Unschooling in the Art of Self-Direction

From my own experience and what I’ve read of the wisdom of others, directing ones own life is not a science that can be taught through instruction but an art that is best developed from self-initiated efforts. Unfortunately, conventional school up to now has not been a good venue for young people to learn to direct their own development, rather serving mainly as a venue for the larger community (or maybe more specifically the state) to attempt to program young people’s developmental path. Looking back at my own youth that was certainly the case. Most of the developmental experiences that helped me learn to direct my own life happened outside of the classroom and outside of the context of school.

Directing ones own life is one of the most critical skills you learn in the process of “unschooling”, which Wikipedia defines as…

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.

Though I was a kid who did my time in twelve straight years of mandatory conventional schooling, looking back, virtually all of my ability to direct my own life was acquired in my own chosen activities outside of school. This piece is an attempt to document this life narrative, including the key venues and episodes from my life where I feel I took a step forward in developing my ability to chart my own course, and calling out some key instances where school took me a step backward instead.

Imagination Play & Self-Directed Moral Development

More and more studies I see are confirming that undirected play, and particularly imagination play, is critical to optimal human learning and development. Studies also show the flip side, that instruction or even adult direction of the play of young children stunts their development (which is a profound indictment of this growing practice in American preschools and kindergartens).

I was blessed to have been born to two parents who were intelligent and highly creative people who, even in the conformist era of the late 1950s, somehow understood the value of imagination play to my development, and gave me the right sort of toys and environments to engage in such play, along with plenty of time on my own.

According to the Wikipedia article, “imagination”…

Is the ability of forming new images and sensations when they are not perceived through sight, hearing, or other senses. Imagination helps provide meaning to experience and understanding to knowledge; it is a fundamental faculty through which people make sense of the world, and it also plays a key role in the learning process…

Children often use narratives or pretend play in order to exercise their imagination. When children develop fantasy they play at two levels: first, they use role playing to act out what they have developed with their imagination, and at the second level they play again with their make-believe situation by acting as if what they have developed is an actual reality that already exists in narrative myth.

From age five I began to construct my own conceptions of the world including my own mythology of the human narrative, as detailed in my piece “Plastic Dinosaurs and the Tragedy of Jinx Island”. I created some pretty involved play scenarios and resulting character and story narratives. Borrowing ideas from my favorite sci-fi/fantasy movies of the time, like 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Mysterious Island and The Lost World, I used the chalked out floor, Civil War soldiers, Lincoln Logs, plastic dinosaurs, shoe and larger boxes (cobbled into ships and submarines with scissors, tape and cellophane for windows) to develop my own stories. This included giving names, traits and back-stories to many of the individual plastic soldiers, including one designated as Captain Nemo himself, with all the moral ambiguities and violent antiwar extremism of his complicated character.

From the Wikipedia article on this fictional character…

Captain Nemo, also known as Prince Dakkar, is a fictional character featured in Jules Verne’s novels Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea (1870) and The Mysterious Island (1874)… Nemo, one of the most famous antiheroes in fiction, is a mysterious figure. The son of an Indian Raja, he is a scientific genius who roams the depths of the sea in his submarine, the Nautilus, which was built on a deserted island. Nemo tries to project a stern, controlled confidence, but he is driven by a thirst for vengeance and a hatred of imperialism (particularly the British Empire) and wracked by remorse over the deaths of his crew members and even by the deaths of enemy sailors.

As detailed in my previous piece, starting at age five, I was directing the development of my own ethical compass, that would help me reconcile my future participation In a human culture with morally ambiguous practices such as military conflict and ideological extremism. As called out in the bit from the Wikipedia article above, I was creating a “make-believe situation by acting as if what I have developed is an actual reality that already exists in narrative myth”. There was nothing so dramatic in my real-life with other kids, my own parents, and the other middle-class families we interacted with.

Run of the Town

Part and parcel with developing that ethical compass I developed a strong sense of awareness of and responsibility for my own self. I suspect that my parents’ awareness of the extent of my development in this area encouraged them to grant me a great deal of freedom to venture from the house on my own, starting at about age five, when they let me walk to and from school each day, about three-quarters of a mile across the nearby park and down through a single family residential neighborhood.

