The Democratic Education of Unschoolers

On the more unconventional side of the progressive education movement are unschoolers, taught by a radical pedagogy based on experimentation, democratic education, and especially curiosity.

| November/December 2013

We had no textbooks, class times, deadlines, tests, or curricula.

We had no textbooks, class times, deadlines, tests, or curricula. Were we fascinated by primates? By rocks? By baseball cards or balloon animals? If so, it was our duty to investigate.

Illustration By SImone Shin

In the early ‘70s, 1973 to be exact, when my mother was 13 years old, she enrolled at the Carcross Community School, an alternative boarding school up north in the Yukon Territory. Despite its location and near-total isolation, the community was part of a progressive education movement sweeping North America. Like hundreds of other free schools across the continent, Carcross emphasized unmediated experience above instruction and authority. Governed by a democracy that put students and teachers on equal footing (some even dated), the school’s goal was to inspire students to participate in the running of their own lives. Academic subjects were taught rather informally. The math teacher was said to have settled the distasteful issue of grades by throwing darts at a board marked with appropriate letters.

The school had its limitations and hypocrisies, yet these and other tales were always recounted with great fondness. And Carcross’ educational ethos left a tremendous mark on my mother, in her glimpse of the theories and practice of radical pedagogy—a current seemingly forgotten in North America by the time my siblings and I reached school age in the 1980s.

A Democratic Education Passed Down

After I was born we moved to the States, first to Tucson, Arizona—about as far from the Yukon as a person can get—so my dad could work on a Ph.D. in pharmacology. I remember some happy kindergarten afternoons spent playing in a sandbox. The next year, when I was enrolled in a class split between first and second graders, the teacher suggested I move up a year in math. Though my parents were game, the principal informed them that this would be unacceptable; every teacher for the rest of my academic career would have to accommodate me, and that was too much to ask. After that meeting, I never had to go to school again. I still recall my surprise and sense of good fortune. It wasn’t that I hated school, but it was a bother, each day duller than the one before. Beyond that, I don’t remember what my mother assures me of—that over the next few weeks she tried diligently to continue a school curriculum at home, instructing me according to lesson plans while I, obstinate, refused to follow along. I must have assumed I won the battle. In reality my mother simply let it go. She had met a group of homeschooling families hanging out at a local park who showed her the magazine Growing Without Schooling and introduced her to books by John Holt. The parents were intelligent and easygoing, their kids curious and creative.

Those families in the park passed on a framework and vocabulary for an educational philosophy my parents held intuitively. Neither Mom nor Dad had been subjected to the conventional climb from kindergarten through 12th grade and on to college. My mother’s countercultural upbringing and my father’s nerdy precocity colluded to keep us at home. So, unlike the vast majority of our peers, my siblings and I slept late and never knew what day of the week it was. We were never tested, graded, or told to memorize dates, facts, or figures. We were “unschoolers.”

When my mom was doing her stint stalking caribou, books about radical education were in wide circulation. First and most famous was A. S. Neill’s Summerhill: A Radical Approach to Child Rearing, an account of the legendary antiauthoritarian boarding school in England, which sold more than three million copies between 1960 and 1973—an astounding figure. Then there were Paul Goodman’s Compulsory Miseducation (1964), John Holt’s How Children Fail (1964) and How Children Learn (1967), Jonathan Kozol’s Death at an Early Age (1967) and Free Schools (1972), Carl Rogers’ Freedom to Learn (1969), George Dennison’s The Lives of Children (1969), and Ivan Illich’s Deschooling Society (1970), to name the most influential. In those early days Growing Without Schooling, the magazine started by Holt and published well into the 1990s, came in a brown paper wrapper, as though its pages might be as objectionable to the postmaster as pornography.

mike sadofsky
4/13/2014 7:48:30 AM

What Astra sought actually prevails at Sudbury Valley School and schools like it. See for further information and links to schools.

11/12/2013 7:02:35 AM

We homeschooled our son and daughter during the 1980s as an alternative to the public school system. Neither one chose to attend public school as they grew older until attending community college in their late teens. While we had elements of unschooling--allowing them to research areas they found interesting--we felt that our curriculum should be structured and focus on areas covered in public school. After all in adulthood hey would enter the rampant capitalism that has emerged globally. They would have to compete within the system, even if they worked to change it. Our son is now a microbiologist and our daughter an environmental attorney. Homeschooling, and unschooling, are hard. They require sacrifice from the parents and a demand that children accept responsibility for their education. They force children to mature quickly, and most homeschool parents--at least secular ones like us and our groups--require that their children are involved in a lot of social activities: sports, acting, charities, science clubs and fairs, gaming clubs, etc. One college admission's officer asked our daughter "Where do you find the time?" And, I think, time is the answer. Public schooling dedicates an inordinate amount of time--one study said 40%--on non-educational actions. We who value education, and take responsibility (along with their kids) for our family's education, dedicated all of our homeschooling time to education and much of our non-schooling time as well. I think that's the real value of homeschooling, which Astra rightly emphasizes: the love of learning which is so often lost, crushed, in the public school system. It saddens us to listen to our neighbors' children as they begin school and lose their love for learning.

11/4/2013 10:13:30 AM

What a wonderful article. Fortunately the "middle ground" opportunities are growing as more and more families embrace the idea of self-directed learning. See for a glimpse of what is already happening across the country, and a vision for what could be achieved.