Just Another Unschooling Story – No Big DealApril 27th, 2012 at 15:44
Made my day to get notification from a friend on Facebook that this piece appeared in this week’s Psychology Today magazine, giving credence to the life path for young people known as “unschooling”. It particularly resonated with me because our own kids are peers of the piece’s subject, Kate Fridkis – our son Eric is 26 and our daughter Emma is 22. One of the things it spoke to for me, was how kids who are not in school (while certainly not a privilege available to every kid) can more organically transition from youth to adulthood, including finding meaningful work to do with their lives. My daughter Emma was so inspired by the piece she posted a long comment on the Psychology Today blog and then I suggested she post it on DKos as her first diary. (Go chicgeek!)
The Psychology Today piece is, “Meet Kate Fridkis, Who Skipped K-12 and Is Neither Weird nor Homeless” by Peter Gray, who seems to have become a top-flight spokesperson (along with my friend Pat Farenga) for this “life path” for young people that does not involve routinely going to school. Here’s Gray’s short bio sketch on Fridkis, with the kicker in the last statement…
Kate Fridkis is 26 years old, is happily married, lives in New York City, has a master’s degree in religion from Columbia University, is a part-time chazzan (cantor) at a synagogue (a job she’s held since age 15), and is a full-time writer. Her articles have appeared in the New York Times, the Huffington Post, and Salon. She’s working on getting her first novel published. She writes funny and insightful essays about body image on her popular blog, Eat the Damn Cake. And recently she has become a fellow blogger here at Psychology Today… Oh, and she also skipped all of school from kindergarten through twelfth grade.
You can read the piece to get her whole story which seems remarkably unremarkable other than the fact that the only school she went to was college. But what struck me from the piece was an insight that unschooling may well make it easier for young people to transition from youth to adulthood in a much more gradual and natural manner, and at a pace and tempo that they have much more control of than someone who is “schooled”.
Since school is a major institution generally involving a large number of adults and youth trying to coordinate a manufactured experience with educational value, its pace of events, its tempo of regular transitions from one activity to the next is generally dictated by the institution itself. The student needs to adapt themselves to that pace and tempo, since an institution is rarely adaptable. If the student finds the pace to quick or two slow and the transitions too jarring, they are in for a rough ride.
In contrast, Fridkis says in her interview…
My education was never pre-structured, but always oriented around my interests and the natural progress of my life… I had so much time to discover what I was interested in and pursue it. I had space to grow without judgment or constriction. I was able to be confident enough to chase my dreams.
What a blessing to be able to unfold your life at its natural pace, your natural pace. How much it allows you to relax, even looking forward, because you have confidence that you will continue to control, as much as possible, when you plunge into something challenging or when you can lay low and put things on cruise control. Having that sense of control changes the dynamic I think between “play” and “work”…
I learned early on that work and play can be the same thing, on some level. When you love what you do, you work to get better at it, to learn more about it. Work fits naturally into the pursuit of something inspiring. Because learning wasn’t separate from living for me, as a kid, it made sense that I’d have jobs and make money as a part of my education and my life… There’s no training period, or special area where you wait to be released into the rest of your life. You’re already living it.
Even when you are five years old, you can develop an understanding, a comfort level, that the things you do are meaningful and real, meaningful to you and to others around you. The paradigm in school is that you are constantly practicing, not ready for “primetime” (reality) until you are judged (generally by someone else, an adult) to be sufficiently proficient.
Another key part about controlling the pace and tempo of your own development is managing your own “appointment calendar” as it were, not having people in your face when you may not be ready for them, even if at some later point they will have a gift of wisdom or insight you might then be interested in…
I had a lot of adult role models and mentors in addition to my parents. Because I was free during the day, I joined groups, like a writing workshop, that were, with one exception, adults-only. Some of my good friends were retirees. We got along really well, and they liked to give me advice… I also worked regularly with adults at my job. These people weren’t necessarily my teachers. At least, that doesn’t feel like the right word for them. But they were a part of my education.
