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Can Unschooling Save Our Planet?
How we treat the earth is a reflection of how we treat each other.

Can unschooling save our planet?

I think it can.

The main tenets of ‘unschooling’ as I understand them are: consent; respect; liberty; support; love; connection; community. Unschooling is Self-Directed Education which is interest-driven and immersed in real life pursuits. It encourages self-motivation and personal responsibility, through a non-coercive approach, and places human relationships and consent in all aspects of daily life centre stage.

In stark contrast, it is unquestioned in our culture, built as it is on the political-social system of patriarchy, that we must use control to ensure our children grow up to be social and useful members of society. According to Teresa Graham, the author of Parenting for Social Change, it is ingrained in all of us that ‘those who are more powerful have the right to control those who are less powerful, and it starts in the parent-child relationship’.1

Reflecting these social norms, our education system has long been about ‘shaping’ children to be productive in a global economy.2 In all its many reforms since compulsory education became widely spread in the late nineteenth century, the current education system has not stopped to consider what the child might need or want, or whether the education model actively supports humanity and life on earth. Although the ‘political imperative’ is that growth must continue, the physical evidence — climate change, soil erosion, the loss of habitats and species and the tonnes of plastic polluting our oceans3 — all suggest that our educational model, hinged as it is on our political system, is fast becoming unsustainable.

As long as profit, industry and a corporate lifestyle are held as pillars of a successful society, then mass purging of our natural resources will continue. If life on Earth is to survive, the global political and economic structures, which includes our current schooling system, need to be dismantled.

In the UK we live in a democratic society, yet our schools do not reflect this. Many schools now teach so-called British Values, supposedly centred on individual liberty and democracy; but our state schools and most independent schools are not democratic institutions. Real democracy in schools would allow equal and active participation in all areas of (school) life; it would allow pupils’ votes on all school issues to count, really count, not simply by paying lip-service via superficial school councils.

Liberty, if it were truly granted to all school-going children, would concern the absence of arbitrary restraints and consider the rights of all involved. Yet most children do not have a choice about whether they attend school; it’s just a largely unquestioned given. Then after they have walked through the school gates, they continue to have their basic rights and freedoms taken away. Education happens by force, through behaviour modification such as reward charts, threats, collective punishment, detentions and ritual humiliations. Some schools may appear to be gentler and more child-centred, where learning is more engaging, holistic and fun. Dig deeper though and you will discover that pretty much every school, except for a handful of those focused on Self-Directed Education, are built on the underlying principle of coercion.

photo by play:groundNYC

The ‘child-centred’ or ‘progressive’ schools (and there are a variety of philosophies out there) that I’ve seen or examined, tend to be built on a particular view of child development and what each child should know. The Montessori method, founded by Maria Montessori in 1907, for example, involves a variety of manipulatives designed to ‘teach’ the child a particular set of skills. It may appear that the child has freedom to play, but in fact, the ‘toys’ (such as enticing, pearl-sized golden beads designed to represent the decimal system) have an inbuilt agenda.

Another popular philosophy is that of Waldorf Steiner, originated by Rudolf Steiner in Germany in 1919. In Steiner schools, the kindergarten years are centred on guided free-play which focuses on their developmental needs in accordance with the Waldorf Steiner philosophy. From grade 1 onwards, children are taught a curriculum, and though it is well-rounded, giving as much kudos to artistic or spiritual development as academic achievements, it is still a top down approach to education with an underlying adult-centric agenda.

Progressive education, whilst it could be viewed as a more gentle and holistic approach to learning, still considers it a teacher’s responsibility to ensure children acquire certain knowledge, skills and values. In contrast, Self-Directed Education gives the ownership of learning entirely to the student.

In the short history of compulsory education, we have grown to believe that children can only learn by force. We have long forgotten that children are, in fact, natural-born learners with an innate drive to learn; to walk, to talk and to discover the world they inhabit through play, observation and exploration. We do not simply believe children need to be forced to learn, we also believe we need to control what they learn. Somewhere along the line, we have soaked up the message that we must all pursue an academic version of success in order not to fail in life.

