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.