Sunday, May 5, 2013

Why the cinderblocks are not needed—a response to Megan Erickson and why leftists should unschool

I first read Megan Erickson’s piece several months ago, which I believe was several months after it was first published. I was just on the verge of subscribing to Jacobin when the piece caught my eye. I was frustrated by the piece which in some ways exemplifies the worst of the Jacobin- the blanket criticism of the white, educated, middle-upper classes for whom leftists seem to blame for much of the current political status quo.  (Granted, we have a lot to answer for.)  While Erickson’s essay is a particular response to an article about unschooling she includes enough targets it is clear she is going after the whole enterprise. In order to properly discuss home schooling/unschooling it is important to examine the dynamics of children and their families, to recognize the school as an institution and as an agent of the state is was actually designed as, and to look at role of education in current society and how it's been manipulated. 
There are many aspects of home schooling/unschooling Ericson chooses not to engage in but most disturbing in her criticism of home schooling/unschooling Erickson completely ignores the other part of the left spectrum, the anarcho-libertarian branch. Anarchists have a legitimate, if complex history on the left, most notably in social movements at the turn of the 20th century and the Spanish civil war. Current incarnations can be seen today in a variety of contexts, not just in home schooling but in young independent farmers and families embracing off-the-grid self-sufficiency through farming and alternative energy. This neglect of this part of the left is unfortunate, because although they view themselves differently there are definite points of agreement between right and left libertarianism. If a leftist movement is to grow in this country there is a greater likelihood of growth from those truly willing to embrace alternatives to the state-something any “libertarian” will support—then the current batch of “liberals” running the world. 
While I have political issues with this piece, let’s get the personal out of the way. Parents come to unschooling from a variety of places but I will just describe my own decision which is similar to people I know.  For many parents unschooling is a personal, family, decision. It is frequently a logical extension of attachment parenting, a basic philosophy of being as physically close as to your child as possible when they are very young. Yes, these are the parents that co-sleep with their children and breastfeed their toddlers. It’s worth noting these are practices very common in other parts of the world, and no self-respecting liberal or progressive would dream of criticizing such practices when done by non-Americans. As they get older these parents make a concerted effort, like 99% of all parents, of being involved in their children’s lives, as a positive influence as much as possible. Then, suddenly at about 5, or even 3, the parent is supposed to hand over their child to an institution for a substantial part of the day. This institution has a lot of rules and some values that the parent may or may not share. I am guessing that many people’s response to this something like tough, it is time for them to grow up-join the “real world”. So yes, the argument can be made that parents who homeschool are more emotionally attached to their child and maybe less anxious for the “inevitable” separation, which in our culture is determined to be, from a developmental standpoint, quite young.
So maybe homeschoolers are “overprotective”. But so what? Anybody who has young children knows that the “control” a parent has over her child’s development is debatable. Children are amazing creatures, not small adults, and how they develop is more not understood then understood. They fluctuate from apparent understanding to destructive willfulness in a moment. When they are ready to do what they want, they gain the ability to do it at astonishing rapid rates. Managing this as a parent is as difficult as it sounds, so there is a tendency to want to hurry up the process. As a result our culture is obsessed with children’s maturation.  Sophisticated people turn their nose up at child beauty pageants but the standards that most parents enforce on their own kids is not much better. From just out of the womb there is a focus on getting the baby to “sleep through the night” even though it is well established that “sleeping through the night” is normally about 4 hours until 6 months, and that even at age one eight hours of complete sleep is an ideal not a norm. Breastfeeding is, to some extent encouraged but not too long, as it might make the child “clingy" and "dependent" (god forbid a one-year-old be too dependent). Early in the 20th century temperance reformers warned that children who breastfed their babies too long were at risk for encouraging alcoholism later. As soon as they are old enough to talk and walk, up through eighteen, the tendency is to treat children like small adults. When a toddler does what he is not supposed to do the appropriate response is to correct him, model the appropriate behavior, repeat. And repeat, and repeat.  And woe to the parent who does not “punish” a young child, because of course that child will be grow up to be a spoiled, demanding, adult.  Never mind that, as anybody who has had a young child knows, if you do try to “punish” a toddler, or even a four year old, it’s rare they have the ability to reconcile the punishment with the act, let alone hold the process in their mind in a way to alter future behavior.
