Thursday, May 2, 2013

Reasons matter: homeschooling, unschooling, and priorities

Homeschoolers come to homeschooling for different reasons. I get that. But I do think some reasons for homeschooling are better than others.

It is better to homeschool because one cares about children's well-being than because one wants to exercise certain parental rights.

It is better to homeschool because one wants to help specific children learn well and happily than because one wants to give the government the middle finger, or make some other kind of political statement.

It is better to homeschool because one wants to make a child's world larger, with more opportunities, than because one wants to make it smaller, with fewer opportunities.

John Holt, the former teacher and founder of Growing Without Schooling magazine and the first to use the term "unschooling," was a great friend of children. I think it's safe to assume that Holt would be disturbed by the attempts of the Home School Legal Defense Association (HSLDA) to become the voice for all American homeschoolers. The HSLDA argues for the right of parents to use corporal punishment on their children and takes political stances on subjects like gay marriage that have nothing to do with homeschooling and everything to do with religion. The HSLDA has undermined decades of work by state-level homeschooling groups to secure reasonable homeschooling statutes, and the organization uses hyperbolic and distorted reports to scare parents into becoming dues-paying members in exchange for legal defense they don't need.

Michelle Goldberg's "Homeschooled Kids, Now Grown, Blog Against the Past" reveals much that is wrong with Christian fundamentalist homeschooling, and with the HSLDA. The article makes it clear that many fundamentalist homeschooling parents are not only harming their children, but actually making the legal right to homeschool shakier for everyone. The general public is rightfully concerned about homeschooling that involves abuse, neglect, sexism, and anti-intellectualism--that is, with homeschooling used to make a child's world smaller instead of larger.

Another threat to homeschooling, and to unschooling in particular, comes from a different place on the political spectrum. Certain unschoolers who see unschooling as inseparable from a libertarian or anarchist world view are actively courting media attention these days, in the name of bringing unschooling to the mainstream. (As with the HSLDA, both economic and political motives seem to be at work here.) Unfortunately, some of these advocates seem to think that any attention is good attention. They imagine that the portrayals of unschooling on shows such as Wife Swap are wonderful even if the privacy of their own children is violated by camera crews and their children's reputations damaged by unscrupulous editing. No matter what the media-seeking unschooling advocates say their intentions are, if the public is left with the impression that unschooling means children being left to fend for themselves in the name of "liberty," the legal right to unschool will be jeopardized. The kinds of media representations that are good for unschooling (and there have been some of these, though never on Wife Swap) look deeply at how people learn, and are thoughtful and nuanced in their discussion of how parents partner with their children. They are designed to be informational and not entertaining (which is to say, they don't include guests uttering bleeped-out words and ranting at each other), and generally don't offer financial compensation to the participants.

While I am glad to know some wonderful homeschooling families, I don't see myself as part of "the homeschooling community" or "the unschooling community." I am wary of homeschooling where the priority is not helping children thrive, and of homeschooling and unschooling advocates with political and economic agendas that can too easily eclipse actual children's needs.

*UPDATE*: Those interested in how priorities can help or hinder unschooling and/or peaceful parenting should check out Sandra Dodd's page on Priorities. I don't know anyone who has written more clearly, or helpfully, about the subject.