latin maxim which could easily be the motto for unschooling: Nemo nisi per amicitiam cognoscitur. Vulgar translation: You can't learn unless you like what you're studying. Those ancient Romans were pretty sharp, huh?

Jon asked me to write an essay on unschooling by tempting me with this provocative prompt:

Say we were visited by ammonia-breathing Venusians (which really sucks for them because there is no ammonia on Venus). As soon as their offspring are born they are shunted away from their parents into an age-segregated academy for the next 22 years. How would you tell them what you do differently?

My first reaction was pure panic. No way! The responsibility was too great. I felt like I was being asked to write Principia Mathematica in place of Bertrand Russell; I wasn't up to such a Herculean task. Man! Just lemme clean the Augean stables instead, ok? Who did I think I was? Who did Jon think I was? Eventually I calmed down. Jon wasn't asking for an infallible multivolume Bible of unschooling, the Nomothesia Autodidaktos as it were, he just wanted an essay about unschooling from my point of view. Ok, that's perhaps achievable; I can take a crack at that. And you, dear reader, should constantly remember as you read along that this is just me, an individual like you, penning some thoughts. It is not holy writ.

As it turns out, Edgar Rice Burroughs (famous for his Tarzan series) essentially already addressed Jon's scenario nearly a hundred years ago, except his ammonia-breathing Venusians (Brief aside: I prefer the classical reference - Cythereans) were the 4~5-meter tall, 4-armed green Martians of his John Carter on Mars (Barsoom) series. ERB lived and worked before the specifics of Holt's unschooling philosophy coalesced, although he was after or contemporary with Adler, Neill, Binet, Piaget, et al. His depiction of the process and results of the Barsoomian (green Martian) method of crèche-based child-rearing (essentially as Jon describes for his Cythereans) pretty much did my work for me.

John Carter's (actually ERB's, of course) solution for the Barsoomians is parental involvement in child-rearing, not sending the kids off to be raised elsewhere by others. ERB himself attended a military prep school, the Michigan Military Academy. He was (in)famous for his rebelliousness. Soon after being sent there, he escaped boarded a train bound for his home in Chicago. He was punished by being sent back to the academy where he ultimately graduated in 1895. Perhaps we can see the roots of ERB's basis for opposition to nonparental child-rearing in his own childhood experience.

Having gone to a military prep school myself, I can empathize. Parenthetically, when ERB was graduating in 1895, my school, the College of the Immaculate Conception (founded 1847), which despite the name is a college-prep school, founded by the Jesuits as a Catholic school but also venerating Mars by virtue of being a dedicated Marine JROTC institution, would have been close to celebrating its fiftieth anniversary, making it thirty years older than MMA (founded 1877), and it is still in existence whereas MMA closed in 1908. Neener-neener!

Wow! I'm not sure where that came from but this is an essay by me so what's in my head goes into this narrative. Sorry. Many of us who have chosen to unschool with our children come from a thoroughly schooled background. I certainly do. Sometimes the most difficult thing to do in my personal unschooling effort is to let go of that baggage. We are explorers discovering and settling a new universe. While we may become reasonably comfortable there, our children are the true natives of this new reality. That's a difference which defies measurement. I'm ecstatic for them.

For the purposes of this narrative, I've used ERB's Barsoomians as a springboard/basis for my aliens but changed them to fit my needs. I apologize to his ghost and theirs for any depredations or degradations I've wreaked on his doughty green warriors. Dum vivimus, vivamus! Or as Tars Tarkas, the noble green Martian, would say, "We still live, John Carter!" Then, despite being desperately outnumbered, they'd go kick some crèche-reared butt!

Any errors, omissions, or inaccuracies herein are mine. All opinions expressed herein are mine and I take sole responsibility for them. Anything herein which is good or useful came from my nonpareil wife and our magnificent, unique children. Ok, some credit for the good stuff also goes to the brave educators who've gone before or who are currently examining the concept of education with an open mind and heart. Credit is also due to the first generation of unschoolers who shared their expertise and experience so generously with those of us who followed them. But like I said, all the bad stuff is my onus.

