Wednesday, April 21, 2010

A Modest Proposal (a la Swift but not as draconian)

All this recent churn about unschooling vs. the "standard" experience of school/college/job/marry/reproduce/retire/die (Not much room for "fun" in that list. And just how "standard" is it, anyway? Ahhh, that's a different essay.) has spawned the usual suspects of knee-jerk anti-unschooling commentary. One of those which is on my mind is "unparenting." That accusation gets levelled against unschoolers with some regularity. There is no rigorous definition of this term but it seems to generally mean benign neglect. Parents who don't torture their kids, or neglect to feed and clothe them, but who simply let them "run wild." If you believe human nature is some version of a Hobbesian "brutish primitivism," as depicted in Lord of the Flies, then that would, indeed, seem a bit scary. Of course, if you lean more towards Dryden's "noble savage," the French "le bon sauvage," then a condition of "benign neglect" wouldn't really be so terrible.

Anybody who knows shit from shinola, knows that unschooling actually requires a great deal of parental effort and involvement, so I don't intend to defend unschooling against the charge of unparenting here. What I wanna do is look at "unparenting," defined as benign neglect, as a stand-alone and compare it to the standard public school experience. Please note that I carefully and specifically stated that I wanna compare it to the "standard" experience. People who attack unschooling tend to compare their concept of the worst aspects of what they perceive as unschooling (no books, no responsibilities, unlimited self-indulgence) to their Platonic ideal of "school" where all the kids are being taught important, necessary things which will help them follow that societally-promulgated path from kindergarten all the way to dusty death. All of you who, at the beginning of this paragraph, knew shit from shinola still have that ability to discern the difference and it should be obvious to even the most casual observer that the "typical" school experience is far from congruent with such an ideal.

Putting aside theoretical, philosophical beliefs, science and real-life experience have shown us that Hobbes was essentially wrong, given a society which provides a sufficiency of basic necessities. There's a lot of research which shows that humans are naturally curious and that acquiring knowledge and information (learning!) is our natural state. In the workaday, experiential world, A. S. Neill relied on "boredom" (defined as no outside pressure or external demand to be doing something) as one of his core motivators for the kids at Summerhill, which has been in existence for close to a century. Seems to work.

So, if you believe that an uncoerced child would sit and watch tv all day, every day, forever and ever (Amen!), you are simply wrong. It's not a matter of differing opinions, you are flat-out, unequivocally incorrect in your belief vs. reality. (Approximately half the population of the U.S. believes that dinosaurs and man coexisted. No matter how strongly they believe this, they're wrong.) Depending on just how forbidden/restricted tv had been before said child was left to "run wild," s/he may indeed watch for a very long time. Initially. Please refer to research on the law of diminishing marginal utility for some idea of the curve of how desirable a thing is, and how restricting it makes the curve steeper (makes it more desirable), and how the tangent to that curve determines how long a time interval there will be before the item is re-desired. Hint: The more restricted a thing is, the steeper the curve is and therefore the shorter the time interval is between periods of strong desire for the item. Besides, what's wrong with tv? (OK, that's yet another essay for another time.)

Thus, at long last, we come to my proposal. I propose a thought experiment in the grand tradition of the fathers of quantum mechanics. Let's compare and contrast the life of a typical schooled kid against that of a kid who's being unparented. This is my thought experiment. Feel free to imagine your own.

By the end of grade school, the schooled kid has lost his spark. He has been taught that originality and creativity are unwanted. He has been taught that his primary goal is to regurgitate what the teacher feeds him, which is typically an endless litany of unimportant and useless factoids. He is constrained to a desk most of the day and his social interaction is limited to a few minutes of recess exclusively with people his own age, some of whom are bullies. His life is so filled with externally-created structure that he is jealous of those rare and short opportunities to indulge in the things he wants to do and he therefore appears to outside observers to obsess about "stupid" and "meaningless" things like tv and videogames.

During the same period, our unparented bon sauvage has had that time to explore his universe. He learned math, especially calculating fractions, while grocery shopping and looking for the best bang-for-the-buck in the candy aisle. He learned to read because he wanted to enjoy books, the way he saw others enjoying them. He has interacted with people of all ages and has learned to function in "real life" by functioning in real life.