As detailed in my previous piece, “Have Bike Will Travel”, by age eight my mom had worked out ground rules with me that I could go where I wanted in the neighborhood and even downtown (about a mile away from our house) as long as I started home “when the streetlights came on”. This of course given that Ann Arbor was a mid-sized, middle-class, progressive college town, with a fairly homogeneous population.

So on summer and weekend days and school-day afternoons (particularly in late spring and early fall) I would venture out either on foot or by bicycle to friends’ houses, the park across the street, other nearby parks for little league baseball practices, the town library, my favorite toy and five-and-dime stores, and ice cream parlors. Ann Arbor had (and continues to have) friendly tree-lined streets and cozy little parks nestled within its friendly neighborhoods. I recall that most of my peers who I considered friends were granted a comparable freedom of movement.

So other than walking to and from school, the occasional visit to a family friend’s house with my parents, going out to dinner a couple times a month with my parents, or taking day trips on weekends with my dad, the majority of occasions I left the house to go somewhere was at my own initiative and to my own chosen destination. What better way for a kid to develop the currently much prized and talked about skill of “executive function”. Per the Wikipedia article on this subject…

Executive functions is an umbrella term for cognitive processes that regulate, control, and manage other cognitive processes, such as planning, working memory, attention, problem solving, verbal reasoning, inhibition, mental flexibility, multi-tasking, and initiation and monitoring of actions. The executive system is a theorized cognitive system in psychology that controls and manages other cognitive processes. It is responsible for processes that are sometimes referred to as executive functions, executive skills, supervisory attentional system, or cognitive control.

Whereas in school I was every day directed by adults to where I should come to learn, what to learn when I got there, when I should learn it, how and from whom; outside school I would set out on most journeys from my house at my own direction as to where, when, how, and to see whom. Both of these scenarios are part of adult life, but we usually enter into the former, and continue to abide by its strictures, at our own direction.

As I got closer to and then into my preteen years, that externally directed school environment, where I was part of an arbitrary larger group of same-age peers, got more and more problematic for me.

Setbacks at Home and in School

As detailed in my piece, ”Jane & Eric Get Divorced”, when I was 10, this cataclysmic event occurred and my dad moved out of the house. I experienced a profound sense of loss, plus internalizing that my family was somehow “dysfunctional” and that I might somehow be as well.

A year later, I started junior high in 7th grade when I was 11, and I don’t recall any of the teachers or counselors even being aware of my parents divorce. They certainly never mentioned it to me and I was too ashamed and too intimidated by all those adult authority figures to share anything with them. I had no really close friends among my classmates either, until the middle of eighth grade. It contributed to a very rough three years before I transitioned to high school for tenth grade.

In junior high, I was never in an environment where I felt safe, or felt that the adults or the bulk of the kids I interacted with really cared about who I was, what really interested me, and what the challenges were in my life. Most of what I was expected to learn was not what engaged my real interests, so my school day became an exercise in going through the motions – doing my best to listen to what I was told in class, and then on my own try to execute the tasks I was assigned by my teachers and accept their judgments rendered on my execution of those tasks. I completely surrendered any semblance of self-direction along with most of what little self-esteem I had left at the time. At best I would rely on receiving little bits of conditional self-esteem doled out by my teachers when I would get a good grade on an assignment or on my report card.

By ninth grade, I was so uncomfortable with and stressed by school that I would routinely get sick and end up staying home, sometimes for a week at a time, with my mom’s tacit consent.

Several years later, after completing junior high, my experience working in a youth theater group would teach me that, as a shy person, what worked for me was to be engaged in a project I really cared about, and have a defined role within my group of peers and adults collaborating on that project, a role that everyone understood and respected. Given the safety of having and being expected to play that prescribed and acknowledged role, I could overcome my anxiety, fully engage my self and my skills, and direct myself and even others as appropriate in my assigned role.

How much better those three years of junior high could have been if my school had been a real collaborative community of choice. A place where youth and adults were engaged together (as a respectful circle of equals), each day, in making the community work. It did not seem possible at the time, but I was soon to have very different experiences that would demonstrate that it was.

Junior Light Opera

The one teacher I really connected with in high school was a man named Michael Harrah, who taught a stagecraft class that I took in tenth grade (and I describe in more detail in my previous piece “Stagecraft”). I connected with him immediately at a more personal level, since he is the only K-12 teacher I had for a second time (he had been a memorable substitute when my eight grade speech teacher had gone on medical leave).

