Login Join IOPS

Why the Left Should Support Unschooling Part II

  • Written by:
  • Published on:
  • Categories:
  • Comments:
  • Share:

Schooling the Masses: For Past or Future?

There are many voices warning that the economy is changing from an industrialized model to a more creative and technological one, and listing traits that students will need in order to be successful in the future – a future filled with jobs yet to be invented, let alone catered for in the curriculum. But education has not changed significantly since the Industrial Revolution. Not only are we failing to prepare students for a world which increasingly relies on invention, creativity, lateral and critical thinking, but we are eroding the diversity which enables us as a species to survive. We are manufacturing our own demise.

Daniel Mathews, co-founder of Wikileaks, describes the current dichotomy of the education system as it manifests in universities: “Given that corporations are essentially authoritarian, and government is suffused by bureaucracy, that means producing workers that will obediently do required tasks. It means instilling a culture of obedience, hierarchy, and conformity. On the other hand, to the extent they produce intellectuals, scientists and scholars, [universities] must promote free thinking, critical thinking, imagination and creativity. As long as a high-technology capitalist economy persists, there will always be this tension… when the next economic crisis comes, education is among the first to be cut. Dependency on the private sector results. In so doing education is converted into a business: students are ‘consumers’ exerting their ‘choice’, and universities provide ‘products’ which are courses and qualifications to certify their place in the professions… Restructuring the education system can be done… It’s a matter of political struggle, as is everything else.” 

The skills we will need to succeed in this high-technology capitalist economy are variously listed as: the ability to integrate ideas from different disciplines or spheres; the capacity to uncover and clarify new problems, questions and phenomena; respect for, and awareness of, differences; understanding one's responsibilities to others (Harvard's Howard Gardner);

entrepreneurial thinking; changing our current focus which trains up generations of followers, dependent on experts, when we desperately need thinking, creative leaders in all fields - including citizens (futurist Richard Watson); high-concept thinking, high-touch leading, the ability to build projects like symphonies; and the skills of empathy, playing (as adults) and meaning (Daniel Pink); critical thinking and problem solving; agility and adaptability; curiosity and imagination (Tony Wagner).

But none question whether this future economy, that they urge schools and universities to prepare for, is the economy that we want. Why are we molding children to an end that they have not chosen, to an economy that they may reject (thus leaving them again unprepared), rather than giving them the tools to adapt to any economy, indeed to choose and create that economy for themselves? Educational theory focuses all too often on shaping the workforce to fit the world. But it should be about equipping the workforce to create the world.

Some wish to maintain the current political system, many want a different one; our children haven't yet had a chance to decide. We should be keeping their options open. Whilst we find it hard to conceive of life outside the economic dictats of capitalism - where would the kids go if they weren't in school? Who would look after them? How would we afford care for them? How would they get qualifications, go to university, get a career? - if we are questioning the capitalist system, we should also be questioning all the consequences of our industrial system of schooling, consequences which do not necessarily follow from a more humanist model of living. 

Maybe we should not even be thinking so hard about the end goal of education, so much as the process. If the process is democratic, equitable, just and co-operative, then the results will manifest these aspects too; and in a manner which we would only be constraining by dictating the end result, perhaps even distorting the process along the way. Education is not a static, perfectable endeavor. Still we put so much effort into devising standardised tests and curricula and institutions which must be kept running beyond their prime because so much money has been spent on them, when we could be investing in open ended learning tools, technology and the internet, multi-purpose community buildings, and equipment which could be adapted to changing needs.

Of course, an education is only as good as the information available. Education IS information. If we renamed education 'information', would that change the way we think about it? Would we happily get all our information from one source? One book? One channel? One person? One institution? One state? Is it right that we let the state dictate the information we have to learn for our entire childhood? Should the state dictate our worth by grading us on how well we have absorbed their chosen information? It sounds Orwellian but that is state education. By the time school is finished for the day, we either spend our evenings absorbing more of their chosen information in the form of homework, or do anything but look at other sources of information because we’ve simply had enough. Job done. Population informed.

