Monday, June 28, 2010

Why I Don't Homeschool (Even Though I Think It's Better)

I wrote recently about some of my objections to the mainstream, compulsory school system. Having such objections while parenting a six year-old child raises the question of what to do about them. This and at least one future post will reflect on this question.

There are a few different options. Given the nature of my objections, schools that are labelled "alternative" might or might not be able to do much to address them. I have certainly read about some that would go a long way to dealing with at least some of my concerns, but many other alternative schools are not really that different from mainstream schools in important respects.

However, I am considering these questions not in some sort of abstract, ideal space, but in a very real location. Sudbury is a small city that still manages to be the largest city for hundreds of kilometers in every direction, and it has, as far as I am aware, no publically funded alternative schools at the elementary level. It has one private alternative school, a Montessori school. In my understanding, the Montessori approach can be a modest improvement on mainstream schooling, and L attended and benefited from a Montessori pre-school completely unaffiliated with this elementary school. However, there are still elements of the pedagogy that are not ideal, and I have no reason to believe that the aspects of explicit and hidden curriculum that concern me would be much different than in a mainstream school. Moreover, high tuition fees tie institutions of this sort into oppressive and exploitative social relations in additional ways by excluding people and by shaping the character of the school, and privileged people opting out of the mainstream school system in ways that depend on their privilege only compounds the problems with the mainstream system. And it is relevant both to curriculum concerns and to the impact of high fees that I have heard from at least two different people in the community that the Montessori school that exists in Sudbury does not do a whole lot to incorporate concerns about social justice into its practices -- if I'm wrong, I'd love to hear about it, but that's what I've heard. Moreover, despite the fact that we are lucky enough to lead quite economically comfortable and secure lives, it would still be very difficult for us to afford.

That leaves homeschooling. I see this as the best option, in the abstract -- or, more specifically, I see the particular variant of homeschooling known as unschooling to be the best. I think it could be worlds better that mainstream schools in terms of pedagogy, and somewhat better though still far from perfect in terms of the ways in which mainstream schools help to reproduce oppressive and exploitative social relations.

And yet, L attends a mainstream school.

I should start out by saying that I feel very conflicted about this. How acutely bad I feel about it varies, and (perhaps shamefully) I feel less torn now than at certain earlier moments. Nonetheless, I still feel frequently sad and occasionally agonized about the fact that I send this little person who is so important to me into an environment about which I have such deep misgivings. So if you read the following as selfish excuses, and feel a response that amounts to moralistic "shoulding," then I -- well, I don't actually want to hear from you, but it's not like I don't react that way myself much of the time.

The reasons why we don't unschool also have to do with the fact that these decisions are being made not in a thought experiment, not in a laboratory, but in the context of real lives. If we were to homeschool in some fashion, it would be me that would have to do the bulk of the work to accommodate that into our lives -- my partner makes far more money than I ever will, at a good, secure job that she likes a great deal. So it would be up to me. Some of it, I could do. I think I would even be good at it. I think the roles of facilitator, catalyst, and model of self-motivated learning would be ones I could fill quite effectively. After all, a good part of my work life for quite a number of years has, to varying degrees, borne a striking resemblance to unschooling, and it would not be unreasonable to describe the last, oh, seven years or so as my own take on graduate unschool.

However, even enthusiastic advocates of unschooling point out that the decision to do it is going to have a major impact on your life and reshape a great deal of your time. And I know, however shameful it might be to admit, that I would come to resent it. I would resent that it would leave me less able to write and read and research and create in other ways and do all of that kind of work which is so important to how I understand myself. Yes, I recognize that this attachment to work and its incorporation into my sense of self is an internalization of various norms associated with capitalism, with the areligious cultural Presbyterianism with which I was raised, and with dominant forms of masculinity (albeit a slightly peculiar variant because it is fixated on work but not money)1. Yes, a case could be made that I should tackle that attachment head-on and overcome it. I might be able to do that if I put enough effort into it. But I know it would make me pretty miserable for a pretty long time, and I don't think that would be good for me or for L.

The other way in which I would have trouble doing a good job as go-to unschooling parent is the social aspect. One common objection that non-homeschoolers have to the practice is that it deprives kids of the social environment that comes with school. Even leaving aside the fact that there are plenty of people who had miserable social experiences in school and who would happily have done without it, this is kind of a bizarre objection. Sure, it's different, but an unschooler without any institutional compulsion to engage in externally dictated and largely non-social activities for significant chunks of every weekday and many evenings, and with an injunction to pursue what they enjoy and learn organically through living, would have plenty of potential space for building meaningful, enjoyable, social connections. The tricky part for me is that especially in the early years, much of that would have to be parentally facilitated. And I'm just not very good at that kind of thing. I'm better than I used to be, and I am constantly working on it, but that doesn't change the fact that I am shy and very socially reserved. Even trying, even improving rapidly, there would be a prolonged period in which I would do a poor job of filling this role for L, which I also don't think would be good for him.

