Watching this talk by Astra Taylor really got me thinking, and not just because she’s awesomely cool and it’s beautifully compressed to music. I too was homeschooled in an unschooling-esque manner (in that I had no standard curriculum and generally only learned when and what I wanted to), then was tutored by my Grandad (which is how I know homeschooling can in fact be a good thing), public schooled of my own volition, and then got into the “ivy league thing.” But I was also more-or-less one of those weird kids engaged in that game of religious red rover she spoke of rather disdainfully, and that she clearly set her brand of educational philosophy as separate and apart from (“unlike them, the world was our classroom”). Hearing that bit I wanted to say “Actually, we did miss you, Astra. We needed your outside perspective. It was our parents who wanted you out of the way.” So I don’t agree with her on everything, including her belief that unschooling exists separate and apart from Christian fundamentalist homeschooling (there’s a big overlap, actually) but I do like what she had to say on several key points. I also have some criticism on stuff that (in what I imagine to be a time-limited talk) I think seems to be glaringly left out, glossed over.

Like Astra, I too believe that creativity is natural, genius is as common as dirt, and that children are not generic empty vessels to be imparted with knowledge and instructions. Astra hit on the important point that whenever we treat kids like they are simply lumps of clay to be molded, teach them that the most important consideration is outside judgment of their abilities or artistic value, it is quite toxic to creativity and drive, no matter the setting. At its core, education is really about cultivating a hunger for lifelong learning, feeding the impulse to explore and know and practice, to be curious. So I agree that we need to clean up the way we conceptualize and facilitate education so people can have more of that, wherever they are.

That is where Astra and I start to diverge. I get thoroughly annoyed at arguments about the inherent merits of homeschool or public school and which one is intrinsically “better” or “worse.” I honestly don’t know why intelligent people have tolerated such a simplistic conversation for so long, but I understand why Astra got pulled into it and didn’t question it how I wished she would have. This dichotomy is pretty much all you hear as a homeschooled kid and I think it’s something we really, really need to move beyond. Homeschool or public school or private school can all be amazing and can all be crap, depending on how you do it and who you do it with. None are the panacea, the perfect alternative for what ails the other. It’s best to have them all as options and determine which one is right for each child and each family situation, to also be able to switch among them.

Still, I can see why Astra would advocate the kind of unschooling education she got. At its best, mine resembled that and I liked it, liked being free to choose my topics of interest and learn for the pure fun of learning. However, at its worst I lacked resources, structure, and any idea of what I actually needed to know to be a member of society, not just an individual on my own little “learning island.” Also, without guidance my siblings simply didn’t take to academics like I did, and that is why properly done unschooling is supposed to be facilitated by active, engaged parents. Unfortunately the world seems to have a shortage of those and Astra Taylor didn’t get into that thorny issue at all. She doesn’t mention how right now homeschooling parents who are lazy or abusive largely get a pass. Is she aware that there are a ton of sub-par homeschooling parents who ride on the coattails of successful people like herself, Tim Tebow, and way too many famous people who died over 100 years ago (this last one is totally a pet peeve of mine), that they bask in the glow of other people who’ve done their jobs, won spelling bees, or are otherwise held up as model homeschoolers? Does she know about the homeschoolers that will go on and talk about how awesome she is, co-opt her words, and then create something that is anathema to her dreams? I have no idea if she does or not as she doesn’t say.

So my main criticism is that Astra Taylor simply did not acknowledge the true dark side of unschooling. She hinted at it, pointing out that the kind of homeschooling she got is pretty “classed” and “gendered,” mainly done by well educated married Moms that are not in the workforce and can afford the resources to do so, but she stopped there. She didn’t talk about what others might do, should do, may find themselves able or unable to do. Instead she fell into another trap so many homeschoolers seem trained into. They talk about public school being a scary social control mechanism, a way to create cookie-cutter roles. They don’t seem to realize that their amazing solution of homeschooling can totally, absolutely be used to do the exact same thing, sometimes in an even more extreme way, that sometimes when people speak of “freedom,” they do not mean the cherished individual freedom that Astra advocates. They mean freedom for themselves to rule, to beat their kids, boss their families around like slaves, treat their wives like chattel; freedom to reinstate a hierarchy that felt old and dried out even in Victorian times, freedom to undereducate their daughters, freedom to indoctrinate their sons in some illusion of overarching Christ-based male power. Just like those people use the word “freedom,” to describe what they do, they often use something they call “unschooling” too.