High school is more of the same but with worse bullies and even-more-meaningless crap for our schooled subject.

By the time they're 18, both our schooled subject and our bon sauvage are ready to move into the "real world" of adult society. The schooled kid has been controlled his whole life and is no more ready for this than an oyster is ready to go for a stroll on the beach. Reading, writing, math, et al. have been shoved down his throat for a dozen years and he is sick of that shit and never wants to look at another poem or word problem ever again! Our unparented savage has spent his life making his own decisions and choosing his own path and this next step is just more of the same for him.

So, I gotta ask. Unparenting may not be the most desirable of conditions for a child but is it really worse than sending them to school?

I propose that even the dread and fearsome vale of unparenting is still better than subjecting an innocent child to the horrors of the school system.



  1. Pithy as always and right on the mark, Frank. Love this post.

  2. A fresh perspective! Nicely done.

  3. Yes. This kept bugging me yesterday, too.

    Our kids (like ALL kids, schooled or not) have lived through periods of benign neglect while their parents were busy with work/extended family/special projects/insert your busy time here. And during these times, they have not only managed but thrived. Moreover, they have been proactive about (1) finding meaningful activities to fill their extra independent time, (2) taking up household slack to help us out, and (3) letting us know in no uncertain terms when they need more from us.

    Sure, our kids (and most schooled kids in similar situations) know that it's temporary. But wouldn't a kid who knows his situation is not temporary be even more motivated to build a life for him or herself? I think so, and, without the UNIVERSAL "you're not good enough" messages of school, I think it would be a pretty damned good life indeed.

  4. Also, have I mentioned that I love you?

  5. Very very very well said Frank! As Usual!♥

  6. I would love to leave a witty comment to respond to this wonderful piece, but my little "savages" are clamoring for the computer to research some (clearly, judging by the urgency) life-or-death issue on YouTube. Thanks for the enjoyable read :)

  7. Bravo. Well argued, and not even a suggestion of cannibalism. (Not that I was hoping or anything.)

  8. "By the end of grade school, the schooled kid has lost his spark."

    About that part... the spark might often be gone long before the end of grade school. Going from memory without pulling out the book to confirm timeframes, Robert Fulghum, author of "All I Need to Know, I Learned in Kindergarten" writes about visiting schools and asking kindergarten kids "who can sing?", "who can dance?", "who can draw?", "who can write stories?" and similar questions. Almost without fail, all kindergarten kids raise their hands to indicate "YES!" to each question.

    Sadly, when he asks the same questions of grade school kids, the hands are sparse ~ only kids who excel (or think they excel?) at those things raise their hands to indicate that they can do those things. Somewhere along the way of grade school, kids began thinking about what they can't do, instead of believing they can do anything. I cried when I first read that. ack.

    That said, I wonder about the typical school experience of many of us as unschooling parents. For me, I never lost my curiosity, interest, desire and pursuit of learning, or passions. My school experience "just" led me to lose confidence and belief in myself. So I became more private about my interests and passions. We wanted better than that for our kids.
    I've never liked the word "unschooling" or "unparenting"; I'd prefer language that somehow highlights what we DO, as opposed to what we don't do, or un-do. Yet whatever we call this thing we do, very YES, about your proposal!

  9. Dear Frank,
    After having been physically beaten twice as as a public school teacher(French is a volatile language that enrages adolescents, evidently) and then watching my own son at seven being asked to do two hours of homework after serving seven hours a day in the big house, I became a "relaxed homeschooler," not yet an unschooler or a radical unschooler. I think if you call yourself a radical, un-anything, you're just asking for a fight. Couldn't you just say "We homeschool." with a wry smile and then laugh diabolically later? I want to know what people are FOR, rather than AGAINST. There can be lots of dogmatism even among radicals.(Remember the Bolsheviks?)
    Despite 25+ years of classroom education, I am an autodidact who still loves learning in a well-taught traditional class setting from time-to-time. Should my unschooling friends ridicule me for that? The public school is broken now and beyond fixing. If the unschoolers really want to welcome and help more families, dispensing with some of the "up yours" rhetoric and 'tude could be helpful to welcome others to the fold, or is this "movement" just another form of "earth-mother" elitism with cults of personality?

