Every so often, when I’m not alone and/or thinking too hard, my education works.
And that’s not to say it’s a feasible way of life. I can’t help but feeling that unschooling is a philosophy built on nice moments, in the hopes that, if you strenuously replicate the conditions, every moment will be nice; it’s a philosophy intended for sunny, temperate days, and when the sky opens up it’s not equipped to cope. But in early- to mid-June, with the sun out in full and summer peering over the horizon, there’s something really precious about the minutes of sheer
pleasure I’ve been given. (Someone less mature would say… you know what, never mind.)
These moments, cobbled together, don’t make for a full education. This is a core difference in belief as much as, or more than, it is a circumstantial one; no matter how perfect an unschooled life may be, I remain convinced that there are things that a child should learn, and skills that s/he should develop, even without a high interest level on his/her part. Regardless, they’re a lot of fun, and amidst all my whining self-pity I figured they’d be worth sharing.
Unschooling really succeeds when:
- you’re reading a great book about an incredibly talented soprano, and it gets you to thinking, and next thing you know you’ve been singing for three hours and haven’t even gotten to page 45.
- you’re reading a great book, that you found out about from another great book, and so on, and so forth.
- you’re reading a great book.
- that sunrise you see out the window? that pair of sturdy walking shoes in the closet? You can let the latter steer you into the former, and there’s nothing at all to stop you.
- at ten in the morning — on your compatriots’ last day of school, no less! — you’re hauling manure in a community garden, or working backstage at the city’s best theater, or contorting yourself around a yoga mat in ways you never dreamed possible.
- you can pay a not-quite-significant-but-fairly-sizeable chunk of your college tuition based on the essay contests, tutoring jobs, theatrical gigs, etc. you’ve had the time to go through with.
- your lifestyle has suddenly become healthy, at least in terms of food and exercise.
- you actually finished NaNoWriMo. (okay, that was just once. but it was a very good once.)
- you realize you can compare the relative merits of every cup of coffee in a 50-mile radius.
- you snag the inspiration for a spur-of-the-moment project.
- you complete that spur-of-the-moment project.
- you can mend a pair of jeans, fix a frozen computer screen, cook a meal, clean a toilet, and get from Eastern Market to Greenbelt via public transportation — all those practical things that you never used to do in school but that you now do on a regular basis.
- you learn how to learn from other people, and you learn that you’ve been doing it all along.
I was in the process of writing an unusually constructive post, the sort of thing in which I channel my education-related anger into bright and shining ideas about the Future of Schooling. I have left that post for another day, because there’s something that seems a lot more honest, a lot more pressing, a lot more worthwhile to write and to share. And as my senior year comes to a close — in a fashion that I could never have foreseen when I imagined my future self at age 7 — and I’m forced into reflection, there’s one idea that I just keep coming back to.
It’s the concept of shame, not the opposite-of-empowerment kind of shame, the sort that revolves around social taboos and is easily broken by a kiss in public or a confident swagger, but something more widespread and less centered around specific mores. The best definition I can think of would be smothering insecurity — the feeling that everything you do is insufficient\, inappropriate and/or hopelessly embarrassing.
We’re all familiar with shame, to some degree or another. Before I began my autodidactic journey, I was certainly not unfamiliar with it. I felt it, in pangs, on a regular basis: the shame of a poor exam performance, a stupid or cruel remark viewed in hindsight, a stunning fall over my own feet, the stubborn zipper on a too-small dress. It was always painful and always easily ameliorated. I could still feel pride in a well-done paper; a cadre of friends could assure me nonstop that there was something in me that deserved better than shame. As the years progressed, my sense of shame grew larger and larger, but there was always something holding it back. In tenth grade, my not-yet-exhausted passion for learning and tumultuous social life kept it as much in check as it has ever been. In eleventh grade, despite the dissolution of that functional social circle, my many jobs, classes, and projects left me too busy, too manically scheduled, to feel too much pain. This year, with the loss of so many friends and the complete collapse of my self-motivation and/or structured activities, there’s been nothing holding it back.
Shame, from what I can tell, is the product of an idle and unreassured mind. Maybe it isn’t. All I can say is that I feel it all the time, and it’s not just a laughable neurosis, it’s been the single greatest obstacle in the path of my education and general well-being. Let me explain.