And if you can control your own “appointment calendar” then you can relax I think in the confidence that you are protecting yourself from unwelcome intrusion by people whose energy you are totally uncomfortable with.
Because I didn’t grow up surrounded by a group of my same-age peers, I didn’t feel pressure to change my personality, look a certain way, or suppress interests that might not have been “cool.” So I got to be a lot of things at once that might seem contradictory, but aren’t, really. I was nerdy and dorky and obsessed with fantasy novels (I both read and wrote them), but I was also outgoing and popular with other girls and boy crazy. I always had a boyfriend, but I was pretty innocent. I didn’t feel pressure to be sexual, and I didn’t feel pressure not to be sexual. I could be shy in some situations and daring in others.
I recall very difficult times in my own early adolescence, particularly in junior high being surrounded by so many other kids my own age that I was constantly comparing myself unfavorably to. Whereas outside of school, rather than a steady parade of other 13-year-olds with their own issues and projecting them perhaps on me, I could interact with a range of folks, including adults, older and younger youth, and people my own age who I felt comfortable with.
And when you have developed that comfort of expecting to continue to live and interact at your own pace, tempo and terms, then even plunging into a big educational institution at some point can be a thrilling adventure rather than perhaps a more stressful ordeal where you fear the waters are full of icebergs and you are restrained by that fear…
Academically, I was at an advantage in college. I liked learning, I asked questions, I was engaged in class, and professors rewarded me for being interested. I was surprised at how uninterested so many of my peers seemed… I didn’t feel reliant on my peers, the way they seemed to feel. I didn’t feel that I needed their approval.
I went through college and graduated twice. The first time after finishing high school at age 17 first at Western Michigan University and then finishing my BA in Speech (with a concentration in TV and film production) at the University of Michigan five years later. The second iteration began in 1983 at West Los Angeles Community College and then finished three years later at California State University Los Angeles in December 1986 with a BS in computer science. When I started my fist year of college the first go-round I was coming off twelve straight years of schooling. I stumbled through those years sometimes present and sometimes more just going through the motions. My coursework was unfocused and I pretty much sampled a little bit of this and that.
When I got to Los Angeles after graduating in 1978 it was a total shock to me that I was completely unprepared for. I had so much growing up to do that I had no inkling of before I got there. After working several years (a couple with just minimum wage jobs) and finally getting a sense of what I really was all about, I met my life-partner Sally and we planned to marry and have a family,
Given that more focused plan, I decided to go back to school to get a practical degree that would help me get a good-paying job. My second iteration at college felt a lot like what Fridkis encountered in her quote above. I was in college for a specific purpose rather than the first iteration when it had felt like the thing I was supposed to do. I was in my late 20s and had more real life experience under my belt.
So getting back to where I started, I’m thinking about what it takes to have an “organic transition” (if that makes any sense) from childhood through adolescence and into adulthood. That rather than the shock I encountered when I landed in Los Angeles and was soon completely on my own, a not so confident stranger in a strange land. I survived somehow, but it was touch and go at times, and I have the psychological scars and mid-life health issues to bear.
Listening to Fridkis’ story I think about her coming of age at her own pace and incrementally blossoming into full adulthood perhaps without that shock of plunging in the deep end and struggling for life to be meaningful. Her life had always been about meaningful real experience, not seventeen years of practice followed by reality with a vengeance.
Not that everyone can have a life without wrenching twists and turns and getting in over one’s head at times. Still, going with the flow, organically living a real life (what we term “unschooling”), and taking in “schooling” in smaller self-administered doses, resonates with the sum of my experience in this incarnation.
Shoulda, woulda, coulda!
I keep thinking of the lyrics of John Mayer’s song “No Such Thing”…
So the good boys and girls take the so called right track
Faded white hats, grabbing credits, maybe transfers
They read all the books but they can’t find the answers
And all of our parents, they’re getting older
I wonder if they’ve wished for anything better
While in their memories tiny tragedies
They love to tell you, stay inside the lines
But something’s better on the other side
I wanna run through the halls of my high school
I wanna scream at the top of my lungs
I just found out there’s no such thing as the real world
Just a lie you got to rise above