Learning in Freedom

In response to Dana Goldstein’s “Liberals, Don’t Homeschool Your Kids“ inSlate.

Contrary to what readers might expect after reading Dana Goldstein’s account of my essay, “Unschooling” (recently published in n+1 and available, for now, only in print or as a Kindle Single), when I read the other day that presidential hopeful Rick Santorum called government-funded schools “anachronistic” and boasted of homeschooling his kids, I cringed.

The fact is, I’m not anti-state when it comes to education. As a diehard liberal, I share Goldstein’s general concerns about equality and access, and am far less glib about the prospects of unschooling—a radical version of homeschooling—than she makes me out to be. Contrary to what she says, I never wrote that we should “empty the schools” (that was a tagline from the table of contents, a creation of my editors). I’m well aware that public schools serve an important function and are cornerstones of a good society. More than that, for some children, school is the safest place they know, the only place they get fed, the only window they have onto a world of ideas they would never encounter at home. For these reasons and others, “Unschooling” is an account of my conflicted feelings about the political implications of the unusual pedagogical tradition I was raised in. As I say in the essay’s conclusion, “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.”

As I recount at some length, I actually chose to go to public high school in Georgia for three years, where I saw the good and bad first hand. Unlike Goldstein, who glories in having “benefited from 13 years of public education in one of the most diverse and progressive school districts in the United States,” the school I attended was predominantly African-American and viciously segregated, with the white kids funneled into advanced and gifted courses while everyone else, the vast majority, languished. Thus, in my essay I ask, “Are schools social levelers or do they reinforce the class pyramid by tracking and sorting children from a young age?” Any honest progressive needs to admit the answer is both, which Goldstein, determined to defend public education at all costs, declines to do.

Though Goldstein doesn’t mention it, much of my essay actually describes the Albany Free School, the country’s oldest urban free school and one that doesn’t turn any student away for lack of funds. I picked the school, in part, because it’s a compelling example of the unschooling ethos in action within a diverse community, as opposed to the private space of the home. It’s also a school of last resort for many children that have been kicked out of the public system for good. Most of these “problems kids” end up thriving at the Free School, where they are empowered, for the first time in their lives, to take the reins of their own learning. Students at the Free School, with the encouragement and aid of teachers, choose and implement their own curricula and participate in the running of the school (they mediate their own disputes, get to vote on faculty, and more). This unique arrangement, while a far cry from the academic pressure cookers many education reformists admire, prepares kids for life in a democracy the way few public schools do. Perhaps, I argue, there’s something to be learned from this experiment.

In the end, however, my essay isn’t prescriptive. I never say everyone should unschool or that we should replicate the Albany Free School, which I don’t think could scale in its current formation (it depends, for example, on a volunteer ethos I don’t think we can or should expect from our educators). Nor do I go into detail about the kind of education system I would like to see established. I wholeheartedly support universal and free education—but by free I mean both that it should not cost anything and that it should be aimed at freedom. The foundation of unschooling philosophy is the idea that we are, to quote John Holt, “learning animals,” and that we should tap into people’s intrinsic motivation to explore and understand the world—creating a nurturing environment in which children are free to learn instead of a designing a system that depends on forcing them to do it, whether by threat of punishment or the cultivation of competition.

Ultimately, I don’t think educating for freedom is incommensurate with government involvement and subsidy; in an ideal world they would go together, and in some instances, in exceptional classrooms, they already do. Elementary through university education is something that should be generously supported by taxpayer dollars evenly distributed per pupil, regardless of zip code (though I wouldn’t mind if the poor got more to compensate for the advantages enjoyed by their affluent peers). This last detail, though, brings me to Goldstein’s fundamental problem with progressive homeschoolers. She argues that by keeping their kids at home, parents passively reinforce social segregation, allowing students at low-income schools to fall even further behind due to the absence of positive “peer effects.” I have sympathy for this view. But, truth be told, the minuscule number of secular home learners nationwide is dwarfed by the huge population of liberal parents who do everything in their power to get their kids into the best public schools possible, moving their families to more competitive districts, those desirable zip codes, and perpetuating inequity in the process. According to Goldstein’s logic, real progressives should, instead, be enrolling their offspring in the worst possible public institutions in order to improve them, and while that sounds good in theory, I’ve never met a single parent doing such a thing. Instead most liberal parents are desperate to help their children climb to the top of the meritocracy—to the top of an exclusionary pyramid that, as I discuss in my essay, has largely been rigged in their favor all along. How liberal is that? One of the virtues of unschooling, of the radical philosophy that underpins it, is that it calls the entire hierarchy into question.

This is why I think unschooling poses a fundamental challenge worth considering—even if it is utopian and uncompromising and undesirable on a mass scale. Today, conventional wisdom has it that the solution is more, never less. We need more teachers, more textbooks, more discipline, more preparation, more class time, more tests, more metrics, more accountability, more excellence and success (but again, according to what standard?). Since the 1960s the school day and academic year have both lengthened considerably. The amount of homework assigned to a first grader has more than doubled since 1981, a surge that has even caused the New York Times to sound the alarm. Too many schools have become warehouses holding hordes of young people who are monitored by security guards and police, subjected to an ever-increasing number of tests and pre-fab programs of study, and offered diminishing educational opportunities in the fine and liberal arts.

When it comes to public education, progressives are in a difficult position, and people who are on the front lines of this debate have my sympathy. Our schools are under attack. Austerity measures are on the rise, unions are besieged, teachers have to beg for money online for basic supplies, and privatization is the order of the day. Given these circumstances, it’s tempting to dig in and stay on the defensive. Thus Goldstein writes as though everything is hunky dory with our public schools—the real problem, as she tells it, is that some people are abandoning ship. This is troubling, because it means she ignores the legitimate grievances that are causing people to seek alternatives. Public schools simply don’t serve every student well, as evidenced by parents who choose to keep their kids at home not because they are devotees of “attachment parenting” or because they fear outside influences or because they are wealthy and self-serving, as Goldstein suggests, but because their children are suffering or have special needs that aren’t being addressed (a child’s physical disability in my family’s case, emotional and learning disabilities in many others’).

More fundamentally, there’s a bigger philosophical and strategic dilemma. Ignoring the real problems that plague public education and that keep parents up all night creates an opening for the right to harness people’s discontent to serve their agenda. Conservatives will continue to appear brave enough to think big, posing bold solutions to society’s problems (charter schools, eliminating teacher tenure, instituting merit pay), while progressives defend the status quo. What intrigues me about the history of radical pedagogy and the unschooling tradition is that its proponents were and are not afraid to challenge the conventional wisdom, to dream of different ways of doing things, to take seriously words like “freedom,” “autonomy,” and “choice”—inspiring and important ideals that have been all but ceded to the political right in recent decades.  Unschooling, I’ll readily admit, is not the answer to our nation’s educational woes. But taking a closer look at the radical margins may help us ask better questions about what we really want from our educational system and how to go about getting it.

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