  10. I have often made the very same point, but not publicly! You are wise, bold and brave! :-)

  11. The anonymous comment above joins a few on Facebook where Frank is being implored to stifle his own anger and be better about accepting people who choose traditional school paths or whatever. Blah de blah blah. Frankly, after the vilification that our lifestyle and OUR CHILDREN have received in the past week, I was amazed at how even-handed Frank's approach to this topic was.

    People, this post is not an attack. It is a challenge. See more. Open your mind to alternatives. Do some freaking research before you spout vile insults at unschoolers (or yes, anyone).

    And this post is a defense. That we are unparenting is the least of what's been said of us in the last few days. We are allowed to defend ourselves against vile accusations of neglect, abuse, laziness, and so on. And we are obligated to do so when those accusations are accompanied by horrible assessments of our kids' abilities, ambitions, and education.

  12. -=- I think if you call yourself a radical, un-anything, you're just asking for a fight.-=-

    We're not asking for a fight. Nor are we courting converts. We're doing something that isn't easy, for reasons that are not simple.

    -=- I want to know what people are FOR, rather than AGAINST. -=-

    I'm for fulfilling state law without schooling. I don't want to school my children. I did not school my children, nor send them to school, and they're 18, 21 and 23.

    -=-There can be lots of dogmatism even among radicals.(Remember the Bolsheviks?)-=-

    Wrong radicals. We're unschooling in a radical fashion--from the roots, from the source outward. Fully. Fundamentally. Wholly.

    -=- If the unschoolers really want to welcome and help more families, dispensing with some of the "up yours" rhetoric and 'tude could be helpful to welcome others to the fold-=-

    I help more family every single day, and have for many years. I have a discussion list with way over a thousand people on it, and and an ever-growing website. But people need to find us. We're not going door to door. If people don't really want to unschool, we have nothing to sell them and nothing to offer. It starts with having decided not to school. We can't get them here. They have to arrive on their own. And after we help them, they have to unschool on their own, because it's not a group activity, it's a family commitment.

  13. Hi, Sandra, thanks for chiming in!

  14. I find it amusing that Anonymous agrees that the system is "broken beyond fixing" but is offended by my counterpoint to recent attacks on unschooling and responds by complaining about the label "unschooling" and going off into that earth-mother elitist cult of personality thing. What's that all about?

    Unschooling has a number of kind and gentle voices, welcoming newbies into the cult, errr I mean, "fold." Nobody's nicer than AnneO. JoyceF is endlessly patient. SandraD has her detractors in terms of her patience with ignorance but she is nicer than I am and provides a vast repository of info for newbies, or anyone, for that matter. I am not one of those people. I'm just a guy who unschools and who is, indeed, pissed off at being vilified across the media. I have no idea of how to respond to the "cult of personalty" bit but I will hold fast to my 'tude and my label. "Unschool" works just fine for me. If ya don't like it, call yourself an "autodidact." Write a book to introduce the proletariat to *it*. Here's a title you might like: Nomothesia Autodidaktos. Is that elitist enought for ya?

    Now, I'm off to enjoy a smug morning, wrapped in the warmth of my up-yours rhetoric and temperate 'tude.

    Got 'tude?

    You better fucking belive it.

  15. Frank, I think I love you and Ronnie! You are both so awesome! Both (you and Ronnie) of your thoughts make me smile!!!!

  16. Dear Anonymous,

    Meet my friend Frank. He'd be happy to welcome you and your son to unschooling if you show up. Until you do, you won't understand our tendency to applaud when he engages his "up-yours attitude." He had that talent before he was a husband, before he was a father, and before he was an unschooler. His diabolical laugh, wry smile, and kick-ass intellect are put to good use sometimes, but of all the qualities he possesses it's his total dedication to his family and friends that we all admire most.

    So. Here you are surrounded by radical unschoolers. Not a single cult member in sight. There's no guided tour, but you can take a look around.

    ps. My 5'7" French teacher once picked up a bully by the shirt and held him up against the wall until he apologized to the entire quad. Pretty radical, n'est pas?