Though Michael’s day job was as a public school teacher, his real love was launching and running a youth theater group, the like of which I have never encountered since. Described in more detail in my piece “Unschooling in the Art of Theater”, the troupe at the time he recruited me to join was composed of two adults (Michael and the musical director Sue) and about 70 youth (ages five to the early twenties) and mounted about ten productions throughout the year.

The group’s true uniqueness was in its governance model. Michael functioned as the sort of CEO and artistic director, which included securing our venues for rehearsal and performance, making the final decision on the plays we would mount, and being present for virtually every rehearsal and performance. Sue recruited and conducted the youth orchestra for all our musical productions. What was the uniquely radical part, was that virtually every other role and function in the troupe, on stage and off, was performed by a youth.

So as just one example, when we staged the musical “Oliver”, I (age 15) functioned as the producer (managing all the logistical elements of the rehearsals and performances) along with designing and supervising the building of the set by other youth in our troupe. The director was 17 and the choreographer just 14. The lighting and costume designers, stage and house managers were also teens. The program and tickets were set up and printed by a 15-year-old whose family owned a printing business. The show was rehearsed and staged using my high school’s extensive theater facilities. A typical weekday night rehearsal might include…

* Michael at the piano in a music room helping the leads with their musical numbers

* The 14-year-old choreographer teaching the younger youth playing Fagin’s kids their dance number in another music room

* The 17-year-old director on the stage blocking a crowd scene with about twenty other kids in the cast

* Another teen managing the building of the set I designed in the scene shop backstage

* The teen costume designer coordinating another group of kids sewing costumes in yet another classroom, with maybe a mom or two recruited to teach the various kids how to use a sewing machine

* Other kids not at this moment engaged in an activity might be off in a corner somewhere trying to do their regular school homework

* And finally me, moving from room to room making sure that everything was going smoothly, plus organizing how to collect money from and buy food from McDonald’s for all 60 plus people participating in the night’s activities. (I could have an order with over 100 hamburgers plus copious French fries and drinks that I would call in and then pick up!)

I want you to appreciate how profoundly different this was than the regular school day at that same facility, where adults were basically in charge of everything, and us teens got their instructions and executed their assignments. JLO was a goldmine of opportunity for learning self-direction. We all had our opportunities to conceive, design and implement various aspects of a theatrical production, along with performing on stage and/or managing things backstage during a performance. We all had the occasion to lead, to follow, to partner, or to otherwise collaborate. We shared the bond of knowing that each one of us could figure out what needed to be done in any given circumstance and make it so. We had plenty of opportunities to try things, room to fail and learn lessons from that failure. We developed what I like to refer to as “agency”. Here is a description of this concept from the Wikipedia article

One’s agency is one’s independent capability or ability to act on one’s will. This ability is affected by the cognitive belief structure which one has formed through one’s experiences, and the perceptions held by the society and the individual, of the structures and circumstances of the environment one is in and the position they are born into. Disagreement on the extent of one’s agency often causes conflict between parties, e.g. parents and children.

In contrast to the captivating immersion of the real-world activities of our JLO evening sessions, school seemed more and more like a daily grind, with interesting stuff occasionally but increasing time spent on curriculum that felt boring and pointless given my emerging self-directed developmental path forward. My chemistry class I found mind-numbingly boring, and I was lucky I did not flunk it altogether. That class inspired me to write a dystopian short story trying to vent my anxiety.

High School Attendance

What was a developmental revelation in my senior year of high school was that my school did not appear to be taking attendance, or at least my mom was not being notified and my teachers were not challenging me if I missed a particular class. This policy was never explicitly announced as I recall, but there were also no instructions given to students about having to bring a note when you were absent from school or a particular class. It was an unheralded shift to more of a community college model, but a profound one for me after my growing academic discomfort in my junior year as reported above.

I started my incremental transition into increased self-direction of my school schedule by starting to routinely skip my fourth period study hall, which I had originally signed up for to lighten my class load and give me an hour to get homework done at school anticipating nightly rehearsals for JLO theater productions. Next was my third period International Relations class, which had sounded very interesting in the syllabus, but the teacher was hugely boring. But I discovered that if I read the textbook and just showed up for the tests and enough of the quizzes I could pass the class. First period Russian language class and second period English Literature could be missed about once a week without losing the learning thread of those two subjects, which were more engaging to me.