With that said, gentle reader, let us begin!

Liber Primus:
In the beginning was the void
(Say this with a Yiddish accent and it's an amusing allusion. Really.)

After that there was the Big Bang. The shortest, most infinitesimal tick of time after that put us in the Planck Era. Right after that our universe began to expand and take shape.

Ten billion years after the Planck Era, a star system was forming. It was a modest little system in a modest little galaxy. This particular nascent system was situated a good way out one of its galaxy's spiral arms in a decent but unprepossessing stellar neighborhood. At its core was a quiet, unremarkable main-sequence star, type G, class V, still young, still fresh, with probably an additional ten billion years of existence yet to go before its exhaustion as a yellow dwarf (G-V) and its transition and expansion to red giant status, followed by its collapse into a dense white dwarf - about the size of a planet but still retaining most of its original mass. Like I said, dense. And cooling because by that point it's no longer capable of producing the fusion which gave it and its system life for all those years. Finally, in its ultimate senescence, it will cool into a black dwarf, cold and dead, waiting silently for the end of this universe.

But that won't be for a long, long time and we were talking about its birth, not its death. Like most G-type systems in their early years, this one's accretion disc condensed into small dense inner planets and large gas-giant outer planets. Over time, the outer planets were the first to cool, which is, of course, a relative term. The gas giants by their very nature are sort of proto-stars and exhibit a matter-phase gradient to very hot interiors with no specific demarcation between atmosphere and surface, merely the aforesaid gradient from the thinnest outer atmosphere to the densest deep core. But the smaller, dense inner planets did cool significantly and they formed solid mantles over their molten cores, all enveloped by gaseous atmospheres. There were four of these which formed in this particular system.

Beyond the fourth inner planet and closer to the star than the first gas giant there remained a region of planetesimals which failed to form into a unified planet because of the gravitational effects of the large gas giant nearby. A few billion years later, the sentient and observant inhabitants of the third planet from the star would call this the "asteroid belt" and they would wonder if it might be the remains of a planet which had blown up, either by natural causes or as a result of the invention and use of a massive explosive device invented by the long-deceased inhabitants of that once-upon-a-time planet. These folks also named a similar formation beyond the outermost gas giant the "Kuiper belt." Sentient but not very imaginative, huh? Why do they have a thing for belts?

Because the inner planets cooled in a progression inversely proportional to their distance from the sun, number four was the first to cool to the point where life could arise. The later inhabitants of number three who invented those belt names called this planet MARS, after their god of war, because in their time from their planet's surface number four appeared reddish, the color of their blood, a prominent feature of warfare. Thus, the logic behind the applied name. Well, at least they didn't call it "something belt."

While those folks on planet three were still only a quantum possibility for the distant future, life was developing and progressing rapidly on planet four. Because of the intensity of formation activity in this relatively young solar system, exogenesis began taking place, as life travelled between planets on fragments of asteroids and bits of planetary mantle blown into space by collisions. Number four, or Mars as the later inhabitants of planet three would call her, or Barsoom as her own sentient species labelled her, being right next to the asteroid belt, experienced a great deal of collision activity but luckily no hits by fragments of significant (planet killer) size.

Planet three, which its future inhabitants would call Terra (or Earth), on the other hand, had barely survived a massive strike not long after the basic formation of the inner system. Luckily it was a tangential blow which did not utterly destroy the planet but merely blasted away a small percentage of its mass. About two percent of that mass stayed within the gravity well of Terra and formed into a single body with an orbit approximately a quarter of a million miles out. While this body, later called Luna (or the Moon) formed, Terra recuperated from the collision damage and the exogenesis between Barsoom and Terra blossomed.

Thus, circa four billion years ago, Barsoomians and Terrans shared common greatgoogolgrandparents. The Barsoomians matured faster.

Liber Secundus:
On the Origin of Species

Barsoom is farther from the sun than Terra. It's smaller. It has a thinner atmosphere. It's closer to the asteroid belt. These factors all played a part in Barsoomian evolution progressing much more rapidly than Terran evolution.

