In the beginning, much of education came easily to my daughter, Alice, as it had come to me. I started reading at an early age and it came to pass that Alice, too, read on her own before she set foot in a formal classroom. But sadly, the universe isn't made up of only letters and words. Whatever distaste Alice felt for addition, subtraction, and multiplication was dwarfed by her loathing of long division and its hellish spawn, remainders.
Eventually, her reading and mathematics levels were several car lengths' apart, and I saw her academic future. Something told me we'd try school after school and Alice would be the first person to ever graduate from high school without finishing elementary school math. Or we could homeschool Alice, trusting the transformative power of her parents' deep love, a curriculum tailored specifically for her and certain indifference to math-related emotional outbursts.
When September rolled around again, we were in the education business. We galloped through English, talked a couple of decades of history and did some art. After lunch, I brought out the math workbook and opened to the second section: fractions. Alice scowled.
Ten minutes later, I found her in her bedroom with a cat on her lap, reading.
I stood there in the doorway, completely flummoxed. I had made a terrible mistake. I walked into the laundry room and sat on the floor. After a minute or so, there was a knock on the door.
"Do your mother a favor. Please shut the door and go back to the kitchen. Get a small paper bag from the cupboard and slide it under the door to me."
So when you're me and you've spent the past several weeks accounting for every second of your child's intellectual development, what starts to sound damned good? Unschooling! That's what.
If this is your first trip to the academic rodeo, let me give you the rundown. In the 1970s, a teacher named John Holt put forth the theory that education as it was being conducted in most schools in America was counter to the ways humans actually learn. Humans learn not through rote repetition, memorizing facts and filling in workbooks, but through passion, through trial and error, through working on a problem until we either master it or run out of interest. Over time, Holt's model of education was dubbed unschooling.
In 1991, John Taylor Gatto gave a speech that took Holt's message several steps further. Gatto's speech attacked the fundamental model of modern education as being inherently insane. Public schools weren't arranged to teach children but to house them. A well-trained student, he charged, panders to authority, shows no initiative and obeys meaningless orders. Gatto wrapped up his speech saying, "School is a 12-year jail sentence where bad habits are the only curriculum truly learned." To which he added, "I teach school and win awards doing it. I should know."
What made these comments all the more remarkable was that they were part of John Taylor Gatto's acceptance speech as New York City's Teacher of the Year--an award he'd achieved three years in a row. I'm guessing that after he finished, there was a new standard for the phrase "awkward silence." But theatrical timing aside, I couldn't exactly disagree with the man.
Take school hours. Study after study has proven what parents could have told you for free: Teenagers don't do mornings. At some point during early adolescence, a teenager's brain temporarily rewires itself with new instructions to stay up late and sleep in the next morning. When a few school districts experimented with starting high school an hour or so later, everything measurable improved: grades, attitude, behavior. And yet most high schools won't even consider starting later.
And then there's testing. Most parents who live in a school district with standardized testing will tell you these tests have little to do with the betterment of their children. Countless books, articles and studies have tracked how irrelevant and even detrimental standardized testing is for most students. One study even indicates that children who do test well have a propensity for shallow thinking.
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.
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."
The next morning, the first item on my agenda was a panel discussion about "Unschooling as a Life Philosophy." I entered the conference room just as the introductions were beginning. There were five women on the panel and between them they had 15 children, three of whom were named after continents.
"Where's Pyramus?" a young girl's voice commanded from somewhere in the room.
Her mother, who was chairing the session, stopped midsentence and said, "I don't know."
"But I need him," the little girl said flatly. The other panel members and the audience looked to her mother.
Finally, the girl declared, "Ionia needs you. I'll get her," and wandered off. The conversation about respecting our children's need to live authentic lives without judgment or labels continued. A preschool-aged child got down from her mother's lap, undressed completely, and dashed out of the room. A minute or so later, her mother followed her.
As the afternoon wore on, I needed to clear my head. Luckily, a family yoga class was just starting in a breakout room. Everyone was working on downward-facing dog, with the exception of the youngest practitioner, a two-year-old girl who was trying to get the attention of a slightly older girl from another family. She strutted up to her new friend.
"My name is Indigo and I have a bagina!" she shrieked. She took off her pants.
She did a saucy cakewalk around the other girl. Her mother finished her pose and, smiling fondly, came over to sit next to her dancing, shrieking offspring.
"I'm Dora the Explorer and you can be my doggy!" Indigo bellowed at her.
The older girl pulled a wooden toy from her mother's tote bag and began to play with it. Indigo grabbed at the toy with covetous abandon. The older girl snarled loudly and punched Indigo in the sternum. Indigo shrieked back and whomped her upside the head with the toy. All the yogistas made a big show of continuing their poses, as if there was nothing better for a calming meditation than enraged children being authentic in full voice at close range.
Indigo's mother gently took her daughter's hand, gazed deeply into her eyes and spoke calming words in a voice only they could hear. Indigo promptly hoiked out her mother's breast and nursed for a few minutes while Mom continued to hum softly and stroke her curls. In five minutes, Indigo was curled up in a contented torpor, quite happy to leave the other little girl alone and let her mother try tree pose. Everyone felt heard. Everyone felt stretched. I felt like a jerk for all those times I fled a public event because my two-year-old daughter was behaving like a glue-sniﬃng howler monkey.
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.