Lefty Parent


Circle of equals

Posts Tagged ‘Unschooling’

Unschooling in the Art of Religion

Saturday, May 5th, 2012

It is my continuing effort to promote the concept of “unschooling”, the process of learning from real life, outside any formal learning environment, and without a teacher. It is a mostly unsung method of human development that often gets short shrift compared to more formal modes and venues for education. We conventionally think of education and learning as an activity focused on our younger years, but at our bests we humans continue to be natural and voracious learners throughout our lives. We are beginning to acknowledge that human propensity with the concept of “lifelong learning”.

As I have said before, becoming familiar with the concept of unschooling reading works by John Holt, Pat Farenga, Matt Hern and John Taylor Gatto, I have been taking a long look back at the road I’ve traveled and the key developmental experiences that have contributed the most to who I am today. Though I went to school (K-12 & college, some 20 years worth!), my school experience contributes relatively little to who I really am today, and the wisdom and skill set that I bring to my life’s activities. What is more significant, in retrospect, are the major themes of my own self-directed learning done outside of school.

Case in point is my interest in religion, and my informal pursuit of understanding about the topic, its history, its contemporary practice, and the underlying reasons it is an important part of so many people’s lives. I’ve always been an atheist but I’ve also become fascinated by religion. Go figure! But having the opportunity for over twenty years to participate in Unitarian-Universalism, which is generally framed as a religion (albeit a non-dogmatic one), I became very interested in learning about the nature of the religious process and the role it has played in human society. Add to that my fascination with history, where religion seems to have played a much larger role than the more conventional study of history, particularly in schools, would lead you to see.

Wikipedia says…

Religion is a collection of cultural systems, belief systems, and worldviews that establishes symbols that relate humanity to spirituality and, sometimes, to moral values. Many religions have narratives, symbols, traditions and sacred histories that are intended to give meaning to life or to explain the origin of life or the universe. They tend to derive morality, ethics, religious laws or a preferred lifestyle from their ideas about the cosmos and human nature.

Unlike many people I’ve met, I’ve had little or no religious instruction in my life, and never really set foot in a “house of worship” until I was 13 (other than attending a couple weddings). Neither of my parents were ever involved in any sort of religious practice, though we had family friends who were. My mom always said she believed in god (not sure whether the capital “G” would be appropriate here), but she also firmly believed that religion was the scourge of the Earth!

My dad was a university English professor, who actually wrote his dissertation on John Henry Newman, an influential Anglican theologian in the early 19th century. But beyond that, I don’t recall him ever talking about god, believing in god, or religion. My dad might well have been an atheist, but both my parents could definitely be described as humanists, based on the definition from Wikipedia…

Humanism is an approach in study, philosophy, world view or practice that focuses on human values and concerns, attaching prime importance to human rather than divine or supernatural matters.

Some people, especially some folks on the religious right, would describe humanism, or particularly “secular humanism”, as a religion (I recall Jerry Falwell making that argument more than once!) I generally would not, but I see their point, since for example, many people who hold essentially humanist values and view the world from a secular framework participate in Unitarian-Universalism based on those values.

So what follows is a long narrative (over 7000 words) of my own exploration of religion – its ideas, practice, and the reaching for a deeper metaphysical meaning of life. In putting together this piece, I struggled to try and break it up into smaller free-standing segments. But I think it speaks more to that natural human drive to learn and develop, when it is not diminished by a focus on formal schooling. So in my case I have spent thousands of hours participating in activities that have broadened my understanding of religion and its practice, but never gone to divinity school or even taken a formal “class” on religion.


Guest Blog by Emma Rosloff: My Experience with Unschooling (Abbreviated)

Sunday, April 29th, 2012

Emma Age 20This is the first time I’ve published a piece by a “guest” blogger, which in this case happens to be my daughter Emma! She published her piece initially on the Daily KOS progressive political blog site (click here to link to it), and got a large number of views, recommends and comments, plus a “Community Spotlight” acknowledgement. I’ve posted it below in its entirety, along with some follow-up replies she made to comments she received…


Just Another Unschooling Story – No Big Deal

Friday, April 27th, 2012

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”.


Unschooling in the Art of Travel

Friday, March 23rd, 2012

One of the lessons I learned from my dad was never stated in so many words, but I like to frame it as follows…

Life, at its best, is a series of adventures; not always successful, not always happy endings, but compelling narratives worth living, sharing with others and spurring our fullest development.