I am ashamed of how little I know. I am ashamed of the shoddy work I do, and I am ashamed when people praise it. I am ashamed at my singular lack of passion, of interest, of drive. I am ashamed when I don’t try new things. I am ashamed when I do something I enjoy and it threatens to consume all my time; I am ashamed at the time and money I’ve squandered on things I don’t enjoy. I am ashamed of my own stupidity. I am ashamed of the amount of time I spend staring at the screen because I’m afraid to produce worthless junk that I will, inevitably, be ashamed of. I am ashamed whenever my parents look at me and see the failure sprouting in their own household. I am ashamed that I couldn’t keep my promises, to them and to myself; I am ashamed that I was wrong when I talked them into this experiment, so passionately and with such conviction; I am ashamed that I can’t be bright enough or creative enough to live the sort of unschooled life that I was supposed to. I am ashamed of the things I’ve done to tear my family apart. I am ashamed, upon reading Atlas Shrugged, that I’m no self-directed Galt-like genius, that I’m closer to the bogeyman caricature of a parasitic and silly second-rater. I am ashamed of being so needy, so unable to cope, of not finding joy in the things that should bring me pleasure. I am ashamed of the way my own shame cripples me.
I am ashamed, in social situations, that my identity isn’t more interesting, that my clothes aren’t better-coordinated, that I stutter and swallow a little when I speak. I am ashamed that I’m not witty or engaging, that I can’t come up with the proper rejoinder to a one-liner on the spot. I am ashamed of my reflexive — and relatively new — fear of eye contact. I am ashamed that I don’t know more music. I am ashamed that my arms bulge out of strapless tops, that I fall out of bikinis, that my blubber bursts through the fantasy of taut skin. I am ashamed of anything I say, because it will always be picked apart in the echo-chamber of my mind. Sometimes I am so ashamed that I stop speaking entirely, upon the rationale that it must be better than the agony of constantly working to please my internal conversational critics, and then I am ashamed of that. I am ashamed that I’ve made a decision that turned me into a pariah, that redirected my lust for companionship into a paralyzing horror of ruining everything with one ill-chosen word. I am ashamed of wearing my mistake like a scarlet letter.
I am culpable for a good deal of this. The things that aren’t technically my fault (and there are a few) I take as much to heart. I am in the habit of blaming myself, in part because the flipside of individualism is that it lays all of the losses, as well as the successes, on one’s own back. The credo of ultimate personal responsibility has made me responsible for everything that involves me, because the paradigm in my head is so unused to being able to slough off blame. I certainly don’t have anyone who will tell me otherwise. I also don’t have anyone who will re-channel this obsession with shame. In a more structured setting I could throw myself into calculus homework or some fiery discussion, instigated by someone else and as such an escape; here, I have no such outlet, because I have to generate all of my own escape hatches — even when I’m in no state to build.
I guess I don’t have much more to say than: if you’re looking for an honest, non-defensive explanation of my experience, that’s it in a nutshell. I’ve never been neurotic or unreasonably sensitive. Here I am now, trapped inside my own head and my own complete lack of self-worth, afraid to put one foot in front of the other lest it should be somehow inadequate. I’ve been asked for a retrospective — this, ladies and gentlemen, is what I have to share.
I only struggle with unschooling because I spent my formative years — 9 of them, not counting preschool — in the public education system, because I’ve been socialized to treat life as an exercise in robotics, because all of the creativity and passion I might once have had have been squelched by the factory learning machine and I am now a sheep incapable of any original thought but “baa.” So some might have me believe. It’s a form of puffed-up victim-blaming that doesn’t seem uncommon in the unschooling community, and for good reason; it’s easy to write off uncomfortable testimonials by dismissing them as the fruits of a stunted mind.*
But I digress.
At any rate, I hear the “people who don’t enjoy unschooling don’t enjoy it because they’re failures because the school system has warped them for life” tack a good deal, both addressed to me personally and in detached blog or book form. Is it true? Short answer: Maybe, but so what?
