"negotiation and compromise": reflections on my childhood outside of school

It seems fitting, in this last week of formal coursework in pursuit of my Master's in Library Science, that I take some time out to reflect on a very different experience: that of growing up for the first seventeen years of my life outside of formal institutions of schooling. Those of you who follow my blog probably know that cultures of schooling, education, and learning are a topic of scholarly and personal concern to me. As I wrote on Saturday, Idzie @ I'm Unschooled. Yes I Can Write is running a series of interviews with grown unschoolers about their experience learning outside of school. I took some time out from wrapping up my coursework last week (read: spent time procrastinating like it was going out of style!) to respond to her questions. And yesterday Idzie published my responses.

Glen Nevis, West Highlands, Scotland (May 2004)
Since I thought many of my readers would be interested in my responses, I'm cross-posting what I wrote here. But if you enjoy what you read, do check out Idzie's blog since she publishes lots of awesome stuff -- and promises an ongoing series of similar interviews.

The Basics

When did you become an unschooler?
birth (1981) and/or first year I was school age (1987)

How long have you/did you unschool?
Difficult question! I still think of myself as practicing the values of unschooling, even though I have had interactions with formal education and its institutions. I did not attend grade or secondary school at all (though my siblings did to varying degrees). I began taking courses at the college where my father worked when I was seventeen and continued there part time through 2005; until 2002 I was not a degree-seeking student, though I did take the courses for credit. During the seven years I pursued undergraduate coursework, I did lots of other things too, like work and travel. Since completing my B.A. I've moved on to graduate school (more below). However, I still feel very much an unschooler at heart.

How old are you now?
29, nearly 30.

The Decision to Unschool

If your parents chose unschooling, do you know how/why they made that decision?
My mother was, I think, the initiator of home-based education, since she was the primary at-home parent and also very interested in child development and early childhood education. She always preferred non-interventionist approaches, and when it came time to think about schooling for us kids she felt we were doing really well in our current environment -- and that the schooling opportunities in our area were too conventional for our family's needs. My father was completely on board with it, even though he usually took a back seat with the home-life arranging, given he was the parent with a full-time job.

My parents are not categorically opposed to working with formal institutions of learning. My father works at Hope College (where I eventually attended classes) and my siblings both expressed a desire to do some measure of formal schooling during their teen years. My brother attended some courses at the local public school, although he never enrolled as a degree-seeking student, and my sister went full-time to public high school. But the focus throughout was what worked best for our family as a whole and for each of us kids individually.

The Best and Worst

What do you think the best thing about unschooling is?
Speaking from the point of view of a unschooled child (rather than an unschooling parent), I would say that the experience of unschooling helped me to remain confident in myself: confident that I had the ability to learn new ideas and skills when I need them, confident I could find meaningful ways to occupy myself without a strict schedule, confident that I could navigate the world and find help when I needed it from people with particular expertise, or whom I had caring relationships with.

The worldview of unschoolers draws (in my opinion) on a specific understanding of human nature that is at odds with the beliefs of the dominant culture. In order to really practice unschooling, you have to trust in the human being to be interested in the world, to seek situations (physical, social, intellectual) in which that being will thrive in community with other beings. You have to trust that the being themselves -- not external authorities -- are the best source of information about what the being needs to thrive. Not to say that external feedback and expertise isn't helpful -- it's often crucial. But at the end of the day, the individual themselves is the best authority on, well, themselves. And on what they need to feel nourished.

In society as a whole, children aren't trusted to have that kind of knowledge about themselves. In part because children do often think and communicate in different ways than adults, given their stage of development, so children's self-knowledge is often difficult for adults to access. But it's there if we know how and where to look! And unschooling teaches us to cultivate that awareness in ourselves and others.

What do you think the worst (or most difficult) thing about unschooling is?
The most stressful thing about practicing unschooling in our culture is that it really is fundamentally counter-cultural. It challenges many of the hidden assumptions of our society about human nature, the nature of children, the purpose of education, the meaning of the "good life," and so forth. I, personally, think people who unschool are on a much healthier track (by and large) than people who do not, because of their values and their orientation toward the world and the rest of humanity. But there's definitely a cultural dissonance between the life we wish to lead as unschoolers, and the world in which we have to carve a space for ourselves beyond our families. It requires constant negotiation and compromise.

Beyond High School

Did you decide to go/are you going to college or university? If so, could you talk a bit about that experience?
I did go to college, both undergraduate and (currently) a graduate program. It's always difficult to talk "a bit" about the experience, since my interest as an historian in counter-cultural education means I spent a lot of my waking moments thinking about the culture of institutional schooling, of teaching and learning, and about how "education" is framed in our contemporary cultural debates.

