About this Issue
Libertarians tend to support school choice. But for whom? In the voucher model, parents may choose among various private schooling options for their children and designate their vouchers to the schools they’ve selected.
But what if school itself is a matter of choice? And what does it look like when students and parents choose unstructured learning instead? Is this unconventional choice an option that libertarians should prefer? Perhaps: much about the conventional experience of primary and secondary schooling is the product of bureaucratization and standardization—and much of that comes directly from state involvement in education.
So what is the relationship between libertarian politics and unstructured schooling? How seriously should libertarians take the idea of scrapping school as we know it, and replacing it with child-directed learning?
Our lead essayist this month is education policy writer and unschooling advocate Kerry McDonald, who argues that we should indeed rethink conventional schooling. While each of the respondents is to some degree sympathetic to unstructured learning, the question we’re focusing on this month may still divide them to some degree: Is being open to unstructured learning implicit in the recognition of children’s rights, if only as an option? Joining us to discuss the question will be Corey DeAngelis, Director of School Choice at the Reason Foundation; author and educator Michael Strong; and Professor Kevin Currie-Knight of East Carolina University. Each will write an essay, and conversation will continue through the end of the month. Comments will be open for one month as well, and readers are invited to join the discussion.
Unschooling: Shifting from Force to Freedom in Education
How can we expect 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? This is the central tension between the coercion that undergirds most American education and the values of liberty and responsibility from which freedom spreads. Much of this coercion originates from compulsory schooling statutes that were enacted beginning in the nineteenth century to mandate school attendance under a legal threat of force. A child is compelled to learn. But educational force is not only present in institutional schooling. Even many homeschooling parents who reject institutionalized education continue to replicate school at home, importing forced schooling’s authoritarian tactics and similarly dulling a child’s free will. As the author and former New York State Teacher of the Year John Taylor Gatto, once stated: “When you take the free will out of education, that turns it into schooling.” One way to reconcile this tension between force and freedom in learning is to separate education from schooling, including school-at-home approaches, and grant children the opportunity of self-determination.
Children do not need to be forced to learn in order to become educated. In early childhood they have an intense, evolutionary drive to explore, discover, and synthesize their world. “This amazing drive and capacity to learn does not turn itself off when children turn 5 or 6,” says Boston College psychology professor Dr. Peter Gray. “We turn it off with our coercive system of schooling.” In Unschooled: Raising Curious, Well-Educated Children Outside the Conventional Classroom (Chicago Review Press, 2019), I explore the philosophy of unschooling, or self-directed education that occurs without coercion. At its core, unschooling is about disentangling education from schooling and shifting from force toward free will in learning. In this essay, I describe unschooling theory from its historical roots to its modern practices and suggest that the future of learning will look less like schooling and more like unschooling.
The Philosophical Roots of Unschooling
Gray, who writes the Foreword to Unschooled, traces the origins of self-directed education to our millennia spent as hunter-gatherers. He argues in his book Free to Learn that we humans are biologically designed to educate ourselves when in community with others. While our biological inclinations toward self-directed education may be long-established, non-coercion and self-determination as an educational philosophy can be traced to the Enlightenment Era and, particularly, to the writings of John Locke. In 1693, Locke published Some Thoughts Concerning Education in which he warned against compulsion. According to Locke: “For a child will learn three times as much when he is in tune, as he will with double the time and pains when he goes awkwardly or is dragg’d unwillingly to it.” Locke goes on to suggest that we shouldn’t be surprised when our coercive educational tactics lead a child to dislike or avoid learning. He writes: “And indeed it would be ridiculous, when compulsion and blows have rais’d an aversion in the child to his task, to expect he should freely of his own accord leave his play, and with pleasure court the occasions of learning.”
The bold idea of preserving a child’s free will in learning gained traction in the early twentieth century when some educators created new, non-authoritarian learning models. In England in 1921, A.S. Neill founded Summerhill, a self-directed, non-coercive school in which classes were offered but attendance was optional; students had a central role in the school’s governance; and freedom was balanced by personal responsibility, or “freedom, not license,” as Neill termed it. When Neill published his book Summerhill School: A New View of Childhood in 1960, reflecting on his nearly four decades of running the school, it sold two million copies in its first decade in print and influenced many authors and social critics during the 1960s and 1970s. One of those authors was John Holt, a teacher who wrote the bestselling books How Children Fail and How Children Learn in 1964 and 1967, respectively. At the time, Holt believed that conventional schooling could be reformed to be less coercive and more learner-driven. But after he met and corresponded with Ivan Illich, a Catholic priest and scholar who wrote Deschooling Society in 1970, Holt recognized that free will in education could only be retained outside of forced schooling. As Illich wrote: “School prepares for the institutionalization of life by teaching the need to be taught.”
Searching for alternatives to school, Holt discovered a small number of parents who were removing their children from school and homeschooling them, despite vague and often restrictive compulsory schooling laws that limited the practice. Inspired by this parental action toward educational freedom, Holt launched the first newsletter for homeschooling families, Growing Without Schooling, in 1977 and coined the term unschooling that same year to mean “taking children out of school.” He was one of several pioneers who helped to usher in the modern homeschooling movement, connecting parents and providing support in court battles that ultimately led to homeschooling becoming legally recognized in all US states by the mid-1990s. Holt also encouraged parents to resist the urge to replicate school-at-home and to instead embrace non-coercive, self-directed education, or what we think of today as the more contemporary definition of unschooling.