Continuing my series on the key unschooling threads in my young life, I share some of my key developmental travel adventures, which were mostly endeavors engaged in outside of any classroom, school or other formal learning situation. Yet they were some of my most important developmental experiences, giving me a useful orientation along with a sense of agency that I have taken into my adult life, more significant to the person I’ve become than anything I learned in school.

With the wrong mindset, travel can be cast as an arduous logistical chore, long dull hours in a seat, or the discomfort of unfamiliar food, people or circumstances. But when traveling is cast in the light of adventure, I think it can be the greatest of experiences, particularly for kids. If life is a journey, then a trip to somewhere else can be a microcosm of life’s journey, a metaphorical education on perhaps how better to lead one’s life.

This is quite a long autobiographical piece (over 8000 words) weaving together a handful of pieces I have written previously in order to capture an important unschooling thread in my young life that has had a profound impact on who I was able to become as an adult.


Unschooling in the Art of Social Transformation

Sunday, March 11th, 2012

It is my continuing effort to promote the concept of “unschooling”, the mostly unsung method of human development that often gets short shrift compared to more formal modes and venues for education. Wikipedia defines “unschooling” as a term coined in the 1970s by radical educator John Holt, representing…

A range of educational philosophies and practices centered on allowing children to learn through their natural life experiences, including play, game play, household responsibilities, work experience, and social interaction, rather than through a more traditional school curriculum. There are some who find it controversial. Unschooling encourages exploration of activities, often initiated by the children themselves, facilitated by the adults. Unschooling differs from conventional schooling principally in the thesis that standard curricula and conventional grading methods, as well as other features of traditional schooling, are counterproductive to the goal of maximizing the education of each child.

Becoming familiar with the concept of unschooling reading works by John Holt, Pat Farenga, Matt Hern and John Taylor Gatto, I have been taking a long look back at the road I’ve traveled and the key developmental experiences that have contributed the most to who I am today. Though I went to school (K-12 & college, some 20 years worth!), my school experience contributes relatively little to who I really am today, and the wisdom and skill set that I bring to my life’s activities. What is more significant, in retrospect, are the major themes of my own self-directed learning done mostly outside of school.

I have already told the story of my developmental themes around participation in theater and military simulation board games. What follows is a narrative of my continuing interest around the theme of social transformation. What I’m trying to get at is the “deep dive”, the robust weaving of many threads, that can happen with a totally self-directed effort to learn. This rather than learning initiated by an external entity that the learner is “assigned” to learn to a prescribed extent.

I will warn you up front, like the others, it is a long piece, some 7000 words.


Unschooling in the Art of War

Friday, January 27th, 2012

This is quite a long piece (over 7000 words) weaving a narrative thread through my young life that I think illustrates a key principle of unschooling. That principle is that the natural desire and capability of a young human being to learn and the opportunity to take a “deep dive” into the subject of interest results in a profound degree of broad learning and development beyond the perhaps narrow area of exploration. Note that though the subject of my youthful interest was the “art of war”, the impact and benefit of my learning pursuing that interest was much broader than the narrow and arguably non-progressive subject matter. Also note that very little of this tale involves anything that I learned in school (beyond learning how to read and basic math).

As far as I understand it, the premise of sending kids to school is that they will be given an opportunity to learn things, and in particular, the things that the larger community feels are important for kids to learn to become successful and productive adults. For many if not most people, behind that premise is the assumption that left to their own devices, kids would not learn these important things, and instead will just “get into trouble”, “stare at the TV”, “read comic books”, “play games”, etc.

Certainly in a lot of conventional thinking, kids “free play”, motivated by their own personal developmental needs (whatever they might be) is considered secondary to the formal learning that society generally compels them to undertake. And for the older youth, “playing games” is considered a waste of time better spent learning or doing something more “important”.

That assumption seems to persist in our culture despite what an observant parent or person who has studied child development will tell you, that young people are naturally motivated to learn and develop, interested in the world around them, and if not constantly redirected or otherwise kept away from those interests, continue to explore and learn voraciously. I suspect that many of us adults see our own lives as all about doing what we have to do rather than what we want to do, so whether we are projecting or applying some sort of convoluted logic, we figure that kids are not really interested in doing what they are supposed to be doing (that is learning) either.

As a parent of two now young adult kids, I certainly saw how much they were “learning machines” who loved to dive into things of interest to them. One of the main reasons their mom and I let them leave school and “unschool” during what would conventionally be their high school years, was because school (and particularly all the homework after school) had managed to turn most learning into a chore for them, rather than a passion.