So those are basically the reasons. They may not be good ones, but they are what they are. I suppose there are a sprinkling of other things, too. For instance, there are certain strains of anti-authoritarian politics that place a huge emphasis on responding to oppressive institutions and relations primarily by rejecting them and absenting one's self from them to the greatest extent possible. I'm not going to get into the details, and I do still think there is value to that kind of personal refusal to participate, but I also think that it is easy to overemphasize that kind of response and thereby contribute to anarchist purity politics that erase the many ways that many different people resist and at least implicitly endorse a True Way.

So that's it for this post. The third post in this informal series is going to deal with the question of what to do now, given my objections to schools and my decision (however flawed it might be) that I would just not be able to do unschooling.

1 -- I also recognize that there is a much more positive side to it as well, which is that it represents a potentially much healthier impulse on my part to create.


andrea said...

i laughed when i read how you didn't really want to hear from "should" people, given your already deep, painful, personal reflection. well put.

i'm not quite at the place you are, but sending sahid to daycare is a lot like school. for the most part i think ours is a good place (esp. given the fact that we can't pay much): there's not a lot of explicit curriculum besides play, his language development increased a lot compared to at his previous daycare and the people that work there seem genuinely happy to be there. and s loves to go play. (and that's another thing that i am so happy about: i hate playing at playgrounds. it's mind-numbingly boring for me. so i'm glad he can get his play on w/o me.) all that said there's a lot of "boys will be boys" (his class is 80% boys) gendering (i sent him in a pink shirt and the young male jockish teacher actually commented on it) and since we live in a white town it's a pretty white daycare. since we don't speak english at home he also has some phrases that are either quirky, or a little disturbing that he must've learned there: "may. i. please. have. it." is one, but the other day a dog was barking and he said, "shuttup, that's enough." there's older kids at the daycare so it's likely he heard that from them, but still it gave me pause.

i'm looking forward to your next installment. i also wanted to organize something similar to what marie curie had for her children--a sort of parent teaching co-op. can you imagine? pre-school chemistry experiments! (maybe minus the radioactive shit) but the reality of organizing, sustaining that is pretty overwhelming...

what i think about a lot, actually, and this is from the multilingual perspective is peer interaction. i know that early on, as a parent, i was the #1 input for my kid. now he only speaks to us in english. if we truly want him to be bilingual he's going to have to get more peer input. bc (at least from what i remember from edpsych classes) peers become much more important. it seems important, but also super problematic, to choose the peer group. that sounds pretty yucky...

Scott said...

Ooooh...a parent-teaching co-op sounds awesome! But, yes, overwhelming.

The language piece must be especially hard. I mean, here in Sudbury, there is a significant francophone minority -- around 30-40% -- so there are francophone schools, and there are french immersion schools for kids from non-francophone families to learn in what is basically an all-french, all-the-time environment (which is the kind of school L attends). But there are still immense challenges that the francophone community faces in preserving the language and in cultivating practices of french as the language of everyday use among young people, in the face of anglophone hegemony. All that, despite having a sizeable community and, at least these days, a bit of political clout. Indigenous communities and smaller communities of non-indigenous people working to pass along non-English, non-French languages face immense barriers. It must, when navigating it at the level of the individual household as you are, be yet one more painful addition to this menu of no-perfect-choices when it comes to educating and parenting.

Anonymous said...

When it comes to early childhood education (up to age 8), I personally think it should be largely outside, in nature. I have read about such outdoor kindergartens and nursery schools in Germany and elsewhere. There's a video at about a Norwegian outdoor preschool. [Ahh the joys of FINALLY having high speed internet - I can watch videos online without waiting and waiting… I had to with satellite internet!].

I personally would extend informal schooling to the age of 8 or so. It doesn't mean that young children shouldn't be learning to read or write, but I think that generally the best way to do this is in a close relationship with an adult, for example, a parent, older sibling, a grandparent (my grandmother in Finland taught me how to read before I started grade one in northern Ontario).

In a previous response I mentioned Gatto and Kohn, but I also do like what Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish have to say about relating to children (and it works with adults too!). They are authors of a book called How to Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk. I am chagrined to admit that such a way of relating does not come naturally to me. I wish it did! They have a website at
Oh yes, I happened to hear a bit of a talk given by Kohn in Canada on a radio show called Unwelcome Guests - you can find info at - I listen to lots of alternative radio online at - [It was there where I learned about Michael Parenti - one of my favourite anti-capitalists.]