Today, unschooling principles are applied in many ways by a diverse set of individuals and organizations. Some homeschooling families embrace the philosophy of unschooling in their homes by avoiding authoritarianism and strict adherence to an imposed curriculum and instead facilitating their child’s learning by connecting interests to available resources. This method seems to be gaining popularity among the nation’s nearly two million homeschoolers. According to federal data, the number of homeschooling parents who say they take an “informal approach” to homeschooling increased from 13 percent in 2012 to 20 percent in 2016. Similarly, many educational entrepreneurs are responding to growing interest in unschooling ideals and are launching self-directed learning centers and micro-schools that allow families who are registered as homeschoolers to attend part-time or full-time. These organizations help to make self-directed learning more accessible to more families and use homeschooling as the legal mechanism to shift education control away from the state and back to parents, with ultimate flexibility. Full-time unconventional schools, like the Sudbury model, are also expanding across the country, prioritizing non-coercion and free will. Preliminary research suggests that these unschoolers turn out fine, often leading fulfilling, entrepreneurial adult lives tied to interests that sprouted in their youth.
Despite their variety and difference, the common feature that unschooling families and organizations share is the fundamental belief that children should not be forced to learn. Autonomy and individuality are paramount. In these homes, centers, and self-directed schools, a young person’s distinct interests and talents are appreciated and supported, leading to authentic, enduring learning. There may be some curriculum or classes offered, but they are not mandated, and children always have the freedom to say no. As Neill wrote: “The function of the child is to live his own life—not the life that his anxious parents think he should live, nor a life according to the purpose of the educator who thinks he knows what is best. All this interference and guidance on the part of adults only produces a generation of robots.”
Still, there is a general understanding among most unschooling families and organizations that freedom must be balanced by personal responsibility. Freedom cannot turn into license, or permissiveness, where one person’s freedom negatively impacts the freedom of another. In most Sudbury schools, for example, the students are integral members of school governance with equal authority as the adults in setting, enforcing, and abiding by community rules. In many unschooling homes and learning centers, there are expectations around respectful behavior, cleaning up after oneself, service to others, and accountability to one’s family or learning community. Parents also have the ultimate responsibility to ensure that their children are highly literate and numerate. Freedom and responsibility may be interpreted and enacted differently depending on a family’s values or an organization’s vision, but both are crucial components of the unschooling framework.
So how does a child learn this way? It can be difficult for many of us to imagine how young people will become educated if not commanded to do so. After all, most of us went through forced schooling, and we may remember that we only read Shakespeare or learned algebra because it was required. We fail to recognize that our personal agency in learning was diminished through coercive schooling. We learned to be taught. Our curiosity and childhood drive for discovery were likely eroded, and many of us may have internalized a false belief that learning is drudgery. More troubling, our own self-worth might have been defined by how we performed at school. But schooling was the problem, not learning. If we retain, or rekindle, a learner’s free will, education becomes a joyful act of self-discovery.
My 12-year-old daughter, Molly, provides a case in point. Like my other children, she has never been schooled and learns by following her curiosities and exploring her interests, while being supported by the adults and resources of her broader community. A couple of years ago a new martial arts studio opened in our neighborhood. It had a film running in the window, showing various martial arts techniques. Molly was intrigued so she took a trial class and soon began training there three days a week. A year later, her expanding passion for martial arts led to an emerging interest in Korean language, history, and culture. She took some online Korean language courses. Her interest grew and she wanted something more rigorous, secure in her self-imposed goal to become fluent and travel to South Korea someday. I found a native Korean speaker as a tutor and Molly now takes language lessons with her at our local library several times a week. She follows a standard Korean language curriculum, and has formal homework assignments and assessments, but Molly is the one driving the process. I didn’t tell her to learn Korean or to study a foreign language. She chose to learn it, selected her teacher, and is pursuing a personal goal. She also knows she has the freedom to quit.
Unschooling and the Future of Learning
Humans are hard-wired to learn, and we are quite eager for it and good at it until we enter a coercive classroom where education and schooling become conflated. When the free will in learning disappears, education becomes a mechanical, often unpleasant process, and we become that “generation of robots” of which Neill warned. The concern is that now we live with a generation of actual robots. To distinguish ourselves from artificial intelligence we need an education model that preserves essential human characteristics like curiosity and ingenuity. The good news is that we don’t need to teach kids to be curious and creative. They already are. We simply need to stop destroying these qualities through coercive schooling practices.
The technology that gives us robots may also be what saves us from their full takeover. Never before has free will in education been supported as it is today with our vast technological platform and networked world. Access to information, skills, and mentors is now often literally at our fingertips, enabling each of us to ask questions, seek answers, spread ideas, and explore our enthusiasms in ways that were unimaginable only a couple of decades ago. The pursuit of knowledge has become decentralized and democratized. As we increasingly reconnect with our self-educative drives in adulthood, facilitated by technology and tied to our own interests, we may wonder why our children must continue to learn by force. When more of us realize that children don’t need to learn this way, that is when true educational change will occur. That is when freedom will triumph force in education.
Homeschooling and other alternatives to school provide an initial route from force to freedom in education, as more parents gravitate toward unschooling at home or take advantage of private unschooling centers and self-directed schools. Standardization and testing, curriculum constraints, and bureaucratic controls make self-directed education difficult to accomplish within the existing public schooling system. For instance, Meraki High School near Sacramento, California opened in the fall of 2017 under the name UnSchool San Juan, touting unschooling ideals. The school emphasizes passion-driven, project-based learning, but must adhere to state-mandated core competencies, testing, and graduation requirements that limit student autonomy. Similarly, Powderhouse Studios is a self-directed public high school near Boston, Massachusetts that has been in the planning stages for seven years and won a $10 million XQ Super School innovation grant, but in March the local school committee declined to approve its scheduled opening for this fall.
