Home Education Magazine
November-December 1998 - Articles
I Am An Unschooled Adult
I am an unschooled adult. I began unschooling the day I quit my fourth year in college. I had received a letter from the registrar telling me that time was running out and I must declare a major. I had changed it several times, from psychology to sociology to biology to English, and finally to journalism. But I didn't love any one subject enough to commit to it exclusively. I also began to feel that I was using college as a sort of baby-sitter. I was afraid of being on my own. College was a continuation of having my life dictated and organized for me, as it had been for the previous twelve years, and I didn't know any other way.
I finished that quarter and didn't go back. There was suddenly this huge empty space in front of me called the future and I had this new freedom I didn't know what to do with. I decided to go traveling out West and visit my older sister. For the first time in fifteen years I was to become part of the workings of the world around me, instead of being inside a classroom for most of the day, listening to teachers or reading books that described the outside world in a one-dimensional, lifeless way. Now I wanted to touch the world with all of my senses; I could feel the physical separation from my little town in Georgia as I traveled further into the Texas desert, and butterflies swarmed in my stomach at the thought that I was on a greyhound bus, by myself, doing something drastically and radically different from anything I had ever done in my life. I was carrying out my first life changing (life-directed ) choice, and that very thought terrified and thrilled me! Reading about the world was no longer good enough, and I spent the next four years traveling, working my way around and learning. This was a time of "finding myself," of figuring out how to live my life by my own definitions and deciding what my priorities were.
Knowing what I know now, it is clear that those years were a time when I was "de-schooling." I was growing up. I was figuring out that I had always lived from the outside-in instead of the inside-out. I had never heard of the disadvantages, much less the detriments, of formal schooling, so I had no logical explanation for why I was feeling completely lost in a great big world which was supposed to be full of opportunities. I felt stuck in time, as if I had no past and no future. I felt guilty and disappointed in myself that after fifteen years of formal education I didn't know what I wanted to do with my life. I had tasted the joy of freedom that came from leaving college; I knew there had to be a deeper answer to living life in a fulfilling way, where the substance of it was something to grow on. I am not talking about spiritual fulfillment, but in living life usefully, as a worthy and needed human being. I had given over 12,000 hours of my life to school, and I decided that I deserved to step back, take time out and evaluate my choices.
In my first unschooling years as an adult I had to strip away a lot of misconceptions about "success." It was a trying time of tug-of-war between "what should I be doing?" and "what in my heart do I want to do?." I allowed myself time to experiment. I didn't set a deadline, because that would have caused too much pressure and defeated the whole purpose. This crooked path was not to be underestimated because it was an investment in research, patient research. As a result, I stumbled into many interesting places, people's lives, jobs of all kinds, the world that had been "behind the scenes" during my school years.
I chose pathways that allowed me to explore and also financially support myself. This was fairly easy since it was just me. I waitressed; house-sat a small ranch with a variety of animals and cared for four children ages 6-14 (it was here that I also befriended a wild mustang horse); was a PBX operator; worked intensively one year at a crisis center and drug/suicide hotline where I was given the Volunteer of the Year award; worked in a plant nursery and flower shop; was hired as cashier for a health food store where I became an expert with medicinal herbs; studied child psychology on my own, mostly through reading. These experiences along with many others so changed and empowered me, so helped me know who I was and what was important to me, that the thought of ever going back to school seemed self-defeating. The fact is, many years later I did take a college course, but only because it was specific to a goal I was trying to accomplish, and I felt that this course would help me "polish up" on the skills I was working on, and it did. I am very glad to this day that I took that class, because I researched it and chose it as a tool along my way.
The pathway of anyone's life is a chain of cause and effect. What we do at any given moment is like planting seeds that will sprout in one way or another. When we live from the inside-out, trusting what we know is right for ourselves, the way may have bumps and obstacles, but that is the way of growing. We are all very aware of what growing pains are, and venturing into the unknown is simply a process of shedding light onto a shadowed place. This is what we do as unschoolers. We live, absorb, digest and create, all from the inside-out. It is said that peace on earth begins with ourselves; we must be true to who we are, know who we are, in order to effect change. It is an osmosis, and again, cause and effect. By living honestly we inspire those around us to be comfortable with doing the same; and this causes a chain reaction. The seeds we plant, the choices we make, help us carve a path all our own, and very importantly, they help us identify along the way the people and situations we want to become involved with--we can make choices that are good for us and our families. Here is what I consider the greatest problem teenagers face: making choices that empower and sustain them, that propel them to further growth and sense of purpose. The teenage years clearly reflect how school leaves children completely unprepared for living authentic and fulfilling adult lives.
