From Feminism to Unschooling

Wendy Priesnitz
Just got through reading Wendy Priesnitz piece, “Unschooling as a feminist act” that was republished in the Alternative Education Resource Organization (AERO) Education Revolution magazine. Wendy is a fellow comrade in the large circle of activists for education alternatives where AERO functions as part of the connective tissue among us. Within that larger group, Wendy and I share a focus as unschooling (what she refers to as “life learning”) activists. So I was intrigued by the title of her piece given the fact that I consider myself both a feminist and unschooling activist.

My take on Wendy’s thinking here, is that she sees a connection between feminism and unschooling because both challenge our society’s remaining patriarchal traditions and values that see men (particularly adult men) in the superior position to women and children in societal hierarchies of control, where “father knows best”.

Certainly our state-run public school systems in the U.S. can be viewed as hierarchical organizations with students (young people of both genders) under the authority and control of teachers (mostly adult women) who are then subject to a controlling hierarchy of authority above them. A controlling hierarchy that becomes more male-dominated, the higher you work your way up the levels of that hierarchy to the state legislators, ed secretaries and boards at the top of the pyramid. This is not unlike our society’s political, economic and religious institutions which continue to be male-dominated (though trending in a more egalitarian direction).

Writes Wendy in her piece…

It had never occurred to me that unschooling and feminism were mutually exclusive. In fact, I am quite certain that it, in all its label-defying glory, is the ultimate feminist act, for a variety of reasons on which I’ll elaborate in this article.

In my reading of her article I would summarize those reasons as follows…

1. Our male-dominated society devalues the child-rearing function including mostly relegating it to mothers and not paying the female-dominated childcare and teaching professions comparably to more male-dominated professions

2. Feminism took a great step forward empowering women to work outside the home, but if women are to be fully empowered, they should equally be empowered to choose to focus their lives within the home raising children

3. As empowered mothers, women should not play second fiddle to the conventional wisdom of mostly male societal experts who claim to know better than those mothers what is best for their children

Addressing that first reason Wendy notes her brief experience as a teacher and later working at a daycare center…

I trained to be a teacher in 1969 but realized after just a few months that neither I nor most of the students wanted to be in the classroom. So I quit teaching. Researching a more suitable career and curious about how children learn (something that hadn’t been a major part of the teachers’ college curriculum), I spent some time working at a daycare center… But I was astonished at how undervalued and underpaid the entirely female staff was, especially for work that was so stressful and so important… and at what uninspiring places the centers were. I am a questioner by nature, and that experience inspired a lot of questions: Why was our society apparently undervaluing this work? Was it because women were doing it? Or did we value the care of the next generation so little?

Focusing on how children really learn was the great leap that humanist educator John Holt took that led him to conceive and embrace the radical concept of “unschooling” in the first place. Weaving in her feminist consciousness, Wendy witnessed the marginalization of child development and the women who were expected to manage it.

Writing to her second reason she recalls her own parental experience…

Motherhood focused my early political consciousness. It helped me understand how the choices I make in my personal life are linked to those I make on a larger scale. I remember thinking that a mother’s body is the first environment for human life, so I’d better ensure I was providing a clean, nurturing place for my unborn child to grow, as well as ensuring a safe, respectful world for her to live in after birth. And that’s when I began to weave change-making into my life… If we reject the idea that success is only about money, we can forge new attitudes toward what’s important in life. Challenging the notion that feminism relates only to equal opportunity within the workplace and can only be obtained by a full-time paying career is controversial, but there is a growing movement that questions the tradition that well-being is based totally on economics.

I recall my own humbling experience as a parent, a male parent in my case, fathoming my responsibility to my child, a unique and complex human soul proceeding with its own development, which could be helped or hindered by my actions. How much should I trust conventional wisdom, versus my own intuition as a separate unique soul, versus the messages my kid was giving me regarding their own take on things? Conventional wisdom led to keeping him in school, until my own intuition based on the negative messages he was giving me overruled convention and we pulled him out.

And to her third reason she writes…

Our public school systems perpetuate social hierarchies, disempower children, coerce them – supposedly for their own good – and encourage a destructive level of consumerism and consumption. Furthermore, they are not democratic because they don’t allow children and young people to control their choices and their daily lives. School teaches submission to power based on size, age, intellect and sometimes ability to bully, and there are race, gender and class biases, and even sexual harassment. The very structure of schools delivers a hidden socioeconomic curriculum of standardization, competition and top-down management by experts.

I too made the progression from being a feminist activist to that of a youth rights activist. The same patriarchal “us and them” thinking that has led society to disempower and marginalize women can be seen to be disempowering and marginalizing young human beings as well. Democracy and egalitarianism does not need to end at the boundary between adulthood and youth. A teen was not a “child” in any sense other than that of progeny and by the formalities of legal definition.

Given my own shift, surrendering the paradigm of managing my kids’ lives to one of facilitating their self-management, I began to see the more conventional parenting practices along with those of conventional public schools my kids were attending as inconsistent with that facilitative paradigm. So I resonate with Wendy when she writes…

Schools – and society in general – treat children the way women don’t want to be treated. They don’t trust children to control their own lives, to keep themselves safe and to make their own decisions. In this way, feminism and life learning are one and the same because they trust people to take the paths that suit them best.

And as Wendy sums up at the end of her piece…

It has been said that feminism is the radical notion that women are people. Even more radical, I would suggest, is the notion that was printed on a t-shirt my young daughters once shared: “Kids are people too.” At this point in history, allowing them to live and learn in the real world, unfettered by the discrimination inherent in compulsory schooling, is the best way to honor that idea. We need to find ways to make that possible without diminishing anyone else’s rights. Then we will truly be on the way to creating a more egalitarian society.

I certainly second this statement. Even though I understand why people support compulsory schooling as a bureaucratic tool to try and ensure universal educational equality, I agree with Wendy that that compulsion diminishes our rights as individuals to control our own development. I also agree that we all will be well served by treating our children in a more egalitarian way that more fully honors their inherent worth and dignity. There is a lot of synergy between challenging women’s “place” as second-class citizens to men and challenging young people’s “place” as second-class to adults. That said, I do acknowledge that adults have a legitimate and crucial role to play in kids’ lives providing a stewardship that should not be confused with complete authority and control.

One reply

  1. Wendy’s works are great. I am so glad she, and many others, were there for me as the kyriarchal nature of school – and life in general – began to occur to me. In fact, the writers and workers in the field of child rights/child advocacy/etc. have been more influential on my social justice/social wellbeing work than anything else! It’s been an exhilarating journey.

    I recently wrote about being more “out” on unschooling.. I guess I’m tired of keeping all the awesomesauce to myself, so much!

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