Parents Should Be Free to Choose Unschooling

Unschooling challenges long-held cultural beliefs about what it means to be educated. It questions schooling, it rejects coercion, and it offers a vision of human flourishing that begins with individual freedom and grows through facilitation, not force. On this, I think my fellow essayists this month and I agree, and I was delighted to read their insightful responses to my lead essay.

To continue the conversation, it is worth highlighting some key points made in each essay, as well as some of the informal discussions that have occurred in both the essay comments and on social media.

Kevin Currie-Knight’s essay makes the important point that unschooling and libertarianism are separate and distinct. One could be a libertarian without supporting unschooling, just as one could support unschooling without being a libertarian, as many of unschooling’s early and current proponents demonstrate. The fascinating online discussion that has ensued over the last week related to Kevin’s essay focuses mostly on the question of who decides whether or not unschooling is a good idea.

Kevin argues that the current research and outcomes on unschooling show that it works very well and that is why we should advocate it. He explains that if he found evidence to the contrary, he would urge against it, or even forbid it if it was found to be harmful to children. This is a true children’s rights stance, empowering the state to intervene against parents’ educational wishes if the state determines that a certain education isn’t in the child’s best interest.

Granting this power to the state concerns me. Whether we give freedom to parents or to the state to make education decisions for children, there will always be risks; but I believe the risks are lower when parents have this freedom than when the state does. Parents are the ones with the most vested interest in their children’s well-being, and whose care and concern have led to the survival and success of our species for millennia. Certainly, there will be instances when parents fail; but I believe this is a lower risk than the risks associated with empowering the state to make educational judgments, particularly when those judgments may preclude or punish alternative viewpoints.

In the second response essay, Corey DeAngelis argues that education choice mechanisms may not be beneficial for homeschoolers and unschoolers, and they could even be detrimental if they lead to more regulation of currently unregulated unschooling programs and practices. I agree with him that Education Savings Accounts (ESAs) are now the most resistant to this type of regulation. I think about the few young people who are able to take advantage of a self-directed learning center in New Hampshire through a novel education choice program that is open to homeschoolers. If more parents were able to remove their children from coercive schooling for unschooling through education choice mechanisms, should my fear of regulation of unschooling outweigh their immediate needs? Just because I would likely not want to accept any government funding for my unschooling family, should my wishes prevent others from accessing those funds if they choose? Corey’s essay also leads to the much larger and more difficult question of overall government funding of education. How much is too much, and who decides?

Finally, Michael Strong’s essay encourages us to view unschooling as only one of many experimental education methods that seek to separate education from schooling. I agree. I think unschooling is a valuable education philosophy that prioritizes learner freedom and self-determination with positive outcomes, but my larger priority is to support parental choice and ongoing innovation in education. There are many ways to be educated, and parents should be the ones to decide what is right for their child and their family. I think Michael is right that “until and unless we can reassure parents and the public that there are ways to ensure positive outcomes beyond conventional schooling environments, unschooling will remain a tiny niche movement.”

Conversations like this one at Cato Unbound offer a great opportunity to challenge the conventional schooling paradigm and inspire more parents, educators, and entrepreneurs to imagine new models of learning that celebrate freedom over force.

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.