The debate over the ‘correct’ curriculum has been referred to by John Dewey as the tension between traditional and progressive education. Should certain subjects be compulsory to cement the knowledge base of the population, or do all paths lead to knowledge, and a love of learning to an eventual absorption of the same information? Must we all learn the same biased histories by rote as if they were gospel? What is considered essential to learn, and how it best be learnt, changes with whoever is in power. And what of the ultimate aim of education? Endless progress? A more just society? Our aims evolve as does society. And as our aims evolve, so must our methods of education. Michael W. Apple argues that in order to provide an education which is accessible and relevant to all students, we must develop a shared awareness of which aspects of knowledge society values, who gains from the reproduction of this knowledge, and whether this benefits everyone equally.

Joao Coutinho admits, “There is no neutral education. Education is either for domestication or for freedom”. To that end, proponents of critical pedagogy believe that students have been historically, and continue to be, disenfranchised by traditional schooling. Ira Shor defines critical pedagogy as "Habits of thought, reading, writing, and speaking which go beneath surface meaning, first impressions, dominant myths, official pronouncements, traditional clichés, received wisdom, and mere opinions, to understand the deep meaning, root causes, social context, ideology, and personal consequences of any action, event, object, process, organization, experience, text, subject matter, policy, mass media, or discourse."

Critics interpret the goal of certain practitioners, such as Henry Giroux, as being "to create political radicals". Conversely then, an unquestioning acceptance of state sponsored curricula leads to political conservatives. Or perhaps merely apathetic and uninformed citizens? It is certainly true, as Kozol pointed out to the ire of many, that school teaches us how things are, but almost never how to change them for the better.

There are clearly two elements of education that need to be addressed: how to best educate our children in terms of knowledge and skills to operate in the world; and how best to create the society we desire through raising our children to this end. At the moment, school takes on both of these roles, overtly or not, through the formal curriculum and through acting in loco parentis for the best part for the child’s day. Children are educated and molded to the ends of those in charge, beholden to a capitalist, individualist system. Should these two elements, knowledge and socialization, be addressed together? Is it even possible to separate them?

Christian W. Beck believes the distinction between formal knowledge and cultural values is becoming increasingly blurred, as schools evolve into a power base for a globalised elite, operated by a new worldwide middle class: “The processes of globalisation are reliant on the development of a knowledge economy. That places education and schooling at the core of such processes. Education is needed to qualify for a globalised labour market, and to oppose and balance globalised capitalism. One has to emphasize both individual learning processes and social cooperation. The requirements of globalised schooling will be enormous. A number of people hold that school must educate human beings to become competent participants in a globalised world. This is the right wing aspect of global educational politics. The left is critical of such aims and wants school to act as a counterweight to global capitalism. They want more nationally controlled schools, including everyone and emphasizing social competence and equality. It is astonishing, how people in all countries have more or less the same understanding of school. This is also a part of globalisation. Doubtless, both the right and the left see more schooling as a positive thing… Everyone wants more education, and more education means, to them, more school. More school means that more of our social and cultural life become a matter for schools, integrated into formal educational programs”.

In reaction to the increasing pressures and all-encompassing nature of school, there is a growing movement to let children develop according to their innate schedules, rather than the imposed developmental timetable of the state. Kozol argues though that “Spontaneous growth does not exist within a nation governed by stage-managed views. There is either the uncontested bias of the state or else… a number of forms of counter-imposition, competition, provocation, dialectic.” There is no such thing as a pure, organic education. There can be, however, a much more conscious, critical and open-ended education than we currently have.


Schooling the Masses: Revolution

If we want to create a more democratic world, we cannot allow education to mirror society as it is now. We must mold society itself via education. But we do not live in the world in which schooling was invented. Until we accept that, we will keep on trying to fix schools, to make them work in an environment that is no longer compatible. It's like wondering why you can't get the chair to stop floating around while ignoring the fact there is no gravity any more. 

