From the vault: Why haven’t we heard of “life learning” before?

Posted by on Jun 3, 2010 in writings | 4 comments

A reader writes me an email, May 2010:
I subscribed to PhD in Parenting a few days ago so read your great comment.[1. This one: "Lots of theories on what WILL happen..."] The more I read, the more convinced I get that homeschooling is not this terrible thing – and when I say that I mean all homeschooling, not just homeschooling done by “forward-thinking” people like you who “do it right”.

What I do wonder though, specifically WRT unschooling, is either what has changed or is the way the collective We think of the history of education off? We tend to think of public education bringing literacy and more knowledge to everyone, giving them a little more power. Is that off? Or is that true, and something like unschooling works because the cycle of illiteracy has been broken, so the coupling of adequate access to information (books, internet, etc.) with parents’ ability to pass literacy on to children is enough to teach kids any of the fact-based things they need to learn?

From my place in this (and yours is clearly different), it seems like most people can accept that it is possible to “adequately” homeschool children to a certain age – 4th grade for some, or 6th, or whatever – because adults still have that information in their heads, so they can pass it on. But then there is also this belief that once you have exhausted your knowledge as a parent (which I’m much more inclined to believe happens long before a child is “supposed” to be in school), you have to send them to the professionals, because you won’t be able to keep up. With this model, it makes perfect sense that somewhere along the line, all of that knowledge had to be injected so it could be passed down. It seems to rely on a parent or a grandparent having had a more formal education and passing it along down the generations.

Unschooling does not rely on these assumptions, so I’m wondering why didn’t life learning work before public education but it does now? Or did it work, and if so, why is our societal story about education so off?

(Ed note – Keep in mind my response is an email from one white college-educated middle class female to another and relies on some of our shared experiences.)

Thanks so much for your email. The PhD in Parenting post makes me feel a little bit of the Crazy. It aims in tone to sound “fair and balanced” but in reality it’s just full of half-arsed theories re: home education by someone who hasn’t bothered to delve deep. I’m glad several people commented and called many of these out. I don’t think the author is going to change their tone or worldview, which is one of, “Oh, just a few concerns I want to point out” – even tho’ she herself admitted she hasn’t looked into home education at all. Hey, if you don’t know anything about something, you wanna keep talking prescriptively?

In addition the author seems terrified of uber-religious types (a fear I see often). In my view the way we treat or think about religious sects or groups is not to just wish they WOULDN’T EXIST and then slap an earnest (and false) belief on the whole business: that somehow throwing their kids in the melting pot of Society will ameliorate the concerns of religious fanaticism and exclusionary lifestyle (yeah… it doesn’t).

If nothing else I’m glad in any way that my comment spurs on good conversation for people who are willing to look past mainstream thought and bias. Whether or not these readers homeschool, the deconstruction of school’s “rightness” is good for all parents and children who – and this is important – are in the position to take up more of the reins re: their child’s education.

OK, so you had a few questions.

I am not an expert on history of education in this country (although I’m studying up)[2. In fact when I think about it I know in a short time my very writings on the subject will seem trifling and underdeveloped, but I am working to learn.] but of course life learning “worked” before the public school (PS) model. The education system as we know it in America is actually quite new – mass schooling came to the fore at the turn of the century. It’s also not as nice and egalitarian and awesome as the “story” we’ve been told. I am planning on reading John Taylor Gatto’s books on the subject because I, like you, enjoyed school and think of school as a “good” thing and for most of my life did not question the latter mindset. In fact not that many years ago school was this kind of holy thing to me and even if I could allow bits and pieces of it weren’t “perfect” I still believed in it’s general goals (now I’m far less enthusiastic, but committed to improvement and justice for all kids, including the 98% in school).

Also, life learning is happening and has ALWAYS happened! What is happening now with you and your new job and passion as cheesemaker and your work learning to cook new cuisines, with me and my sewing and writing, with Nels writing music and building and literally gardening better than most adults I know, with Phoenix’s dragon-drawing and building expertise and writing and swim team? In fact most people recognize life learning as being the best kind of learning (the most fun, the most retained, the most efficient) but we somehow think we all need to go through years and years of this “other” kind of education first to earn the right to pursue what we want to do. To bad that “other” kind of education often alienates us from what we want and how to pursue it; it often eunuchs us and keeps us second-guessing what we want and what our abilities are (we trust others to tell us this).