The plain fact is that the planet does not need more successful people. But it does desperately need more peacemakers, healers, restorers, storytellers, and lovers of every kind. It needs people who live well in their places. It needs people of moral courage willing to join the fight to make the world habitable and humane. And these qualities have little to do with success as our culture has defined it.4

The kind of education modelled in schools enabled us to industrialize our earth, but the time has come to now choose an intimacy with our earth, rather than a mastery over it. Generation by generation we are forgetting the skills of how to live sustainably on our planet. Our modern curriculum, sub-divided as it is into subjects, is divorced from an interconnected whole — each subject is abstracted and un-rooted in our earth, conversely, unschooling is life itself, there is no real distinction between life and learning.

Unschooled teenager, Cade Summers writes eloquently on this very topic in his article Why I Left School and Never Looked Back:

This was what I saw. That school stole the most necessary freedom of life from children, the freedom to solve even the most basic and most relevant of real problems: the freedom to exist in a world that is real. Then, after stealing away the capacity where students can be free to implement solutions for a present and relevant reality, schools asked them to solve the problems of obscure fantasy, all the while claiming to prepare them for the future.5

Of course, school-going children can be earth conscious, but education in a top-down, sit-at-a-desk format can only reach some children whilst discarding others. Though we will always need amazing teachers, mentors, and role models, we do not need a coercive system which tells us what to think, how to behave, and which steals our youthful years and natural drive to learn. We do not need a system which separates us from our families, our communities and real life outside the classroom door.

photo by play:groundNYC

But what does unschooling really have to do with saving our planet?

Surely, how we treat the earth is, to some extent, a reflection of how we treat each other. Alice Miller says that:

When children are trained, they learn how to train others in turn. Children who are lectured to, learn how to lecture; if they are admonished, they learn how to admonish; if scolded, they learn how to scold; if ridiculed, they learn how to ridicule; if humiliated, they learn how to humiliate; if their psyche is killed, they learn how to kill.6

Many of us have been told what to do and what to think all our lives. We have been suppressed and dominated, and in turn we suppress and dominate all other living creatures on earth. At this moment in history, Earth is literally down on its knees, begging for its life, as we stand, hands on hips supreme and all powerful.7

What we must do is move our educational principles from indifference to healing towards the earth, and to begin that process we must heal ourselves and our relationships with each other. We need to move our power away from a place of control and instead to a place of support.

Unschooling; the natural extension of respectful parenting; is the ark we need to float to save the earth. It’s not just about education and learning, it’s a way of life. The biggest misconception about unschooling is that it equals passive ‘unparenting.’ This could not be further from the truth since it actually demands a higher level of interaction and connection with children, but in a supportive rather than controlling role.

Although the responsibility and choices around learning are entirely in the hands of the child, the parent or guardian has a big role to play in ensuring that the environment allows the child’s natural instincts for learning to operate effectively. The parent needs to ensure a child has access to a variety of resources and people to model the variety of skills, knowledge and values of our culture. Whilst a child needs substantial amounts of time and freedom to develop interests, a parent also needs to be on hand to answer questions, interact, and facilitate.

photo by play:groundNYC

Unschooling is not freedom to do whatever you want either; instead it asks you to respect the personal boundaries of those around you, guides you to listen to your gut instinct and find inner order rather than being outwardly controlled by any random authority. Family principles and values take the place of arbitrary rules, and love and caring are central aims. It’s about spending time with the people you love most in the world and supporting them to be the best humans they can be by facing the challenges of modern society, together.

In educational terms, unschooling is about being guided to be your own master, thinking critically and learning because it interests you, not simply because of where it can get you in our consumer and convenience-based society. It values all kinds of learning, believing that every human has a worthy gift to offer the planet.

An unschooling model could be truly inclusive, in a way that our current schooling system never has been and never will be. According to Peter Gray, a research professor at Boston College and democratic education advocate, alternatives to coercive schooling have been proven to be a cheaper model, making it an entirely viable option for all children. For example, when talking of Sudbury Valley School, Gray says that it ‘operates at a per pupil cost that is about half that of the surrounding public schools’8

Technology, when used mindfully, instead of being nature’s foe, breathes life into this unschooled dream by making self-directed learning easy, and providing many parents with opportunities for remote and flexible working, making this life-style increasingly accessible. All kinds of learning opportunities are provided by technology and there are many free platforms that allow children to learn new skills or access information simply and easily from home.

