Who Knows What’s Best to Learn?

Robert Pondiscio of the Fordham Institute, has written an interesting article in response to this month’s Cato Unbound conversation. His article offers well-articulated reticence about unschooling, particularly its strong aversion to coercion in the learning process of children who may not know what learning might prove valuable. I will follow Kerry McDonald’s lead and offer my own response to his article. It is worth responding to.

To do this, I want to quote Pondiscio at length. Here is an exceptionally rich excerpt that gets to the heart of his concerns about unschooling and coerced learning:

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. Some passions that I developed on my own, like the New York Mets, have brought me mostly sorrow and misery. It simply does not follow that the things that capture our imagination as children are fruitful and enriching, and that the things we are led to by “coercion” are lacking in value. Coercion does not taint the thing that is coerced. If I make my child eat her peas, that does not make peas bad (or make me a bad parent, I hope).

I have a few concerns about this passage. First, on a purely personal note, my experience of school does not align with Pondiscio’s. After reading this article several times, I still struggle to think of a single thing I am glad I was coerced to learn that I don’t think I would have learned if left uncoerced. The closest I can come up with is my reading of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, a book I’d been forced to read in high school. This example is a bad one for Pondiscio’s point, however. The only recollection I have of reading the novel in high school was in trying to avoid reading it. Only when I picked it up freely as a 22 year old newly interested in the Transcendentalist literature of early America did I discover how rich and interesting the novel was. (I am glad I learned to read, but have every confidence that I’d have learned that of my own accord.)

Skeptical readers might assume that I am glad I learned things like math in school. Yet my parents like to remind me of how I learned algebraic math three times. First, I learned it to pass my tests and classes (which I barely did). Second, I learned it to take the SAT, because I’d forgotten everything my math tests said I’d learned. Lastly, I learned math to take the GRE and enter graduate school, because I forgot the math my passing SAT scores said I knew. To this day, if you give me a basic algebra problem, I am confident I can’t solve it without the internet. I routinely look up certain “basic” math facts, which somehow didn’t stop me from earning two Masters degrees and a PhD, wherein I learned math again to pass several upper level statistics courses! I can honestly say that the math I know today is math I learned outside of school.

This may just be a difference between Pondiscio’s and my experience with school. But I think the difference is instructive. For everyone who can report being retrospectively glad they were forced to learn certain things in school, I am sure we can come up with others who report a very different experience. Further, we just can’t know—any more than we can with unschoolers who choose their own learning—whether learning any particular thing will turn out to be valuable or not to any specific learner. Pondiscio may have been glad he was forced to consume Shakespeare. I can’t imagine how many others learned to hate the Bard because their only encounters with him were against their will.

Either way—schooled or unschooled—there is a risk of false positives (learning what you wrongly anticipate will be valuable) and false negatives (not learning what you later need to know). Schools can get this as wrong as unschoolers can. And for every instances where Pondiscio can report gladness at what he was forced to learn, I think we could examine his k-12 curricula and discover many things that turned out to be wastes of his time. We just can’t know these things in advance. The advantage the unschooler has is that her education consisted by in large of learning how to learn things when she needs to learn them.

I also wonder whether Pondiscio truly believes that he never would have found beauty in Shakespeare’s work except through being compelled to consume it. Even if so, does he really think that if people en masse were not compelled to read Shakespeare’s plays, they would likely never pick them up or appreciate them? To me, that indicates a pessimistic view of Shakespeare’s value that I don’t share. I believe that if works are truly great, they will “earn their keep” by enchanting new readers (or listeners) toward them. No force necessary.

Pondiscio makes another intriguing point in his suggestion that “coercion does not [necessarily] taint the thing being coerced.” Just because he was coerced to listen to Johnny Cash records (coolest school ever!) doesn’t mean Johnny Cash records are thereby made ugly.

I agree with this, though I don’t see it as the strike against unschooling that he does. The analogy he uses probably accounts for our different interpretations. He rightly notes that forcing his daughter to eat peas doesn’t make peas bad (i.e. less nutritious). The nutrition our bodies get from peas in no way depends on whether we were hungry for peas when we ate them. The problem is that learning, by all accounts, works differently. Every study I have ever seen seeking the relationship between interest and learning demonstrates that learner interest bears a positive relationship to all sorts of learning outcomes. (The disagreement is over how large the positive effect, not whether there is a positive effect.) I think this is also intuitively obvious to most of us. When we are interested in something for our own reasons, we not only have more motivation to learn it, but tend to derive richer experiences from it than if we had been coerced. Even if it is possible to find value in what one was forced to do—a tool that seems also able to repel us form finding value—it is still the case that we stand the best shot of rich learning when we learn what we are interested in.

Maybe it is appropriate to close with the idea that we’d do best not to see unschooling as an all or nothing proposition. While “radical unschoolers” who do not coerce their kids in any way do exist, I agree with Pondiscio that there are times when coercing children may be justified. Just this week, we forced our three year old to visit the dentist and get a hair cut. (We admittedly bribed him with toys but the haircut ended up being completely against his will.) The question shouldn’t be whether we coerce children. The question should be how often we should do so and how skeptical we should be of “for their own good” arguments.

Toward that end, I will close with some fantastic guidance Daniel Greenberg, founder of the self-directed Sudbury Valley School, gave on this score:

if we’re being fair to our role as parents, we have to ask ourselves constantly, ‘Is this something where intervention is really essential?’—because every intervention is a step away from independence. Each of us will answer differently. I’m the last person to judge your answers any more than I want mine judged. But what should be the same for all of us, is that we ask that question. It’s when we stop asking that question that we start doing damage to that role that we were assigned as parents—easing the way for the child’s transition to independence.

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.