Kozol, as others before him, argued “If we are to live our lives as honest people, we cannot work with teachers and develop classroom methods and materials for their use unless we simultaneously set out to introduce specific strategies for raising consciousness about the function which those teachers are compelled to carry out – and then assist them in the struggle to transform that function”. It is probably impossible to avoid adult imposition on the minds of children, and we should not necessarily want to avoid it. However, we have moved from the best part of our history where children were influenced by their immediate community, to bombardment from every side with advertising, propaganda, and information. What children need more than anything is honesty from the adults who guide them through this world, and the ability to distinguish between that which will help them through life, and that which will hinder. 

At this point in history, the adults may need educating just as much, if not more, than the children. Education has been turned into an esoteric practice, complete with rituals, doctrines and unquestioned beliefs. As Gatto tells us, “Socrates foresaw that if teaching became a formal profession, something like this would happen. Professional interest is served by making what is easy to do seem hard; by subordinating the laity to the priesthood”. We must not forget that we are all teaching, constantly, by our every word and action. Those who are consciously aware of this - eg governments - can manipulate that fact, consciously directing words and actions to certain ends while the majority behave like unthinking automatons, expecting teachers to magically mold children into something better than the society around them. Henry Giroux calls this pedagogical terrorism – the preaching of certain ideals while behaving counter to our words. And for children as everyone, actions speak much, much louder than words. There is a fundamental difference in the way we see education in the west – as something the state does to our children - compared to traditional cultures who see education as the entire lifestyle a community passes on for their children's survival. People grasp that adverts and politics have an agenda, but they don’t see that state schooling does too.

In many countries around the world, education is mandatory; school is not. While schools fail to teach children to think critically, to innovate, to create, to cooperate, or even to learn, John Taylor Gatto has a solution: “We need to scream and argue about this school thing until it is fixed or broken beyond repair, one or the other. If we can fix it, fine; if we cannot, then the success of homeschooling shows a different road to take that has great promise. Pouring the money we now pour into family education might kill two birds with one stone, repairing families as it repairs children.” School was the ‘necessary’ pedagogical tool of the industrial economy; home education is the necessary pedagogical tool of the knowledge economy. Home educators have been shown to be more critical and widely read, to be more politically active, to be 5 – 10 years ahead of their schooled peers in their ability to think.

Home education is seen by some on the left as anti-collective, yet it is quite the opposite – it is a move away from the isolation of children from family and society, a move to reintegrate children with the community around them. These families have decided that they do not wish to be part of the capitalist conveyor belt, and just as others opt out of the system by growing their own food rather than relying on supermarkets, or using barter systems rather than money wherever possible, or set up a co-operative rather than accept wage-slavery for someone else’s profit, these educators are showing society that there is another way to learn. We don’t criticize self-sufficiency as anti-collectivist for refusing to use supermarkets, or malign co-ops for offering an alternative to the pervasive banking systems. So why fear those who choose to educate their children outside of the same system? Some critics fear the creation of a parallel society; but isn’t that what many of us are trying to create, a society parallel to the dominant capitalist system, one which could eventually become the norm? 

Some even claim that “With the evident shortcomings of many public schools, at the very least they provide ‘a kind of social glue, a common cultural reference point in our polyglot, increasingly multicultural society’ ” (Michael W Apple). If our communities are so decimated that the only way to hold them together is through a common experience of school, we have more serious societal problems than a few homeschoolers. Christian W. Beck takes a more positive view: “If home educators become so numerous that they threaten public school, this can be because a school revolution has started”. Home education is a spontaneous, citizen-led decentralization movement.

Education is, at root, both an economic and ideological issue: schools were instituted to fulfill a specific need (or needs) in a specific economic climate. If we do not wish to maintain this economic or political climate, or if we want the ability to change it in the future, why do we continue to educate our children to this particular end? If we do not wish to educate our children to the undisguised capitalist ends of the school system, why do we look to reform education rather than reconsidering it from scratch? We must stop trying to reform schools to simply operate better within their existing structure. We need to reconceive the entire system.