Casting my mind back to age seventeen, when I enrolled in my first college course -- a first-year writing course -- I remember how thrilling it was to be engaged in writing and thinking about ideas. At that point I wanted to be a creative writer and developed an enormous crush on my professor, a poet and photographer who had that rare ability to read one's writing and discern what you meant to say, even if your early drafts were hopelessly muddled. At the same time, I felt like a foreign exchange student, struggling to assimilate to the academic culture that was invisible to most of my classmates. I cold be exhausting and isolating. The fact I was a politically and culturally progressive-radical student on a campus dominated by politically and culturally conservative students didn't help to bridge the gap between me and conventionally-schooled peers. Nor did the fact I was a part-time, commuter student on a campus dominated by full-time, resident students.

I did not struggle with the coursework much at all. In the early years, I took courses that interested me without a thought toward graduation. Later on, when I was fulfilling requirements, I did take classes that were in subjects not of my instinctive interest (I wept through a one-month class in statistics, for example) ... but by conventional measures (i.e., grades) I succeeded in conventional education despite my lack of formal training up to that point. And undergraduate college unquestionably opened doors for me -- intellectually, socially, geographically -- that might have been more difficult to open otherwise. I had access to off-campus programs and study abroad opportunities; I had faculty-student research opportunities and professors who I connected with and library resources, etc. The same can be said, to some extent, for my graduate work. The classes themselves have often been frustrating, inefficient, etc. But given the organization of our culture's learning resources at institutions of education, it's difficult to piece together a similar experience without being an enrolled student.

Difficult, but not impossible.

I never completely made peace with the structured nature of academic semesters, graded projects, competitive learning, being judged by external rather than internal expectations. It stressed me out on a pretty deep level; makes me feel like I'm complicit in a system that rewards some at the expense of the rest. which is something I have problems with, even if (especially if??) I'm one of those who gets rewarded. It's complicated. I'm definitely looking forward to being done with formal academics for a while after I complete my current program (a dual-degree in library science and history).

Money Earning and Work

Are you currently earning money in any way?

What jobs/ways of earning money do you, and have you, had?
Oh, gosh. I've been earning money since I was about nine. I started working seasonally for my father at the college bookstore he manages for pocket money and stayed there on and off throughout college. I also worked at a local children's bookstore and a branch of Barnes & Noble. I did childcare as a teenager and worked one year as a nanny. I've served as teaching and research assistants for a number of college faculty. I spent a semester working as an office assistant for a study abroad program. I've also done a number of work-for-food-and-lodging type situations, sometimes in combination with other paid work and sometimes for short stints alone ... like the month I spent at a women's land trust in Missouri the summer after graduating from college.

When I moved to Boston, I was hired as a library assistant at the Massachusetts Historical Society, an independent research library in Boston that holds rare books and manuscript materials. It's a wonderful way of being connected to a scholarly community without being tied to a college or university setting. For the past three years, I've worked there part time along with other part-time employment (in the field) and internships. I was just recently offered a promotion to full-time with enough wages and benefits to support remaining in Boston for the next few years, as my partner and I would like to do. It pays modestly well, and is definitely the type of work I was hoping to find when I began graduate school in library science.

Have you found work that's fulfilling and enjoyable?
I won't pretend that my partner and I don't struggle with the question of balancing the need to earn wages to support ourselves in the short and long term. My partner, who also learned outside of school for much of her life (until going to public high school) resists, as do I, a culture that equates paid employment with identity and fulfillment. On the one hand, I do believe in seeking out ways to earn a living doing what you love ... but I also resist creating a situation in which my life is defined by the work I do, or dictated by it. So that's an ongoing balancing act. Even without children to care for, I find myself more and more appalled at how little flexibility our modern workplaces have for the rhythms of personal and family life.

Have you found that unschooling has had an impact on how hard or easy it is to get jobs or earn money?
This is a tricky question. I was very privileged in that I had a chance to work in the "family business" as a child and teenager prior to getting other jobs. Not being in school meant, too, that I could work in positions that school schedules could not accommodate easily, and gain really good work experience even before I started college. I had extensive volunteer experience, too, that filled out my resume. Another privilege was the fact that my father's job at the college meant I got tuition benefits and could take classes without applying for a degree. By the time I petitioned to be a degree-seeking student I had a strong enough academic record they waived the requirements of national test scores or a high school diploma (a stumbling block for some unschoolers seeking to enter higher education). I have not felt limited by my lack of formal schooling pre-college. I do wish, sometimes, I had been braver about seeking alternatives to college and post-graduate schooling. I was tired of the effort it takes to forge the nonconventional path. And there are days when I'm not proud of that.