The reality is that the vast majority of American youth attend an assigned district school with little opportunity to opt out of coercive government schooling. Education choice mechanisms, particularly Education Savings Accounts (ESAs) and tax-credit scholarship programs, can provide access to funds that expand unschooling options to more families and encourage education innovation. For example, New Hampshire’s tax-credit scholarship program is available to homeschoolers, including some who use that scholarship money to attend a self-directed learning center. While concerns about increased regulation associated with education choice programs are legitimate, particularly regarding homeschooling, more parents deserve more pathways out of forced schooling and, should they choose, into educational environments that prioritize freedom and self-direction. More parents should have the freedom to choose freedom for their kids. Minimizing regulation of education choice programs is an important step in ensuring that non-coercive learning models don’t ultimately emulate the forced schooling structures they are attempting to avoid.
Human curiosity and imagination will be increasingly essential as we move from the Industrial Age to the Innovation Era, not only to differentiate ourselves from robots but to create the inventions that improve our existence and help us tackle global challenges. Children are naturally curious and imaginative, and they can retain these qualities into adulthood if allowed to learn in freedom. Their education does not need to be forced; rather, it needs to be facilitated by adults who support their interests and talents, connect them to available resources and opportunities, model responsibility, and ensure their overall well-being. When granted this freedom, young people—like all of us—thrive. Their knowledge, creativity, and individuality deepen, and they internalize the ideals of liberty by learning freely, rather than by coercion. If, as Gatto suggests, removing free will from education is what turns it into schooling, then fostering free will in education is unschooling. Nurturing an unschooled but well-educated citizenry is the principal pathway toward a free and flourishing society.
 Roland Meighan and Clive Harber, A Sociology of Educating, 5th edition (London: Continuum International Publishing Group, 2007), 156.
 John Locke, Some Thoughts Concerning Education 2nd ed, (London: Cambridge University Press, 1889), 53.
 A. S. Neill, Freedom—Not License! (New York: Hart Publishing Company, 1966), 7.
 Ivan Illich, Deschooling Society (London: Marion Boyars, 1970), 47.
 U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, “Parent and Family Involvement in Education: Results from the National Household Education Surveys Program of 2016,” Codebook, https://nces.ed.gov/nhes/data/2016/pfi/cbook_pfi_pu.pdf; U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, “Parent and Family Involvement in Education: Results from the National Household Education Surveys Program of 2012,” Codebook, https://nces.ed.gov/nhes/pdf/userman/NHES_2012_pfi_codebook.pdf
 A. S. Neill, Summerhill School: A New View of Childhood, Rev. (New York: St. Martin’s Griffin, 1992), 15.
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.
Unschooling and School Choice: A Complicated Relationship
I agree with Kerry McDonald’s assertion that unschooling could produce a well-educated citizenry while preserving individual liberty. While the evidence on home education is limited, the rigorous research on private school choice programs tends to suggest that educational freedom works. And expanding school choice programs to allow for unschooling would further increase educational freedom.
But the expansion of school choice programs is unlikely to lead to more unschooling. And it’s possible for school choice expansion to make unschooling less meaningful. Here’s why.
The Evidence Supports Educational Freedom
The most comprehensive reviews of the evidence find that student exposure to homeschooling tends to be associated with better academic achievement, social development, and long-term success. However, most of the scientific evidence on home education is limited by selection bias. Advantaged families are more likely to have the resources needed to opt their children out of the “free” government schools to educate them at home. In other words, the improved outcomes experienced by homeschooled students may be the result of family background rather than educational setting.
While the studies on home education are limited, the preponderance of the rigorous evidence suggests that more freedom in education leads to better results for students and their communities. The majority (ten) of the sixteen random assignment studies on the subject find that winning a lottery to use a voucher to attend a chosen private school increases student test scores overall or for subgroups—at a fraction of the cost. Only two of the sixteen evaluations—both of the highly regulated Louisiana Scholarship Program—find negative effects on student test scores.
But school choice does so much more than shape test scores. The majority of the rigorous studies suggest that private school choice also improves student attainment, civic outcomes, satisfaction, crime reduction, and safety. If expanding educational options to include private schools leads to better student outcomes, then we might expect that expanding educational options further to include home education would lead to even better results.
The evidence is largely on the side of freedom in education. And adding unschooling to the set of educational options available to families increases that freedom. But will school choice programs get us there?
School Choice and Unschooling: Friends or Foes?
Expansion of school choice could increase unschooling if the government allows families to spend program funding on home education costs. For example, families are allowed to pay for homeschooling expenses using New Hampshire’s tax-credit scholarship program. But using school choice funding for homeschool expenses is by far the exception, not the norm. In fact, the New Hampshire program cited by Kerry McDonald is the “only tax-credit scholarship program in which homeschool students also are eligible.” The vast majority of school choice programs can only be used to cover private school tuition and fees. The reality is that school choice appears to crowd out the least regulated forms of education. For example, a recent study published in Peabody Journal of Education—conducted by Angela K. Dills and me—finds that school choice expansion generally leads to less homeschooling in the United States, presumably because many families switch to the “free” alternative when given the option. We also find that enactments of private school choice programs lead to reductions in the likelihood that private schools focus on providing homeschool services.
