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.

  • 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
  • I briefly went to fourth grade, where the trifling emotions associated with immaturity—greed, envy, fear, conformity—overpowered the inspiring and desirable attributes of childhood: compassion, curiosity, imagination, playfulness.
    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.

4/16/2021 4:25:29 PM

My own brother was homeless at age 18 when he "self-taught" himself programmable coding. He is now 32 years old and makes $100,000 a year as a computer programmer and code writer. I was home-schooled by my mother for both the 7th and 9th grades, and do just fine thank you. Today's educational system is more than a joke: It's a blatent rip-off in terms of college costs and what you actually get for your money. Don't fall for it! Follow your own passions, do what you love, be diligent, and the rest will follow- college education or not.

12/23/2017 1:56:43 AM

I'm a life learner since I can remember. My parents especially my mother that was home schooled as a teen ager is 93 now and still gives art lectures and has been doing this for the last 50 years. My father was a self taught engineer( never graduated) built sailboats( trimarans). With all that background my parents never acknowledged to themselves their special uniqueness. They lived it as a lack and tried their hardest to fit in the system. As individuals that excelled in their own fields, they never really transmitted to my sister and I the love of learning and dialogue. I was given a formal schooling and from the very start was a terrible student. I was told that I would walk out of class on a whim or misbehave a lot. It took many years to accept that I was following a different drummer. What saved my Soul was discovering theatre after High Shool. I've been involved in many different professions including emigrating from Argentina in my late 20's, and now that I'm retired I've gone back to the one profession I denied myself all along. Early on as a kid my father made a comment that stuck in my head" Teachers choose to be teachers because they can't compete in the world. They are losers". I've taught theatre, languages and self help programs all along under the radar, and never made money with this. I have evolved into believing that we are Souls that have a dear message to share and we can do this when we start to love ourselves. Parents that not only love but respect their children's uniqueness are giving them the biggest gift regardless the circumstances. They will excel regardless the obstacles they may find in life for their reasons and not because they are told to. Homeschooling, nonschooling, Summerhill are ways to foster this, but sometimes circumstances in life might not be lined up for that. Sometimes at least for a time one must bite the bullet and take what is available. As mature adults we all have a choice to make things better for the younger generations to come. That is mine.

12/18/2017 12:01:36 PM

Schools reflect and perpetuate the socioeconomic norms that society supports. After 29 years as a teacher/jailer, I am now free to be an unschooler myself. My days are spent largely as the writer describes her early childhood—my curiosity obliges me to action and learning...or it fails me, and I stare at my phone until my cats remind me of the non-digital world. If we want schools that reinforce independent learning and responsible democratic participation in social action, we need to build a society around those ideals first. How about freeing adults to spend time with their families by mandating equitable pay and liberal vacation time? How about disconnecting health care concerns from employment? How about requiring all citizens to spend a period of young adulthood in national service of some sort? Schools are a good barometer of the social climate, but they are not in control of the weather. When I look toward the White House I can see the storm is upon us.

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