Now there is large body of neurological evidence to show that even teenagers, who are so often seen as adults there are states that will condemn them to death for a crime, have brains which are wired differently. That in fact, they are much more like “kids” then adults. But in our society you can’t be making children into adults too soon, so when a five year old is not ready to be separated from his mother for school, he is supposed to “toughen up”. He is five and that is the age that the Educators have determined that is the age that should be ready, and the suffering will make him a better person. In his book “Real Boys: Rescuing Our Sons from the Myths of Boyhood” William Pollack gives heart-breaking stories of young boys entering kindergarten who are emotionally in need of just a little more support. They often don’t get it, in part because they are boys who are supposed to be “tough”--to be emotional, to want mommy, is a dangerous sign of not conforming to accepted gender norms of males.
So begins the many rules of society that school, as an institution of the state, is designed to enforce. So many rules govern school, all of which I am sure started in a reasonable light but quickly take on a life of their own.  Following those rules is important-even relatively benign infractions add up and can be held against a child in a myriad of ways. As teachers themselves, home schoolers don’t really have issues with teachers, the problem is the school as an institution—an agent of the state.  Between the many rules and the nature of the education methods practiced in schools there is the impression that schools actually suck out any creativity of the child or the teacher.  In my own experience I have found most teachers, fully aware of how hard teaching a group of children is, are supportive of home schooling. 
Usually, the people most against home schooling in any form are part of the educational apparatus—administrators and the like. These people, usually the ones pushing education “reform” are dedicated to the current (corporate-driven) trends in compulsory schooling. For educator elites, the Arne Duncans of the world, both children AND teachers need to managed. Children must be taught the “common core”, children AND teachers must be tested, and tested, to “prove” performance. Please run after this stick, please jump this high, and maybe we will give you a degree, maybe we will allow you to teach, as long as you follow our rules. For this class of elites home schooling, especially unschooling actually seems to scare them. It challenges their core beliefs that there is only one way to educate a child, and it must involve them. Who else to indoctrinate the children to the norms of society?
 No matter how a parent chooses to educate their child, a lot of effort will be involved. This is obvious if the child is at home but make no mistake the parents who choose to send their child to school will be working just as hard. Whether public or private parents need to choose the school, get in the school, and then stay involved with the school in some kind of never-ending capacity.  Woe to the parent who has an “exceptional child”-it does not matter if the child is “exceptional” in a "good" way, high intelligence, or a “bad” way, say a learning disability or behavior issue. That parent will spend an inordinate amount of time with their child’s teacher, with the other professionals the child interacts with in that school, just to keep the child in school and not discriminated against. Again, it does not matter whether the child is “good” or “bad” the crime is that child is different.
In many cities such as Chicago, where I live, applying to a public school is not unlike applying to college. Private schools, being private, of course involve tuition  but a fun trend in Chicago is parents contributing money, often in the forms of private auctions, fundraising parties and the like for extravagances, like art programs. This is one of the many ways “public” schools in wealthy neighborhoods differ from “public” schools in poorer ones. My family could of course move to the suburbs where theorically the schools are better although the choice is much less. Both my husband and I work near or in the city, and it is important to me, for economic and social reasons to live in the city so I do not consider this an option. I want my children to live in a city, and I do not think suburban schools are really any better in terms of the school-as-an-institution. So I could put time, energy, and money into “school”, an institution who I may not like, or I could put that time, energy, and money directly into my kids.
Ericson’s essay does not even attempt to consider any of the personal; she obviously has never met any unschooling kids or their parents. She starts off describing her early thoughts as a teacher “I was so afraid of humiliating kids . . . " and then projects her insecurities on to unschooling parents “It is this false and misguided sense of children’s fragile identity that informs the educational philosophy of ‘unschooling”.  She states that it is “preferable for teachers to guide children without “molding or forcing them”.  I agree this is an ideal, I would question if a school is the best environment for this. Further, she claims that Paul Goodman and John Holt were “committed to delaying socialization in children, regarding growth as an individual solitary and natural pursuit that must be protected from the corrupting influence of adults.”