Being farther from the sun than Terra, Barsoom cooled faster and was suitable for supporting life much sooner. Being smaller, it has only about 1/3 the gravitational pull of Terra. Lesser gravity allows for more possibilities in terms of overall size, rate of growth, and rate of variation in speciation. Concomitant with lesser size/mass, there is less ability to hold an atmosphere, which was thinner to begin with because of the size factor. A thinner atmosphere is less effective than a thicker one for blocking radiation of all kinds. Radiation contributes to a higher rate of mutation. Evolution proceeds faster than it would on a planet with a thicker atmosphere. Throw in the extra environmental stresses associated with the constant bombardment because of its proximity to the asteroid belt and you have a recipe for early, rapid evolution.

Life on Barsoom flourished… and evolved quickly. By the time the solar system was four billion years old (about a billion years ago, more or less), life on Terra had progressed to the point where there were simple animals, some even practicing sexual reproduction. Hope they had fun! By that point, however, life on Barsoom had evolved to a point equivalent to current-era life on Terra, including the appearance of sentient life.

Our Barsoomian cousins (distant cousins but nonetheless related by DNA because of the exogensis of the early period in our solar system's life) were four to five meters tall and bipedal, with two legs, two arms, and an intermediate pair of limbs which were mostly used as arms. Large heads with widely-spaced eyes and prominent tusks gave them a slightly insectoid look, which was added to by their overall green coloring. Their intellect was equivalent to that of homo sapiens, as was their curiosity. They rapidly discovered the basics of the physical sciences and developed a sophisticated technology. By the time their knowledge was approximately equivalent to that of sixteenth century humanity, they knew they were in trouble.

The Barsoomians' scientific exploration of their planet and system revealed certain dire realities. Their atmosphere was thinning fairly rapidly. That was certainly inconvenient but, more significantly, water vapor being lost to space was the most serious component of their atmospheric difficulties and their planet was drying up at an alarming rate. They'd be out of water long before they had to worry about breathability-related atmospheric density problems. What to do?

Like most sentient species in the known universe, the Barsoomians were anything but homogenous. Different cultures, different philosophies, different supernatural beliefs, etc. The culture with the strongest leaning toward exploring the physical sciences decided on a course of action and focused all their efforts in that direction. The other cultures… well, we'll probably never know much about them because our only contact with our Barsoomian cousins is with the technologically-oriented ones who travelled through spacetime to here and now, who are from that particular culture which was heavy on the physical sciences. The others were erased from our ken almost a billion years ago.

As Percy Bysshe Shelly said of Ozymandias in the eponymous poem -

Nothing beside remains: round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

The rusty red sands of Barsoom are all that is left of our cousins and their ancient culture, nothing beside remains. Except, of course, for our refugees whom this narrative is about; and we'll get to them in due course.

The techno-Barsoomians chose an aggressive plan of action. All children would be placed in a state-controlled crèche immediately after birth where they would be educated according to their demonstrated abilities, similar to the German Hauptschule-Realschule-Gymnasium system, with all education geared toward creating a survival plan for their species. Well, their tribe, anyway. Various lines of thought were pursued in search of a satisfactory survival solution but finally a serendipitous breakthrough in spaceflight technology pushed them toward pursuing an off-planet scheme.

Their two neighboring planets closer to the sun were not suitable for habitation within the Barsoomians' remaining timeframe, although they might be in the distant future despite their relatively heavy gravity (more than twice that of Barsoom), and the one closest to the sun would never be suitable; but the spaceflight breakthrough (Ironically, it was discovered by someone from the hauptschule-equivalent track.) allowed for FTL (faster than light) travel and that put other star systems within reach. Surely there would be Barsoom-like planets around other, nearby yellow dwarfs. Numerous small scoutships could be sent out to discover them and then, once those Barsoom-like planets were located, large colony ships could follow where the scouts led.

Liber Tertius:
If you build it, they will go.

