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Unschooling: the Future of Education?

Ben Hewitt doesn’t send his boys to school—he doesn’t even own a curriculum. He’s an “unschooling” parent. Though the method has grown in popularity since educator John Holt introduced it in his books and theory, many Americans are still largely unaware of the term’s meaning or methodology. Hewitt explains and introduces the concept at Outside magazine: It […]

Ben Hewitt doesn’t send his boys to school—he doesn’t even own a curriculum. He’s an “unschooling” parent. Though the method has grown in popularity since educator John Holt introduced it in his books and theory, many Americans are still largely unaware of the term’s meaning or methodology. Hewitt explains and introduces the concept at Outside magazine:

It is already obvious that unschooling is radically different from institutionalized classroom learning, but how does it differ from more common homeschooling? Perhaps the best way to explain it is that all unschooling is homeschooling, but not all homeschooling is unschooling. While most homeschooled children follow a structured curriculum, unschoolers like Fin and Rye have almost total autonomy over their days. At ages that would likely see them in seventh and fourth grades, I generously estimate that my boys spend no more than two hours per month sitting and studying the subjects, such as science and math, that are universal to mainstream education. Not two hours per day or even per week. Two hours per month.

But perhaps to abate the shock and alarm of thousands of parents, Hewitt adds,

Our sons are not entirely self-taught; we understand the limits of the young mind and its still-developing capacity for judgment. … I can report that Fin and Rye both learned to read and write with essentially zero instruction, albeit when they were about eight years old, a year or so later than is expected. They can add and subtract and multiply and divide. I can report that they do indeed have friends, some who attend school and some who don’t, and their social skills are on par with their peers. In fact, Penny and I often hear from other adults that our sons seem better socialized than like-aged schoolchildren.

Hewitt believes that unschooling makes his boys happier, healthier, and more exuberant learners. He’s part of a growing group of parents who thinking homeschooling—whether applied via a more structured format, or via the more self-directed unschooling methodology—presents a better environment for children to grow and learn.

The greatest contrast to unschooling, perhaps, is the helicopter parenting method, in which children adhere to a very strict curricular and extra-curricular regimen. This sort of learning can take place in public or private school, or even occasionally in homeschooling households. Such families usually have at least the outline of a college plan in mind for their children, and their academic, athletic, and artistic pursuits will align with this overarching trajectory. Many parents encourage this “track” in hopes that their children will be successful in their future adult lives. However, these “guaranteed” methods for career success have fallen into disarray as of late. With crippling student loans and shaky job prospects confronting college graduates at every turn, many are reconsidering their demanding trajectories, wondering whether the work is truly worth it.

On the opposite end of the educative spectrum, we have more libertarian, loose methods, in which children are given a vast array of freedom over their education. This can either be intentionally or passively developed: some children in public school may receive little to no adult supervision. The system is very flexible, giving parents the opportunity to lean in or opt out of their children’s education.

But then there’s unschooling: a very intentional sort of negligence (though the word “negligence” is perhaps a bit too dysphemistic). Parents choose to let their children choose, sculpt, direct, and orchestrate their own education (or lack thereof). This method seems to have two common motivations that separate it from the more popular method of “homeschooling”: first, there are unschooling parents who acknowledge that children will learn what they truly want to learn, and that forcing them down a given path can have deleterious consequences. They see that their children are highly motivated when they are free to pursue their own aspirations, ambitions, and projects, and want to foster this sort of driven passion in their children’s learning. Thus, the reasoning goes, what better than to give them control of their own education?

But some parents are likely to adopt unschooling because they think children know what they need better than adults do. It’s a sort of “noble savage” approach to the world of education and child-rearing. As unschooling parent Joyce Fetterol put it on her blog, Joyfully Rejoycing,

[If] they are happy and free and are making these choices because it brings them joy, then we should trust that it really is what they want or need right now. … We need to trust that when it is enough for them, then they will stop. Their ‘enough’ may be different from where ours is.

While parents like Fetterol have excellent intentions, the results of their approach are often mixed. Children, despite their innocence, are also ignorant—and often foolish. If a child wants to spend their days reading comic books and playing video games, because they think it’s best for them, should a parent intervene? At what point does one draw the line, and decide more supervision is necessary? Hewitt’s success relies at least in part on the fact that his sons live on a farm: thus, they have very structured and supervised days. Though their educational pursuits may not be mandatory, their daily chores are. This gives an important structure and framework to their day, in the way school would.

But the dilemma of unschooling remains: how much freedom is too much freedom? If we let children direct their own education, should we also let them direct their leisure time, social activities, spiritual, or emotional development? At what point do parents say “no” to a given pursuit or inclination? During past interviews on this subject, a few different unschooling parents told me they make sure unschooling does not because “unparenting”: children still receive daily supervision, chores, parental direction, etc. It seems Hewitt may take a similar approach with his boys.

And it seems that the unschooling method, when developed along these parameters, may indeed lead to healthier, happier kids: kids who have time to play, get exercise, develop their reasoning and problem-solving capacities, to discover and develop their pursuits with alacrity and passion. They can learn at their own pace, without the pressure and competition of a classroom. Some more extroverted or competitive children may find this method less palatable, but for highly self-motivated or introverted learners, something like the unschooling method may help them flourish and grow intellectually.

It’s also worth noting that, in today’s challenging job market, students may need a method such as this to thrive. Many of the grownup unschoolers I’ve met have become truly excellent at their given pursuit, whether science, veterinary work, farming, engineering, or what-have-you. These young adults were given the freedom and tools to build their own career out of passion and excitement, rather than squeezing such pursuits in between mandatory English and Chemistry classes.

But this seeming strength of unschooling could also be its greatest weakness: it pursues specificity to the detriment of balance and intellectual sagacity. Children’s pursuits could become too single-minded, too narrow, thus leading them to future career disappointments, or even into intellectual prejudice and ignorance. The liberal arts education customary amongst the ancient Greeks and Romans was thought to foster freedom, by nature of its scope and depth. It covered a swath of topics, from mathematics to music, that were thought to foster a healthy mind and virtuous character. The topics it presented transcended the professional, vocational, or technical, and sought to craft superior intellects and souls.

This is the sort of education that falls most into disrepute in modern America: we look at the classical liberal arts, and ask what they’re good for—yet if we dispose of this solid educational core, we estrange children from the deeper tenets by which they can organize and sort their lives. The liberal arts helps young adults and children develop intellectual discernment, which then enables them to navigate the more practical, technical facets of human existence.

Perhaps the best sort of unschooling method would be one in which students are encouraged to learn this core of important subjects—but are also given the freedom to pursue such subjects at a pace, and in a venue, they are most comfortable with. They may be told that they must read three classic works of fiction, and three of non-fiction, per semester—but they can read in the evening before bed, in the mornings before breakfast, or in the afternoon under a tree in the backyard. They must study basic math and geometry—but they can find innovative and practical ways in which to do so. They must learn a language, but they can pick the language and the method. On the list goes: giving students freedom, yet still directing them toward the principles of liberal education.

These questions of methodology are vitally important, as the next generation faces a daunting educational and career hurdle. Parents and children may need to bend, or even break, the customary ideals and stereotypes associated with a “good” education in order to succeed. But we must continually endeavor to align our schooling system—be it public, private, home, or “un”—with the higher principles of education, and what it’s for. Those principles never go out of style.