The supposed lack of socialization among home schooling children is an old canard that refuses to die. Unlike their schooled peers, most home schooling children spent a lot of time around adults, children their own ages as well as children younger and older.  It is not clear to me how people like Erickson envision how unschooling families live—does she think we lock our children in their rooms, to better pursue their growth, and to protect their “fragile identity”? Most home schooling children, truth be told, spend a fair amount of time in their home but also out in the community with their family. At home and in the community they develop closer bonds with their siblings and their parents, in a more natural context. In Erickson’s essay she states that I am “ . . . sparing children the discomfort of conflict”. There is no conflict in the home apparently-among siblings? What an oasis of peace the Erickson household must have been!
Schooled children spend their day in an artificial setting—a group of kids all the same age with one or two adults in charge, somewhat removed from the world, and come to their home with the homemaking and other chores magically accomplished. For kids who go to school, school will be always be their primary community, but for home schooling kids the world we all live in, is their primary community. They are intimately connected to the rhythms of everyday life, at home, in the neighborhood, and even in the world. Our family is involved in a variety of activities, some organized by other home schoolers and some through the community with kids who are schooled. If you want to see what schooled kids are out of the school visit a museum when schooled kids are on a field trip—they quite literally run around like they are out of prison.
 I was surprised to learn from Megan Erickson’s essay that those of us who choose to unschool awe are supporting “primitivism” and are “sentimental” and “paternalistic”. There’s no paternalism in schools? An institution that ranks children and tests them to no end? Where there is a strict hierarchal control? I was also unaware as I read further I am, by choosing to home school “ in support of burning down schools, refusing to pay taxes, and that I am part of a process that is adding to the  “ . . . devaluing of care work . . .” Devaluing of care work, I guess parents who choose to stay at home with their kids don’t understand the value of care work? Really, how does one value care work more then being with their kids for most of the day?
There is no question that most home schoolers are probably to the right of the political spectrum and I definitely part from other writers such as Goodman or John Gotto—I am not against public schools, I am not in favor of an a la carte tax system. But just because this is the case does not mean home schooling/unschooling is inherently a right-wing endeavour—I agree with Goldstein that words like “freedom, autonomy, and choice” should not be freely given up to the right. Most home schoolers from the right-wing spectrum do so to avoid what they view corrupting influences from society and the state. While I imagine that the negative influences I see are different, I think many people from the left-wing spectrum can find many corrupting influences from society and the state present in schools as well.
I fully recognize that public schools are part of the world, and I hope that the people who work with them and in them will work to make them humane as possible. I recognize the ability to home school it is a gift of sorts that I did not earn but rather an option allowed by my social status. I would fully support policies that would allow more who desire to do it, but in the meantime I know many people must use schools. In some ways I view the public school system as like any other public service-health clinics, transportation, etc, which I rarely if ever use, but this does not make me “against them." I would like these services to be provided for, as I know many people do need them, and I may need them some day.  In fact, in many communities homeschoolers use school resources in a variety of ways-as they are legally entitled to. Most importantly home schooling and unschooling is “choice”. It is not much of a “choice” if there is no public school to go to. It is quite common in unschooling families to have, at any one time, a child in school for a period of time, or even for a child to ultimately choose to go to school.  Good public schools are good for the community in a variety of ways that home schoolers/unschoolers will benefit from as well as children who go to school.
Erickson’s critique of self-guided learning lacks basis in reality as well, complaining that self-guided learning “  . . . contradicts everything we know about learning . . . students also need scaffolding, in the form of ‘modeling, direct teaching, and prompting’  . . . a combination of direct instruction an real life examples is a more effective way to teach”. 