Currently education is constrained in the artificial way that a written language is. We have made education such a restrictive endeavor that it cannot flow and adapt to changing needs. Instead of an open circle, we have closed it, closed off the children, the teachers, the curriculum. Alfred North Whitehead, a critic of those education systems which he saw as contributing to societal stagnation, wrote: “In the history of education, the most striking phenomenon is that schools of learning, which at one epoch are alive with a ferment of genius, in a succeeding generation exhibit merely pedantry and routine. The reason is, that they are overladen with inert ideas. Education with inert ideas is not only useless: it is, above all things, harmful”.

The reason that home education works may not even be, as many suspect, the personal attention, support and encouragement, or the emotional stability - though these are wonderful and crucial elements not just for education but for personal development as a whole - but the freedom, the adaptation, the spontaneity of thought and focus. This cannot be shipped into schools as a useful tool, as an idea to be incorporated - it is the be all and end all. We could help schools become more like this, but it would take mentors rather than teachers, and many more at that; a physical restructuring, the removal of delineated subjects and specified lunch breaks and start and end times, the end of grading and sorting: complete freedom.

Traditional schooling is yang, forced and dictative. Other, ‘alternative’ systems are too yin, directionless and passive. We need to take the passion, experience and worldliness of the most motivated and dedicated adults, and combine it with the curiosity, freshness, and inventiveness of our children, allowing them to choose time, direction and depth. “Independent study, community service, adventures in experience, large doses of privacy and solitude, a thousand different apprenticeships, the one day variety or longer - these are all powerful, cheap and effective ways to start a real reform of schooling” (Gatto).

For increasing numbers of parents, the decision about how best to educate their children means making a choice about who should be in control of their children’s education. Who does the child belong to, the family, or the state? Article 2 of the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights - Right to education, states that “In the exercise of any functions which it assumes in relation to education and to teaching, the State shall respect the right of parents to ensure such education and teaching is in conformity with their own religious and philosophical convictions.” But removing those with strong religious convictions from the equation, how many question whether state education is in conformity with their philosophical convictions, and whether that education is in their children’s interest or the state’s own?

In order for future voters to elect worthy, responsible leaders and create genuinely democratic structures, we have to raise our children in that very environment. We must reject grading, labeling, elitism and the cult of the individual. We must allow children to make decisions, to take responsibility, to witness the consequences of decisions, and to work towards common goals. Most importantly, we must allow children to mature, to become adults. The only way to avoid orthodoxy is to allow and encourage freedom of speech, thought, and the ability to affect change. School, however, keeps us in a state of permanent infantilisation, reliant on and subservient to unelected authority. Our education systems treat adolescents and young adults in very much the same way they do the youngest pupils. School steals that time which in past centuries, as Gatto describes it, children and adolescents would have spent on “real work, real charity, real adventures, and the realistic search for mentors who might teach what you really wanted to learn. A great deal of time was spent in community pursuits, practicing affection, meeting and studying every level of the community, learning how to make a home, and dozens of other tasks necessary to become a whole man or woman.”

When the state steps in, it never fully withdraws, channeling children from school institution to college institution to corporation or welfare. When parents are freed from competition with schools for influence and authority, life is a gradual release of sovereignty to the child as they gain independence. With the state in control, we may never become fully independent, responsible adults. Indeed, if education is central to the belief that democracy cannot survive unless the population enjoys at least a rudimentary level of education, why is the state so wary of methods of education that are not controlled by them, regardless of other systems’ demonstrably superior outcomes?