Tars Tarkas was ten years out of captain's school, which followed a lengthy period of general schooling, and was followed by still more specialized schooling and training. He'd finished near the top of his class and was slated to captain one of the first scoutships to be commissioned. The building efforts on the scoutships were almost complete and he was anxious to penetrate the alien realms of distant stars and wrest their secrets from them for the survival of the Barsoomians. He and his wife, propulsion officer Deja (nee Thoris), were closing out their planet-based life and preparing for their Icarian adventure.

Like all children, Tars had been placed in a crèche soon after birth, beginning the long Barsoomian version of Schwarze Pädagogik (poisonous pedagogy). Even his early activities were directed play, activity with a purpose. By the time actual lessons began he'd already been tentatively tracked and slotted based on early testing, both passive and active. He was mentally and physically well above average and always met or exceeded those early metrics. Young Barsoomians competed at everything all the time.

In the classroom, he learned the material to be covered easily enough but he also learned the important unspoken lesson of discerning the teacher's desires and meeting those expectations. On the sports fields he was a fierce competitor. Early on, he understood that he had the potential to be on the officer track, perhaps even qualifying for captain's school. Therefore, even though he enjoyed individual competition best, he focused his energy on team sports in order to hone and demonstrate his group leadership skills.

His efforts were successful. He easily qualified for officer's school and performed there as well as he had throughout his previous schooling. There was no doubt in anyone's mind that he'd be sent to captain's school. And he was. Everything came together for him there - his mental and physical maturation, his rigorously-learned lessons, his intuitive understanding of what was expected of him and what was required to succeed, and his learned and refined ability to interact with and dominate others.

Tars Tarkas graduated from captain's school with honors and was assigned further specialized training as a scoutship officer, with the possibility of attaining an actual captaincy. The years passed and schooling intensified but Tars cleared every hurdle, weathered every storm, surmounted every obstacle, and defeated every puzzle. His gamesmanship in the educational universe was nonpareil.

Seven years into his post-captain's-school training, Tars met, fell in love with, and married Deja Thoris, a rising young propulsion engineer. Yes, he had personal time and interests. Some, anyway. And even an overwhelming schooling burden can't completely suppress an interest in sex, whether you're human or Barsoomian. Besides, by that time, he knew he would not only qualify for but actually be assigned as captain of a scoutship. By the ten-year mark after captain's school, all his efforts came to fruition. Tars Tarkas achieved the rank of Commander and was assigned as the captain of the recently-completed scoutship Loup-garou.

Loup-garou was a magnificent creation. An asteroid approximately a kilometer in diameter had been hollowed out to create room for a crew of fifty couples. The interior housed a complex mix of biology and technology. Atmosphere and edible products, both vegetable and animal, would come from a self-sustaining closed-system biological section. Cutting-edge technological devices were installed to support their mission of finding, categorizing, and exploring Barsoom-like planets. Most significantly, at the core of the asteroid was their hope for the future - the irrational engine which would propel them at FTL pseudovelocities. A fusion ramscoop engine and a photon sail backup for non-FTL maneuvering were anchored on the exterior of the asteroid-ship along with a scattering of planetary atmospheric-maneuvering craft. Sitting quietly in orbit, it looked like a potato with an inside-out umbrella stuck into one side and a nozzle sticking out the other. If the photon sail had been deployed, you'd have to add to that image a large scarf attached parachute-style.

It was beautiful.

Tars fed power to the ramscoop and Loup-garou eased out of polar orbit, perpendicular to the ecliptic. They slipped the surly bonds of their natal star and climbed toward the high untrespassed sanctity of interstellar space, perhaps to touch the face of God. When all preparations were complete, all calculations made, and a few quiet prayers offered up, Tars took a deep breath and gave the order to engage the irrational engine.

Loup-garou shifted.

Liber Quartus:
or... Let's do the timewarp again!

The plan was for Tars, and other scoutship captains like him, to spend up to five subjective shipyears during a search mission. Most of that time would be spent exploring in realtime rather than in the time-contraction mode of FTL pseudovelocity and the expected overall time differential was estimated to be on the order of no more than two-to-one, i.e. perhaps ten years would pass on Barsoom for the five they experienced onboard. Crewmembers joked with their planet-bound friends about returning young and healthy to sneer at the aged and decrepit planet dwellers. Everyone had a fine laugh about it.