Right now, I’m reading Margaret Mead’s seminal Coming of Age in Samoa. From what I can tell so far, the book’s main argument, based on Mead’s observations as an anthropologist in Samoa, is that very little is innate: much of what we take for granted as “human nature” in fact varies based on a whole host of societal and environmental influences. And yet those nurtured characteristics and behaviors inevitably shape the individual and his or her society, enough that it’s difficult for the person in question to separate which of his/her traits are natural and which learned.
I can’t say whether or not my unschooling problems were caused by the model of education instilled by schools; my instinct would be to say that a number of the unfulfilled needs (set goals and structure, stimulation, a functional and encouraging community) are inherent in most if not all humans. We see these needs put forth and addressed in Mead’s Samoa as well as her early 20th century United States, and in the turn-of-the-millennium urban American epicenter where I live. But I’m willing to entertain the possibility that my general discomfort is exacerbated, and many of its conditions created, by the regimented school system in which I grew up, one that adheres to a very specific, one-size-fits-all model of learning. Regardless, I don’t see how the nature/nurture aspect is worth bringing into play, except as a method of sniping at and/or silencing folks who might not find satisfaction in a certain set of beliefs.
Because maybe I have been irrevocably broken by the school system. Maybe I am dull, uninspired, one of any number of farm animals. Maybe I’m a conformist tool for seeking breadth, challenge and mentorship in education. But I can’t be alone in that, especially not in a society where few, if any, students escape the school system for all of their lives. And while we can argue until we’re blue in the face about which ideals are superior (is it better to be left with complete control of one’s own learning, or to be guided to varying degrees? is breadth or depth more of an asset to education in the long run?), this is a circumstance that must be acknowledged. In a society that isn’t built for unschoolers, most students — including many, if not most, unschoolers — will have internalized at least some of the values of orthodox schooling. And after those values are instilled, the transition to unschooling is not only painful but perhaps neverending.
I suppose that could be seen as unschooling’s answer to the “building character” question. So, too, could it be seen as a transformative and worthwhile process, like dismantling internalized racism or sexism. (The major difference, however, being that bigotry, you know, DIRECTLY HURTS OTHER PEOPLE in a way that the choice of structured schooling really can’t.) But, for me, it has been such a painful and arduous process that it has made positive growth impossible; even after three years, the philosophies and expectations of organized school still dog my unschooling life. I am unhappy, unsatisfied, inactive, because I’m too far gone. Internally, I possess (whether because of school or by nature) a certain set of criteria for education and general happiness, and I still live in a society that generally fosters those criteria. As I unschool, I find myself unmoored completely, unable to satisfy the initial criteria and unable to transition wholly to the new ones. I am rendered impotent not only by depression but by a fundamental set of contradictions that follow me wherever I go. I don’t care if my needs are natural, or if they’re artificial and plasticine and sick; the fact is that they still weigh heavy on my shoulders. And as a philosophy, unschooling as I have experienced it can’t accommodate these needs. I can imagine a few hypothetical solutions, ways for me to stay an unschooler and stay a well-adjusted human beings: coops, alternative schools, organized mentorship, an extended Not Back to School Camp experience.** I can think of a few ways to fix unschooling, though I’m not always convinced. Nevertheless, it is far more productive to ponder these solutions, to accept criticism as food for thought if not as gospel, than to look down your nose at the stupid uncreative surely-Hollister-wearing individuals who dare to criticize.
* Between this post and the last, I’m sure I come off as a zealot. I apologize. There are many in the unschooling and general alternative education community who have been infinitely wonderful to me personally, and many more who can convincingly defend their own decisions without belittling others who don’t see eye-to-eye. As I’ve said before, I believe, for what it’s worth, that — depending on one’s circumstances and needs — unschooling could be a wonderful educational choice. But this is my experience, and based on that experience, I am really fucking angry. And the cool dismissal of my own worth as a person, because I can’t manifest the sort of educational utopia that by rights I Should Be Living, isn’t helping.
**I’ve never been to NBTSC — it is rather pricey, after all — but it’s always sounded very nice.
Sometimes, I feel lost. So lost that I let the things I love slip from me, that I have trouble finding joy in anything, that I can’t muster the spirit to propel my own life. Every so often, I feel so very lost that I am unable to keep up with a blog — though I don’t know when that possibly could have happened, right? And in those times of crushing directionlessness, I turn to the only reliable network I have, the place where I know I can find someone who feels the same way I do: the Internet.