Unschooling means different things to different people, most people would agree with the term “child-led” meaning that the child generally decides what to pursue or not pursue (in come cases, as I pointed out, this will lead them to school).  This too will vary by age and kid, as kids get older there does tend to be a focus on topics and techniques more similar to school. As a fellow unschooler once remarked, unschooling is not the equivalent of putting a sheep out to pasture for 10 years and then checking on it.  Stating that you unschool really just mean you do not use a formal curriculum, it does not mean you do not do anything academic. Contrary to what some people may think, kids want to learn about the world and unschooling parents absolutely engage their kids on topics, frequenting prompting and modeling. Do parents do this as well as somebody with an education degree? Probably not as good, but what the home schooling parent loses in formal training she/he gains in time and energy devoted to one child, not thirty. After all, does that person with a degree know my child the way I do? Can that person work with my child one-on-one until my child “gets it”? Furthermore in this era of constant testing just how much time does this teacher have to do any teaching other then what the “experts” have decided is most important? Erickson continues to state that learning depends on things like recognition of text, structure, ability to recall, automaticity and pattern recognition. I don’t really question these points, but does she really think only a certified teacher can do them, and it has to be in a building called a school?
Erickson also pulls out the other popular myth about unschooling:
There’s another aspect of Taylor’s argument that I find troubling. Why shouldn’t kids be asked to put away their crayons and go to lunch at the same time? Why do we assume that clear boundaries, a schedule, and a sense of hierarchy are so threatening to students?”
It’s worth mentioning here that almost any discussion of homeschooling with a doubter sooner or later devolves into this argument—well there are lots of things that you learn from school that are not about academics—things like when to stand up, when to sit down, how to follow instructions. Yes, I would agree there are many things you learn in school that are not strictly about academics, like the importance of knowing your place in society—a definition of socialization by the way—of how to do what you are told, who it is acceptable to vote for, and who are the Very Serious People who should be respected and believed.  The idea that unschooling encourages “ . . . sparing children the discomfort of conflict . . . what about the interests of others “ again, indicates an ignorance of how home schoolers actually live.  My kids have to learn to live with each other much more then their schooled peers, the home schooling activities feature kids their own age as well as kids older and younger. When you have a large group of kids engaged in self-directed activity, you have conflict. Among homeschoolers/unschoolers this conflict is usually mediated by the kids themselves (as opposed to arbitrary judgement from an adult, or even the police/security officer). Work it out—yourselves—or we go home is a frequent phase uttered among my people.  Regular contact with adults who are not their parents is a positive as well; unschoolers learn to respect adults but are able to relate to them more as people instead of the “other”.
            Erikson then argues children of color need school, so they can speak proper English and so they can learn to survive oppression. This may be, it seems an odd digression from the entitled white people she was complaining about earlier. However this line of reasoning is particularly striking when one considers the “school-to-prison pipeline” and “zero tolerance” policies, which have disproportionately affected children of color. As recently evidenced by the Kiera Wilmot case these policies are so expansive as to include science experiments. For all the talk of encouraging risk-taking, experimentation, you know the things that will “win” the future (i.e. beat the Chinese) schools are more and more stifling free expression then promoting it. It would seem to me that children of color could learn as much about surviving oppression through the closer relationships with their family that home schooling provides and experiences in the community that are real-life based, plus they are much less likely to get arrested.
            What ultimately distinguishes home schooling especially unschooling parents from their schooling brethren is a basic faith in their child. That, in that individual child’s essence (their DNA if you want to be scientific) is what they need. That the role of parents and the community is to nurture the child, to support and protect the child, and as that child becomes an adult, help that child find her or his place in the world.  There is no reason that this process cannot happen in schools, and it does happen on a regular basis. The inspiring activism of CPS students in response to testing and the school closings is a testament to this. I went to public and private schools and generally had a positive schooling experience across the board. I myself teach at a community college. But observing the current landscape is upsetting. Increasingly—against educator’s own desires—public schools are becoming the playgrounds of “reform” that is cooporate-driven.