But no one is perfect, not Terrans, not Barsoomians. Machines break and/or malfunction, it's their nature. He goes by a different name on Barsoom but Murphy and his law are universal and inescapable. Things went wrong. Very wrong.

Not long after the irrational engine shut down after its initial use, Loup-garou's navigator knew there was a problem. The irrational physicists assigned to the ship scratched their heads and huddled together, exchanging phrases and concepts which sounded like gibberish to the rest of the crew. Days later, after an intense meeting with the tired, frustrated, and still irrational physicists, Tars Tarkas, experiencing an emotional kinship with the captain of the Terran sailing ship Flying Dutchman, reluctantly announced to the crew that the original mission parameters were no longer applicable and that they were in for a long haul.

Twenty shipyears later, they had used the irrational engine many times and explored several promising star systems but seemed no closer to being able to find their way home. During that time, the crew had established their own microcosm of the society they'd left. Couples had children who were raised in a hastily-established, not-perfectly-orthodox onboard crèche where they grew to near-adulthood. This new generation was a different breed, less compliant and more rebellious than their parents. It was, of course, one of them who solved the problem with the irrational engine.

The original crew members were ecstatic, their children less so. They were space-born and space-borne, explorers of the infinite; crèche-rearing and planet-bound life seemed terribly confining. They wanted more. They were reluctant to return to the Barsoom of their parents' birth; it was not their home.

Despite the sociological and psychological differences between the generations, everyone onboard was stupefied by the one incontrovertible reality that mathematics mercilessly imposed on them. Calculations, no matter how many times the results were rejected and the work redone, insisted that during their twenty shipyears of subjective time, something in the neighborhood of a billion years had passed on Barsoom. An inconceivable gulf of deep time resulting from a smorgasbord of factors, including time dilation, Lorentz-FitzGerald contraction, Uncle Albert's special relativity, and probably even wiggly spacetime. That one sounds kinda creepy, doesn't it?

What would they return to?

Ultimately, despite exhaustive discussions, there was never any serious doubt as to their course of action. Tars Tarkas was the captain and his mission was clear. Ten years or ten trillion, never mind a mere billion, his job, his purpose, was to report home. For the first time in twenty years (or a billion years, depending on your frame of reference), Loup-garou turned toward Barsoom and shifted.

Liber Quintus:
Tales From the Golden Vortex

"…so President Coolidge said, 'Tell that to Mrs. Coolidge!' and that's the story behind the phrase 'the Coolidge effect'." The laughter that followed that great punchline died abruptly as everyone in the group noticed the extremely tall and extremely green foursome heading our way with our host, Jon. We tried our best not to stare, especially given that one of them was distinctly pregnant, but seeing Martians, sorry, Barsoomians at the Unschooling Conference Center, nicknamed the Golden Vortex, was more than a bit unusual.

Certainly we'd all seen the Barsoomians and their asteroid-spaceship on the news and knew the whole story about their journey through spacetime from the living Mars of a billion years ago to the flourishing-Earth-but-dead-Mars of now but none of us had ever seen one in person. What was going on?

Jon arrived with his verdant visitors and gave an introduction and explanation. "Hey, how are you guys doing? I'd like you to meet Mors and his wife, Sola," he said, inclining his head toward the pregnant one. "And these are Mors' parents, Tars and Deja."

We managed polite greetings through our surprise as Jon continued.

"You know they're planning to leave the solar system again in the long term but meanwhile Mors and Sola have heard about unschooling and want to find out about it and compare it to their system. Frank, do you have time to chat with them a bit?"

I mumbled a blasé "Sure, Jon" while inside my head, I was whirling like a dervish. I'd always been a science-fiction fan and this was heaven for me. It was possible Jon knew this and relied on it to gain my cooperation. Signor Redux Machiavelli, sometimes known as Jon Gold, nodded his thanks and headed back to the main building as the group broke up while the Barsoomians found a comfortable place to sit.