And that leads me to the concept of “experts”. Because your questions about how one needs to go to “real” school to learn from the “experts” is awesome! I am currently writing an article for Life Learning Magazine that touches on the “expertise” in school; and yesterday I read one of Wendy Priesntiz’ wonderful articles on the subject:

“Knowledge and the Cult of Experts”

This little essay on Unschooling is probably a bit 101 for you, but toward the end it deconstructs some of the “expert” and “teacher” stuff with some nice, brief analogies:

“Unschooling or Homeschooling?” by Billy Greer

Of course as a result of school I know calculus and chemistry and… but wait, do I? If I had to perform some of these problems in a test I think I would do poorly. If I studied up a bit first I would regain my rusty skills. So that begs a few questions. Um, why did I have to learn this stuff? Oh, for college which led to my job (or as we liked to call it, my “career”). Well, the job was worth it back when I had it. Second question: did I have to go through all the rigamarole of the many formal classes I was required to take to get the requisite chemistry and calculus needed for engineering work? Oh hell no. Had I wanted the job I wanted I could have selected and with focus built my own education, got there my own way (half the foremen in my workplace – the job I attained before quitting – worked up through blue collar routes). This “build my own career” route is hard to even imagine now as when I was in high school and college I was still very much a product of the passive learning model in school. I not only willingly jumped through hoops, I was glad they were there because the concepts of thinking for myself, of “proving myself” and striking out on my own, truly, was quite terrifying to me.

American college students change their major an average of 5 times; much higher for kids straight out of HS than returning “adults”. I can’t help but think part of the reason this is due to the near total passivity that school encourages while simultaneously imposing socio-economic hierarchies in a zero-sum game. You’re supposed to be smart and an independent thinker but not TOO smart or TOO independent. You’re supposed to take responsibility for yourself but of course, if you were allowed that responsiblity (and you had the support of parents and adults) one might be inclined to leave and pursue a better education, which is rather frowned upon. There’s “not enough for everybody” so you’d better play your cards right to end up on top of the pile.

I was a good student in school. I liked to perform well and it became easy enough for me most of the time. However school teaches kids such lessons in external validation, cosmetic success, regurgitating (as opposed to true knowledge) it did not help me develop as fully as so many would like to believe about school. Children impress me, despite these obstacles. They have no “right” not to go, so I think they make the best of it they can.

I am looking forward to reading a couple of John Taylor Gotto’s books. This little bit on his site walks through the original three purposes of school vs. the fourth purpose: “American Education History Tour”. It’s a bit funny and may sound paranoid to those used to mainstream views but… well… I can’t say I disagree with the fellow (and I look forward to reading more of his work). A particular sentence struck home with me:

“What better way to habituate kids to abandoning trust in their peers (and themselves) than to create an atmosphere of constant low-level stress and danger, relief from which is only available by appeal to authority?”

I did well in school as I’ve said. Even though I felt I enjoyed school I know exactly what he means about low-level stress. Schools are also more dangerous than they used to be (not because kids are bad kids either; this is subject for a whole other conversation). And “authority”? What bullocks. Of course we know Authority is out there and we run across it every day. Playing the game, bowing to authority (no matter how unjust), learning to bully as corporate and personal policy? These are enforced in school, whatever other positive experiences we may have there.

I could talk (rant?) for much longer. Finally I want to say something more personal.

If I didn’t have my two “data points” of Phoenix and Nels I think I would be a lot more fearful of h/sing and a lot more trusting of public and private schooling. If I didn’t see how much better off they were socially, physically, academically, morally, emotionally out of school, I’d be tempted to think of school as workable, and I’d be assisting them in prevailing. After all, my kids were clearly on the “teacher’s pet” track (at least in these early years) just as I was. What a lot of nice pats on the head for me.

But school is only an “it needs work but it’s basically okay and everyone should do it” situation if you believe it’s normal and required. Once I had cause to believe it’s a choice like anything else and knew my rights to abstain, school became less of a no-brainer. I am a passionate believer in encouraging improvements for all children (this is why I write about kids so much). But of course, I also can exercise my right not to public school and once I realized school had more harm than good to offer my kids, it was an easier choice. I still have doubts and I enjoy exploring and talking about them.

I am late in getting us out the door for swimming. I’d like to continue the conversation. Many people are close-minded to H/Sing and U/Sing. I hope my radicalism doesn’t scare open minds off.

