Political Liberty and Unschooling Need Not Go Together

Broadly speaking, I am a political libertarian; I believe in free markets and put prime value on individual liberty. I am skeptical of centralized authority and planning, and I believe people should have wide latitude to pursue their conception of the good life as long as they are not harming others. Of late, I’ve also become a champion of unschooling, giving educational freedom to children to learn what they want, how they want, without being forced into conventional schools.

One might think these beliefs—libertarianism and unschooling—are related or connected in some way, because of the similar value they place on liberty. Actually, I see them as quite separate. I came to both of these positions at very different times for very different reasons. I like to say that these two positions are separate enough in my mind that if I were to completely change my mind on the one, the other would be left wholly intact.

As such, I am in almost full agreement with Kerry McDonald’s lead essay, rightly extolling the benefits of unschooling. Where Kerry and I potentially part ways is in seeing unschooling as any sort of logical extension of a politically libertarian position. In this response essay, I will do two things. First, I will add to Kerry’s already quite impressive list of reasons to support unschooling. Second, I will try to make clear why the best reason to support unschooling is that it seems to work well at equipping children for adulthood, and the worst reason (because quite tenuous) is that unschooling aligns with a libertarian political position.

To do this, it might help to start with how I, a faculty member in a College of Education, became persuaded by the philosophy of unschooling. The story begins several years ago when I was, ironically, preparing for a class I teach (to soon-to-be K-12 teachers) on the theory and practice of learning and human motivation. While reading through literature on these subjects, I came across some curious things. A good many studies, for instance, show that students who are given more choice in what or how to learn tend to be more motivated and learn better than less-free peers. I also came across research showing the powerful role of both interest and intrinsic motivation—learning because one wants to learn, not to gain rewards or avoid punishments. Finally, other strands or research indicate that a good many students experience conventional schooling as something like a game, where the goal is less to learn than to please school authorities so as to gain grades and credentials.

Wow!, I thought. This research doesn’t easily fit with how we do things in conventional schools! Conventional schools are governed by structures that deny students autonomy; force them to learn what the curriculum, rather than their interest, dictates; and put most of their emphasis on playing the game of getting grades and moving along. I decided to see if there was any research showing what happens when learners are allowed to learn outside of “school” constraints (like class periods, fixed curriculum, and grades).

Admittedly, there wasn’t a lot of this research. Education researchers tend to focus on learning that happens in school. But the research that did exist was really compelling. First, learners who learn outside of school really do learn. Without being forced, these learners still learn a lot of things I expected could only be learned in school, like how to read, write, and do math. I read as many narratives as I could of unschoolers and their parents writing about unschooled learning experiences. What became evident to me was two things: (1) if the research above (about the importance of autonomy, interest, and intrinsic motivation) is accurate, unschooling seems to be the superior way to learn; and (2) the structures used by conventional schools—bell schedules, formal classes, curriculum, grades—might not be necessary after all.

As Kerry’s daughter Molly illustrates, unschooled kids learn by harnessing the most powerful motivator known to humans: their own passions and interests. They are free to come to a subject when the proverbial iron is hot rather than because a teacher and curriculum make them. And rather than learn, say, math from classroom instruction, worksheets, and school-sanctioned learning apps, they learn by encountering math in the real world and realizing that they need it to do something they want to do (tell time, count money, measure something). Oh, and these kids—who often had no experience in formal classrooms let alone transcripts—have no trouble pursuing higher education, and go on to do quite well as adults.

Most of us in colleges of education believe that such a task as reading requires years of rigorous and carefully sequenced instruction. But the literature I was seeing about how unschoolers learn to read (and this is probably the most thoroughly documented area of unschooling research) sketched a different picture. Not only do a great many kids learn to read on their own—asking peers and adults for guidance when needed—but also when we let kids wait until they have something they are interested in reading, reading can often be learned quite rapidly (likely because the learner is now interested and hyper-motivated).

While I was wading into this research, in fact, a relative of mine told me a related story about her ten-year-old son learning to read. She and her husband homeschool their kids, and because of (we’ll call him) Lucas’s aversion to reading, they stopped trying to force it. Several months later, Lucas decided he really wanted to read C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia series. His parents helped him only when he asked them. Almost entirely on his own, and in a way that still leaves his parents mystified, he figured out how to read the books in the series and has been a voracious reader ever since. (Last I knew, he was devouring historical fiction and books on nature journaling.)

I go on at length about my journey into the unschooling literature for two reasons. First, I want to add to Kerry’s wonderful attempts to convince the unconvinced that unschooling really is a viable alternative to conventional forms of schooling. Given a supportive and resource-rich environment—a vital ingredient!—it seems that children can learn quite well outside of conventional schools. Secondly, though, I want to bring the reader’s attention to the fact that none of the above arguments for unschooling depend in any way on whether one is a free-market libertarian, a standard-fare liberal, a committed socialist, or any other political position. The best reason to support unschooling is not that it is most consistent with a libertarian framework or stands the best chance of raising little libertarians. It is that unschooling seems to be an impressive way to equip students for adult life, especially in a post-industrial age.