            Some of this comes from the myth that education can solve all of society’s woes, particularly poverty. Have a poor child? Well get that child an education and all will be ok! Increasingly, this is showing not to be true but reasonable people should have never bought that line in the first place. No education can substitute for a supportive, loving, safe, home environment. The way to a supportive, loving, safe home environment is economic security. Reasonable people can debate the best way to provide economic security but certainly this would involve less of a focus on “the children” (every politician’s favorite tag-line) and on their parents. Educating their parents, getting their parents good jobs-jobs that pay and have essential benefits-and giving those parents real financial and emotional support (school-based or community-based social services for example) would do more for “the children” then any afterschool or pre-K program. But while policies supporting “the children” can always find some support, polices to make people less poor, especially when they are not white and are determined to not be “deserving” are a bit more difficult to get off the ground.
The concept of education as a magic key that opens all doors is not limited to the poor; it is a mantra among the middle and upper classes as well. “Elite” schools  (public and private) start as early as preschool age, with “interviews” for the kids (observing play usually) and the parents. The idea that a child’s ability can be reasonably assessed and predicted at age 3,4, or even 5, is laughable. But to parents aiming for the “best” for their children the admissions process is deadly serious. Why? Well you need to get your child into a good preschool to get into a good elementary school to get into a good high school to get into a good college to get a good job. Got that? So kids are subjected to ending testing, engagement in afterschool activities they may or may not be interested in--you cannot build your resume too early--extra classes to give them that “edge” that will get them into—insert your favorite elite school here. The reward for all this focus and dedication? Debt loads of $100,000 or more, and a (part-time) job at Target. You know what, my twelve year has the skills to work at Target right now, thanks. But of course this trajectory I have just outlined can be avoided if you have the “right” skill set-cue the Mandarin immersion classes, the ipad at kindergarten, just get into the STEM field and it will be ok. But the fact is unemployment is high for all fields, and many companies hiring STEM graduates either outsource or fill their quotas with H1-B visas—the  better to drive down wages (which is why these companies support immigration “reform” by the way).
The fundamental reason of why I unschool, is my choice to support institutions other then the school.  As an institution schools are designed to enforce what our society deems important, and values of the state--many which I do not support. These are values that have encouraged war, an economy that distributes the wealth upward, and has regulated the poorest of our society to charity. Compulsory schooling was begun to prepare people for factory work—not to make them think. I certainly support public schools as I recognize for many families there is no “choice” about it. But I can work to change the state in other ways, and I choose to do that.
Ericson’s essay has a definite Marxist undertone. Of course this should not be surprising in Jacobin, which has clearly stated its Marxism, but Jacobin is also claiming to be a journal of the left, and left is not just Marxism.  Erickson clearly believes that for a proper society we need schools—schools to impart the rules of society, where students can learn how to properly respond to cues and to orders, when given by the ruling class. Marxism, when utilized politically in this fashion, does not look much different from fascism, it just has different ideas on who that ruling class should be.  
Is this want we want from the left? Many of the left identify strongly with the Occupy movement, whose politics align much closer to the anarcho-libertarian model—consensus, a “flat”, truly democratic structure. This is something we should work for in all our institutions, but if we feel we cannot do it we should remove ourselves from those institutions and create our own. It is much more likely the people most interested in this model are not the liberals who have benefited from corporate manipulation of the state, but the people at the other end of the political spectrum.  Honest libertarians, even of a more conservative nature, do not support intervention in other countries either in terms of war, drones, or other forms of support that rarely benefit the native population or people in the United States.  Most right-wing libertarians support privacy, civil liberties, far more then the average democrat, who is ok with killing people as long as it is “our guy” and not “their guy”.  Furthermore, many right-wing libertarians support an “anti-rentier” agenda, decreased corporate subsidies, and an end to “to-big-to -ail” banks.
Certainly, there are many points of disagreement, but by recognizing I didn’t “have” to send my kids to school I’ve recognized a lot of other things I don’t “have” to do. Instead of supporting public schooling by demeaning those who choose another path, it would it helpful if people like Megan Erickson recognized what we all have in common-which is a radical change in the current structure of politics and society. We will get there faster working together. 

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