So along with the 30 minute lunch between third and fourth period, this gave me on most days at least a two-and-a-half hour period in the middle of the day when I could work in the theater wing or actually leave campus. With an old car at my disposal (inherited from my grandfather), I began to take more and more advantage of the latter option. My current best friend had the same third, fourth and fifth period classes, so we routinely collaborated on various “excursions” during the day, either to his house (a ten-minute drive from school) or to the University of Michigan Graduate Library.

What would draw us back to school was our fifth and final class of the day, a shared Modern Russian History class taught by Mr. Peacock, a very interesting guy (literally a card-caring Trotsky-ite communist, he showed us that membership card when we challenged him) adept at telling lurid and gripping tales about the periods leading up to the assassination of Czar Alexander by an anarchist cell in 1881 and the October Revolution in 1917. The class had maybe a dozen students and was run very informally, with most of us sitting on rather than at random desks strewn around the room while Peacock paced the room ranting and rambling with his engaging tales.

Mr. Peacock’s class inspired most of the jaunts my friend and I took to the Graduate Library, as I document in my previous piece “Anarchism and the Sub-Basement of the Graduate Library”. Between Peacock, trips to the Graduate Library he inspired, and my mom’s radical feminist friend Mary Jane, I was being exposed to intriguing radical critiques of society turning upside down much of the conventional wisdom of even the progressive liberalism of my hometown’s university milieu.

Most of the time my friend and I spent at his house during the school day involved pursuing our shared interest in military simulation board games, which rekindled a lifelong passion of mine for the study of war, logistics, and military history, documented in my piece “Unschooling and the Art of War”.

But returning to the main point here, it was a simple change in a school attendance policy that led to a transformative experience for me, taking control of my school experience for the first time in my life after it having controlled me (mostly for the worse) for many years. Having had this positive proactive experience as an older youth, learning that it was doable, helped me continue this approach in college and beyond. It was decades later that I was inspired to take control of and transform my corporate employment to make it flexible enough to lead a balanced life and “work to live” rather than “live to work”.

European Solo Adventure

I had learned from my dad as a kid (when we took various day-trips) his practice of just jumping in the car and heading off in one direction or another, with money in the pocket for gas, lunch, snacks, miniature golf, bowling, or other activities and entertainment as encountered. I had also developed, as I described above, the agency to set out from my house on my own traversing my town by bicycle. For a still shy kid, these were important preparations for what followed.

After graduating from high school a year after me in June of 1973, two of my closest friends decided to backpack through Europe together that coming fall. I convinced them to let me come along, perfect for shy me to have two buddies to share this sort of adventure with. After completing my first year of college, I got my first real full-time job that summer as a janitor and chambermaid at a hotel in town to save money for the trip. My mom, always a big supporter of my self-directed activities, chipped in enough to pay for my plane ticket.

As circumstances played out, one of my two friends dropped out of the trip, but my other friend and I boarded our flight from Detroit to London in late September of 1973. After a week traveling in England (including a difficult first night at a seedy bedbug-ridden hotel in London) my second friend decided to drop out as well and return home. I was left with the decision to bail as well or stick it out on my own. With my pride somehow trumping my shyness and fear of traversing foreign lands on my own (my self-esteem being too tentative to countenance having to explain to people that I bailed on such an adventure), I decided to continue until my money ran out, which turned out to be no less than ten weeks later.

As I left London on my own by train headed for Munich Germany, my goal was to visit a couple my mom and I had met previously, but I had made no specific arrangements to meet them on a particular date, just a general indication I would “look them up” in our exchanged letters before the trip. So for the first time in my life I was “throwing myself in the deep end”, which has turned out to be a technique I have used several times since to overcome my shyness and push forward with developmental experiences.

As described more extensively in my previous piece, “Unschooling in the Art of Travel”, my next ten weeks charting a course through Western Europe had many unexpected twists and turns including some very difficult days. At times I was tired and lonely, and it felt more like an ordeal than an adventure. But each time I set out from one locale to another, I scanned my maps and guidebooks, took the advice of fellow travelers I encountered, and pursued my own curiosity to decide where to go next. Much of that decision-making was spur of the moment, arriving at the train station intending to head in one direction, but then changing my mind and boarding a train in the opposite direction. (My student rail pass facilitated this improvisation since I did not have to buy any tickets but simply board any train and show my pass to the conductor.)