  17. You guys are sooo angry! Keep the 'tude, guys, but lose the anger, and then you'll reach your potential. Hello, I'm agreeing with you here, and I am especially agreeing with what Frank wrote concerning the vilification of your ideas in the popular press and suggestiong it may in part be reinforced by what you call yourselves. Just suggesting that words are containers for power. Not at all suggesting Frank or any of the travelers who have have responded angrily here are wrong or unkind. But look at the vitriol you spew. Just trying to suggest to you how you may look to others... . Not to split hairs, but there was division among the bolsheviks,"cult of personality" has its own meaning apart from "cult" as it is used in the comment above, the spelling is "n'est-ce pas," and it is genreally agreed that violence in speech or action begets violence.
    Best wishes in all you do, in whatever you may call it, and in however you may choose to do it... . It would be a little boring here, wouldn't it, if there weren't a stranger around from time to time to whom you could show your kindness and hospitality... .

  18. I don't think "anonymous" said things that seem to be attributed to his comment. Maybe interpretations are seeping in? In literal words, I don't see that he said Frank's post was an attack, nor did I see vile insults, or words that implore Frank (or anyone else) to stifle anger. He conveys his preference to know what people are FOR. (Some radical unschoolers share that preference.) It seems he just stated that preference & suggested a little tact. Frank can take anonymous's suggestion about tact. Or not. The suggestion itself doesn't equate to insult, disrespect, or imploring someone to stifle anger. It's just a point where I can acknowledge the choice I have about what to DO with my anger.

    I want to treat our kids respectfully, kindly & assume that their views, however different from my own sometimes, DO make sense from their paradigm & I want to apply those concepts as a LIFE philosophy, to all the people in my life. Poor behavior or vilification by others doesn't justify me blah-blahing or minimizing someone else's views, questions, suggestions. If I'm not willing to give what I'm hoping to receive, I'm not likely to be effective in receiving understanding/acceptance of my views. Lacking that, I'm more likely to continue being mis-understood, vilified, not accepted-giving me MORE to be angry about. I still have a choice about what to do with my anger, but I'll opt out of that circle, thanks.

    Defending against misperceptions can be done in so many ways-don't many of us admire Martin Luther King & his non-aggressive/non-violent style? In spite of having many reasons to be justifiably angry, he used those angry-making situations as opportunities to educate, do civil disobedience at times, build common ground & share a vision; key tenets of leadership. Other people used the angering situations in other ways. We each get to choose. Media’s poor behavior doesn't change the fact that we can still share our reasons, dreams, successes, what we DO, to create a more accurate picture of what we do, build common ground & convey a vision that others might share. Many people will still think we're wrong/neglectful & we'll need to be work to insure that unschooling remains legal. Yet we have real success stories to share.

    As passionate, catalystic & charismatic (& even rightful) as anger can be, charisma, passion & a vision can stand on their own. A kick-ass intellect & smart wit isn't diluted by adding tact. It's still each person's choice, yet adding tact might enable a more effective environment to open hearts and minds.

    Isn't it a core aspect of radical unschooling that the environment we create to plant the seeds we want to sow makes a huge difference? The belief that kids will do better at critical thinking, decision-making & forging their paths to happiness & success if they have an environment that SEEKS their questions/input & respects their views, even when we might not agree? I can't speak for others, but I want to apply those concepts beyond my kids.
    I wonder if this might be a case where styles shift based on the audience? In the privacy of my home, I might react with anger, call someone an asshole, or imply they don't know shit from shinola if they don't share my view. Although that isn't the style I aspire to, at home I may vent-not always walking the talk that I preach. Maybe this is similar? Among radical unschoolers, discussing angering aspects of the publicity may be preaching/venting to the choir. Yet if my choir includes new people, venting may show inconsistencies in how I talk to/about people I'm angry at, compared to the respectful approach I want to apply to/with kids & other people in my life & my anger carries risk of scaring off/dividing people, instead of the understanding & respect I want. Which circles back to what environment do we want to create to plant seeds? A mixed audience complicates things.

  19. Dear Anonymous(1),
    To be clear:
    There was no anger in my post.
    I like Frank the way he is.
    I can see why you were confused by my use of the word cult. Sorry. Yes, I do know the difference.
    It's been over 40 years since I wrote anything in French. Thanks for the correction.
    I know you can spell genreally correctly, so I won't tell you how.
    I have never unschooled, radically or otherwise, though I agree with every aspect. Perhaps I should not have invited you to look around a world I don't live in. Anonymous(2) is correct. A mixed audience complicates things.