Instead of reducing our library hours or closing their doors, let’s make them bigger and better by expanding them to provide community spaces for unschoolers to meet, and increasing the variety of resources available. Let’s provide facilities which support every child in Self-Directed Education. Let’s operate more community gardens and allotments and encourage more families to grow their own food. These are the places frequented by our retired population, which is our natural skill base with knowledge to share. Let’s find more opportunities for all the generations to come together and work on mutual projects, building compassion and nurturing a collective responsibility towards the earth, instead of shutting them away in their respective institutions.

photo by play:groundNYC

In an ideal world, we would have no use for schools. But the truth is that not every parent wishes or feels able to unschool their child full-time at home, and so we must recognise that some families believe coercive schooling to be their best or only conceivable option. All children deserve something more, and with restructuring of priorities in the UK, we could provide state-funded, democratic, Self-Directed Education alternatives which are integrated into our communities. This would mean that all children, no matter what their skin colour is, how well they score on a test, what religion they are, how much their families earn or what their postal code is, would have access to a learning environment in-line with the ethos of unschooling.

Though unschooling does not guarantee more outward-bound experiences, it can. It affords the time, freedom, and opportunity for families to spend more time outside, being a genuine and vibrant part of their surroundings and their communities. Why not break down the walls — the constraints that keep children artificially locked away indoors for the bulk of their daylight hours — and see what could happen? Have we forgotten that we are animals, we are nature? If we listen carefully, we can indeed hear our call to the wild, as E. O. Wilson says, humankind has ‘acquired an affinity for life, earth, forests, water, soil and place’.4

Unschooling is a gift which asks you to slow down, breathe more deeply, enjoy this moment and deconstruct all your previous thinking until you are stripped back down to the core of what it means to be human. It asks you to question not just education, but the very essence of life itself and by doing so challenges you to live in an intentional way. Unschooling treats you with respect, and in turn you are better equipped to show respect to all living things.

Instead we live in a society which is disgusted by babies feeding from mothers’ breasts in public places, whilst not batting an eye at gigantic billboards displaying women in their underwear; a society which believes children need controlling, belittling, and force-feeding information so that we can shape them to be what we want; a society which believes in separating children from their families as early as possible so that parents can pursue careers and support our economy, instead of supporting the development of our future generations.

photo by play:groundNYC

Many in society believe it is okay to drink away our youthful years in wild abandon and post-party in the haze of years of lost time and memories, instead of using our youthful bodies and minds to do genuine good in the world, we jump aboard the consumer train as we become just another cog in the wheel.

We consume single use plastics and discard them in overflowing bins, because it’s convenient. We don’t have the time, the patience, and the care to live our lives in any other way. We are in perpetual motion: always vying to edge out the competition and rushing through each conversation and interaction with our fellow humans. Unschooling, in contrast, allows us time to embrace our communities.

We live in a world which still believes it is acceptable to trap intelligent, sentient beings such as whales and dolphins, separating them from their families and stick them in concrete tanks to perform for our entertainment, or acceptable to take tigers from the wild and cage them in enclosures 18,000 times smaller than their natural habitat. Perhaps most of us do not stop to consider how wrong this is because we have never felt what it means to be completely free ourselves.

Perhaps if, from birth, we all understood true freedom of mind, body and soul, and we respected fellow human beings and were respected equally by them, we would understand that power does not have to equal control and we would never, ever think it was acceptable to deprive another creature of its freedom.

We would want to save them instead.

[1] Graham, Teresa. Parenting for Social Change. Social Change Press, 2011.
[2] Bowles, Samuel and Herbert Gintis. Schooling in Capitalist America: Educational Reform and the Contradictions of Economic Life. Basic Books, 1976.
[3] Monbiot, George. ‘Everything Must Go.’ Accessed 3 March 2018.
[4] Orr, David. W. Earth in Mind. Island Press, 2004.
[5] Summers, Cade. ‘And I Regret Nothing: Why I Left School and Never Looked Back’. The maven, 2017, Accessed 25 February 2018.
[6] Miller, Alice. For Your Own Good: Hidden Cruelty in Child-Rearing and the Roots of Violence. 3rd ed., Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2002.
[7] NASA. Accessed 3 March 2018.
[8] Gray, Peter. Accessed 25 February 2018.

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