But these empirical studies can only tell us about the effects of school choice programs on homeschool market share in the short run.
It’s entirely possible for school choice programs—which leave out home education options in the short run—to expand home education in the long run. School choice programs that do not allow families to spend program funding on home education could give families a taste of some educational freedom in the short run. Indeed, families might want even more educational freedom when given a small dose. And society might become more accepting of unschooling if families demonstrate they can make responsible education decisions for their children. In other words, exposure to restricted forms of school choice in the short run could lead to more unschooling in the long run.
But what if school choice programs did allow families to choose home education for their children?
Including home education options in school programs expands access but introduces another problem: program regulations would lead to less meaningful home education options. School choice program regulations may include state testing requirements, mandates for schools to accept all students at random, and requirements for schools to accept the voucher funding amount as payment-in-full. Private schools tend to be less specialized after school choice programs are enacted, perhaps because government regulations reduce autonomy.
Government funding could similarly bring government control into the realm of home education. Society’s concerns about how public education dollars are spent could lead to calls for homeschool accountability. It shouldn’t take much imagination to envision government bureaucrats going into people’s homes to administer standardized tests and inspect curriculum. We might also imagine requirements to accept all students into a homeschool community at random, in the name of fairness—even if the students are not particularly interested in the community’s specialized mission.
The Path Forward?
The path toward maximizing educational freedom isn’t immediately clear because in the United States the vast majority of students are currently stuck in residentially assigned government-run schools. School choice programs obviously lead to more educational freedom by expanding the number of options available to these families. At the same time, however, choice programs likely reduce the prevalence of unschooling because families are almost never permitted to use program funding to cover home education costs. And program funding could also bring government control into otherwise specialized home education settings.
The only way to expand educational freedom while eliminating regulatory risk seems to be complete separation of school and state. But that’s not going to happen anytime soon.
A feasible policy option to advance educational freedom while minimizing regulatory risk is a privately funded Education Savings Account program (ESA) at the state level. These programs allow families to opt their children out of residentially assigned government schools and receive a deposit of education funds into savings accounts. Families can use the funds in the ESA to cover approved education expenses such as private schooling, tutoring, online courses, and home education costs. ESAs are less likely to be regulated than voucher programs because it is far more difficult for a regulator to determine which service provider did or did not affect outcomes for each student—since families can customize their children’s educations with multiple providers. Heavy school choice regulations are also less likely to come with private dollars than public dollars.
Of course, it’s still possible for an ESA program to be heavily regulated. Advocates of educational freedom should watch for those regulations as ESAs are introduced across the United States.
As such, ESAs are far from a perfect solution. But it’s the best one we have at the moment.
Schooling Is Not Education
Ivan Illich succinctly described the problem with schooling in the sentence cited by Kerry McDonald: “School prepares for the institutionalization of life by teaching the need to be taught.” But when people are eager to learn something, it is hard to stop them from doing so. The importance of the unschooling movement is that it reminds us that education does not require schooling.
As an increasing number of families realize that schooling is not only unnecessary, but also often actively harmful, then we will see a tipping point in which millions of families will escape schools as we know them. This does not imply that we won’t have learning centers in which children learn together and at which academic courses are taught. We most certainly will. But we will gradually develop a much more nuanced understanding of when it is valuable to consent to being taught versus when it is more worthwhile to learn autodidactically.
Schooling creates a dependency mindset while providing the illusion of substance. In the absence of compulsory government schooling and other associated ways of penalizing youth (e.g. occupational licensing laws, minimum wages, and other obstacles to adolescent work), we would have seen a large, diverse set of approaches to learning and human capital development. Today we see teens learning to code, produce videos, and sell products on their own via various online communities and resources. We see bootcamps offering similar skills that typically take only a few weeks. Some of them are free up front and then take a modest percentage of earnings after the fact. In a world where unschooling had greater influence, we would almost certainly see more teens working and learning valuable skills, including product design, UX design, project management, sales, entrepreneurship, and more. The standard, mandatory high school curriculum completely ignores these key 21st century skills, often while teaching hostility to business.
Meanwhile, compulsory schooling is an evolutionary mismatch that is a causal factor for adolescent dysfunction and mental illness. There is solid data on the increase of teen suicides during the school year and a corresponding reduction in suicides during summers and holiday vacations. With the wealth and diversity of learning and networking options available today, a significant percentage of those who currently become engaged in dysfunctional behaviors, experience mental illness, or kill themselves could instead be on their way to satisfying, productive lives.
For these reasons I’m an enthusiastic supporter of the unschooling movement.
But the challenge with simply describing the alternative to schooling as “unschooling” is that by focusing on what not to do, unschooling advocates fail to provide guidance about what might be valuable alternatives. Kevin Currie-Knight points in the right direction when he notes that unschooling should include “a supportive and resource-rich environment.” But that formulation does not adequately differentiate successful from unsuccessful educational pathways. If we want to liberate millions of teens from the toxic aspects of schooling, we need to be clearer about how to provide successful educational experiences beyond traditional schooling.
I’ve spent most of my life creating innovative high schools that often attract students who have been unschooled or homeschooled up until the high school level. Some seek out a flexible high school environment because they long for more social connection and more comprehensive and rigorous academic experiences. Most are exceptionally mature, thoughtful, and responsible. A few are weak in some academic area, most often mathematics. A small subset have been addicted to video games (but that is also occurs with teens who have been schooled).. Thus the positive outcomes described by McDonald and Currie-Knight represent the majority of the cases I’ve seen.