Do you feel that unschooling has had an impact on what methods of earning money or jobs you're drawn to?
In a word: yes. In a few more words, I would argue that the worldview lying behind (my understanding of) unschooling supports de-emphasizing wage-work as either the primary mode of self-identification or as a measure of self-worth. Since unschooling encourages self-reliance and independence, being able to support myself -- or, now, to contribute to the financial security of my newly-formed family -- is a part of how I measure my success. However, it is one small part of my self-evaluation, all of which comes down to challenging myself to live in accordance with my values. Which would take a lot more than this questionnaire to explicate in depth! But in short, they can be summed up with the belief that all that 1) all life is of value, and 2) all that is required of humanity is "to do justice, love kindness and walk humbly." (The original quote comes from the Christian Old Testament, Micah 6:8, and reads "walk humbly with God," but I prefer leaving the question of whom or what one walks with up to the listener!)


What impact do you feel unschooling has had on your life?
The experience of growing up outside of the mainstream educational system colors virtually everything I do and the way I understand the world. I think it particularly shapes how I understand myself in relation to the mainstream culture and ways of thinking and being in the world. My family didn't opt out of the mainstream to the extent that some unschooling families do: we had a television, we lived in an urban environment, we had friends who were schooled and so forth. We weren't insulated from the mainstream and from the outside -- except for the fact that we didn't attend school -- our family didn't look that radical. But we were pretty damn radical anyway! So what I learned, growing up, was that individuals and families have choices. We can stand apart from some of the mainstream "common sense" beliefs about how people should grow and learn, what it means to be a functioning adult, what it means to be a family -- but we don't have to seek "purity" in pursuit of that. We can pick and choose, appropriate, make our own meanings of things, piecing together a life out of what we find to be beautiful and useful. It's sort of a steampunk ethos, I guess.

If you could go back in time, is there anything about your learning/educational journey that you'd change?
I really wish I had been able to find practical alternatives to graduate school that gave me the same opportunities in the library/scholarly fields I'm interested in. Unfortunately library and archives training in the US takes place in the context of higher education, and most living-wage positions with opportunities for professional growth require an MLS.

If you were to have children, would you choose to unschool them?
I just recently read a blog post by Molly @ first the egg called parenting as holding the space in which she talks about how she and her husband don't practice according to any particular parenting philosophy but that she's come to realize that the way they parent is akin to the way in which doulas are trained to "hold the space" for women in labor. She writes, "the basic idea is that a calm, focused, loving person can protect a space in which the laboring/birthing person can do what she needs to do." I think this is a really nice one-line description of what parents can and should provide their children -- regardless of whether the decide they want (or are practically able) to unschool their children.

My partner and I are pretty sure we are not going to be parents, for a complex constellation of reasons. I won't speak for her in this instance, but in my case I don't want to have children unless I am able to unschool them -- in spirit if not by actually keeping them out of institutional education altogether. I don't want to take on a responsibility that I don't have the resources -- emotional, logistical, financial -- to really follow through on according to my values. And my values would demand giving that small person in my care as much calm, focused loving as I could -- and trying to surround them with adults and other young people who could support me, my partner, and our child(ren) in that endeavor. And right now we aren't in a place to do that.


What advice would you give to teens looking to leave high school? What advice would you give to someone looking to skip, or to drop out of, college or university?
Since I didn't ever leave high school and eventually ended up completing university and going on to do post-graduate work, I'm not sure how much I can speak to this. However, I would say this: in my experience, it pays to reject either/or thinking and be creative about how you use your available resources.

What advice would you give to unschooling parents (or parents looking into unschooling)?
In addition to what I wrote above about "holding the space," I think it's important -- with all childcare, but particularly with unschooling -- to emphasize that the choices you make about family life effect outcomes. That may sound elementary, but I've seen a lot of nominally "unschooling" or homeschooling families where the parents really, really want their kids to look and act like, and hold the same values, as their conventionally-schooled peers. Or even worse, they expect them to be conventional-PLUS: they think that unschooling their kids are going to make them even more successful than their peers by all the mainstream cultural standards.

It's not an impossible goal ... and it's not that I think having goals and accomplishing them is a bad thing. But the "conventional-plus" approach to unschooling is, to my mind, a really impoverished approach ... because it leaves behind the really radical aspect of unschooling, which is to question the foundational values of American culture concerning human nature, what it means to be a successful human being, what you need to thrive in the world, and how human relationships facilitate that process. If I had to offer advice in a nutshell to unschooling parents, it would be: Expect different outcomes -- and try not to be afraid of them. Be clear about what your own values for "the good life" are and share them with your children, and then let your kids develop their own values from that foundation.