Mors explained in barely-accented English that they'd heard about unschooling while studying human media as they reentered the Solar System and his generation found the idea fascinating, although it was anathema to his parent's generation.

"That's not exactly shocking to hear," I sympathized wryly. I may have put a little too much ham in my wry because Tars locked eyes with me and frowned, and a Barsoomian frown is a chilling thing indeed; but Deja touched his arm lightly and gave him a look. He settled back, albeit reluctantly, and I realized viscerally that we were indeed cousins in more ways than just some abstract ancient DNA link. I smiled in the quiet place behind my eyes and began, "Ok, here's my $.02 on unschooling…

If you remember nothing else from this polemic, remember this: Choice matters. Distilled to its sui generis, unschooling is unique by virtue of the fact that it is purely autodidactic or learner-controlled. Every other pedagogic process is didactic, authoritarian, homilectic, autocratic, and any other synonym you can think of for teacher-controlled. Every one of them. Yes, some more than others but, at the core, every other system is rooted in control of the student by an authority figure.

It may be the teacher. Socrates is famous for his elenctic method which I consider a prime example of education in its most Latinate meaning – to lead or draw out from. The teacher leads the student to the conclusion the teacher wants the student to accept by drawing the student out with a series of structured (leading) questions. It seems like the student is engaged in a meaningful intellectual exercise but it is, in fact, carefully choreographed and completely controlled by the teacher.

It may be the curriculum. Look at the nearest public school for this one. All teachers must teach to the curriculum, no exceptions, alternatives, or workarounds. And in recent years the curriculum has been strongly driven by standardized tests and the need to score well on them. This is even more pathetic than the basic idea of curriculum design where a bunch of soi disant experts get together to arbitrarily decide on what goes into the curriculum and what doesn't. Man! I am so reminded of the Council of Nicea, huh? Orthodoxy, orthodoxy, is our cry. O-r-tho-dox-y. Are we in it? Well, I guess! Orthodoxy, orthodoxy, yes, yes, yes!

It may be the structure or process. Steiner-Waldorf anyone? Not nearly as arbitrary as the public school system, geared to a realistic approach focused on actual child development stages unlike the public school system, and more focused on integrating the whole person into the learning system than the public school's concentration on memorization-type, abstract intellectual work. It is, nonetheless, structured, arbitrary, and ultimately controlled by authority figures. Plus, it's rooted in Steiner's anthroposophy, which is just kinda silly.

"But what about Montessori?" you ask. The Montessori method proposes that the focus is on the child, that the child learns with little interruption from the teacher (director), that children have rights, and that children should not be subjected to measurements like grading and testing. Well, that sounds pretty autodidactic and unschoolish, doesn't it? Except that all of those "autodidactic freedoms" occur within a rigidly controlled environment.

Children must learn according to the Montessori curriculum, using Montessori pedagogical materials in the way specified by the method and curriculum. Learning a Montessori activity only takes place after a teacher demonstrates it and activities using a Montessori device are restricted to the process demonstrated by the teacher according to the curriculum. Experimentation is discouraged. Play is strongly discouraged. Student use of Montessori devices and activities may resemble play but it is intended to be useful work; Maria Montessori insisted that her materials be used only for their designed purpose. Cleanliness and maintenance of the classroom by the students is required.

Certainly this method is less rigid and more child-centered than the basic public school concept of classrooms of students working through an inflexible curriculum in lock-step but it is only child-centered and child-controlled within the larger context of absolute despotic control by the Montessori teacher and curriculum.

I could go on and on for method after method. In every case, it's one thing or another and that thing is always ultimately that the control of the student rests in the hands of an authority figure who is not the student. Unschooling puts control into the hands most capable of exerting that control in the absolute best possible manner – the student's.