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4 Comments

  1. I think a big part of the problem that people (including the person who posed this question) have with the idea of life learning involves who’s in charge of education. Of course, parents create the environment in which their children live and learn. But they don’t need to actively “pass on” or “inject” their knowledge of different academic subjects any more than they taught walking and talking. In an agrarian society, children learned what they needed to know as they participated in the daily lives of their families. Now, in the so-called information age, the same thing can happen…except that our kids are often far ahead of us in terms of the technology involved.

    Gatto and others make the same point I made in my book Challenging Assumptions in Education: Schools spout the rhetoric of independent and creative thinking, etc., but couldn’t function if kids really, truly learned those things in their classrooms. And, in fact, our coercive, sausage-factory style education system appears designed to prepare people to be content functioning in a sausage factory, rather than to improve the quality of life, protect the environment, etc.

    School used to be “normal” for a few hundred years, but it’s becoming increasing abnormal, outmoded and old-fashioned. I think that’s why so many people on the outside of the homeschooling/life learning world are taking notice – often negatively. (Radical change can be alarming for many people…not to mention institutions.) It’s also why so many forward-thinking but non-academic (and often business-oriented) writers like Daniel Pink, Sir Ken Robinson, Seth Godin, and their ilk are currently promoting a future for education that looks a lot like life learning!

  2. Wendy, thank you for your feedback. I’d also add that since many grownups look down on children and quite frankly don’t trust them or have very high opinions of their capabilities (whatever their lip service may sound like) these ideas are just plain scary to some – hence the knee-jerk responses of negativity etc.

    Schools spout the rhetoric of independent and creative thinking, etc., but couldn’t function if kids really, truly learned those things in their classrooms.

    I had to read this a couple times and then it sank in. Pondering this, for the first times ever I felt sad for my little old self in school. Because you’re right.

  3. You present some interesting ideas here. I have to say that the ‘norma’l school model probably doesn’t fit most children, though there some for whom it may work very well. I think it worked for me because I have a really good memory, so I remember a lot of things that I learned in both high school and college. They are mostly things I am interested in already, though. Chemistry? Puh-leez – I barely made a C in that class.

    I think the reason that so many people are afraid of leaving the traditional school model is they assume that because life has become increasingly more high-tech in the past 50 years we need field experts to teach kids those skills that we don’t have, because (in their minds) life learning doesn’t involve those skills. And yet it can and does. Just because life learning used to involve skills like farming and home making doesn’t mean that that’s all that 21st century life learning could offer. Because so many parents have come from the traditional model, they have a difficult time seeing the different ways in which their children can learn at home the same skills they would acquire in a classroom.

    That said, I’m wondering how you perceive Montessori and Waldorf schools. Do you think that they fall into the category of traditional schooling, or do they get a place of their own? I personally don’t know a lot about Waldorf schooling, though I’ve been doing some research on it, and I’ve yet to draw my own conclusions.

  4. Jen, good questions and points. I especially liked your observations (that seemed almost an expansion on some of Wendy’s verbiage):

    Just because life learning used to involve skills like farming and home making doesn’t mean that that’s all that 21st century life learning could offer.
    This is very true! Seeing my kids’ technical skills (which they’ve learned outside a school setting) it is amazing how quickly they adopt them and become quite proficient. As in, sometimes I ask them for help with technical stuff, ha.

    Re: Waldorf and Montessori. As long as a school is compulsory (meaning kids have to attend) I pretty much lump any of them in the “school” category. Some schools are better models than others, obviously. We attended a playschool model for seven years – beginning when Phoenix was 9 months old (Nels, coming along with us, started at 2 weeks). Knowing what I know now, I have some criticisms about the playschool model and I’m not sure I’d do the same thing over again. I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t. But at the time it seemed fun and the kids seemed to enjoy it.

    Sort of like school for myself. I did very well in school (earning a scholarship that put me through University where I acquired an engineering degree). Because I did well and had friends and wasn’t a target of bullying yadda yadda I thought school was pretty OK. Now I feel differently about it.

    Many school critics have many valid reasons. For me, my biggest reasons I’m not into school are rather basic: it is like so many ways we treat children at least in this country, a system based on fear of children’s natures, mistrust of their capabilities, and a sort of bigotry that lumps kids (and therefore being forced to deal with them or shepherd them around) as “less than”. I don’t expect those who (like me) did well and “enjoyed” school to understand me fully when I say this. I also know it’s a lot easier for me to have a fully trusting life learning model of life with my kids when I live it daily and see it working.