But 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. And simply endorsing a “supportive and resource-rich environment” does not provide enough guidance.
One of the most amazing young people I’ve ever met, Laura Deming, was unschooled. She was working in a lab at UCSF at 12, went to MIT at 14, dropped out to accept a Thiel Fellowship at 16, and now in her early 20s is a leading venture capitalist in the anti-aging technology sector. I have no doubt that schooling would have dramatically slowed Deming’s intellectual progress and stunted her sense of initiative. When I asked John Deming, Laura’s father, how he educated her, he simply said, “I just let her do whatever she wanted.” But he is an extremely curious, highly intellectual, highly verbal entrepreneur. Of course he can “unschool” her and obtain spectacular results. What can we learn from his style of verbal interaction with her?
I’ve come to see the essence of valuable education, as opposed to schooling, as enculturation. My impetus for doing so came initially from my work introducing Socratic intellectuality into public school classrooms through Mortimer Adler’s Paideia Program in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Most cohorts of public school students were not capable of serious intellectual dialogue. But I gradually learned how to train groups of students to take ideas seriously and to work to understand difficult texts on their own.
At one point, an erudite rabbi observed the Socratic classes at one of my schools. He noted, “This is what we did at Talmudic school. The students would spend the week arguing with each other about the meaning of passages in the Talmud. Then once each week they would peel back the thick red velvet curtains of the rabbi’s study and ask if they could discuss their interpretations with him.” What I found instructive about this comparison was that within the context of students committed to studying the Talmud, a largely student-driven activity of textual interpretation was regarded as the core educational experience.
Thomas Sowell has documented the cultural foundations for disparate outcomes thoroughly, yet his evidence has been largely been ignored by the schooling establishment. I interpret the discrepancy in outcomes among different ethnic groups as due to the fact that cultural capital is often more significant for success than is schooling. But as long as the mainstream regards schooling as equivalent to education, we will not see significant progress in reducing discrepancies in ethnic and racial outcomes.
While certainly there are those who regard the exceptional intellectual and professional success of the Ashkenazi as due to genetics, relying on a genetic explanation alone neglects the obvious role of living within a deeply intellectual verbal culture from birth. While the “30 million word gap” is the popular headline version of the distinction between children from educated families versus uneducated families, there is a very active research program examining the various distinctions arising from differing early childhood verbal environments,
“There is some evidence that the sheer amount of language input affects language growth (Huttenlocher et al. 1991), whereas other studies suggest that the quality of language input, such as the diversity and complexity of vocabulary and grammar (Huttenlocher et al. 2010, Rowe 2012), the contingency of language addressed to children (Bornstein et al.
2008), the use of questions (Aram et al. 2013), and language that goes beyond the here-and-now (decontextualized language; Rowe 2012), is also important. Recent research examining both quantity and quality simultaneously suggested that quality might be the primary predictor of language outcome (Rowe 2012, Hirsh-Pasek et al. 2015a), and different qualitative characteristics might play a role in different developmental periods (Rowe 2012, Tamis-LeMonda et al. 2014). For example, the diversity and sophistication of vocabulary facilitate toddlers’ lexical growth, whereas decontextualized language is more beneﬁcial for later vocabulary growth in preschool (Rowe 2012).” 
The early childhood environment is the prototypical “unschooling” experience. I look forward to the unschooling movement moving well beyond, “a supportive and resource-rich environment,” and toward a deeper analysis of the particular characteristics of those homes and environments within which unschooling is likely to result in outcomes superior to those of schooling.
We will need greater specificity with respect to the critical elements of an environment in which freedom in education is more effective than is schooling before less structured forms of education become widespread. Maria Montessori famously described her approach as involving a “prepared environment,” by which she meant not only the physical environment, but very much the human environment within which children were immersed.
My main interest in unschooling is not “libertarianism” or “rights” per se, but rather universal human flourishing. Insofar as a belief that schooling equals education is supporting ever greater “investments” in schooling, I see the entire schooling establishment as an ever more expensive cargo cult. Public school expenditures have gone up threefold since the 1970s with no improvement in outcomes. If we increase them another threefold will we have better outcomes? Utah schools have the lowest per pupil expenditure in the United States yet Utah has the highest rates of social mobility in the country. What evidence is there to believe that significantly more conventional schooling will improve human lives?
I see the real problem with schooling is that it misleads parents, policymakers, and the public with respect to what is most important in getting an education. With the right enculturation, schooling may be superfluous, and unschooling works brilliantly. With the wrong enculturation, schooling seems to be at best limited with respect to its impact. Thus the entire existence of schooling as the dominant form of education has distorted the conversation around education. This is why I say that Bryan Caplan’s book should have been called The Case Against Schooling, not The Case Against Education.
From this perspective, the schooling system is committing fraud by encouraging people to believe that learning the content of schooling is a necessary or sufficient condition for success. I see the next frontier in learning and human capital development to be a focus on cultivating specific cultural elements: intellectual dialogue, entrepreneurial initiative, self-discipline, and others. We need to create new and better subcultures of learning. But we are not likely to do so as long as schooling is the dominant paradigm. Simply adding Angela Duckworth’s “Character Playbooks” to a schooling curriculum will not result in the development of key character traits among populations in which they are absent.
