I wrote recently about some of my objections to the mainstream, compulsory school system. Having such objections while parenting a six year-old child raises the question of what to do about them. This and at least one future post will reflect on this question.
There are a few different options. Given the nature of my objections, schools that are labelled "alternative" might or might not be able to do much to address them. I have certainly read about some that would go a long way to dealing with at least some of my concerns, but many other alternative schools are not really that different from mainstream schools in important respects.
However, I am considering these questions not in some sort of abstract, ideal space, but in a very real location. Sudbury is a small city that still manages to be the largest city for hundreds of kilometers in every direction, and it has, as far as I am aware, no publically funded alternative schools at the elementary level. It has one private alternative school, a Montessori school. In my understanding, the Montessori approach can be a modest improvement on mainstream schooling, and L attended and benefited from a Montessori pre-school completely unaffiliated with this elementary school. However, there are still elements of the pedagogy that are not ideal, and I have no reason to believe that the aspects of explicit and hidden curriculum that concern me would be much different than in a mainstream school. Moreover, high tuition fees tie institutions of this sort into oppressive and exploitative social relations in additional ways by excluding people and by shaping the character of the school, and privileged people opting out of the mainstream school system in ways that depend on their privilege only compounds the problems with the mainstream system. And it is relevant both to curriculum concerns and to the impact of high fees that I have heard from at least two different people in the community that the Montessori school that exists in Sudbury does not do a whole lot to incorporate concerns about social justice into its practices -- if I'm wrong, I'd love to hear about it, but that's what I've heard. Moreover, despite the fact that we are lucky enough to lead quite economically comfortable and secure lives, it would still be very difficult for us to afford.
That leaves homeschooling. I see this as the best option, in the abstract -- or, more specifically, I see the particular variant of homeschooling known as unschooling to be the best. I think it could be worlds better that mainstream schools in terms of pedagogy, and somewhat better though still far from perfect in terms of the ways in which mainstream schools help to reproduce oppressive and exploitative social relations.
And yet, L attends a mainstream school.
I should start out by saying that I feel very conflicted about this. How acutely bad I feel about it varies, and (perhaps shamefully) I feel less torn now than at certain earlier moments. Nonetheless, I still feel frequently sad and occasionally agonized about the fact that I send this little person who is so important to me into an environment about which I have such deep misgivings. So if you read the following as selfish excuses, and feel a response that amounts to moralistic "shoulding," then I -- well, I don't actually want to hear from you, but it's not like I don't react that way myself much of the time.
The reasons why we don't unschool also have to do with the fact that these decisions are being made not in a thought experiment, not in a laboratory, but in the context of real lives. If we were to homeschool in some fashion, it would be me that would have to do the bulk of the work to accommodate that into our lives -- my partner makes far more money than I ever will, at a good, secure job that she likes a great deal. So it would be up to me. Some of it, I could do. I think I would even be good at it. I think the roles of facilitator, catalyst, and model of self-motivated learning would be ones I could fill quite effectively. After all, a good part of my work life for quite a number of years has, to varying degrees, borne a striking resemblance to unschooling, and it would not be unreasonable to describe the last, oh, seven years or so as my own take on graduate unschool.
However, even enthusiastic advocates of unschooling point out that the decision to do it is going to have a major impact on your life and reshape a great deal of your time. And I know, however shameful it might be to admit, that I would come to resent it. I would resent that it would leave me less able to write and read and research and create in other ways and do all of that kind of work which is so important to how I understand myself. Yes, I recognize that this attachment to work and its incorporation into my sense of self is an internalization of various norms associated with capitalism, with the areligious cultural Presbyterianism with which I was raised, and with dominant forms of masculinity (albeit a slightly peculiar variant because it is fixated on work but not money)1. Yes, a case could be made that I should tackle that attachment head-on and overcome it. I might be able to do that if I put enough effort into it. But I know it would make me pretty miserable for a pretty long time, and I don't think that would be good for me or for L.
The other way in which I would have trouble doing a good job as go-to unschooling parent is the social aspect. One common objection that non-homeschoolers have to the practice is that it deprives kids of the social environment that comes with school. Even leaving aside the fact that there are plenty of people who had miserable social experiences in school and who would happily have done without it, this is kind of a bizarre objection. Sure, it's different, but an unschooler without any institutional compulsion to engage in externally dictated and largely non-social activities for significant chunks of every weekday and many evenings, and with an injunction to pursue what they enjoy and learn organically through living, would have plenty of potential space for building meaningful, enjoyable, social connections. The tricky part for me is that especially in the early years, much of that would have to be parentally facilitated. And I'm just not very good at that kind of thing. I'm better than I used to be, and I am constantly working on it, but that doesn't change the fact that I am shy and very socially reserved. Even trying, even improving rapidly, there would be a prolonged period in which I would do a poor job of filling this role for L, which I also don't think would be good for him.
So those are basically the reasons. They may not be good ones, but they are what they are. I suppose there are a sprinkling of other things, too. For instance, there are certain strains of anti-authoritarian politics that place a huge emphasis on responding to oppressive institutions and relations primarily by rejecting them and absenting one's self from them to the greatest extent possible. I'm not going to get into the details, and I do still think there is value to that kind of personal refusal to participate, but I also think that it is easy to overemphasize that kind of response and thereby contribute to anarchist purity politics that erase the many ways that many different people resist and at least implicitly endorse a True Way.
So that's it for this post. The third post in this informal series is going to deal with the question of what to do now, given my objections to schools and my decision (however flawed it might be) that I would just not be able to do unschooling.
1 -- I also recognize that there is a much more positive side to it as well, which is that it represents a potentially much healthier impulse on my part to create.