Which is why I’m terribly disappointed, with such a thriving homeschool network on the Web, that there doesn’t appear to be a single post in all of cyberspace in which an unschooler addresses the negative aspects of unschooling firsthand.
I’ve talked before about the perceived need for unschoolers — both parents and children — to defend their own choices to the point of erasing any mention of disappointment. I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised when my search for “unschooling cons,” and like terms, received exactly two kinds of posts; a) opinionated bystanders discussing their distaste for unschooling after watching the recent GMA special on the subject, and b) home/unschool partisans providing impassioned defenses against that distaste. Which is all fine and good, but not quite what I was looking for. Trying another tack, I sifted through teenage unschoolers’ blogs, some informational, some more personal and cathartic. Those, too, were oddly muted. Now, I can’t possibly be the only person in this vast universe who is, for whatever reason, struggling with unschooling in his or her personal life. So I’m writing this post myself, in hopes that if someone else like me should turn to the Internet for answers, they won’t feel quite so alone.
I see all of the problems with my unschooling experience as intersectional: an “I’m… so I’m also… and because of that I’m…” model. As such, each stated difficulty will segue into the next. Call it the Six Degrees of Complaint Separation.
Problem #1: Isolation
The thing about radical individualism is that it can get awfully lonely. It’s not impossible to find friends as an unschooler, but it requires that luck and effort converge in a way better suited to a video game than to teenage friendships. Finding schooled peers (through extracurriculars, neighborhoods, mutual friends, etc.) is very easy, but maintaining the friendships is harder; you are constantly aware that you need your friends far more than they need you, that you are shut out of their daily circumstances completely, that there will be weeks where they will not have time for you. It is, too often, painfully clear that you are constructing a functional social life out of the cobbled-together detritus and side-projects of a “normal” student’s experience. Fellow homeschoolers are extremely rare and, in my high-achieving urban-suburban area, far-flung; I don’t have the option of exploring new friendships, new circles, because the people I know are the only people I have. It isn’t my intention to imply that the boogeyman “socialization” is as much as a problem for every homeschooler as it is for me, or as skeptics conceive it to be — I’m sure, in areas with heavy homeschooling concentrations and the sort of thriving co-ops that Grace Llewellyn raves about, it would be less of a problem. Likewise, it would be less of a problem for someone who genuinely enjoyed solitude. But I love people with all my being, and I love their company, and it is literally impossible for me to operate correctly without them. Trapped in social limbo, clinging to a few close friends, I’m counting down the days until college because I can’t wait to find my place in a community again.
Problem #2: Intellectual Static
And without that community, it’s very hard to continue learning. Not just because my social buttons aren’t being pushed — which is true — or because my boundaries aren’t being challenged — which is also true; it’s probably been weeks since I heard a significantly divergent opinion in a face-to-face conversation — but because I don’t have the option to hear someone’s new discovery and record it in my mind, or the option to use their interest as a jumping-off point for a new exploration. I can’t sign up for an unfamiliar activity because I heard a friend was doing it. I can’t propose a road trip, or a marine biology expedition, or a field trip to x bookstore or y museum, without sounding creepy at best and vaguely desperate at worst. My intellectual stimuli are mine and mine alone, and try as I may to glean input from books or websites, it’s simply not the same without a living, working partner. Certainly, a “room of one’s own” is crucial for artistic and intellectual development, but now that I have one, I keep realizing the element that Woolf missed: a world outside that room.
Problem #3: Interest
So without the external stimuli provided by others, I have to rely on my own narrow interests and ideas, which is fine, until my mind gets really, desperately boring. I mean, my first two years as an unschooler were genuinely great. Why? Because, after 9 years of school, I had so many unsatisfied interests and floating project ideas that I could easily fill multiple months bringing them to fruition. But now that I feel that I’ve exhausted that treasure trove, I’m ready to move far beyond my comfort zone — a move which is especially hard to manufacture on one’s own. Most of the time, sometimes spurred by depression, sometimes by sheer unoriginality, I can’t think of things I’d like to do. And when I do, it’s not always easy to fulfill that interest without teacher/partners/facilities/equipment. Self-reliance isn’t a boundless resource.