It is no secret that there are inherent problems with schools; most of us can see that schools aren't working (in terms of literacy and numeracy, as well as fulfilling, educating and inspiring students). Some see that home education is working. Researchers are starting to uncover the value of home education, especially unschooling, where families reject a set curriculum, and instead make use of community resources, online classes, learning co-operatives and opportunities as they arise. There is a wealth of information waiting to be fully tapped in the opportunities unschooling presents for comparative research into, for example learning methods, or the societal impact of schools. There are less tangible but equally crucial benefits to home education such as the impact of having families present in the daily life of the community, the strengthening of familial and societal bonds, the continuing education of the entire family through their intimate involvement with the learning process, and the fulfillment of mothers who are not relegated to mere housemaid in the raising of their offspring.

Maybe the most important thing we could do for education as a whole is to broaden our understanding of the terms ‘home education’ or ‘unschooling’. Unschoolers simply see themselves as educating otherwise than at school; the definition is no more restrictive than this. Jeff Sandefer writes that unschoolers “are striving to evolve new approaches, not from the once-removed vantage of politicians or board members or even smart individuals grinding through the Sisyphean task of trying to get a few policies changed, but by abandoning the model and starting over. Almost exclusively, they currently represent education’s real research and development”.

Home education is comparable to adult education, the only real difference being the age of the participants; in all other ways the ethos is identical – self improvement for a specified goal or for the love of the topic, a diversity of age, gender, social background and life experience; a more relaxed and democratic classroom environment than is experienced at school; a variety of open entry, pre-requisites, accredited or non accredited courses as suits the needs of the individual. This mindset is then extended to daily life, with full advantage taken of teachers, extended family, the human and the physical community.

Home educators are experts at seeking out the huge variety of resources available online, and are in no small part responsible for the success of Salman Khan, the founder of Khan Academy. Khan Academy has 3,500 short videos or tutorials and 10 million students, covering subjects such as maths, history, medicine, physics, art history and computer science. And it is free. Prominent universities are following suit, including MIT, Harvard, Berkeley, and Edinburgh. Sebastian Thrun, previously professor of AI at Stanford and the head of Google's top-secret experimental lab, resigned to work on his new project: massive scale, free to all, online education (massive open online courses or MOOCs). “The music industry, publishing, transportation, retail – they've all experienced the great technological disruption. Now, says Thrun, it's education's turn”. Anant Argarwal of MIT says MOOCs are "going to reinvent education. It's going to transform universities. It's going to democratise education on a global scale. It's the biggest innovation to happen in education for 200 years." In Thrun’s Artificial Intelligence course, of the 23,000 students who graduated, all 400 of the top marks were online students. These courses are available to home educated and schooled students alike, taken individually or as a learning co-op.

Martin Rees speaks for the Council for the Defence of British Universities in saying “I believe there should be a more diverse ‘ecology’ of institutions, with more flexibility, more collaboration and more transferability between them”. This is what home educators are creating for themselves at a grassroots level, incorporating classes and weaving networks of education providers as they discover and need them. John Taylor Gatto recognizes that “Our greatest problem in getting the kind of grass-roots thinking going that could reform schooling is that we have large vested interests pre-emptying all the air time and profiting from schooling just exactly as it is despite rhetoric to the contrary. We have to demand that new voices and new ideas get a hearing”.

Reclaiming the education system is crucial if we are to stand any chance of pervasive and permanent social change. And as Clark Aldrich says, “It will not be the governments, or their school systems, or others of their institutions that will drive the real innovation in reconstructing childhood education. It will be, as it already is, the homeschoolers and unschoolers.”


Discussion 2 Comments

  • LedSuit ' 14th Nov 2012

    Great stuff Rosi. Jeepers, heaps to think about not to mention what needs doin'.

  • 14th Nov 2012

    James, thank you for reading it all! Maybe the real question is, how can we use the lessons from home ed to our advantage? It is happening, whatever we think of it, and it is throwing up interesting results, eg social class and income level has no impact on education at home, whereas it clearly does in schools; it produces a higher level of political engagement, etc. If it is achieving what we on the left are trying to do for the whole of society, we should be trying to work out how!