Confess your unpopular opinion: “Unschooling” is a terrible fad

“Unschooling” or “self-directed learning” is all the rage on homeschooling forums. It’s a loathsome trend that (as a homeschooler) I wish would go away already.

One of my single greatest fears about homeschooling now is being lumped in with unschoolers from a regulatory standpoint and losing the flexibility in educating our child that we currently enjoy. Becoming collateral damage, if you will. I fear the day that government officials catch up to the conversations on Facebook and Twitter.

I think this fad is actually more dangerous to homeschooling than being associated with the occasional story of a child abuser using homeschooling laws to evade detection by authorities that might otherwise intervene on their child’s behalf. Most people are smart enough to understand that there’s a difference between child abuse and homeschooling. But the unschooling fad creates a problematic grey area that is a lot harder to shake.

What is unschooling?

There seems to be some confusion online among folks who label themselves as unschoolers, which strikes me as purely generational. The term unschooling was used by people who were originally drawn into homeschooling by educators like John Taylor Gatto. These personalities were sort of libertarian in disposition and spoke of themselves as “unschoolers” merely to differentiate homeschooling from traditional government-operated schools. That is to say, unschooling and homeschooling were essentially synonymous from the 1970s until very recently.

The first generation of unschoolers wanted to emphasize the fact that they could cover topics that traditional schools could not (either because they were restricted by law or by the practical limits of ushering 40 kids in a classroom through complex subject matters). That they included rich experiences like travel or apprenticeships into their idea of education.

Now the term unschooling has been co-opted by a new generation of homeschoolers to refer to a home education philosophy that eschews all trappings of a formal education and strives to avoid putting children through any form of emotional stress whatsoever. In fact, avoiding perceived sources of stress is the most important issue for them.

Working from a set curriculum might scar your child for life. If you force a textbook on your child, they will hate education forever.

You don’t need to decide what your child will study. He or she will reveal their interests to you. You aren’t a teacher. You are a guide, learning coach, whatever. Even the word “teacher” is triggering and suggests oppression.

Schedules and routines are evil. Each day should be about finding opportunities for unstructured play.

What happened?

Sure, play is important. Kids absolutely should be outside playing more than they are now. I’ve made these statements many times in the past. But is it more important than being literate and numerate? There are bad reasons for homeschooling. It’s okay to say that.

When did the stereotypical homeschooler stop being the Christian tiger mom that preached about academic excellence and a work ethic? When did she become the mother who describes home education as relaxed days spent swilling lattes and posting carefully staged pictures of her children doing wholesome things on Instagram? When did we end up with homeschooling trolls on social media shaming and bullying other parents about how they are “pushing their kids too hard” and “depriving them of a childhood” because they are teaching their kids Latin or drilling them on math problems? When did some homeschooling forums become just as infantilizing and unserious as Common Core? The opportunity to give your child a rigorous education was always one of the top reasons to homeschool. Rigor is something to defend, not scorn!

Everyone is an expert

Honestly, I think the answer is that homeschooling has been undermined by its own popularity.

There are currently several million families in the United States that choose to homeschool their children. I suspect the real number is actually higher than “official” estimates, as there are a litany of states that no longer collect any data on homeschoolers. (Publishing data on the number of parents that have elected to pull their kids from public schools does not exactly make a state government look good.)

Homeschooling has now transitioned from a perceived counterculture to a target market economically. There are hundreds, if not thousands, of websites, publishers, and self-publishers trying to hawk materials and advice to homeschoolers. On Amazon, you can now find probably 200 self-help books about homeschooling that all pretend that anyone from any background with any motive can homeschool well. “You don’t need to stress about what math curriculum your child needs! Just let them play all day! Your child will tell you what they need! Homeschooling is easy!”

That is pretty much bullshit. Even if you run the most hippie homeschool in the world, with no emotional stress and no tests and no prescribed content, in all likelihood your child will eventually need to be able to demonstrate that they can take a test or write an essay. Like, you know, when they apply for college.

In fact, this is one of the greatest lies the unschooling fad pushes, which is that there are unschoolers that have gone on to colleges, even elite colleges, and thus this approach to education is not a real problem. They aren’t talking about the anti-vaxxer homesteader whose kids’ lives were one giant playdate and learned everything they need to know about biology by growing squash in their backyard. They are talking about the first generation, for whom unschooling had a different meaning entirely. The former are not going to be able to produce a legitimate transcript for college that shows their child did anything akin to AP chemistry.

In all likelihood, your child will end up with a job that involves answering to management, and management will expect them to have a healthy sense of authority.

Heck, even after I finished graduate school I had to take four standardized tests on securities and commodities trading before I could get my first job, which was working at an investment bank. And finance is not unique in this respect. Medicine, law, and many other professions expect you not to be an emotional or academic wimp.

Pretending that your kid can go through their entire life without interacting with the standards imposed by society or ever being pushed out of their comfort zone is beyond delusional. And I think the people selling unschooling fully understand this point. But telling people that homeschooling is an easy, relaxed lifestyle means you can sell more fluffy lifestyle books and get more followers for your fluffy homeschooling lifestyle blog that you can also monetize.

There are endless blogs now selling materials for your relaxed homeschool, most of which are just random people on the Interwebs making PDF worksheets (sorry, they call them “printables” now because “worksheet” sounds like “work” and work’s not granola) with clip art. “I’m a homeschool mom too and here’s the unit I made about caterpillars! Only 99 cents! So wholesome!” Most of these sites are targeting people who are new to homeschooling, because pretending to create resources is easy for elementary-aged children, but nearly impossible for teenagers. I’ve gotten to where I feel like this is extremely predatory, unethical behavior.

If you don’t want to invest the hard work that goes with producing a literate, numerate, cultured human being, then your kids are likely better off in a public school. If you don’t want to make a real investment in academic materials to educate your child, your kids are likely better off in a public school. If you don’t want to add professional educator to the caps you wear, then this gig is not for you.

If you are new to homeschooling, be careful who you let influence your life decisions. Homeschooling forums are now loaded with Oprahs and Gwyneths selling their snake oil to the mommy blog crowd. You don’t get a mulligan on your child’s education. The education you provide them will help define the opportunities they have. Their education is their fate. This is serious stuff.

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