The cause and effect in my life led to marriage and having a family. Planning a family was right on the unschooling agenda because this, too, was one of those huge chunks of real adult living that formal schooling never introduced me to. I faced the oldest human task (and privilege) like a wide-eyed kid wondering "how do I do this?" Again, thorough research uncovered many choices concerning pre-natal care and delivery. My husband and I had to weigh the institutional approach against the personal natural birth assisted by a midwife approach, and we chose the personal route because it was right for us. Most parents will agree that the world of delivering and caring for a baby is filled with impacting and even scary decisions which will affect the child's entire future; from birthing environment to choices about immunizations and healthcare, educational options, and so on. I had no idea how many responsibilities I would take on when my child was born! I rose to the occasion, and educated myself to the best of my ability.
That's when I heard about homeschooling. It made complete sense to me. And when I learned about the unschooling approach, it really made sense that learning is living. I had discovered that for myself as an adult; in fact, it was my own unschooling-after-school that helped me become an authentic adult. The vision I could now hold for my child was one of natural unfolding, of blossoming into a flower with a beauty and fragrance all its own.
Unschooling requires a shift of thinking away from the mainstream approach of mass traditional schooling. We are going against the grain of a deeply rooted institution which is really a very set way of life in our culture. This way of life has determined the state of the family, how we parent, how we view children. It is all pervading in our day-to-day living. As a result of institutionalizing children, separating them from interaction with adults and children younger and older than themselves, keeping them from being a natural and useful part of the living world around them, expecting them to hunger for the tasteless, anemic food that school forces them to eat--all this and more creates a cultural and personal situation that is no different from the separation of nobility and peasantry of old. Our schooled children are starving for life, and for close-knit family relationships. They are tired of being standardized, of lacking specialness, of having their feelings and their personal needs denied, of being treated like infants when they are old enough to walk home from school alone (perhaps be home alone for a couple of hours), old enough to baby-sit, to drive, to choose a college and a career.
A few weeks ago I took my son to our elementary school's science fair. We enjoyed the exhibits, but I came across something that deeply upset me. The second grade exhibits were "inventions." Each child's invention was accompanied by a written report explaining a problem and how the invention would solve that problem. Out of curiosity I opened one child's report. It was severely marred by the teacher's red penned corrections, and I felt that I was invading this child's privacy by looking at her paper. I felt sick with pity; I knew she had to be ashamed of it. Her report would have been just fine full of mistakes, because the effort and intention would have shined through. I tell this story because this is the approach to education we are trying to get away from.
Unschooling, along with homeschooling in general, automatically changes a child's living perspective from outside-in to inside-out. He/she is home based now, and is living from a place where there is a spirit love and nurturing. When the basic personal needs for love and acceptance are met, we flourish. Children who are unschooled in such homes can become comfortable with change, flexibility, trial and error (without subsequent grading and emphasis on mistakes), bio-rhythms, solitude, personal time management, freedom of speech, and freedom of choice in what they pursue. As unschoolers we set personal patterns, routines, plans. We meet individual needs. We do not live by prescription. We do not expect our children to be the same everyday (and we do not expect every day to be the same, because it isn't!). We do not expect them to like what we like, think what we think, taste food the same way we taste it. They are unique, and they too have the right to live from the inside-out.
I recently learned that Albert Einstein failed mathematics in school. He played imagination games with himself which resulted in many of his greatest scientific insights. He hated to waste time on unnecessary activities, such as choosing what to wear that day, because it wasted his mental energy. He was fortunate to have a mother who recognized his needs, who homeschooled him and gave him a supportive home life where he could explore and know himself.
It is never too late to unschool, because in living from within there is no time limit and no deadline for self-knowledge. As unschooling parents we are also examples as we live that way of life. I like the word "unschooling." For me, it represents the best school of all: the school of Life.
(c)1998, Susanna Wesley
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