"But, Frank," Tars interjected, "'unschooling' is just a negative. It's not something it's simply not something. Where's the sense in that? Where's the positive connotation?" Hmmmmnnn, ok, I agree that words are important and powerful. If the Latin borrowing sounds too negative or passive to you, howzabout a Greek one? Would "aschooling" sound more pompous, I mean, positive and active? Is it negative to be uninhibited, unfettered, undiluted, or unbiased? If it's merely the label which is a sticking point for you, try using autodidacticism; there's a powerful, positive, Greek-rooted mouthful of a word for you. Cato (the elder) was negative and even used a passive construction when he declaimed to the senate after every speech, "Carthago delenda est." The result of those negative, passive-formation words was the very positive act of the total destruction of Carthage to the point where historians report that no stone was left on stone and the fields were salted. As a result, Rome became the preeminent, uncontested power in the Mediterranean. That's a pretty active result from "negative, passive" words.

How can a mere, ignorant child know what they wanna learn? Ya can't know what ya don't know, right? This is an absolutely sensible and valid question. However, it is one level (at least) too shallow. The more important question is: What is the core purpose of any education? Why are we learning, even in general, beyond the specific task of learning a particular thing. Before you can ask questions about which things are important to learn, you must ask yourself why. Predicate your phenomenology. Elucidate your epistemology. Tally your teleology.

Once you've determined your own beliefs, then you're ready to compare and contrast curriculum design ex cathedra vs. autodidacticism. Consider this simple example from recent human history: web design. This skill set was developed by people working in the medium who figured it out on their own (autodidactically!). Only after it existed in the world of reality, did colleges begin to design curricula and offer courses in web design. Think about how many other subjects came TO structured education FROM the real, workaday, autodidactic world.

I won't belabor this point. It's something you must consider for yourself and examine within your own internal framework. With that said, let me return to the concern that a child can't know what they don't know. There's a conundrum. How do we expose our children to the universe of knowledge without teaching them important things in a set order? Well, now you understand intuitively the roots of how curriculum design comes about. Somebody sits down and makes subjective decisions about things and prescribes it for us to consume as CURRICULUM. That makes it easy for those who are insecure in their own ability to decide for themselves what's worth knowing and what can happily be left on the shelf. The experts have handed down the stone tablets and all's right with the world.

Bah humbug!

The famous mechanic (quantum mechanic/physicist) Wolfgang Pauli was once asked to review a paper. When he was done, he proclaimed, "That's not right. It's not even wrong!" It may be thoroughly and rigorously prepared. It may be beautifully written and presented. It may be strictly logical within its own context. Nonetheless, it springs from a root which is so essentially incorrect, so far from valid, that it would have to improve immensely to be merely wrong. It's so ridiculous that it's "not even wrong." I would apply this criticism to the modern concept of curriculum.

Unschoolers self-select what's important to them and what's not. But HOW? you say. Here's how. They're able to self-select meaningfully because unschooling parents expose the universe (as much of it as they can) to their children in as broad and inviting a smorgasbord as possible. We call this strewing. In a sense, it's the unschooling equivalent to curriculum; but rather than being dictated to the student, it is simply introducing things to the student for their selection or rejection.

Give someone a fish and they eat for a day. Teach them to fish and they eat forever. Give them some choices and they might decide they like something other than fishing. One man's meat is another man's poison, right? I know people who love to garden. Ick! I'd rather clean public toilets. Seriously. But that's the beauty of individual choice. They're free to choose gardening and I'm free to avoid it.

Strewing itself is not some magical, transcendental thing. A smorgasbord is a wonderful analog. Or dim sum. I love dim sum! Hey, let's go get some lunch when we're done chatting, ok? Essentially, strewing is any sort of hint about what's available in the wide world which might act as a springboard for their curiosity. Sure, books are good. A book on astronomy left on the coffee table can lead to a mini-career, or even a professional career!, for the right child. However, books are not the be-all and end-all of strewing. Seeing a cup of water expand when it turns to ice in the freezer can lead to a sophisticated exploration of chemistry. Why the hell does water expand when it freezes while almost everything else contracts? Wow! I never heard of triple points before. That's cool! And they're off on a wild race to knowledge, where they soon discover, if they haven’t already, that there's no finish line and that it's a lifelong pursuit. For another child, finding an interesting pebble on a hiking trail might open a path that leads all the way from that small trail to the entire universe of geology.