Sure I had gone to school when I was a kid, including to a conventional high school as an older youth. But somehow back then in the 1960s and early 1970s it wasn’t so psychically draining. Maybe because there wasn’t nearly as much homework and there was none of the current standardized test obsession. Though in a mostly white middle-class university town there was the assumption that most kids would be going to college, I don’t recall my parents or my friends’ parents constantly trying to stage-manage our young lives toward that end. Also at my high school I don’t think they even took attendance, because I selectively would leave school during the day and miss one or more classes, but none of the school staff or my mom ever said anything about it.

For me as a kid, my life revolved around the things I did outside of school, and without the pursuit of those things that really interested me, my young life would have been mostly an exercise in compliance at school and perhaps boredom (or worse) at home. One of those compelling self-directed interests that weaves itself through my childhood, older youth and young adulthood was my fascination with the history and the “art” of war.

And that… is my extensive unschooling narrative that makes up the bulk of this piece.



Saturday, July 2nd, 2011

As a follow-up to my previous piece, “Unschooling Rather Than Highschooling”, I want to bring you up to date on my two kids’ unschooling sagas as they continue to choose to chart their own course as young adults. Neither Eric or Emma has chosen to go to college (though Emma has taken several community college and university extension classes). Instead, they have continued to launch their own projects, some successful and others significant failures, but all profound learning experiences moving them along their developmental paths.

It’s ironic that neither has chosen to enroll in higher education given the family pedigree. Their four grandparents all have college degrees, including one PhD. Their mom has two Masters, one in public health and a second in marriage and family therapy, while I have two Bachelors, one in speech and the other in computer science. Aunts and uncles are highly schooled as well. Certainly their parents and the entire extended family had the expectation when they were born that they would go to college. My partner Sally’s parents even starting significant college funds for them when they were born.

Trying and failing… some people say there is no better way to educate oneself. Yet we have a conventional education system for our youth built around externally orchestrated programming for success. Educators and savvy parents collude to prepare students for successful testing to get into the best possible college to guarantee the best possible chance for success on the job.

Both our kids have chosen not to go with that program. Here are some of the projects they’ve undertaken during what would conventionally be college years for many of their peers.


The Internet and My Tale of Two Crises

Saturday, June 11th, 2011

The Internet is our most dynamic new societal institution, developing quickly over the past 25 years from “Web 1.0” (providing static web pages with existing content) to “Web 2.0” (providing interactive environments for building connections between people, facilitating other societal institutions, and the “marketplace of ideas”). I think this is a good example, a good metaphor, for the direction we are moving (and should continue to move) in our entire society and its institutions, from top-down dissemination and control, to a more egalitarian exchange between a circle of equals.


Starting to Imagine Non-Compulsory Schools

Friday, April 1st, 2011

As I have mentioned before, I’ve been involved in an ongoing email “forum” over the past five years with fellow members of the Alternative Education Resource Organization (AERO). Topics revolve around youth, learning, and our societies educational institutions and possible alternatives to those institutions. Admittedly, we forum participants can be guilty of arguing perhaps from more of an ivory tower rather than from the trenches at times, but then again you have to be able to see the entire forest at times to best take care of all the trees.

One of the topics that keeps coming up and engenders a lot of impassioned prose on our forum is the reality of compulsory education for youth and the possibility of making it non-compulsory instead. The opinions on what would result from this change run the gamut, even among this self-selected group of alternative educators and other supporters (like me) of learning alternatives. Some of the forum participants (like me) take a more left-libertarian position and argue that our schools and the formal education process in general would be transformed for the better by shedding coercive elements of compulsion. Other list colleagues think that though in some ideal world this would be the way school should be, in our all too real and non-ideal world ending compulsory school attendance would be a disaster, and particularly for poor families that live in dangerous neighborhoods with little other infrastructure to offer youth.


Learning Long Division

Wednesday, November 24th, 2010

Elaborating in responding to comments to my recent blog piece, “When I Stopped Rewarding My Son for Good Behavior”, I expressed the opinion that most kids could readily learn to read and do basic arithmetic, even mostly on their own, if they were not required to learn at a set externally mandated standard age, but instead undertook the effort on their own internal developmental timetable when they were ready and interested in acquiring that skill set. One of my thoughtful commenters took issue with my position, saying…

You think a kid is going to learn long division on her own? Why would she? How could long division ever be interesting enough to typical children that it would at any moment be the most interesting thing they could be doing with their time?