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Unschooling in the Art of War

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.

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