In their haste to serve their audience a smorgasbord of reheated platitudes from the 1960s unschooling movement, Draper and Uhl have neglected to adequately acknowledge the positive role that schools play--or at least can play--in helping less fortunate members of society in their quest to thrive. Not everyone is equally capable of detaching from the game of consumerism and simultaneously maintaining an acceptable baseline quality of life for themselves and their children. Denying that fact would be naive; ignoring it would be callous. Additionally, vilifying schools as destroyers of childhood based on the writings of philosophers who haven’t set foot in a public school for at least a half a century is itself a form of reductionism. The source cited most frequently in this piece was published just six years after Brown v. Board of Education, and its author--A.S. Neill--had been dead for two years before the precursor to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act was passed in 1975. The brush that men like Neill and Holt painted with fifty-eight years ago is far too broad a brush to paint all schools with today. In short, I feel the authors have recklessly downplayed the complexity of the problems they seek to solve in order to present an argument that ignores the needs of many children and is largely based on emotional reasoning rather than sound logic.
We all benefit when our children, as well as our neighbors’ children, develop into well adjusted, self reliant adults. Do all children need school for that? If we define school as a common public space designed and staffed to facilitate the sharing of public resources among children and to positively support their social, emotional, creative, and intellectual development, then it is true that not all children will need school. If you are born able-bodied and neurotypical and are then fortunate enough to grow up in a safe, climate controlled, print-rich environment wired for high speed internet access, surrounded by multiple functionally literate, mathematically literate, scientifically literate, patient, caring adults with good communication skills and at least enough money to feed you, clothe you, provide you with tools to express your creativity while exposing you to a broad range of language-based and artistic cultural experiences, then no--you probably don’t need to be “educated” to live a comfortable life full of opportunity, especially if you are also a beneficiary of multi-generational wealth. However, despite all that is wrong with how we currently deliver compulsory public education, to categorically dismiss the entire concept of education is dangerously classist given the very real and potentially devastating discrepancies between an affluent childhood and an impoverished childhood. Yes, some children will be just fine without school, but they will predominantly be white or Asian and live well above the poverty line. We must be careful not to forget about those who rely on their public schools because they are poorly positioned to break free from the vicious grind of consumerism. People who work three or four jobs to meet their family’s basic needs of shelter and nutrition might struggle to find the time to read to their kids or take them to museums. People without access to safe and reliable transportation might struggle to engage with the world outside of their immediate surroundings which may or may not be particularly enriching. People who can’t pay for private math and writing tutors in place of school based instruction would struggle to earn the degrees necessary to participate in many professions. Schools may cease to serve a function in a hypothetical post-scarcity, utopian future, but at present they serve as vital agents of social justice, despite their many flaws.
We must also consider how ridding the world of school serves people with disabilities. At a minimum, isolating them out of sheer convenience would certainly get much easier again. As for learning and neurological disabilities specifically, even with the labels removed and the neurotypical profile no longer being explicitly treated as “one-size-fits-most” by any institutional entity, the underlying disabilities--even if you’d prefer not call them that--won’t just disappear. People with dyslexia will still struggle to read in a world without school. People with ADHD will still struggle to focus in a world without school. People with dyscalculia will still struggle with basic arithmetic, and so on. Maybe the way we handle “special education” falls short of ideal, but I guarantee that universally ending all coordinated efforts to support young people who are non-neurotypical will again disproportionately harm the less privileged. There are many intelligent, creative, and talented young people with uniquely complex learning profiles who would be likely to suffer from the wholesale cessation of strategic intervention, reaching adulthood without having had opportunities to be challenged in a low-stakes, high-support environment and develop reliable compensatory skills as a result. The “haves” with disabilities will certainly suffer for this less than the “have nots” with disabilities.
The authors might counter here by arguing that we really shouldn't be making any deliberate attempts to control the experiences of a child, even if we do so believing it to be in that child’s best interest. In theory, the child’s innate drive to learn will take her everywhere she needs to be when the time is right so long as no adult gets in her way. In practice, adult intervention in children’s decision making is--to an extent--unavoidable. Would you stop a two year old running toward a busy street? Yes. Would you serve your child oatmeal even if she asks to have cotton candy for breakfast? Probably. Would you encourage a teenager who you know to be injuring himself to seek mental health treatment? I hope so. That we should all completely avoid intervening in the lives of the children we care about is simply not tenable when applied rigidly as ideological dogma. Showing respect for children’s rights isn’t as simple as refraining from drawing lines in the sand; it’s more so about thoughtfully considering where it would be most beneficial and least restrictive to draw them. Considering where to draw those lines becomes infinitely more complicated when you invite hundreds if not thousands of extremely diverse young people at a time into one or more enormous facilities paid for with public money that an entire municipality’s worth of children must somehow share safely and equitably under the supervision of adults who are then themselves held accountable to elected and appointed local, state, and federal authorities for oversight. When serving as many masters as they do, schools and the people who keep them running don’t have the luxury of pretending that adult intervention in the lives of children is unnecessary. I suppose one could argue that the complications that arise in crafting an adequate public school system simply add to the evidence that the institution should itself be abandoned, but I counter that anything you try to replace it with--be it a single comprehensive solution or a network of smaller ones--will ultimately end up looking at least something like a school once you consider the wide-ranging needs of the entire populace.