You mentioned Montessori. I can't say I was ever that taken by the system, though what Maria Montessori originally did with underprivileged children in Italy was wonderful. But they seemed too organized, planned for Western privileged children.

I was drawn to one private school I visited years ago in Toronto, called the School House, run by a couple Laura and Mike Schein. The school was in a big three storey house in which they lived with their young children. There were students from kindergarten to grade 6. It was in many ways like a big family - lots of opportunity to learn to get along in a large group as well as one-on-one with children and adults. There was a balance of creativity and structure, freedom, not license (like the title of A.S. Neill's book from 1966.)

When I was at teachers college in Toronto I was drawn to the free school movement and A.S. Neill's Summerhill. I helped out at M.A.G.U. an experimental free school in North York Board of Education for a few months and saw the problems of a free school. There is a difference between licence and freedom. Part of the problem resulted when disruptive children started the school after attending mainstream schools and were placed there as a last resort. In fact, I met the Scheins at M.A.G.U.

In many places there are organizations for Home Schooling parents so that they do get together and share in some of the schooling and also ensure that the children have other children to connect with.

Eons ago, it feels like now, there was a study commissioned by Ontario Teachers Federations to honour the Year of the Child. The report was called To Herald a Child (1981). I thought it was wonderful - the way to go if we really put our money where our mouths were, if children really were our most important resource. But no, that's not how schooling progressed for young children in Ontario. The report has been collecting dust on the shelves …… too idealistic, too expensive….

Our society is sick and unfortunately, generally speaking, schools perpetuate the status quo …….

Well, I'll stop rambling now……..

Keep on keeping on.......

Scott said...

Hi Kaisa!

Nice to hear from you again. Thanks so much for all of the links and suggestions. My impression of Montessori in general is similar to yours. Was your take on the MAGU free school that the problem was with the free school model as a whole, or with the way that the free school was used by the board?

And I agree completely that if we as a society really believed all those platitudes about children being our most important resource, education and everything else would organized much, much differently!

Anonymous said...

Hi Scott,

MAGU (Multi Age Group Unit) had many problems. It was in a school building with regular classrooms rather than an environment more conducive to this style of education. Also too many students arrived at one time that had behaviour problems in the regular system and really disturbed the running of the school. Once, for example, I was supervising floor hockey in the gym, when a few kids broke in and started playing basketball, telling me to f*** off, it was a FREE school. So these kids had no experience with freedom -- which they mistook for license to do whatever they pleased.

At The School House, I think the Scheins limited the number of new students. The old students were role models for the new students and exerted a kind of pressure to respect other people's rights. They had school meetings to discuss behaviour, as well as other topics. I think at MAGU there were too many students per teacher as well and though there were volunteers, it's not the same as having a smaller teacher-pupil ratio. The School House was limited to 36 students with the Scheins and another teacher and some other volunteers. I think the parents had a duty day each month.

I personally think the school in the early years should be more a part of the community where many adults (seniors like me, craftspeople etc) play a role in the education of the children. I find it very hard to enter a regular school and see the students in their "factory cages."

I understand there is a free school in Wolfville, NS. I spoke with a parent while my car was being serviced. It would be interesting to visit. I found this description online:

Fairfield School

Curiosity Respect Freedon

Fairfield School, located at 65 Highland Avenue, is one of three democratic schools in Canada. Based on the successful Sudbury Valley Model, students ages four to 19 are free to pursue their individual interests and curiosities. Students are free of grades, time constraints, imposed curriculum and tests. Fairfield School provides a safe, supportive and open environment so students, on their own, can develop the confidence and skills needed for a lifetime of living. The school is run democratically. Each student and staff member possesses equal voting power. Decisions are made at school meeting within a purely democratic structure. Visiting days, weeks, and enrolments are available throughout the year. Visit

Yesterday I listened to a recent talk by Ralph Nader (at about his latest book -- a novel, called "Only the Super Rich Can Save Us." He made some interesting points about schools not teaching enough "civics" which would teach children that democracy requires their active participation. Instead students (and adults) are too busy following the celebrities. You can read some of those ideas at
On the other hand, in free schools, democracy is integral to the operation of the school.

On this hot day, I'm thinking of my Walden Pond (aka Simon Lake) ..... those were the days......


Ashley Wright said...

I do online schooling and I know it is better. I respect your reasons for not doing homeschool. I feel that traditional schooling is better than when it comes to elementary education. My son is attending an online high school because I feel this is a right time for him to become an independent learner.