Also, don't encourage your kids to see mainstream culture or conventional schooling as evil. There are good people who teach in schools, there are good people who send their children there, and there are children who thrive despite the many problems of institutional schooling. I've seen too many unschooling families turn their personal and familial choices into an "us vs. them" negativity that doesn't encourage building alliances, accessing resources, and remembering to seek out support and learning in even the most unexpected places. Encourage your kids to remain open-minded about the mainstream, even as you challenge them to engage with it critically.

Is there anything else you'd like to talk about or add?
I think I've already said way more than is reasonable in terms of a blog post, so I'll leave it there. Thanks so much for the opportunity to share my thoughts on being a grown unschooler and I look forward to reading what others have to say in response to these questions!


  1. Thanks for the link & kind words!

    I loved reading this post. I've been thinking a lot about unschooling lately, and trying to explain the concept to a lot of people who'd never heard the word before.

    My parents didn't have access to the resources (of many kinds, mostly time and information) that would have made homeschooling/unschooling possible. But in retrospect, things would have been much easier and better for me if I'd been in charge of my own learning experience from about the fifth grade through at least the beginning of college--a sort of window of unschooling and free inquiry. My school experiences during that era were all about a pitched battle between A) my own inherent intellectual curiosity, love, and kindness and B) the school system's apparent efforts to stifle intellectual curiosity, enforce uniformity and boredom, and allow all sorts of emotional and physical abuse (bullying) amongst children. I used to cry in the car on the way to school every morning. It suuucked; I just wanted to learn and read and think, and be with people I trusted.

    I write this as my own child plays and learns at an out-of-home preschool, as he does two and a half hours each school day. I went with him yesterday and stayed all morning. It was awesome to see him in this little world away from us: he was happy, his teachers were kind and thoughtful, and he has no access to other children without school (because we keep moving and have no local friends/community yet). But I also noticed that what he's mostly learning is how to be a student in a school. And I'm so suspicious of institutions.

    Oh well. Long comment again. The point: thanks for the post.

  2. Fascinating. I like the ideas how one can approach this either as counter-conventional, or as 'conventional-plus': I definitely get that contrast.

    Most of the people I knew growing up who weren't in public school were the former, but you certainly find that sense of 'this is how we get a leg up on success in mainstream society.'

  3. "which is something I have problems with, even if (especially if??) I'm one of those who gets rewarded"

    I like that. I wasn't unschooled, but now that I am in my third year of university (my sixteenth year of traditional schooling), I have such a deep cynicism about it, and I think it's mostly because I've done so well. Generally speaking, I've gotten very good grades at school. And it frustrated me. It frustrated me because my classmates would try a lot harder and get a lot lower grade. It frustrated me because it taught me learned laziness, that I would succeed no matter what I did by my own inherent skill set. It frustrated me because it wasn't challenging. But mostly it frustrated me because it consistently rewarded only one type of learning. I could write an essay, and therefore I was successful at pretty much any class. That's a ridiculous way to evaluate learning. In university, it's more challenge, but not any less irritating. The way courses are set up (final exams, essays worth 40% of your grade) seem to be a terrible way to encourage learning. It destroys any interest I had in the material. Sigh. But I'll keep plodding on.

  4. I'd never encountered unschooling (or an unschooler) before. That's something they really don't mention in your education classes. Well, ok I HAD heard of unschooling..but only in passing. At the time it didn't really make sense to me...after all...how would the person get their diploma?

    I'm starting to see how it works...I just think it isn't for everyone. But then, maybe I'm biased because I plan on teaching, haha.

  5. Thanks everyone for your thoughtful comments! Not sure if I have anything specific to add in response (my brain seems to have wound down this week as classes are coming to an end). But your reflections are all appreciated.

    @Sp33dee My mother started out an education major in college back in the day (1970s) and ended up switching to English in part because so much of the program was practical training rather than theory and/or more broad philosophical discussions about what, exactly, schools are FOR in our culture.

    I think a lot of schools of education, sadly, continue to be schools of school ... which take for granted the primacy of the formal schooling option. Which is, as you say, the right choice for some people. But I think it's a loss to our culture as a whole when teachers-in-training only hear about home-based education in passing, or as something to be marginalized (or as something to be considered a threat). So many home educated people I've known end up using schools at some point in their lives -- we shouldn't be seeing one another as threats.