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The Unschooling Put Down: Economic Privilege

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The Unschooling Put Down:

Economic Privilege

A guest post by Pat Farenga

Woodstove unschooling

Economic privilege?

When people argue against homeschooling and unschooling, a frequent knee-jerk response is to claim that they are only for the rich or privileged. After all, how else could families afford to have one parent remain home to accomplish it? Many folks who unschool and  homeschool know they are financially affording the lifestyle by rearranging family priorities. They also know just what they do without to accomplish their goals. Doing without is not often understood.

A commenter on Pat’s blog asked his thoughts on this: “Unschooling still suffers as an alternative approach because it is tied up with economic privilege. I’m not sure what to do about that. ”

Here is Pat’s response and some food for thought on the subject for everyone who advocates for homeschooling and unschooling:

The Great Unschooling Put Down

So much to say, but so little time to say it. Please pardon my terseness. First, this line has been used as a critique of ALL alternative approaches. Sudbury Valley and others are always put down with this line, as if helping lower and middle-class families whose children aren’t doing well in conventional school is not as important as helping kids in the lower income brackets. I think we need to help anyone who is suffering or asks for help as best we can to the best of our abilities. I believe you put your oar into the water and you start rowing where ever you are; John Holt worked and wrote about privileged private school children and how barren their educations were in tony high-priced schools. His work continues to give great support to those working with lower income, difficult to teach students in poor school districts. Holt is cited as a guide and inspiration by inner-city teachers like Jim Herndon, George Dennison, and LouAnne Johnson, to name a few. Holt came from a background of privilege, but he spoke the truth as he saw it and has helped a great many people by doing so.

See also “The Moms Who Grew Homeschooling

Second, and this deserves more space than I can give it now, is something Matt and Bruce have touched on: unschooling as a program, as a method, as a cult. I really wish we could talk about learning and living, but these terms have been marginalized by schoolspeak: now babies and children must learn how to learn (it isn’t something they have a biological imperative to do); unschooling is a program administered by parents rather than a description of how children can grow while they explore the real world with different types of support from their families and others. The social capital unschooling/homeschooling provides to children—access to adults who are doing things besides teaching children; strong interest by parents in making sure the emotional, nutritional, physical, and spiritual needs of their children are met—is far more important for helping children learn and feel secure in their lives than focusing on improving their test scores. In the long run, as some teachers have noted (for instance, Susan Ohanion and Kirsten Olsen), the important lesson that children take away from their school experiences isn’t what or how the children were taught, but how they were treated by adults and society while they were children in school.

Unschooling and Homeschooling Let Children Grow Up with the Respect They Need and Deserve

This is the real message to parents and the schools about unschooling that gets lost in all the talk about improving schools: it isn’t schools that need to be made better; it is how we raise and treat children in our society that needs to be made better. Most unschooling/homeschooling is done by lower- and middle-class families according to the research I’ve seen for the last 30 years. They are using a variety of methods and many parents do not have teaching degrees or four-year college degrees, and their children flourish though the parents are spending, according to some homeschooling researchers, an average of $500/year per child on academic materials. Why do their children find work worth doing and lives worth living? There is an awful lot more going on in homeschooling/ unschooling than children learning on their own or parents instructing them, but that doesn’t fit into the paradigm of schooling. That paradigm requires one to organize the students in ways that allow technocrats to control and predict academic achievement in the classroom (represented as test scores) so as to feed into the economic machinery for the national interest (currently defined as STEM: Science, technology, engineering, and mathematics). All other factors are ignored, so the importance of good nutrition, physical exercise, solid relationships with people, freedom to explore one’s ideas, and emotional stability are not considered in evaluating one’s performance in school. However, it is exactly those things, and many other non-academic factors, that allow unschooling to work. Getting that message out is hard, and the economic privilege argument is often a smoke-screen used to deflect that message.

PatFarenga unschoolingAuthor Pat Farenga writes the Learning without Schooling blog.

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8 Responses to “The Unschooling Put Down: Economic Privilege”

  1. Pamela Price says:

    Seeing that phrase “social capital” in this post is touching a nerve right now. In a good, exciting–albeit incomplete–way.

    Yeah, unschooling/homeschooling IS about access to capital. Social capital. And finding ways so that more people can experience those privileges–even through “bridging” techniques like after schooling for folks who may not be able to have one parent at home 24/7–is an investment in society at large.


    • Pamela, thanks for taking the time to comment. I actually wrote two books to help folks who can’t go 24/7 – What the Rest of Us Can Learn from Homeschooling and The Learning Coach Approach. And, yes, it WILL help society at large! Thank you!

  2. Aadel says:

    Pat is truly one of my inspirations! He said it so succinctly and yet I know he wanted to say more.

  3. Carla says:

    “it isn’t schools that need to be made better; it is how we raise and treat children in our society that needs to be made better.” Wow, how true!

  4. Colleen G says:

    Our family fits into the lower income bracket. Dollars do not make an education. Some would shudder if they knew how little I have been able to spend on homeswchool supplies some years. My kids are doing fine in spite of that however thanks to the library, internet and two parents who like to talk and show them things. 🙂

    • Dollars do not make an education. This is so very true; dollars buy a system that convinces parents it takes lots of dollars to make an education. So glad so many are finding a better way!

  5. […] the charges that home- and/or unschooling communities are only populated by the privileged classes (and therefore a “bad” thing), or that these home educators do not address privilege from within their communities. My friend […]

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