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Unschooled: Raising Curious, Well-Educated Children Outside the Conventional Classroom

Kerry McDonald, 2019

It’s no secret that, around here, the government schools are frowned upon as satanic prisons where children are abused and civilization is crushed into oblivion. What if it’s not the government part that’s the main problem? After reading this book and thinking about all I have seen, lived, and experienced, I think the idea of “school” itself is problematic. Such is McDonald’s premise in this excellent, methodical, and entertaining work.

I just gave it 5 stars at Amazon and Goodreads and I may go back and incorporate some of these words in a house review. First, there was one thing that caught me a little off guard in the pages. It’s something McDonald doesn’t shy away from and qualifies upfront. There is, to me, an inordinate amount of reference to the … alternative lifestyles. That said, by way of qualification, the author notes that the modern trend was largely started by radical leftists and leftover hippies, then followed increasingly by the Christian right. She also praises Andrew Carnegie, for whom I have no sociological use at all. But, at any rate, the whole tome is very well-balanced and apolitical.

And, though the current “movement” started in the 1970s, the concept is ancient. Until about 150 years ago, there were next to no schools anywhere. Or, at least there were no monstrosities of the kind that dot American towns and cities these days. There were colleges, elite academies, private tutors, and local private collective efforts, but the bulk of human education was left to the family … and to the children themselves. And it worked.

It still does.

I made something like 169 Kindle notes and highlights as I worked my way through. Most of them, I’ll leave off, here. What really stood out to me was the concept of what McDonald styles the “instruction assumption.” We, most of us, naturally (or unnaturally) assume that to learn one must be instructed. I wrestled with this, as likely you will as well. McDonald did. It is a fallacy.

Who taught you to stand up? To walk? To talk? To run? The answer is “you.” Believe it or not – and the book really helps – children can and will continue to self-educate, constantly and with all subjects. The purpose of an “instructor,” a parent, is to maintain a state of freedom, riddled with inspiration and opportunity, so as to facilitate what the child can do on his own.

“Public” schools are antithetical to this natural process, as are many (most) private schools, and even curriculum-directed homeschooling. A period of “de-schooling” may be required to dispense with the horrible habits of conformity and debasement.

Some quotes:

“The reason kids hate school is because it’s school.”

“It’s Not the kids. It’s the schools.”

Let those words sink in. If you’ve worked in a school or if you have a child in a school, then you subconsciously know. If not, then remember back to your own experiences so many years ago.

McDonald breaks down, as have many other analysts, how modern schools are designed to break spirits, foster useless conformity, and miseducate. This is the opposite of learning. For doubters – and I had my doubts – she presents example after example, to include academic studies and historical examples, that prove the laissez-faire approach not only works but that it generally works much better than the alternatives. It works for happy children and also for the greater society. Most of our titans of intellect and accomplishment, from Athens to London to Philadelphia, were unschooled and yet managed to change the world or parts thereof. Her example of “young Tom” was insightful and hilarious. *I understand that Tom Ironsides also read the book and is reconsidering his classical school model along more decentralized lines.*

Children can forego school completely, take no standardized tests, receive no useless credentialing paper, exempt the SAT, and still gain admittance to a good college. There, they typically outpace their schooled counterparts. College is not the only secondary path; it may not be the best one given a particular child. There are all kinds of alternatives. The keys are freely-informed consent, individual interest and pacing, and independent and critically-acquired knowledge. Those keys are natural. What goes on in the dull halls of the K-12 world is not.

The solution, as is often the case, is freedom, in this case freely allowing the child to pursue his own interests at his own pace. Even in our crazed, rule-plagued country, this is legal in all 50 states. I developed a sense of awe in the reading. I was also a little jealous; this could have and probably was the best (non) system for me. But, times change. Think of this, for those in the know, as a Sudbury School in the home.

Given human nature and especially the nature of Americans (or what passes for them), I doubt this self-directed methodology will appeal to the masses. But it should. UNSCHOOLED gave me a great, renewed sense of hope. If you have children or if you care anything about the future of intelligent civilization, then I highly recommend not only the book but at least an exploration of the ideas within it.