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March-April 2006 Selected Content

An Argument Between Friends: Compulsory Education vs. Unschooling - Shay Seaborne

I am an avid supporter of free public education. Even though I choose not to utilize the public schools, I am happy to support them. My argument, therefore, is not against public schools, but against compulsory education. I would like to see free public education become just that: truly free.

A longtime friend and I had an argument via e-mail. She maintained that compulsory education is vital, and yet her line of reasoning revealed that she also felt harmed by the compulsory education to which she had been subjected as a child.

Friend: Like you, I had many problems with the education that I received. I was mostly bored and couldn’t see the link between what I was being taught and what I could do with it as an adult.

Shay: I think that is common. In fact, I still can’t see the link between what I was supposed to learn in school and what I do as an adult. Beyond learning to read, write and count (including some division and multiplication), what I was taught in school largely hasn’t applied to my adult life, because the world has changed so much. Only by continuing to learn and adapting have I been able to meet the demands of my world.

Many things I was taught in school, like algebra, bored me, and I have not used them in adult life. I “learned” enough to pass the tests, but promptly forgot it because it truly had no bearing on my life at the time or since. Spending time and effort on unappealing but required subjects reduced my opportunities to learn the things that did interest me. I have achieved the vast majority of my learning outside of compulsory school, and that education is what has enriched my life and fostered my ability to contribute to society.

While I was out of the compulsory education system for two years as a teen, I traveled in South America, learned how to samba and speak some Portuguese, made enough money to buy a boat, polished my sailing skills, wrote poetry and read gobs of books. I learned how to train horses through reading books and putting that knowledge into action. A friend taught me how to play basketball and carve wood. I taught myself how to snorkel and spearfish, read Euell Gibbons and applied that knowledge in the field. I also studied marine biology, oceanography and organic farming. I learned all of this because I wanted to, and because I had the “luxury” of free time to pursue my interests as they arose.

Friend: You are an exception when it comes to learning. You have a lot of self-motivation.

Shay: Human beings are hardwired for learning; we have proportionally huge brains, and are born with the desire to explore and learn about our world. You can see it in any baby: she works hard to hold up her head so she can see and take in what’s around her; she overcomes frustration and figures out how to work her legs and rise to walk; she listens, observes, experiments, figures out how to talk learns the names of colors, animals, people, things, places and more. Little children play with water and sand and light and shadow and learn physics, cause and reaction.

But what is called “education” in most schools boils down to forced memorization of factoids to be regurgitated on command. The institutional school system demands conformity and is designed to meet administrative needs—not the needs of the human beings compelled to it—and is therefore often counterproductive, actually thwarting the inborn quest for knowledge.

Friend: I strongly suspect that if education was not compulsory, a lot of people would drop out…and the ignorance quotient would rise.

Shay: Where has it been shown that, given the freedom to choose, people will turn down education? Throughout history, people have struggled to obtain a good education. They’ve sacrificed nutrition for books or tuition, or risked being mobbed for attending a “white” school. Colleges are turning away record numbers of students, and college is not compulsory.

Even if a huge block of students would drop out of school if it were not compulsory, what does that say about the school system? When education is freely available but not compulsory, the vast majority of people will seek it. Were schools set up more like libraries—as learning centers, where there is access to books, computers, classes, resources, learning guides and assistants—they would be centers of activity and true learning, rather than places of dread.

Those who would shun the learning centers do not benefit by being forced to attend school. They disrupt what little real learning might occur and suck resources away from the children who do want to learn. One simply cannot force people to learn what they do not want to learn.

Friend: Even your kids are getting a compulsory education.

Shay: There is virtually no compulsory education going on here. Caitlin and Laurel have the luxury of following their interests. They learned to read because they wanted to read. The only compulsory item is trying new things. I insist they try something, giving it a good try, before determining whether they want to keep on it or not. They were resistant to Science Club, but discovered they like physics (throwing eggs). They greatly enjoy our travel/culture/geography club and learn what interests them about the countries, celebrations and people. But their largest interest, aside from history, is drama. Through the Homeschool Theatre Troupe they are learning many new things: being exposed to new people and relationships and learning how to handle them; more about blocking; more about terms used in drama; more about inflection and timing; and working with a large team. Their involvement in theater has fostered their interest in Shakespeare, and from there, other areas of interest.

Friend: If they said to you right now that they didn’t want to learn another thing, that they didn’t want any more homeschooling, would you allow them to quit?

Shay: I would laugh and say, “Good luck!” My children are learning all the time. I would allow them to quit anything they are doing, but I would insist they choose something else to do with themselves.

Friend: You would find some way to cajole them back into the learning/schooling mode.

Shay: They were born in the learning mode and have never been jaded out of it. Cait and Laurel have never been in the “schooling mode.” My kids direct their learning. I just direct their attention sometimes.

Friend: Even though you and I work in different educational environments, we utilize similar approaches to teaching for many of the same reasons. We want to see students excel, to instill a love of learning, to open minds, to motivate, to excite. We both employ a lead-by-following technique, and we both introduce our students to all of the standard stuff—reading, writing, communications, research, math, history, geography and the like.

Shay: While I do introduce the kids to “the standard stuff,” I don’t care if they “excel,” I just want them to be happy, conscientious, functional and capable people who know how to find answers to their questions. I don’t need to instill a love of learning, because it was never uninstalled. Likewise for motivation and excitement.

Friend: You are educating them whether they like it or not.

Shay: I am not educating them. I am allowing them to find their own education and follow their interests and motivations. We call it “unschooling” or “child-led,” “interest led” or “delight-driven” learning. The easiest way to visualize it is to picture a school as part of the community, with all the stores, banks, people, libraries, museums, art galleries, businesses, sidewalks, parks, etc. around it. Imagine families and single adults and the elderly and the neighbors and the kind people and the truly warped. And then erase the school building. We simply don’t “do” school.

Friend: Mandatory education is vital and the backbone of democracy and social justice.

Shay: Schools provide an important service and are a necessary part of modern society, but I think mandatory education has a negative impact on our society. It hampers democracy and social justice, because the compulsory system itself is the antithesis of those.

My longtime friend has apparently kept her position, and I have kept mine. We continue to maintain our friendship.

© 2006, Shay Seaborne

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