  20. Jeeze, looks like other people spend more time on my blog than I do. I have a mishmash of comments for Anon1.

    Your condescending dismissal that I could "reach my potential" if only I could lose my anger is pretty smarmy. This post comes from a place of mild irritation. You haven't seen me angry but you're pushing me in that direction. I am still working on my overall potential but I know what my potential for (verbal) violence is. We ain't nowhere near there yet.

    Your fixation on the bolseviks is a bit disturbing. You could probably reach your potential if you'd only let go of your desperate adherence to what seems like a John Birch inspired idee fixe. And everyone reading here who has posted under their own name is familiar with the phrase "cult of personality," I just don't see how you find it applicable here. Are you speaking of the educational philosophy of unschooling itself as a corporate-equivalent entity which is then our "dear leader"? Do you mean that we're adherents of Sandra Dodd? Or Dayna Martin? Well, Dayna does promulgate a rather religious-oriented version of unschooling.

    You seem to be laboring under the misapprehension that I am either a proselytizer or apologist for unschooling. I am neither. I'm just a guy who unschools with his family and who is somewhat ticked off by the recent vitriol against unschooling in the media, so I tossed off a little counterpunch here. Datzawl.

    If you're looking for a proselytizer for unschooling, well, I dunno, good luck. Maybe Dayna Martin counts. If you're looking for an apologist, Sandra Dodd, Joyce Fetteroll, et al. will do ya good. If I fill any role in the context of unschooling, it might be defensor fidei but even that is casual and depends on my level of willingness to waste time doing that and it ain't official. Not even semiofficial. Not even unofficial.

    If you want warm and fuzzy acceptance, check out Anne Ohman. AAMOF, I hereby declare her the officla unschool greeter.

    Me, I'm just a crude dude with 'tude.

    And to Anon2:

    I don't say that people don't know shit from shinola because they don't share my views, I say that because they don't know what they're talking about. They literally have no idea what "unschooling" is but they're quite happy to spew an endless stream of loose vowels opposing it.

  21. The information that Frank is not a proselytizer for unschooling seems key. Crude dude with a 'tude works. Thus, it may be moot, yet I'm partial to "soft" communication - concepts shared in communication books, tapes, workshops: using "I" statements; distinguishing between observation and judgment, fact vs. interpretation; asking/clarifying intentions when I feel like I've been dismissed or condescended (new word?) to; avoiding name-calling or arrogance about my right-ness; considering suggestions as valid food for my thoughts; sharing resources and facts (as I believe them to be, with awareness that I might have some inaccurate premises, or might be missing something); assuming that others' views might reflect something I'm missing.

    Too often I've bumped into the cliché elephant story - the blind person feeling the elephant's tail "knows" the elephant is like a rope; the blind person feeling the elephant's leg "knows" the elephant is like a tree trunk, etc. Depending on how someone thinks, they might consider neither, either, or both perceptions to be fact about what an elephant looks like. Any one person's "fact" about the elephant might or might not be an accurate view. Until enough discussion has happened to determine what someone is seeing that I might be missing and vice versa, I'm not confident enough that my "facts" represent the inherent, one, or only truth. Life's been too intricate and shifting for me to believe that "facts" as I know them are not continuing to shift; tomorrow I may learn some new crucial thing that has me revise my previous "facts". I don't think knowing shit from shinola sits still; and I don't know what part of the elephant one person's shit is, compared to my elephant's shinola part. Maybe our shit and shinola are mutually exclusive; maybe they're not.

    Whether or not I want to proselytize, or have accurate info about shit and shinolas, I want to choose communication strategies that reflect a respectfulness level that I want to live. That style can still include wit and attitude if I want it to. Although "respectful" is subjective, basically, if I would not use the words with/towards my kids, then they don't fit what I want to do with other adults either. Those concepts I listed above reflect guidelines I use to help me determine what and how I want to communicate with kids. And with other adults.

    I'm having a hard time reconciling what appears to me to be an inconsistency: we seem adamant about treating our kids respectfully, yet *some* of these recent discussions convey in ways I think many of us would consider to be unkind and disrespectful if the words were spoken to our kids - there seem to be some assumptions, language, and other details that don't seem to reflect unschooling's respectfulness concepts as a LIFE philosophy. It feels like a disparity. I'll assume that I'm missing some key information, and/or not seeing the whole elephant clearly. Clarity isn't (yet?) apparent. I'll listen, wait, and learn.

