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.
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.
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.
These publications were part of a top-to-bottom movement to devise new philosophies of and forums for learning. First there were the “freedom schools” that had been part of the civil rights movement. Next were the hundreds of “free schools” founded across the country committed to child-centered and democratic education. Finally, there was the widespread campus unrest against the corporate multiversity, which then became part of the movement against the Vietnam War and culminated in the massive student strikes that shook the nation—coupled with the establishment of open universities, where idealistic students and faculty sought to liberate learning from the tyranny of accreditation.
Today, the prospect of a book like Summerhill—one that paints a sympathetic portrait of kids who refuse to attend classes, do schoolwork, or obey authority—reaching an audience of millions seems absurd. Instead we have well-meaning studies like Under Pressure: Rescuing Our Children from the Culture of Hyper-Parenting and The Homework Myth: Why Our Kids Get Too Much of a Bad Thing. These and countless other recent books and articles rightly criticize the current emphasis on testing and tracking, our insistence on “enriching” kids as though they were bags of flour, and our single-minded obsession with climbing to the top of the meritocracy no matter how rigged and meaningless it is to begin with. But in the end they make no rousing or imaginative suggestions for other ways to live and learn. After-school tutoring is OK—just do it in moderation. Ditto for SAT prep classes, sports, and other “extracurricular” activities. These books advise parents to stay on the well-trodden path of standardized schooling, but to travel it a bit slower.
In 1988 Dad was offered a job at the University of Georgia. The family piled into our VW van and we set off for the American South, a distant land pretty much bereft of unschoolers, though our better-known counterparts—the fundamentalist homeschoolers—could be found in abundance. Desperate to meet people we went once to a homeschool playgroup, where the parents lined the kids up for a religious version of Red Rover. I remember standing in a row, clasping the sweaty palm of some stranger, while another child raced toward us, arms out like she was being crucified. Send Jesus right over! We never returned and weren’t missed. Unlike our religious counterparts, our parents weren’t trying to limit our exposure to worldly activities with their potentially corrupting points of view. Instead, we always said the world was our classroom. In theory at least, nothing was off-limits.
We differed from homeschoolers in essential ways. We weren’t replicating school at home. 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. My parents eschewed coercion and counted on our curiosity, which they understood to be a most basic human capacity. This is really what the whole debate over compulsory schooling is about. Do we trust people’s capacity to be curious or not?
As the oldest of four siblings, I often wrangled my younger sisters and brother into grandiose projects, convincing them to star in elaborate homemade movies or surreal puppet shows. When we weren’t in production on some bizarre spectacle, we spent afternoons exploring the creeks and woods behind our ramshackle house, planting gardens that rarely flourished, or pretending we could talk to the landlord’s horses, which were kept in neighboring fields. Some days we read books, made music, painted, or drew. Other days we argued and fought over the computer.
Endless hours were spent watching reruns of The Simpsons on videotape, though we had every episode memorized. When we weren’t inspired—which was often—we simply did nothing at all.
At home our fits of inspiration could stretch to fill up days or months. We set our own standards of excellence, which were often impossible to meet. Yet failure in intellectual and creative pursuits felt honorable as opposed to humiliating. Adults never lorded their possession of right answers over us, or shamed us when we lacked certain skills, or ranked us against one another. It shocks me to this day that we live in a world where this basic courtesy is rare and precious.
At different junctures, my siblings and I all tried public school, curious to know how our peers lived. I briefly went to fourth grade, for example, where the trifling emotions associated with immaturity—greed, envy, fear, conformity—overpowered the inspiring and desirable attributes of childhood: compassion, curiosity, imagination, playfulness. I was tormented for not having Keds or owning deodorant. (I was eight! Did I really need it?) My sister Sunaura still shudders at her memory of a traumatic two days spent riding the school bus and being trapped in special education, isolated and inconsolable because the school refused to “mainstream” her because of her wheelchair. Alex briefly attended sixth grade, where he was finally beaten up for calling the two boys who always picked on him “Homo sapiens.” We concluded that staying home was a gift, a stroke of good luck. We were spared heckling (I was buck-toothed and bookish; my sister was disabled; my brother looked like a girl); meaningless consumer pressure (I didn’t like Keds, but I wanted them so people would stop making fun of me); and untold hours—make that years—of insulting boredom.
Boredom: that’s the big one. It’s boredom we were released from. Everyone knows that school is about the management of boredom, the administration of mental fatigue. On the one hand, it acclimates children to clerical-technical piecework so that as adults they can work long hours at jobs they will more than likely describe as uneventful, mind-numbing, soul-destroying, or something that must simply be done and stoically endured. But school also inculcates boredom as an attitude, a habit, a way of being in the world, as all they’re really entitled to feel. It’s an ethos, one that lingers in adult life. I’m always stunned when people say, “Weren’t you bored at home?” Do these people remember being in school? Schools are factories of ennui, restlessness, lethargy, monotony, tedium. Think of the pencil chewing, the mindless drooling, the desperate passing of notes, the desire to disappear, the obligatory raising of hands and answering of questions, the trying to look busy when you’re about to doze off, the wish to be anywhere in the world beyond the window.