As something of a political libertarian myself, I can understand where libertarians would see affinity between their political beliefs and unschooling. Libertarians are in a good position to appreciate the beautiful things people—children included—can do with liberty. Our approach to politics is based largely on a skepticism of central planning (and what is school but a centrally planned learning environment?). Conversely, libertarians (at least those who, like myself, have an affinity for its Hayekian strand) are probably quick to appreciate unschooling as a powerful spontaneous order. And since public schools are government institutions in their purest form, it is natural for libertarians to celebrate methods, of which unschooling is one, that subvert those institutions.

My concern starts when Kerry begins her essay by noting the “central tension” between “expect[ing] young people to grow up to be flourishing members of a free society if they spend so much of their childhood being educated by force.” The implication is that the only or best way to raise individuals who can participate in a free society is if they are educated in ways that respect freedom. I understand the force of this idea, but strictly speaking, this doesn’t follow. I suspect that a great many people who have proved capable of functioning in a free society, including many libertarians, have been educated in coercive schools. Conversely, I see no reason to suppose that being unschooled would make any learner more likely than conventionally schooled peers to adopt more freedom-embracing ways of life.

Suggesting that preparation for life in a free society requires a freedom-respecting education is what philosophers call a category mistake. That is, it employs the term freedom in two different ways without recognizing the distinction between those ways. An example of this mistake would be to say that the only way we can prepare children for life in a democratic republic is to make sure they are raised in houses that are democratic republics. The problem is that x as an approach to education is a very different category than x as an approach to politics or a social order. Freedom in one’s learning bears no obvious connection to freedom in a free-market society.

Another difficulty I have with the notion of a connection between political libertarianism and unschooling is that, historically, libertarians have rarely seen any obvious connection between supporting a free society and extending freedom to children. Libertarians tend to argue for granting liberty only to those believed to have the capability to exercise it responsibly. Thus, most libertarians have not often sought to extend liberty to children.

For instance, despite his glowing defense of individual liberty, William von Humboldt excepted “minors, lunatics, and idiots” from its blessings, owing to their lack of ability to make wise use of liberty. John Stuart Mill made a similar exception, noting that when we grant liberty, “we are not speaking of children, or of young persons below the age which the law may fix as that of manhood or womanhood. Those who are still in a state to require being taken care of by others, must be protected against their own actions as well as against external injury.” When he went on to speak of liberty in education, Mill did not have in mind the liberty of the child, but the liberty of the parents, “or as law and usage now stand, the father,” to choose the child’s education. The same holds true for Milton Friedman, whose defense of liberty in education assumed that the family, not the child, was doing the choosing. One can, of course, extend the belief that people should have liberty down to children, but even within the libertarian tradition, such an extension is not obvious or necessary.

As for the names Kerry invokes in her article, only Locke—whose status as an advocate of children’s freedom I am skeptical of—is uncontroversially the type of libertarian we are talking about. Ivan Illich tended to identify as an anarchist, but seemed quite favorable to a libertarian form of socialism. (He believed that schools were largely tools governments used to create consumers who would support an unjust capitalist system.) Summerhill’s A. S. Neill was not vocal about his political views, but depending on who you read, he was either some type of liberal or an anarcho-socialist. John Holt—who, contra the libertarians listed above, very much did want to extend liberty to children—considered himself only a “small ‘l’ libertarian” who was against coercion, but he was vague about any political program entailed by that.

I go into this level of detail to enforce the idea that there is no necessary or obvious connection between libertarian political values and unschooling. I can certainly see why Kerry or others might want to connect these two, but they need not be connected. Believers in unschooling can certainly be, but need not be, libertarians. Nor must libertarians endorse unschooling. The only beliefs necessary to endorse unschooling are the ones Kerry’s article (and mine) spend the most time on: this form of education through freedom seems to work at least as well, if not better in many ways, than coercive educational structures. By allowing children the freedom to learn what they want when and how they want, remarkable learning occurs, the kind that prepares kids to become happy and capable adults. That’s all we need to know.

Also from this issue

Lead Essay

  • Kerry McDonald says that those who care about liberty should give unschooling a look. Structured education with a fixed curriculum and standardized testing is the product of a bureaucratized system. But children are spontaneous learners, says McDonald, and they do best when adults give opportunities and support rather than structure and evaluation.

Response Essays

  • Kevin Currie-Knight is a libertarian. He also likes unschooling. But, he says, it’s a mistake to conflate them; either view should stand or fall on its own—political liberty for adults might be the best choice, but this doesn’t imply that unstructured learning is best for children. And unstructured learning may be best for children without implying much of anything about the adult world of politics. While his personal answer to each of these is “yes,” the two are independent questions in his view.

  • Corey DeAngelis discusses the complicated relationship between unschooling and school choice. While he finds the evidence for school choice persuasive, and while he is also open to unschooling, he sets out several reasons why the two initiatives may not be wholly compatible. He recommends Educational Savings Accounts (ESAs) as potentially flexible enough to offer meaningful help for unschoolers.

  • Michael Strong considers what society would look like if we schooled less and educated more. While he is supportive of unschooling in principle, not everything of that name is equal, and he cautions that we still have much to learn about learning itself. One thing that seems unlikely to work, though, is spending more and more money on traditional schooling.