School's Out Forever: Parents Who Don't Believe in Education

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According to a philosophy called "Radical Unschooling," children shouldn't be forced to study -- not to mention brush their hair, eat their vegetables, or keep their clothes on. A homeschooling mother decides to take a closer look.

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In the beginning, much of education came easily to my daughter, Alice, as it had come to me. I started reading at an early age and it came to pass that Alice, too, read on her own before she set foot in a formal classroom. But sadly, the universe isn't made up of only letters and words. Whatever distaste Alice felt for addition, subtraction, and multiplication was dwarfed by her loathing of long division and its hellish spawn, remainders.

Eventually, her reading and mathematics levels were several car lengths' apart, and I saw her academic future. Something told me we'd try school after school and Alice would be the first person to ever graduate from high school without finishing elementary school math. Or we could homeschool Alice, trusting the transformative power of her parents' deep love, a curriculum tailored specifically for her and certain indifference to math-related emotional outbursts.

When September rolled around again, we were in the education business. We galloped through English, talked a couple of decades of history and did some art. After lunch, I brought out the math workbook and opened to the second section: fractions. Alice scowled.

Ten minutes later, I found her in her bedroom with a cat on her lap, reading.

I stood there in the doorway, completely flummoxed. I had made a terrible mistake. I walked into the laundry room and sat on the floor. After a minute or so, there was a knock on the door.

"Alice?"

"Yeah?"

"Do your mother a favor. Please shut the door and go back to the kitchen. Get a small paper bag from the cupboard and slide it under the door to me."

***

So when you're me and you've spent the past several weeks accounting for every second of your child's intellectual development, what starts to sound damned good? Unschooling! That's what.

If this is your first trip to the academic rodeo, let me give you the rundown. In the 1970s, a teacher named John Holt put forth the theory that education as it was being conducted in most schools in America was counter to the ways humans actually learn. Humans learn not through rote repetition, memorizing facts and filling in workbooks, but through passion, through trial and error, through working on a problem until we either master it or run out of interest. Over time, Holt's model of education was dubbed unschooling.

In 1991, John Taylor Gatto gave a speech that took Holt's message several steps further. Gatto's speech attacked the fundamental model of modern education as being inherently insane. Public schools weren't arranged to teach children but to house them. A well-trained student, he charged, panders to authority, shows no initiative and obeys meaningless orders. Gatto wrapped up his speech saying, "School is a 12-year jail sentence where bad habits are the only curriculum truly learned." To which he added, "I teach school and win awards doing it. I should know."

What made these comments all the more remarkable was that they were part of John Taylor Gatto's acceptance speech as New York City's Teacher of the Year--an award he'd achieved three years in a row. I'm guessing that after he finished, there was a new standard for the phrase "awkward silence." But theatrical timing aside, I couldn't exactly disagree with the man.

Take school hours. Study after study has proven what parents could have told you for free: Teenagers don't do mornings. At some point during early adolescence, a teenager's brain temporarily rewires itself with new instructions to stay up late and sleep in the next morning. When a few school districts experimented with starting high school an hour or so later, everything measurable improved: grades, attitude, behavior. And yet most high schools won't even consider starting later.

And then there's testing. Most parents who live in a school district with standardized testing will tell you these tests have little to do with the betterment of their children. Countless books, articles and studies have tracked how irrelevant and even detrimental standardized testing is for most students. One study even indicates that children who do test well have a propensity for shallow thinking.

In website after website, scores of unschooling families lined up neatly for inspection, and they appeared to be a crafty lot. Here was an unschooling family showing off their weaving. Here was one with homemade ceramic wind chimes. Here was one daughter making all the family's clothes. Oooh, and so much animal husbandry. If nothing else, it seems to unschool is to never suffer the taste of a store-bought egg.

Then, one late night while I was trying to find a group of craft-fearing, poultry-free unschoolers with whom I could identify online, I stumbled across a subspecies called "Radical Unschoolers." As it sounds, Radical Unschooling is an extension of the basic unschooling model taken to the extreme. If unschooling was, as they believed, the best way to learn, then wasn't it also the best way to live?

Radically unschooled children are allowed to live each day in freedom, being exactly who and what they are at that moment. They have no bedtime, no mandatory foods, no off-limit words. If your child is tender-headed and shrieks like a parrot when her hair is brushed, the Radical would suggest you not brush her hair. If she prefers to let it mass into a giant dreadlock that collects food and gnats, well, it's really not your problem, is it? After all, it's not your hair; it's hers. The basic operating principle is that you should not treat a child any differently than you would treat another adult, which is to say without guilt, coercion or threats.

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Quinn Cummings is an Oscar-nominated actress and the author of, most recently, The Year of Learning Dangerously.  She has written for Good Housekeeping, Los Angeles Magazine, and Newsweek, and blogs at The QC Report.

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