For us boredom was something to be passed through: it was a pit stop along the road to becoming engaged. “When you’re bored, you’re boring,” my mother would say. We squandered some time at home, too, making mud pies, bickering, riding bikes in circles, but how bad was that? For three years I published a newsletter about animal rights and environmentalism, an undertaking that prepared me for my adult work better than almost anything else I’ve done. Sunaura fell in love with painting when she was 12 years old and devoted year after year to mastering her craft, an investment of time denied most artists until they enter graduate school. My parents took my brother’s interest in video games seriously; he taught himself how to animate and program, do 3D modeling and design, before going on to intern at a firm in New York City when he was 16—which helped him realize he didn’t want to work in the field professionally, something he may not have found out until after college if he had followed the orthodox path.
For me, though, as the oldest kid in our limited circle, and one with an ambitious, even competitive streak, I started to worry. Somehow I had imbibed the idea that unschoolers should be both different from the mainstream and yet superior according to all conventional standards. What doors would be closed to me, I wondered, if I did not get a college education? What ultimately became of grown-up unschoolers, anyway? I really had no idea. While I now know attending high school is not a prerequisite for university enrollment (and that, given soaring costs, going to college isn’t the best choice for everyone), I feared being labeled a dropout, marked by some scarlet letter signifying my lack of a diploma. So I hedged my bets and told my parents to sign me up for public high school, where I received, if not exactly a classical education, at least a cultural one.
At age 13 I enrolled in ninth grade. I was impressed by how swiftly I came to identify with my public school peers, feeling just as disaffected and trapped as I figured they must feel. I had to remind myself I was choosing to be there.
I confess there was a certain pleasure in handing over responsibility—in shifting from the ambiguity of unschooling, where there are no clear metrics for success, to the authoritarian structure of school, where I knew when I was doing well by the system’s own strange logic. I got kudos daily, not for my thinking, but for my diligence—and like all the “good” students I came to see myself reflected in the marks I received.
In high school, I have to admit, my social life improved. I was fortunate to have skipped the awkward years of middle school, and I was deemed acceptable by the various social hierarchies upon arrival. I found the friends I had wanted, not to mention a few committed teachers who inspired me, but not the nurturing intellectual community I craved. So I held out for life after graduation, convinced college would be different. At 16 I abandoned high school to attend classes at the University of Georgia, and then the next year I headed to Brown University. I was going to the most liberal school in the Ivy League, a place where everyone assured me I would belong!
The first day at Brown, the administrators assembled the entire freshman class in a large auditorium. You all are the smartest and most capable of your generation, they told us. This is the best place to be, and you are here because you are the best. My heart sank. Obviously that wasn’t true. We were there because we’d been darlings of the system, in one way or another, and had been willing to accept its terms in exchange for various rewards. We had hustled for the As, padded our resumes, and written obsequious college essays, eagerly climbing our way to the top of a ladder that was fixed all along. Why start a noble undertaking with a lie? The high school I had recently emerged from was segregated by race, the majority of black students funneled into “remedial” and “regular” classes while a white minority was labeled “gifted” and kept busy with college prep.
As the semester at Brown progressed I felt even more isolated than I’d been in high school. One cold northern afternoon I was complaining of my unhappiness to my best friend from Georgia, a friend who was not a student, who was raised in housing projects, who didn’t know his father and whose mother was in prison, who never finished high school, but is now a technology programming wizard, a former CTO of a big corporation and an author of several books having to do with computer programming—an unschooler by necessity and inclination. I expressed my attachment to the idea of getting a degree in physics and he said, “Why? It’s not what you do when you’re not in class.”
His off-the-cuff comment shook me to my core. Why had I felt compelled to enroll in an Ivy League school, to excel by the standards of conventional education and choose a “difficult” major, instead of making my own way? What was I afraid of? My parents thought Brown was a joke; they never seemed impressed by my acceptance by the educational elite, only relieved that I got financial aid. Years later my dad said he was happy I got that “silly Ivy League thing” out of my system. Looking back I think that I must have, as a kid, simply absorbed the skepticism of strangers, who would sometimes insult my family by quizzing me and my siblings on our alphabet or counting to 10. I had seen articles in Growing Without Schooling about homeschoolers who went to Harvard and, out of competitiveness or insecurity, must have decided that I should do the same. I dropped out of Brown at the end of the year when I realized that unschooling is not something you do until you are 18 and enroll in college or start a career. Unschooling is a lifelong commitment, an ethos—kind of the way boredom can be, though it’s boredom’s opposite.
Many people, liberal and conservative alike, are deeply offended by critiques of compulsory schooling. Every day we’re told that schools hold the key to equalizing opportunity, that the proper credentials will allow poor and marginalized people to participate fully in society, and that education provides the only legitimate path out of poverty. The question is a difficult one. Are schools social levelers or do they reinforce the class pyramid by tracking and sorting children from a young age? Presumably they do both.
Growing up, I experienced unschooling as a compromise, the more appealing of the two extremes available in Georgia given my family’s modest budget: staying at home and teaching myself, or going to public school and having my spirit crushed. What I really wanted—what I still want, even now, as an adult—is that intellectual community I was looking for in high school and college but never quite found. I would have loved to commune with other young people and find out what a school of freedom could be like. But for some reason, such a possibility was unthinkable, a wild fantasy—instead, the only option available was to submit to irrational authority six and a half hours a day, five days a week, in a series of cinder-block holding cells. If nothing else, we should pause to wonder why there’s so rarely any middle ground.
Astra Taylor is a documentary filmmaker and writer, but these days she’s focused on honing her political-organizing and troublemaking skills. This article was originally published in n+1 (Issue 13), a magazine of politics, literature and culture published three times yearly. This article is also available as a Kindle Single.