But will all children have an equal experience when unschooling?

No. Not if you're using that word in its usual (dumbass, meaningless) sense.

Whoever told you that life is equal or fair was trying to sell you something. Nobody, nohow, nowhere ever has an "equal" experience to that of somebody else, somehow else, somewhere else. Every individual's experience is unique, whether they're unschooling or attending public school or matriculating at some upscale private institution. Some families have more money/resources than others. Some have more opportunities than others. They're all simply different. "Equal" is a chimera. Forget it, it's neither important nor realistic. Unique, individually-tailored experience is the important concept here. It doesn't matter that my experience in life is not equal to yours. What's important is that mine's mine and yours is yours.

But how can the child in that first example learn all about astronomy if unschoolers can't take classes?

Oh my dear, sweet, gherkin-colored friends! Who said taking classes is forbidden to unschoolers? Remember my original comment: It's all about CHOICE. Consider this scenario which is chosen to avoid the context of school per se but which needn't be so neutral. Turn the example into a school class, if it makes you happier.

There are two kids in the same group in an aikido dojo. Aikido, like most Japanese martial arts, is rigorously structured. Every motion is dictated by the sensei. Practically every breath is choreographed. It is indisputably a very controlled experience. Superficially, an observer might say that both kids are having the same experience. An equal experience, if you're brave enough to use that word after my previous comments about it; but, of course, they're not having an equal experience by any stretch of the imagination. It's not even a similar experience in any meaningful sense.

Kid one, Mac, is there because his folks consider him undisciplined and they're forcing him to attend to improve himself. He hates being there. He hates his folks for forcing him to go. He hates wearing the stupid, strange outfits. He hates the ranking system which is even more blatant than that of his school classes because you wear a colored belt which precisely describes your status at the dojo. He resents every stinking minute he has to be there. Mac is being taught aikido but he ain't learning a damned thing, if he can possibly avoid it.

Kid two, Leda, is there because she's heard about aikido from reading manga and decided it was something she wanted to learn more about it. She finds the gi interesting compared to her usual T-shirt couture and looks forward to improving her skills to the point where she can also wear the hakama of senior practitioners. The ranking system is something she's unused to but she has no strong feelings about it; it's just another new and intriguing thing. She enjoys the novelty of the experience and delights in learning the complex physical skills. She looks forward to progressing in this odd-but-fascinating art. Leda is learning aikido and she's unschooling, despite the abstraction that she's in a rigorously structured class in a highly-disciplined martial art.

Their experiences are clearly neither identical nor equal and I don't see them as evincing any realistic similarity, either. Despite the superficial sameness to the casual observer, these two experiences are utterly antithetic. Coercion vs. choice is the difference.

Choice makes it completely different."

I stopped talking for the first time in a while to take a deep breath and, after a brief caesura to inventory my brain and my guests' energy level, I declared to the berylline Barsoomians, "That pretty much sums it up for me. 'nuff said!"

Tars and Deja maintained polite poker faces but Mors and Sola looked at each other with inclined eyebrows and barely-perceptible nods. Sola rested her secondary hands on her burgeoning belly, glanced up at the achingly blue sky, and declared to the cool, green hills of Earth, "Perhaps it's time for something completely different."

Consummatum est.
In pacem per aspera ad astra vadete.


  1. I'm so glad you're finally writing about unschooling!

    Merry Christmas! I love you!

  2. I always look forward to a good unschooling post!

    Hope you all had a good Christmas -- and charcoal-free cookies, as well.

  3. I haven't read this yet but am looking forward to it when I'm back at the orifice. In the meantime, did you get your non ipodian mp3 player??

  4. I was hooked as soon as you mentioned aliens! ;-P

    Very interesting approach, and of course I agree entirely about the choice versus coercion thing! I try to emphasize that when I'm explaining unschooling to people, that unschoolers are not against structure, simply against coercion...