The ideas expressed in this post have been germinating in my mind for perhaps a little over a year now. In this post, I aim to provide a constructive critique of many of the assumptions that I see guiding many members of the unschooling community and how I feel that some of these assumptions are problematic not so much for reasons frequently found in the mainstream of education policy and parenting discourse but from a solidly and radically youth rights perspective as well. It is within this spirit that I ask the reader to engage with this post. In other words, the things I find problematic about the ideology of much of the unschooling movement I find problematic mostly on youth rights grounds. I do not find the elements of unschooling ideology I set out to critique problematic because I fear that they are too radically pro-youth liberation or for reasons of political expediency. In fact, in my experience most unschooling parents are far more conservative youth rights advocates, if they are youth rights advocates at all, than I try to be. Rather, I fear that elements of unschooling ideology stand to disempower or even endanger young people in ways that youth rights supporters by definition oppose.
First of all, the idea of unschooling gives parents tremendous control over their children's lives. For all of their problematic aspects, most traditional educational institutions allow young people something of a scope of autonomy (however limited) beyond the reach of their immediate families and they also provide youth with exposure to people of diverse backgrounds and belief systems of the sort whom their parents may not associate with. Unschooling gives parents far more power and control over their children than the traditional division between school and home allots to either parents or school personnel. Unschooling parents have far greater power to surveil their children than they would if the child was spending time away from the parent at school. Furthermore, it is difficult for a young person who spends virtually all of her time around her parents (or those people the parents both know and explicitly endorse the child associating with) to develop a strong sense of independence, identity, and autonomy. Most disturbingly of all, unschooling gives the most dangerous parents even more scope for abuse of their authority whether it involves indoctrinating their child into questionable political or religious beliefs or allowing sexual, emotional, or physical abuse to occur with impunity. With no adults in a child's life besides those handpicked by the parent, it's much easier for serious violations of young people's rights to occur at the hands of the parents themselves.
Secondly, it is important to note that some young people enjoy school and many more would enjoy it were the most oppressive aspects of the traditional K-12 schooling experience done away with. In the contemporary United States, very few young people have any choice in where they go to school and what they study there. Everything from talking without permission (even outside the classroom) to wearing certain items of clothing to using the restroom without permission to carrying necessary medications in one's purse to self-defense of one's person are prohibited for most youth and oftentimes these things result in harsh punishments with little due process. Even in a society in which young people were completely liberated, many youth would choose to attend school for the same reasons many adults pursue careers as scholars. By presenting a version of educational choices in which the options are either unschooling or schooling in its present form, unschooling advocates often demonstrate their inability to imagine a system in which school could be a far better and less oppressive place for the youth that did want to be there. This is concerning for philosophical reasons, but also for practical ones. Many individuals advocating for unschooling refuse to help work towards policies which would make schools more just.
Up until this point, most of my objections towards unschooling could not be said to apply to free schools. While these schools do not follow a set curriculum and simply allow young people to learn and play at their own pace, they provide a scope for youth autonomy outside the parental gaze and could be said to provide a third way between unschooling and traditional schooling. However, the final criticism of unschooling I about about to expound upon could be said to apply equally to free schools and unschooling. In a less direct but still extremely important way, it is a criticism grounded in youth rights concerns and the value of youth autonomy.
I once knew a man who had attended a traditional private school until dropping out and attending a free school in his late teens. While he greatly enjoyed the experience, he once related to me the tale of a young man he had known in his free schooling days who had attended the school from early childhood on. While the man I knew raved about his free schooling experience he told me that his friend felt less positively towards the free schooling philosophy because he could not read until he was twelve years old despite having no learning disabilities or other circumstances which would possibly delay a young person in another sort of schooling environment in acquiring literacy skills. While some might reply "But this young man learned to read eventually!" and be satisfied with that, I myself continue to be concerned about this aspect of unschooling and free schooling.
As a supporter of youth liberation I, like all of us committed to this philosophy, want to create a world in which young people are more free than they currently are to manage their own affairs and participate in important community decision-making. If we are serious about young people having a greater scope of autonomy in voting, making medical decisions, managing their own finances, practicing a religion of their choice (or not), advocating for their rights within the legal system, and participating in other things which a youth liberationist perspective stipulates that young people should be participating in, how are they going to be empowered to do so if many of them are not basically literate or numerate? Traditionally women, people of color, ethnic minorities, poor people, rural people, immigrants, and people with disabilities have sought greater access to educational institutions because they realized that learning to read, write, add, and subtract would make them less powerless vis a vis more powerful groups and individuals in their lives. Why do we think that not accessing these same institutions and the knowledge they have to offer is going to make an already disempowered group more able to represent their own interests individually and collectively?
I would like to close this piece by saying that I do oppose compulsory education and I believe that unschooling, home schooling, and free schooling are the right choice for many youth. I also believe that these options have both advantages and disadvantages vis a vis the more traditional schooling framework in its contemporary form. However, I think that this is an issue we all need to be thinking and speaking more critically about. When unschooling and free schools are discussed in youth rights circles, they are almost always presented as the paradigmatic educational options that radical youth rights supporters need to rally around. I have even heard of youth who desire to attend more traditional schools spoken of by people in the movement as if they are suffering from some sort of false consciousness or as if, by wanting to learn in a traditional environment, they are somehow consenting to the most abusive and oppressive aspects of traditional K-12 schooling, even though these aspects of schooling usually have very little if anything to do with schools' pedagogic mission. (In most cases I would argue that these oppressive and abusive practices in fact undermine and even subvert schools' pedagogic mission.) I hope that this post starts a dialogue on these important issues within the youth rights movement itself. Young people, like adults, deserve a variety of educational options which respect their dignity and autonomy as well as their unique individual strengths, weaknesses, goals, and desires.