Thus rather than advocating for “unschooling” per se, I’m very much in favor of a much broader and deeper dialogue along with greater social experimentation on exactly what education is. Gradually I expect we will find that “schooling,” in the conventional sense, becomes a marginalized element of learning and human capital development.
. Frederick Douglass’s account of how he learned to write is a stunning example of learning despite immense obstacles. http://learningabe.info/fd_ReadandWrite.pdf.
. Michael Strong, “Evolutionary Mismatch as a Causal Factor in Adolescent Dysfunction and Mental Illness,” https://medium.com/@flowidealism/evolutionary-mismatch-as-a-causal-fact….
. Peter Gray summarizes the evidence the evidence in “Child & Teen Suicides Related to the School Calendar,” https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/freedom-learn/201805/children-s….
. For a striking personal account of how schooling contributed to a video game addiction, see Cade Summers, “The Virtual World,” Original Path, June 17, 2018, https://mavenroundtable.io/originalpath/not-all-that-wander/the-virtual….
. John Deming, Laura Deming’s father, describes her education in a Quora post here, https://www.quora.com/Which-Thiel-Fellows-were-at-least-partially-homes…
. See, for example, Thomas Sowell, Race and Culture: A World View, Basic Books, 1995.
. Amy Pace, Rufan Luo, Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, and Roberta Michnick Golinkoff, “Identifying Pathways Between
Socioeconomic Status and Language Development,” Annu. Rev. Linguist. 2017. 3:10.1–10.2.
. Andrew J. Coulson, “School Funding System Isn’t Broken … It Just Doesn’t Work,” Cato.org, May 13, 2013, https://www.cato.org/blog/school-funding-system-not-broken-it-just-does…
. Megan McArdle, “How Utah Keeps the American Dream Alive,” The Atlantic, March 28, 2017, https://www.bloomberg.com/opinion/articles/2017-03-28/how-utah-keeps-th….
. Bryan Caplan, The Case Against Education: Why the Education System Is a Waste of Time and Money, Princeton University Press, 2018.
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.
Addressing Some Misconceptions about Unschooling
I am pleased to see that others appear to agree with my assessment that while unschooling and libertarianism are both valuable, they are separate things. It is not that I believe libertarians shouldn’t be unschoolers (or vice versa); just that I see no necessary connection between them. Some come to unschooling because they believe that children have similar rights not to be coerced as to adults. Others, because they are convinced that schools are tools of the establishment (capitalist or socialist, depending on whom you ask) and see unschooling as a path toward individual and social change. Others still come to unschooling for wholly nonpolitical reasons. Like myself, they come to it because they are persuaded that it just works as well or better than conventional schooling.
This “It just works!” theme might be a good one to unpack for a bit. I think all of the contributors have done a good job of providing personal testimony and alluding to research arguing the effectiveness of unschoooling. But this is surely a hard case to convince skeptics of, especially given that we occupy a world that is so used to conventional school as the path for learning. It might therefore be worthwhile to address some common concerns about unschooling.
Won’t kids just play video games [or insert your favorite seemingly trivial thing] all day? There are a few responses I have to this understandable concern. First, let’s assume that some kids will in fact spend their days intensely playing video games or using screens. The objection assumes that one either plays video games or learns, and if a child is doing the former, they can’t be doing the latter. But researchers have long known that video games are actually amazing learning devices. If you think about what it takes to beat and master a video game, the answer is “learn… a LOT!” Video games employ a lot of text (and some kids learn to read through playing them), almost all video games make heavy use of math (“How many points do I need to buy the stuff I need to kill the dragon?”), and players learn to strategize and solve problems.
At Pathfinder, we recently “graduated” a member (we do not call them “students,” nor do they call staff “teachers”) who in the most literal sense did nothing but play video games. He came to Pathfinder obsessed with Minecraft. What happened? Minecraft led to coding within Minecraft; that led to coding outside of Minecraft, which led to an interest in cryptography and other stuff I don’t understand. Now, he spends his time interning at a software company. I bring this up because even if a child does choose to use their time playing video games, this doesn’t mean that other things won’t come along to interest them.
This leads to the next way I handle this objection. In my experience (and hearing others’ experiences), unschooling tends to work this way: a learner finds something they are passionate about and devotes weeks and months to it until they are finished or get bored, finds a new thing to invest their time in, and repeat. We are used to the ways of conventional schools, where learning is supposed to take place in chunks of time, around one hour each, where you move from learning one thing to the next to the next. Yet think about how artificial that is. Suppose you had maybe a week where you could spend your days learning whatever and however you wanted. How many would make a schedule where you play your guitar from 9 to 9:50am, work on learning Spanish from 9:55 to 11am, eat at 11:05 to noon regardless of whether you were hungry then, and so on? While some may prefer such a rigid schedule, my guess is that most of us would play our guitar until we got bored, move to something new and pursue it until we were ready for a change, etc. Some of us might even be so engrossed in whatever we’re doing that we spend all day on it. There’s just nothing wrong with that.
Why not just try to change the public system? I have no problem with people trying to change the public system so that learners have more freedom there. I just personally don’t see much cause for optimism on that front. The public system has a powerful and regrettable inertia, and the changes that would be required are ones I think are too radical for that system to accommodate. We’d have to get rid, or significantly lessen the grip, of things like a paced curriculum that tells kids what to learn when (regardless of their interest at that time); we’d also have to get rid of the use of tests and grades given to students who didn’t ask for them, and a lot of other structures that make school school. Historians David Tyack and Larry Cuban refer to these structures as parts of “the grammar of schooling” and note that they stubbornly resist all but cosmetic change simply because they are so deeply embedded in what we are used to as “school.” We unschoolers, for various reasons, have decided that it makes the most sense to bypass conventional schools rather than attempting to change these Goliaths.
