Deschooling Our Lives, edited by Matt Hern

Deschooling Our Lives

I’ve done quite a lot of research into alternative education, from online reading to in-person visits and internships at a number of schools, and I’m struck by how much I’m in tune with a lot of what I’ve learned about these schools. Some of it I already knew I believed, and some of it I maybe never thought through or articulated but still recognize as fitting my worldview when I see it. Either way, radical alternatives to the conventional classroom experience really strike a chord with me.

However, Deschooling Our Lives, a book of essays from varied authors, was more of a mixed experience, which surprised me. I still found parts of it convincing and inspiring, but I sensed a certain defensiveness in me in response to other parts of it.

I think it’s just that I have a strong contrarian streak, and I strongly value critical thinking, so when writing is polemical, overconfident, simplifies the positions it criticizes, etc., I notice that and react against it. And a fair number of the pieces in here have that feel of preaching to the converted, or cheerleading, or just one-sidedly presenting their preferred position in a way that trashes the other side maybe a little more than it deserves. I had my share of “OK, wait a minute…” moments, even though I agree with the thrust of the book.

I’m not sure why other articles and websites and such I’ve read generally haven’t raised an eyebrow with me in the same way, since believers in alternative education do tend to argue passionately for their positions and to not show a lot of ambivalence.

Even in deciding what to comment on about the book, I find myself thinking more about the minority of things I found unconvincing rather than the majority of things I agree with. I guess by now I’m so used to the stuff that I like that I don’t notice it as much.

But the general idea that conventional schooling is a poor way to treat children just seems rightheaded to me. The various alternatives discussed in a book like this are all ways to instead treat children like people, to respect their autonomy, to facilitate their growing in their own way rather than deciding in advance what you want them to believe and do and using means-end strategizing to get them there.

I absolutely wish I would have been treated that way as a child. I crave to be in an environment where children are treated that way. I want to learn how to most productively act on my already existing impulses to treat children that way.

I should clarify that the things that give me pause in this book aren’t a reflection of my preferring a compromise. It’s not that conventional schooling is saying “Things should be white,” and these radical alternatives are saying “Things should be black,” and my reaction is that they should instead be gray, or maybe a dark gray closer to the black end of the spectrum. No, I would say my reaction is more “I agree with you that things should be black. I just don’t think the case for black is as strong as you claim, nor the case for white as weak as you claim. But you still win.”

But let’s be specific. What are some of the things that advocates of alternatives to conventional schooling sometimes say in essays like these that makes me think, “OK, can we cool it a little on the propaganda?”?

A minor one is when they talk about how the system of mass education was intentionally designed to keep people stupid and docile so they’d be better employees for big business.

Not that there’s zero truth to that. Not that it’s impossible to find some damning quote from a moustache-twirling bigwig from the past saying something consistent with that. But massive, complex institutions and social customs and such are created and developed not according to some simplistic diabolical plan, but from the individual and collective decisions and behavior of countless people over decades and centuries.

To say that there have been certain deleterious consequences to conventional mass schooling, and to say that some influential parties along the way have intended these consequences to some degree because they work to the advantage of the powerful, I can buy. But when the rhetoric gets too heavily into “The Man doesn’t want to let us out of the public schools because He’s trying to keep us down!” it starts to lose me.

Related to that is the attacking of motives of the other side. Thankfully at least once in this book an author notes that people involved in conventional schooling aren’t actively trying to harm children, but that comment is the exception. Most of these advocacy pieces imply that the folks on the other side are the enemy, trying to stamp out alternative education from nefarious motives.

I don’t believe that. I think the majority of conventional parents, conventional teachers, conventional principals, conventional government bureaucrats who work in departments that deal with education, conventional teachers union officials, etc. are pro-children, are genuinely trying to treat children well and equip them to have better futures, and for that matter are not completely failing at doing those things.

Partly it comes down to a question of who can best be trusted to do what’s right for children. The essayists in a book like this tend to be unabashedly libertarian if not anarchist about this. Government is presented as a malevolent Big Brotherish force looking over everyone’s shoulder and trying to squash any attempt to be different and not put your kids through the same dreary, rigid system of schooling all other kids are subjected to.

Even though the anti-government, anti-mainstream, anti-powers-that-be rhetoric is offered as a way to defend maximal freedom for children, in practice what it would do is provide maximal freedom for parents, which is much different.

I see a lot of different parties negatively influencing children. In some situations, it’s one more than another. In some situations, one is actually providing a positive counterweight to the harm. It’s very much a mixed bag.

I don’t think when you eliminate virtually all rules that the government might impose concerning the raising and education of children—that they’re required to attend school, that they’re required to pass certain tests, that they can only attend non-government schools if those schools abide by certain rules, that they can only be schooled at home if it can be shown that that schooling results in their having at least a certain minimum level of knowledge and competence in certain areas, etc.—you necessarily end up with a society where children are respected and loved and free to develop in their own way according to the most liberal, radical ideals.

What you end up with is a society where there’s even less check than now on the enormous power that parents have over children’s lives. Seeing as how I believe that government, parents, and various other people and institutions are both good and bad for children in various complex, ever-changing, situational ways, I don’t see it as an unmixed blessing for one of those to step down, and another to have its influence maximized.

I understand why these folks want the government to get out of the way so they can raise children in unorthodox but—in their opinion, and mine—better, healthier, more humane ways. But in the back of my mind, what I’m thinking as I read this is that for every child that that enables to have a terrific childhood in a Sudbury school or being unschooled by loving hippies, there will be ten or a hundred or a thousand children who will lose their last best hope of ever being exposed to any ideas deemed incompatible with what their parents have been told the Bible requires.

The elephant in the room that no one in this book as much as mentions is precisely that “strange bedfellows” problem, that the overwhelming majority of kids who will be unschooled, home schooled, and sent to small unaccredited non-mainstream schools if rules discouraging these options are loosened or eliminated, will not be leading happy, autonomous lives with enlightened parents, but will be even more thoroughly dominated in every facet of their being than they already are by the creepiest of religious fundamentalists.

Such educational deregulation still may be justified, but if it is it’ll have to be in a “lesser of the evils” way.

By analogy, free speech isn’t good because left to their own devices people tend to speak the truth and argue cogently and all that. In fact they tend to lie and say stupid things, and other people believe them and make their own lives and the world worse by doing so. Free speech is good because the alternative of giving other people the power and authority to limit that speech is even worse.

Democracy isn’t good because people tend to weigh their choices carefully and intelligently and choose the most able candidates who will provide just and enlightened governance. In fact they mostly make uninformed votes based on narrow self-interest and racial and other biases, or don’t vote at all. Democracy is good because the alternative of giving other people the power and authority to choose the government is even worse.

So that kind of argument I could understand. If you say that most parents will abuse the additional freedom to educate their kids as they see fit, but that in the long run it’s still better to let parents have that freedom because the alternative of the present system of mainstream schools and of leaving so much up to the government is even worse, I’m somewhat sympathetic to that.

In conclusion, when Deschooling Our Lives focuses on some of the things these home schoolers, unschoolers, and alternative schoolers are doing to step outside the box and radically change the way we think of childhood and the potential of children to make their own choices, I feel myself getting excited and wanting to be a part of that. And even some of the time it trashes conventional schooling I’m on board with that, since Lord knows I’ve had plenty to say against the educational norm. But I’m ambivalent when it trashes the mainstream for not allowing maximal freedom for non-mainstream parents, especially in that it’s not acknowledging the downside of that position.

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