Freedom Triumphs Over Coercion

Unschooling can challenge the sensibilities of even the most ardent education choice supporters. They may appreciate different educational philosophies and approaches, like Montessori or classical education, and even homeschooling, but when it comes to suggesting that the idea of schooling itself is problematic, regardless of how or where it takes place, many resist.

I am delighted that this month’s Cato Unbound discussion on unschooling has led to some lively debate. Robert Pondiscio, senior fellow and vice president for external affairs at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, writes this week that “unschooling makes me nervous.” He argues that there is a role for coercion in childhood, stating, “There were a lot of things that were forced upon me as a child that I only came to appreciate as an adult, like Shakespeare, working with my hands, and Johnny Cash records.” This is a common rebuttal. The refrain of “I turned out fine so coercion can’t be all that bad,” fails to acknowledge what we lost. We may have come to explore these topics without force, and we may have discovered that our appreciation for them was even more profound. We may have adopted a greater sense of personal agency and a healthier skepticism of authority. Perhaps we would have discovered other topics that interested us more. The opportunity cost of coercion is high.

I agree with Pondiscio when he says that adults have an important role in guiding young people “toward the valuable, the beautiful, and the enduring.” Adults have an essential role in unschooling and self-directed education, whether this type of education occurs primarily through family-centered education at home or through one of the many unschooling learning centers sprouting nationwide and around the world. The difference is that adults who work with unschoolers see their role as a facilitator, recognizing emerging interests and talents and connecting young people to available resources and opportunities. They may suggest, recommend, and introduce various ideas and learning materials, but they don’t force young people to learn something against their will. As John Locke wrote: “it is one thing to persuade, another to command.”

In his response essay, Pondiscio also alludes to the idea that unschooling may work well for privileged families but not for disadvantaged ones. He writes that in supporting unschooling, Kevin Currie-Knight and I “are among those best and wisest parents. Surely [our] diligence and attentiveness matters as much as the freedom afforded [our] children. In its absence, the potential for disaster seems significant.”

I am deeply disturbed by statements like this. Parents want the best for their children and are quite capable of determining how, where, and with whom their child is educated. They are certainly more capable of this than government bureaucrats and educationists who insist they know what is better for children. The idea that freedom only works for some children and some families is troubling. If a parent felt drawn to the unschooling philosophy of education, he or she has many options that include, but are not limited to, an unschooling approach to homeschooling. As I wrote in my lead essay, these options could be expanded through education choice mechanisms that give parents greater access to private unschooling programs.

Finally, I agree with Pondiscio that a thriving civil society is what ultimately leads to human flourishing. He writes: “Our lives are often grounded and enriched by exposure to relationships with institutions in civil society from schools and churches to clubs and charities.” However, I challenge his inclusion of schools in this statement, unless he means only private schools. My understanding of the definition of civil society is that it includes all of the voluntary, non-governmental institutions that enrich our lives. We absolutely need a robust civil society, including, as Pondiscio says, churches, clubs, and charities; but we don’t need compulsory government schools. Unschoolers show this repeatedly, as they are regularly immersed in the daily, voluntary interactions and exchanges of authentic community life and increasingly form self-directed learning networks.

I am so pleased that the Cato Unbound conversation has led to more discourse and debate. I am especially glad that even though Pondiscio admits that he doesn’t personally like the unschooling philosophy, he has “no particular interest in convincing you that my preferences ought to be yours.” This is the libertarian vision: we each have our own preferences and can agree to disagree without imposing our worldview on another by 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.