Is this just a way to keep kids ignorant? If I was not firmly convinced by evidence that uschooling is effective at preparing kids for the world, I would not advocate it. Period! I fully stand with Michael Strong when he says: “My main interest in unschooling is not ‘libertarianism’ or ‘rights’ per se, but rather universal human flourishing.” In her recent book, Unschooled, Kerry McDonald has also done a fine job synthesizing the literature and telling stories of unschoolers she has met that amply illustrate that the bells, whistles, and coercive structures of schooling simply aren’t necessary to produce valuable learning. When given a resource-rich and supportive environment (where adults help but do not coerce learners), these kids surprise you until you’ve been surprised by enough of them that it ceases to be surprising.
But isn’t this really just a select group of kids? This is a tough one, because I know of no demographic data about what types of families unschooled kids tend to come from. But my goal (I suspect one all of my fellow discussion participants share) is to find ways to expand the possibility of unschooling to more and more families. Here, Corey DeAngelis’s essay reminds us of what I think is a “double whammy” for unschoolers: on one hand, governments are leery to subsidize their educational options, unschooling or “democratic”/“free” schools, with state funds. Yet without such support, the only families that will unschool are those who can afford to absorb all of the (money, time, and energy) costs.
I hope skeptics will take a close look at some of the evidence my fellow discussants and I have cited in support of giving children more freedom in their educations.
The Limits to Research on Unschooling
Kevin Currie-Knight points out that we should advocate unschooling because the research suggests it works—and that we should oppose unschooling if the evidence suggests otherwise. Scientific evidence is a potentially powerful tool that can help us learn about education policy. But research shouldn’t be the main factor determining whether society should support unschooling. Here’s why.
To my knowledge, no random assignment studies exist linking unschooling or homeschooling to student outcomes. Put differently, while the research base currently leans in favor of home education, none of the existing studies can overcome the problem of selection bias. At the moment, families choosing unschooling for their children are likely more advantaged than families sending their children to government-run schools. Students with access to unschooling likely have families with the resources and motivation it takes to pull them out of the free government-run schools. In other words, the superior outcomes demonstrated by students educated at home might be explained by background rather than education type.
What if unschoolers become a relatively less advantaged group in the future? The research—limited by design—could very well swing “negative” because of the change in the student population rather than a change in the effectiveness of unschooling. In this scenario, the true effect of unschooling on student outcomes could be positive while the evidence appears negative. In other words—we would actually harm students if we decided to forbid unschooling based on limited evidence.
But let’s assume we had a rich body of random assignment studies with large samples (the gold standard of research design) to evaluate the effectiveness of unschooling. It would be more useful and more informative.
Even studies using random assignment rely on the law of large numbers. In other words, the best scientific tool we have available still only allows us to calculate average effects for large groups—even with random assignment, we are not able to determine the effect of any program for an individual student. This limitation is important because, mathematically, individual students in the sample might have benefited from unschooling even if the overall average effect is negative. In other words, a uniform policy banning unschooling might harm individual students in the sample that were actually benefiting from unschooling.
Then comes the question of external validity. What we can learn—even from the best studies—is limited by the students in the sample and the program being evaluated. A rigorous study might reveal negative effects of a specific unschooling program for one cohort of students in a specific year. But student cohorts change over time. And program effectiveness changes over time. Government officials could decide to close down an unschooling community—based on historical evidence—that would improve over time and start working really well for newer sets of students.
And we’re still not done yet.
What outcomes will be used to determine whether to forbid unschooling—and who gets to pick the metric of success? My bet is that regulators would primarily focus on standardized test scores. It is, after all, the state’s preferred “accountability” metric for government-run schools and schools of choice. The main problem is that standardized test scores aren’t strong proxies for students’ long-term outcomes—and families want to do so much more for their children than simply maximize math and reading test scores. In other words, regulators could harm students’ long-term outcomes by shutting down their unschooling community based mostly on lackluster test scores.
What’s worse—I’m not confident that government officials would use random assignment methodology to determine which unschooling communities are permissible. School choice regulators, for example, have focused primarily on standardized test score levels, which do not account for differences in student backgrounds.
Even the best tools available to central planners are limited in important ways. Those limitations can lead to severe unintended consequences. But what should we do about the small set of parents who might make objectively bad education decisions for their kids? Where should we draw the line when it comes to educational freedom?
This is a very tough issue. The state should obviously intervene if other members of society report clear acts of abuse or negligence by the parents—but that is much different than the government defining and enforcing what education quality means for everyone. I agree with Kerry McDonald’s argument that although “there will be instances when parents fail,” granting the government the power to regulate the education of all children is the bigger risk. Most families know much more about their children’s needs than bureaucrats sitting in offices hundreds of miles away.
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.
What Unschooling Research Can Already Show Us
Corey DeAngelis correctly points to the nonexistence of “random assignment studies…linking unschooling or homeschooling to student outcomes.” He points to several problems that would come with producing such studies. First, randomly assigning families to unschool is problematic and would violate the very aversion to coercion that typifies unschooling. Also, specifying the types of outcomes we want to compare between unschoolers and “conventional schoolers” is problematic, as unschooling is often based on the idea that learners grow in their own ways at their own rates.