It’s also not clear if anyone--outside of the unschooling echo chamber--is meant to take anything away from this essay. It’s certainly doesn’t seem intended for those in the mainstream world of education. The authors imply that incremental progress made in schools or with supplemental self directed learning experiences is just an extension of the current system which they see as fatally flawed in its entirety. Besides, educators working in the mainstream--for better or worse--will generally dismiss an essay like this as being laughably out of touch with reality. As a public school teacher myself, I would actually rather my colleagues at least make an effort to understand the unschooler’s perspective instead of refusing to engage out of ignorance and self protective indignation. We teachers do have a lot to learn from the unschooling movement about the value of play and self initiated inquiry in learning, two things that humans of all ages do naturally, without coercion. School-based educators must also start addressing how problematic it is that nearly all schools, as the authors very correctly point out, run on arbitrarily--though not necessarily capriciously--distributed forms of “capital,” perverting the very natural process of learning into an often harmful game that replaces curiosity and wonder with anxiety and dread for a great many students. This is an enormous problem with no simple, universally applicable solution considering that employers and institutions of higher learning ultimately expect people to arrive on their doorsteps with some sort of fair assessment of their current abilities issued by a neutral third party, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t look for ways to shift away from the importance of “grades.” There are creative solutions to be discovered that lie between “grades for everything you do” and “no more school ever.” The work of designing, implementing, and revising those solutions--the work of progressive teachers--is painstaking and without fanfare, but it is the work of meaningful change. Teachers and unschoolers alike should work to put a little more faith in the middle ground, because that’s where good can be done on the most impactful scale.
I have a sinking feeling, however, that this essay was not written to bring about any sort of concrete, scalable societal change. I fear this essay was published as part of a pseudo-academic attempt to legitimize the fashionable gimmick of private, unregulated, curriculum-free, boutique daycare facilities being marketed as Summerhill-inspired “self directed learning centers.” I respect that some families who are in a position to do so choose to opt out of their public schools, and that is certainly their right. I’d much rather they stay and fight to make their own schools more inclusive, but that’s usually going to require at least a little compromise on both sides of the principal’s desk, which isn’t always possible. Imagine, though, if the people I described earlier--those of us who live with disabilities, those of us who live in poverty, those of us who live without the benefit of white privilege--were to be given nothing more than a banquet hall full of hand drums, board games, and building blocks in lieu of school. A feebly resourced after school program that happens to run all day is not a viable alternative to school for all children. For young people whose privilege has shielded them from the negative consequences of consumerism, these centers can provide ample opportunities for gentrified socialization and lightly supervised whim indulgence, but the myriad young people who would benefit from more strategic support or access to higher quality materials and experiences are largely overlooked by the anemic “self directed learning center” model. Charismatic and persuasive unschooling advocates seeking to serve their own narrow agenda will try to sell this model as something of a panacea for those who are chronically disenchanted with school, but if we’re truly looking to resist reductionism, we must temper these voices with the proudly and openly ambivalent voices of those working to improve childhood for more than just a select few, even if it has to be done incrementally and at the expense of ideological purity.
As schools are a product of an ever-evolving society, they themselves exist in a constant state of flux. Reforming the experience of childhood will be an endless process, requiring not one big, simple change but an infinite number of tiny, interconnected changes that add up to make a more useful and humane system of systems over time. Those of us looking for genuine progress understand how little value there is in using glib generalizations to propose grandiose solutions. It is admittedly tempting to get swept up in the poetry of it all. “Free to learn” makes a lovely bumper sticker, but what does that actually look like for the whole of society? It feels good to listen to “Another Brick in the Wall, Part 2” on repeat and blog about the oppression of “factory model” education, but is that an au fait assessment of what goes on in all schools today, or is it just lazy and outdated rhetoric used to stir up a cheap emotional response from prospective “self directed learning center” clients? Yes, we marvel at and gush over how children learn to walk and speak without intervention, but from that should we extrapolate that children aren’t owed anything more from adults than unmitigated freedom? The problem isn’t that these ideas are too radical to be considered by the mainstream; it’s that they are too superficial to hold up to informed scrutiny. An attention grabbing idea like eliminating school can generate a lot of misguided enthusiasm amongst career philosophers and affluent parents seeking an easy solution to the conflict between their personal expectations of childhood and the aggregate needs of their neighbors, but ideas like these are simply distractions from the hard reality that society’s needs--including and especially the needs of children--are almost unfathomably complex and require an often uncomfortable amount of nuance and compromise.