Perhaps It’s Time to Consider Unschooling

Photo: Julie Blackmon, courtesy of Robert Mann

It was my childhood obstinance that caused my mother to embrace a more radical, hands-off approach to pedagogy. As she tells it, when I was in first grade, I was advanced at math, and my teacher wanted me to skip ahead. When the principal refused, my parents decided they would keep me home and “fill my head with facts” and make me into a prodigy. Workbooks were purchased and a curriculum devised, but things didn’t go as planned. It wasn’t long before I rebelled, adamant that I didn’t want my mom to be my teacher. “We had a lovely relationship, and then there was a power struggle,” my mother recounts. In the midst of our battle, she noticed an ad in the local paper for a homeschool group that met at a nearby park. My mom hoped they could teach her how to be a good ­teacher, but instead she met a woman with a trunk full of books on child-centered learning and copies of a magazine called Growing Without Schooling.

From that day forth, my siblings and I were tasked with teaching ourselves — we were “unschoolers,” a word we used to distinguish ourselves from those who dutifully replicated school at home. Our peers rode the bus, attended class, took tests, and got graded; we played games, read books, made art, or did nothing at all.

My mother was a quick study where unschooling was concerned. As a teenager, she had attended a free school for a year in Canada’s Yukon Territory, a place where the kids were included in decision-making alongside the teachers and staff. The fact that my sister is physically disabled and would have been cloistered from able-­bodied students in the local school system also strengthened my parents’ resolve. We were privileged, to be clear — fortunate enough to be raised in what I’ve often described as a nutrient-rich environment well stocked with food, books, and musical instruments. My parents believed learning was its own reward, something we would pursue because it was in our nature to do so, not because of gold stars or demerits. In the words of John Holt, a former ­elementary-school teacher who coined the term unschooling, “[T]he human animal is a learning animal; we like to learn; we need to learn; we are good at it; we don’t need to be shown how or made to do it.”

That the drive to learn is something that needs to be unleashed, rather than instilled, is something you’ll hear over and over from unschoolers. In our house, the adults encouraged our interests, even those they found inscrutable, but did not instruct us or judge our progress. I spent months obsessed with making balloon animals.

Not long after, when I was 11, I started an environmental newsletter, a project that would become my focus for two years and that did instill many skills quite relevant to my current work. In between clip-art illustrations, I worked through my sadness and anger about our society’s mistreatment of the natural world and commissioned pieces by my limited circle of friends, including an article by my middle sister about her disability, which had been caused by military-industrial pollution that seeped into our old neighborhood’s public water supply. I can’t help but think a similar endeavor may be worthwhile for older children today, offering them a forum to research, reflect on, and process the issues that are no doubt weighing heavily on their minds. Unlike me, they won’t have to do extra chores to cover the cost of photocopies and postage since they can use the internet to freely distribute the results.

But even as I thrived as an unschooler, I had doubts. I knew we were charting an experimental course, and I fretted about our progress despite my parents’ confident nonchalance. Would I be able to join the regular world as an adult, or would I be forever marked an outcast or a failure? (I eventually went to a public high school, while my siblings unschooled until college.) When my youngest sister was 9 and still not reading, my brother and I both tried to intervene, offering more formal tutorials to no avail. All she wanted to do was peruse vintage dolls on eBay, even though she had no money to buy them, but she needed help inputting search terms and deciphering the descriptions. Within a few weeks, we couldn’t stand to scroll through any more results and effectively went on strike. With no one to assist her, my sister became literate almost overnight.

That doesn’t mean unschooling is always easy or that boredom isn’t a challenge, but unschoolers tend to see boredom as something to be passed through, a pit stop on the way to figuring out what fascinates you. (“When you’re bored, you’re boring,” my mom would respond whenever we’d whine.) “There is nothing calamitous about downtime. Boredom and unstructured time can be really important,” says L. A. Kauffman, an author and activist based in Brooklyn who homeschooled her twins for 12 years. Kauffman suspects one epiphany that may emerge out of mass school closures will be about time management. A lot of time is wasted with busywork at school. A few hours of intensive learning at home should be more than enough to compensate for what’s accomplished during the average school day.

My mother, a consummate unschooler, isn’t even aiming at that. More than three decades after I refused her instruction, she’s now taking care of my brother’s two children, ages 6 and 8, whose long-­scheduled visit with their grandparents almost 2,000 miles from home happened to coincide with the pandemic. When she answered my call, she was shouting at the kids not to go onto the porch because there was a broken board she worried might hurt them. Things sounded chaotic.

I asked my mother what it was like to suddenly be unschooling her grandchildren. “Right now, it’s more like I’m deschooling them,” she clarified, a term unschoolers often use to describe the period of transition from the structures and expectations of school to something more relaxed and self-directed. The kids love their small elementary school in New Mexico and are accustomed to being in a regimented situation, so my mother suspects they will all need some time to find a rhythm, figure out how they like to spend their time, and establish new guidelines and boundaries. “How much television and how much computer and what is okay in terms of letting them do it, and see if they just get bored or whether we’ll need to switch gears,” she said.

Everyone is learning right now, no matter our age. None of us have lived through a crisis of this magnitude. Even before the coronavirus hit, young people were becoming more engaged with global events, striking to fight climate change and gun violence. Our economy is in meltdown, our so-called leaders are incompetent and corrupt, and the true cost of social inequality is becoming clear. Things are falling apart, so why not take these weeks or months to let your ­children — and yourselves — think and learn outside the academic box.

Since I’m an idealist, I can’t help but hope this crisis offers an opportunity to learn a deeper lesson, too. Unschooling, fundamentally, is about trust — trusting yourselves and your kids. As a child, I was granted a sense of autonomy and responsibility that most conventional schools do not grant to young people. Looking back at my childhood, the trust my parents had in their offspring astounds me — though as a child, I felt both entitled to and worthy of it.

Like hospital masks and hand sanitizer, trust is a resource in short supply these days. When word of the virus first got out, some believed the media was overhyping the outbreak; others, fearing government incompetence, panic-shopped. One way to understand democracy is as a system built on trust: trust in elected officials, in social institutions, and, most crucial, in one another. Perhaps if we begin extending trust to children now, when they’re the adults, they won’t repeat our mistakes.

*This article appears in the March 30, 2020, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!

Perhaps It’s Time to Consider Unschooling