I imagine John Holt never expected a bunch of wacky fundamentalists to hijack his plan to educationally liberate kids and then use it to create a more oppressive environment than most public schools could be capable of or ever desire. I honestly wonder if he’d have even advocated for it at all if he could see the “out of the frying pan, into the fire” type situation that followed, the kind of environment I grew up in. I am surprised that Astra still seems not to expect or consider it either, or at least appears unconcerned at the prospect. She quotes John Holt and she notes that those weird “red rover” homeschoolers (who her beloved John Taylor Gatto has since apparently teamed up with) are a considerably bigger group than the Astra Taylors of homeschooling. Somehow she still dismisses them though, not seeming to recognize that they simply cannot be dismissed when they run the politics, the national voice of the movement.

She also does not mention the Amish or the HSLDA or the role they each had in making unschooling and other forms of homeschooling completely deregulated in some areas, campaigning for homeschooling as primarily a right to indoctrinate and limit the life experiences, the “open future” of your offspring. She does not note that many of the homeschooling bigwigs champion “unschooling” but simultaneously have various oppressive and “old-fashioned” agendas, selling ideologies and products, and that many of these popular methods or worldviews would likely have been so mind-numbingly oppressive to a young Astra as to have potentially prevented her current public filmmaking work, her ability to study what she wanted, or even to learn actual facts. Does she know that the anti-science people are now setting the tone, steering the ship, and commandeering the word “unschooling” in order to have less oversight of what they’re teaching?

As awesome as Astra’s version of unschooling might be, this is what has happened. While we simply don’t know how many homeschoolers are just ordinary Americans, nice run-of-the-mill Christians, and how many are extremists, (really, we don’t know much at all due to the prevalent off-the-grid attitude, low survey participation rates, and very open-ended questions asked about homeschooling), we do know that with all the charter schools, online education, correspondence courses, and amount of fundamentalist-approved and promoted curricula floating around out there, the form of homeschooling she loves and espouses (radical unschooling) is in the minority. Many homeschooled kids are sitting at a desk doing rote work much like in a traditional school, but just in a room, lonely, all by themselves. I would like to point out that public schools do this too. It is called “in-house suspension” and it is considered punishment, a form of solitary confinement.

That brings up another thing that stood out for me – characterization of peers (and lemme just say one big thing I really don’t agree with John Holt on is his dismissal of the meaningfulness of same-age peers). I noticed Astra talked about some negative effects of socialization and bullying in public school, but she also talked about having friends and getting feedback from them. From painful personal experience I’ve gotta say – Don’t take that resource for granted!. For years I was isolated, incredibly lonely, and wanted nothing more than to just talk with other human beings my age, have that connection. I was told I did not need friends my own age, that it was not very important, but I definitely did. I felt it, and I know it is so important as to be downright instinctual.

So “real” unschooling might be amazing. In fact, I believe that it is if you are getting enough exposure to new experiences and decent socialization opportunities. But as it stands, people can call isolation “unschooling.” People can call educational neglect “unschooling.” People can call gender-based deprivation “unschooling” and they can call child labor “unschooling.” In fact, because unschooling is defined by how “natural” it is, how opposed to metrics and testing and collective milestones or goals, I expect it is considerably more at risk of being co-opted for sinister people-controlling goals than your average public school. That’s the thing about “radical” anything, including education – it is a live wire of sorts, a powerful tool, a machete that can be used for good or evil. I wish Astra had talked a little more about that.
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