Thursday, July 30, 2009

Why I still call myself an unschooler

Looking around at all the people I know, I find myself to be part of a generation of unschoolers - ones somewhere between their late teens and mid-twenties - who are reaching adulthood together. We're not the first generation, to be sure; there were unschoolers at least as far back as the early 70s and maybe before. But from where I sit perched on the cusp of 24, I can name many unschoolers my age and many who are right on my heels. As of this writing, the Dodd kids are 23, 20 and almost-18, the Sorooshian girls are in their early 20s, Cameron Lovejoy is 21, Brenna McBroom is 19, and Trevor* and Idzie are both 18. I could exhaust myself naming unschoolers in the 15-to-17 range.

So with a whole cluster of unschoolers becoming grownups right now, a question jumps out at me: Does unschooling have an end?

School has an end: graduation. School-at-home ends too. But unschooling is a totally different thing. It's not a kind of school, it's a way of being, a philosophy. Can you "graduate" from something like that? Can you finish?

It depends. Technically unschooling is a kind of homeschooling, so in that sense it ends when you turn 18, or when you move out, or when you're past the age of compulsory schooling. By that definition I never was an unschooler, since I didn't start until I was old enough to drop out anyway. The state of Florida didn't demand that I go to school past my 16th birthday, which came barely a month after I started high school. Still I can see the point - how can you "unschool" if you aren't expected to "school" in the first place?

But as any experienced unschooler knows, unschooling is way more than just a kind of homeschooling. Whole-life, radical unschooling makes you a different person than you would have been if you were conventionally schooled and parented. In that sense there is no end; you can't finish unschooling any more than you can finish learning, or finish aging. You finish when you're dead. Or maybe not even then, if you're a Hindu or a Buddhist, or if you're not one and they have it right anyway.

I can't answer for anyone but me, but I still call myself an unschooler. Here are some reasons why:

1. I see the world in a different way from my schooled-all-the-way, conventionally-parented friends. They're a creative, open-minded bunch of people, and yet they see a lot more "have to" and "can't" in the world than I do. I have friends who decided they can't learn to play the piano before they even tried to play a note, or who "have to" go to college because they "can't" make a living with their true passion. I have friends who have pursued degree after degree just because they've always been in school and feel like school is the only thing they're good at. I've had people insist I am smarter than they are, when really the only difference is that I grew up hearing "you can do it" where they heard "no you can't". I try never to say I can't when I mean I don't know how yet. It sounds pedantic, but the more you eliminate "I have to" and "I can't" from your life, the more "I want to" and "I'll try it" there will be.

I'm not saying these things to imply I am somehow better than my schooled friends. Quite the opposite: I'm saying it because I see all their potential, all their creativity and brilliance that they're trying to stuff down or put aside because someone told them it wasn't useful or practical enough. I see their sadness and frustration that there really isn't anything they want to do for a living, because what they truly want "isn't okay". I wish they could see what I see. When I try to tell them, the answers I get are more nervous have-to's and can'ts. Unschoolers are much less likely to fall into that trap.

2. While I may be past the age of legally-compulsory schooling, I am still at the perfect age for societally-pressured schooling. College is being seen less as a choice and more as a requirement these days, and rarely does a week go by without someone either implying or directly saying that I should be in school. The same people who see school as the only acceptable path for a ten-year-old are likely to see it the same way for a 20-something, particularly one who doesn't have a job right this very second**. I know countless numbers of people who are in college and don't know why - they are just doing it because it's "what you do" when you're this age.

Of course there are unschoolers who choose to go to college, and I don't mean to suggest that they shouldn't still call themselves unschoolers. And there are people who don't go to college who never were unschoolers. But when unschoolers choose not to go to college, they are still traveling off the beaten path, and will face many of the same pressures and prejudices they did as teens - including the added fear of people smirking at their choice and using it as evidence that unschooling doesnt work.

3. I am living a free life outside the box, following my interests without judgment. I don't follow prescribed ideas of what someone my age should or shouldn't do - many of my interests are more typical for children, and many are more typical for people much older than me. I don't follow conventional ideas about jobs, politics, religion or other institutions. I don't know what career I want, and while I have occasional anxiety over that, I know that I can figure it out outside of school just as easily as I could in it. Following my interests will keep me on a happy path.

4. I still live with my mom. Because she has no spouse, and I have no siblings, and she would be alone without me, I do not plan to end this arrangement unless it somehow becomes totally unfeasible. I don't think many traditionally-parented kids, who so often see their parents as adversaries, would have such an easy time making this choice. Even some kids who get along with their parents and are content at home rush to move out just because it's what you're "supposed to do", or because their parents flat out don't want them in the house anymore.

I don't have to follow any rules here, but I do clean and help with errands and drive my mom places just because those things need to be done. I might resent doing that stuff if my mom made me feel guilty for staying in her house or if I felt like she was tapping her foot waiting for me to get out. My mom has never once said I live under "her roof". It's our home, and it always has been. I don't mind helping with our home.

5. I don't believe there is a dividing line between childhood and adulthood. Growing up is a gradual process. The government may believe a 17-year-old is somehow fundamentally different from an 18-year-old, but I don't buy it. I didn't magically become a different person when I turned 18 or 21. If anyone does, it's probably a slingshot effect from being set free after 18 years of control.

6. I am an active member of the unschooling community, through blogs, forums, email lists, my local unschooling tribe, and (soon!) conferences.

7. I fully intend to be an unschooling mom one day, unless of course my kids choose to go to school. And even if they do, I will raise them the same way I was raised: with lots of respect, freedom, choices and love.

So yes, I believe I am still an unschooler and always will be. Maybe other unschoolers will have other opinions, or will reach the same conclusion but for different reasons. But for me, unschooling doesn't have an end or an edge. It's just part of who I am.

*This is perhaps obvious, but that is Trevor's mom's blog. Disclaimer added because I suspect Trevor might not appreciate it if I led you all to think he had a blog called "lotus blossom". Just a hunch.

**For the benefit of people who stumble here and don't know me, I've had lots of jobs - both paid and volunteer. I just don't have one right now. This is seen nearly as criminal by some people, for reasons that I cannot fathom.


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