  22. To Anon1 - Anger and passion are not the same things. Unschoolers live passionately, and unschooling is one of the things we are passionate about. I didn't read much anger in the other responses you got but can only speak for my own when I say that I was passionately defending my husband and children and the life we live together. I didn't see your post as an attack on any of those except that you seem to want Frank to play nice with bullies. Not gonna happen, and he wouldn't be the man I love if he were the type to accept having abuses piled on people he cares about.

    Also, your idea to say we homeschool and smile privately has come back to me a few times since you posted. Frankly, it creeps me out! It's too reminiscent of the way blacks and gays and -insert a minority here- have been expected over the years to shut up and accept the status quo. Also not gonna happen, or at least not in this house! lol.

    To Anon2 - You said:

    "I don't think 'anonymous' said things that seem to be attributed to his comment. Maybe interpretations are seeping in?"

    Not at all. The abuse I referenced above and the vile insults I mentioned in my first comment were not from Anon1 but in recent media reports and in public responses to those reports.

    As for being tactful... Well. We are all of us capable of tact when someone with a school perspective comes to us in an open-minded, respectful way. Being tactful in response to ignorant rants is not something I find worth my time and energy.

  23. For clarity - The 9:06 comment from Anonymous was not there when I wrote. And now we have too many Anonymouses (Anonomoi?) to keep track of.


  25. LOL. Enjoying the show, Craig? Come on down and we'll help you with that thirst problem.

  26. Too many Anons for me to keep attributions straight. General response from me to all y'all.

    I admire anyone who is making the effort to think independently. I admire anyone who communicates for engagement rather than antipathy. I do that sometimes but not here. Here I was counterpunching a bully (the generic bully of the compiled comments from people disparaging unschooling when they clearly don't know what they're talking about while lauding school when they do know it's desperately flawed and doesn't serve its customers adequately) and I intended to be confrontational while being informational. Speak engagingly to me and I will engage back. Attack me and I'll respond in kind. For my take on bullying, see my comments at #1 here. Nemo me impune lacessit. And that goes double for my family.

    Craig, we have an unopened bottle of Tequila with your (and Gillian's) name on it. Strawberry margaritas go so well with pretzel logic. We fellow travellers drink 'em all the time! After all, they're RED!

  27. This article is full of win. And it makes me feel proud I'm raising my kids with the freedoms they have. And blessed to be able to do so.

    And: What @Ronnie said (4/22 9:39)


  28. great post Frank. the comments are cracking me up! so much irrational nonsense from people who don't live the lifestyle or even know anyone who does.

  29. God I hate that non-violent communication bullshit.

  30. Anonymous 1, who was just passing through and trying to participate in order to learn more about unschooling and its leaders, kindly thanks you for this learning experience. Thank you for helping me remember what The Thunder said.

  31. Mmmmmn, did the Thunder say, "I am a smug dipshit who once read a poem by T. S. Eliot."?

    If you're looking for the "leaders" of unschooling, look elsewhere and don't let the door hit you in your ass on your way out.

  32. An interesting thoughts Frank,
    ( not reading the comments section )
    While I'm not going to say that Un-schooling is bad, incapable; I would say simply that any situation with home schooled kids has for me; seemed to produce kids who were not nearly as able to interact with other members of society. Their age / older ages.
    I've also found most of the time(s) that the kids who are home schooled /unschooled do know a lot about whatever interested them.
    But they lacked ( to me ) even pretty basic levels of study which would have ( I hate to say it ) been learned in public school systems.
    The examples I'd recall are history, geography, political studies, economics both personal / national. And studies of world religions and political theories...
    They were good at; Art, music, some times reading. And overwhelmingly "good kids". But rarely did they seem like people ready to enter into the world as working, voting, members of society.
    This does not reflect on my family's un-schooling / other "home schooled" systems;
    more to me that the parents are either good parents or not.
    And if they are not committed to teaching the off spring produce little more than sheep.
    I guess my thoughts / complaint really boils down to the " Un-parented" portion of your theoretical story...
    As long as the Parents are "Parenting", I don't care whether they are public schooled or home schooled / Un-schooled...