It was like a role-playing game or a reality show called “Where Will He Go Next?”, and was a revelation for me on how one could conduct at least certain segments of, if not ones whole life, acting on impulse, inspiration, or just “going with the flow”. Every decision, including strategic ones on which country to head into next and tactical ones about who to strike up a conversation with, often had profound unplanned consequences. And when not traveling with a close friend to buffer everything with a refuge of familiarity, those experiences were that much more intense.

Throwing Myself in the Deep End in Los Angeles

Five years after setting out on my European adventure I graduated from the University of Michigan in my hometown of Ann Arbor with my undergraduate degree in Speech (with a concentration in television and film production). I really had little or no idea what to do next with my life or how I might leverage my degree to find a job and follow a path forward to a career.

The last four years I had spent taking college classes had been an engrossing intellectual exercise, but more of an entertaining and unfocused meander in the garden of knowledge than a well-planned preparation for next steps toward a targeted destination. Looking back, I was using it more as a means to avoid making the transition to adulthood than to facilitate that transition. At the time I just naively figured that once I got my degree the doors of opportunity would just somehow open for me, so I could continue just enjoying my friends and my hobbies, doing low-wage work to pay the rent, and living in genteel semi-poverty in my wonderful little Ann Arbor.

After twelve years divorced, my mom had remarried my dad and moved 200 miles south to live with him in Dayton Ohio, a place I had no desire to move to myself. I was still here in my hometown with no mentors or contacts that could help me get a job or otherwise assist me with a glide path into adulthood. The one exception was Michael Harrah, my onetime mentor as head of the Junior Light Opera theater group, who had recently moved to Los Angeles to manage young actors who were trying to break into the TV/film business. He couldn’t offer me a job, but he did at least have an extra bedroom where I could stay until I could find a job and somehow launch myself in “Hollywood”. That was the one “door” of opportunity (such as it was) that opened itself to me.

I was 23 and had had enough life experience to know that I was shy and generally reticent to take that next developmental step that would take me into uncharted territory. But I also knew that when I took that difficult step – whether playing a key role in mounting or performing in a theatrical production or stepping on that train from London on my own with just my backpack – the results had been very rewarding. Throwing myself in the deep end had become my main means of overcoming my natural reticence and allowing me to move forward with my life.

As detailed in my piece “Saying Goodbye to Ann Arbor”, relying on just my own compass, and perhaps fearing that not taking the plunge was the only thing worse than taking it, in September 1978 I boarded a train with just my backpack and a suitcase, the first leg of a trip that found me arriving, a very small fish in the very big pond of the city of the angels. It had been a life of self-directed action, a young child exploring fantasy worlds of his own design, a youth navigating his real world on his bicycle, a teen realizing his imagination on stage, a young adult setting forth on his own to parts unknown, that had made this challenging transitional step into adulthood possible.

2 replies on “Unschooling in the Art of Self-Direction”

  1. Your kids take after you. In the beginning there, it reminded me of Carl Sagan. He began a book telling a tale about his mother, I believe…I’d have to find the book to say for sure, but anyhow, as they looked across the ocean here from the eastern seaboard, he was told that England stood across that great expanse.

    “I can see it!” (I’m paraphrasing. The whole story, I’m paraphrasing…)

    He said he owed his life’s work to that moment when he was allowed to visualize England in his mind, and not be told he was being silly. Having parents who accepted his creativity for what it was, meant everything to him. When I think of his film, “Contact”, my first real encounter with his creativity (rather than the science side), it makes me ashamed for how I have treated my “right-brained” son.

  2. Rose… thanks for your thoughts and a bit of Carl Sagan’s story. Am also curious how you are connected to my kids.

    IMO we are only beginning to unleash the developmental capabilities of young human beings after perhaps millennia of keeping those capabilities at bay. It starts with imagination and creativity which shapes the world more than any sort of concrete knowledge, as Albert Einstein attested to when he said, “Imagination is more important than knowledge”.

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