Studies on unschooling, of course, do exist but tend to be small-scale qualitative studies. They either use survey data where past or present unschoolers report on their unschooling experience, or where researchers detail how learners learn outside of schooled structures. These studies carry the limitations of having small and possibly non-representative sample sizes and methodologies where the subjects or investigators are engaged in potentially biased reporting.
I am not as troubled by this as Corey might be. While I’d love to see larger studies done, that will have to wait until unschooling becomes a larger-scale phenomenon. At this point, sadly, what unschoolers must show—what these qualitative studies do show—is that unschooling is a possibility. Culturally, we have imbibed the message that kids simply cannot learn productive things without imposed curriculum, grades, classrooms with teachers, and so on. I’d love to see whether unschooling really does work with larger populations, and maybe someday, those studies can be done. But for now, I want to show people that unschooling is possible, that kids can learn outside of schooled structures. Even if we can say about these qualitative studies that they just relay the experiences of a special kind of learner from a special, non-representative, kind of family, we can answer: “Maybe, but that special kind of kid clearly doesn’t need school as much as you think they do! And if so, maybe other special kinds of kids don’t either.”
Cultural Design as Educational Innovation
There are many examples of teen YouTube stars who have entirely taught themselves skills to an extraordinarily high degree of virtuosity. Consider, for example, Jeong-Hyun Lim, a self-taught Korean known as Funtwo, who taught himself guitar and became a YouTube guitar celebrity with tens of millions of views. If a teen wants to learn something, with the resources available online today it is impossible to stop them from learning.
Note the cost of this education system—once a child has access to a smart phone and internet access, the cost is zero.
What would it take to transition to a world in which young people learned not only excellence in guitar, but excellence in other valuable skills by means of such a system? Of course, many are already learning a solid foundation of coding via Minecraft and other game-like platforms. Last year I met a 10th-grade software developer who was managing a team for a startup. One of those coders who reported to him was a Columbia University CS graduate. He had been a Minecraft fanatic when he was younger and gradually learned to code in several different languages. Thus this world of “learning valuable skills for free” is already happening.
Joseph Henrich’s The Secret of Our Success explains how the global dominance of Homo sapiens is not due to individual cognitive powers but rather due to social learning. We are distinctive among all animals in our ability to learn through culture, the practices and behaviors of other human beings.
Young learners all the way up to adults … automatically and unconsciously attend to and preferentially learn from others based on cues of prestige, success, skill, sex, and ethnicity. From other people we readily acquire tastes, motivations, beliefs, strategies, and our standards for reward and punishment.
Given such an efficient system for learning, embedded into our physiology and cognition through millions of years of evolution, one might have thought that we would have developed an education system that is aligned with these genetically programmed mechanisms.
Instead, thanks to the Prussian belief in the state brought to us by Horace Mann, the public choice ratcheting upwards decade by decade, refined into the impersonal bureaucratic machine we have today, we have an education system which ignores the natural human mechanisms of learning. It is a vivid example of “seeing like a state,” in James C. Scott’s terminology. Legibility of bureaucratic systems trumps the real needs of human beings to learn socially.
Our biologically programmed learning mechanisms are especially focused on the behavior of peers, especially during puberty. As Judith Rich Harris notes, a focus on peers makes evolutionary sense because they are the cohort with whom we are likely to find our mating opportunities and with whom we compete most directly for status. As a consequence, adolescents are acutely focused on cues of “prestige, success, skill, sex, and ethnicity” (Henrich notes that “ethnicity” is not race, but rather shared cultural cues). They have less of a biological need to focus on adults, especially those far from their cohort. While an 18-year-old may be interested in the behavior of a 22-year-old, and a 14-year-old in the behavior of an 18-year-old, a 14-year-old is not much interested in the behavioral norms of a 50-year-old (unless that person has a significant degree of prestige, success, etc.)
Is it possible to deploy peer and cultural mechanisms aligned with our biology to achieve learning outcomes that are more effective, less costly, and more aligned with the needs of individual children?
This is definitely the frontier we should be exploring. Those families and educators who are deliberately exploring the frontiers beyond the limits of statist schooling are de facto the Jobs and Wozniak, the Gates and Allen, of 21st century learning.
In 1970, IBM was the third largest corporation in the world. It and a handful of other mainframe manufacturers set the standards for computing at the time. Teenage boys, some of them hanging out with the Homebrew Computer Club in Silicon Valley, changed the world.
Meanwhile the dominant government schooling system sets the standards for curriculum development, testing, textbook development, teacher training, student information systems, and so on. This dominant standard, designed with the legibility needs of the state in mind, is far more powerful than IBM was in 1970. We need many thousands of families and educators to gradually create a higher quality, lower cost, more highly personalized model of education for the next billion young people of the world. These families and educators will craft subcultures of well-being and excellence that are rooted in human biology, featuring modeling and peer cultures more than “teaching.”
Because human beings learn automatically and well when their cultural cues tell them to do so, given global access to technology we will be able to provide a superior education to anyone at no cost. The challenge is to design cultures in which positive learning outcomes reliably take place. Thus the real “edtech” revolution will be in cultural design, not technology per se.
[1.] Joseph Henrich, The Secret of Our Success: How Culture Is Driving Human Evolution, Domesticating Our Species, and Making Us Smarter. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2015.
[2.] James C. Scott, Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1999.
[3.] Judith Rich Harris, The Nurture Assumption: Why Children Turn Out the Way They Do. New York: Free Press, 2009.
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.
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.