My Cultural Confession.
My name is Andy, I am a young European mutt living in the east coast of the United States, and I am an Unschooler. My parents were raised Catholic and Lutheran, in suburbia during the cultural transformations of the sixties, seventies, and eighties. Unschooling was a result of my mother and her ferocious aversion to authority. She felt that the factory model of the modern school was destructive to the creative spark she saw, or may have imagined, in my two siblings and me.
Now what separates Unschooling from other alternative schooling methods is the lack of any structure of any kind imposed by anyone other than the parental figures. The unschooling community’s motto was “Live and Learn” and I remember times when I wasn’t even sure unschooling was legal in all fifty states. Picture yourself as a young child at the height of youthful exuberance, now remove any obligations of time to anything other than your imagination, and video games; that was little Andy.
What this did to me was create a less-than-useful sense of the world around me. If I was doing something I didn’t enjoy, it became priority number one to stop and change activities. I have always loved music and have played the bass guitar for 13 years now – since I was ten. Back then, I had been told I could do anything I wanted, and be anything I wanted so many times, with real proof of that fact, i.e. the ability to play video games for 12 hours straight without the slightest inkling that I might spend my time more productively, that in the back of my mind I knew it didn’t matter; because I was going to be a famous musician, so who needs math, science, PE, or any of that? Basically I developed a resistance to hard work, which I still feel I carry today to a certain extent.
On a brighter side, I became exactly what I have just described, a creative and artistic type that never understood rules, and strove to find fun in everything he did. I am still that young lad to this day to one degree or another, and if I wasn’t told so often that the point of life is to be happy, I may have spent a long time on a career path that would have lead me to misery. The whole reason I became interested in participating in Mixed Mental Arts was due to my love of learning things that I want to learn not what others want me to learn, or what I feel I should learn for a more standard life trajectory.
Now the Unschooling community at the time that I was involved with it was unique, but also strange and off–putting. My father remembered it as, “Largely a group of narcissistic mothers who couldn’t stand to see anyone tell their child he or she was not special.” I remember some things that speak to this very well. For instance, making fun of any other kid during the annual, or semi-annual national events that might be held in any number of US states, was really not tolerated. In fact, the environment tended to be the kind where everyone’s a winner and everyone gets a trophy. I remember a bumper sticker that my mom had on our bulletin board at home that read “Grades are for meat and eggs NOT CHILDREN!” I thought Maats might laugh at that. I also recall some of the kids being so bizarre in their characters and behaviors. I had to reach their level, like some kind of under privileged youth, whose basketball team was set to travel uptown and face the preppy white kids from the preppy white kid school for the state finals. If I did not do this, I specifically remember it being harder to interact with the other teens present at the gatherings. In growing up, I remember the need to be different, like claiming that you were a member of both sexes, or cool, to like the right music, wear the most rad clothes, and watch the right movies, or unique, like in my case where I pretended I was a frog from time to time. As my brother and I, and all of our friends grew older, these things seemed less and less important, but I imagine that is similar at public school grades 6-12
Some other curiosities of the Unschooling world include the “Cuddle Puddle” large groups of young people gathering together in their PJ’s and, placing their head on another’s stomach, create large crochet piles of human beings, “Not Back To School Camp” an event at which kids would go off to a campground where playtime lasts forever, broken up only to divide the share of maintenance responsibilities amongst the campers, and “Art Trading Cards” a hobby that spread like wild fire in the community among both the children and the adults. Basically you draw, paint, bedazzle, or what have you on a piece of hard paper the size of a baseball card, and you trade them around which people to get the ones you like looking at the best. Again no winners or losers, just fun and creativity.
When you tell your child he is worth a squillion bucks, and he can do no wrong, and be whoever he wants, he tends to believe you more often than not. I can think of a few names specifically. Others that I have kept in touch with have lived interesting lives, one is aiming to be a union electrician, one just travels, another one, when last we spoke, was working in Los Angeles on Man of Steel, as some kind of intern production assistant or something, one works in IT, one makes pottery, most are a lot like me, somewhere between finding what we want to do with our lives, and actually finding a way of doing it after we’ve found it. The priorities of an Unschooler, from my observations tend to change very little. We’re still driven by what we enjoy, and we still prefer to learn auto didactically. To be self-taught is a blessing and a curse. Knowing your own mind and how to make things stick is obviously a huge advantage when encountering a new skill or discipline. But the merit of teaching yourself is not widely recognized in the professional world. This made it a very difficult prospect of moving to Germany, a scheme of mine from my earlier adult years, as the Germans are big on a proper public education.
Now for one reason or another, I am known today by anyone whose length of time knowing me is about 1-2 years, as being one of the most intelligent and interesting people they have ever met. Attempting to say that with all humility, and perhaps failing, it’s true. Maybe that speaks to the company I keep… moving on. Of these people, especially the older ones, many have suggested that I am “Too smart of this job” or “Should really be at university” What I always say in answer to these people is that my life is a bit of a paradox, and it stems from my upbringing as an Unschooler.
This person might say that I am so smart as to fit right into an academic environment. But wind the clock back to my youth, and had I gone through the proper channels to gain the credibility and opportunity to pursue higher education, would I have become the person, over the next thirteen years, that this person thinks would fit in so well at an academic institution? Obviously we cannot divine the answer, but knowing what we know now about childhood development, my guess is that the answer would be no. I have become a very interesting person to some people, because I went and hoovered up all the information that I wanted to know in all the subjects I was interested in; otherwise it would never materialize. No teachers would feed it to me during the day, so I had to get used to feeding myself. So one might say that Unschooling is a culture of self-reliance.
Whether we’re talking about the closing of the gates of Ijtihad, oral traditions among hunter-gatherer tribes, the factory model of American public schools, or the isolated, money vampires that represent academia, learning takes different shapes in different cultures. Unschooling is another brick in that metaphorical wall. It has its drawbacks, namely the risk of creating socially-awkward, narcissistic, young people who lack a skill to provide them with financial security, as well as its positives, for instance creating an individual who is creatively-driven, high in trait openness, and understands maybe a greater idea of what it means to be happy, rather than successful. Unschooling: the result of a generation whose creative spark, individuality, and perceived freedoms, were restrained by Anglican traditions and who seek to remove those barriers for their children. Is it right for all? Certainly not. For some? Perhaps. I think Unschooling is a step in the right direction in changing our culture to one that instructs a society to be happy, but I think the true solution is further down the road.