Problem #4: The Computer
I know what you’re thinking. What happened? Has our trusty blogger gone certifiably Luddite? Well, sort of. There’s no question in my mind that unschooling as a philosophy would be much healthier if this pernicious machine only turned on for one hour per day. It seems to me that all of us, homeschooled and otherwise, use the vast abyss of cyberspace to fill voids in our own lives: informational, emotional, social. When one has the option to take up this quick fix whenever the need arises, one can, and will, find him/herself sucked in for more of the day than is thought humanly possible. Wikipedia is tempting. So are the many brilliant blogs that pepper the opinion-o-sphere. But after a day spent succumbing to the allure of easy, accessible, passive information, there’s this nasty unshakable feeling that you’ve learned nothing, indeed, done nothing worth doing for the past 24 hours. (And then, of course, the next morning you’ll log on to check your email, and stay on until you can see dusk looming in the distance. That’s how the Internet works.) The computer is edifying, in many ways. Certainly, it’s unavoidable. But it’s also addictive — and unschooling, with its lack of outside influence, nurses that addiction.
Problem #5: Emotional Instability
The computer isn’t difficult to avoid on a gorgeous day, the kind where you wake up to a steady stream of sunlight and find yourself bursting with the desire to make a movie or bake cupcakes or read Madame Bovary. No, it preys on you during the really junky stretches, when the rain is beating down the windows and you’re desperately bored and out of ideas and you’re convinced that you’re a worthless waste of space. These moods are — for me — not uncommon, and they’re the single biggest obstacle I’ve had to face. I’m convinced, based on my own emotional regression, that unschooling is a ripe breeding ground for unhappiness and insecurity: a potent combination of social and academic isolation, a lack of boundaries and definable goals, and the staggering demands of perseverance placed on the unschooled spirit. But that’s not necessarily relevant. The point here is that those moods exist, and unschooling provides no coping strategy. For the first year or so, it’s boot camp, a crash course in making oneself happy; after a while, though, keeping up the incredibly hard work of suppressing depression becomes too exhausting for one lonely educational crusader to bear. And when your entire education, indeed, your entire well-being is predicated on your effort alone, and that effort is poisoned by an immutable misery, it’s only natural to fall into patterns of depressive idleness. You’re too exhausted to keep pulling yourself up, and too unhappy to think seriously about anything but how unhappy you are, and there are no safeguards or life preservers in place to help you.
Problem #6: Discipline
It all comes down to this. When you’re depressed and alone, it’s very hard to achieve anything — alone. When you’re depressed and alone and have a really important paper to finish by midnight, chances are that paper is going to be finished, because we as humans naturally respond to external goals. We may resent them, we may dodge them if they seem too artificial or unpleasant, but overwhelmingly we rise to the challenge. Conversely, the resource of self-motivation isn’t boundless, and once an unschooler’s motivation expires there is very little keeping him/her consistently active and happy. I miss arbitrary deadlines and pointless busywork, in the same way that a sedentary individual misses jogging, as unpleasant as they may be; I miss staying literally and figuratively active, and consistently doing work with a tangible endpoint and effect. I miss the basic sense of direction that structured schooling provides, and I miss having a stated and very clear reason for doing what I do, even if that reason is sometimes wrongheaded. Perhaps that makes me mediocre, or a corporate tool, or a sheep (all terms used a bit too liberally in unschooling literature), but it’s a pretty basic and undeniable yearning.
There are a few other troubles I can rattle off the top of my head, most what we’d consider lesser evils: expense, immobility, networking difficulty, elitism, self-absorption and self-aggrandizement, stigma. There are also a handful of positive aspects.
For example, I’ve had far more time to exercise. I’m in much better shape, and I’ve lost ten pounds. Thus, I can fit into the hypothetical slinky prom dress that I’ll never have the chance to wear.
Inspired by Emily Dickinson.
immediately after the epitaph
– and I know something about
alone, about finding sympathy
in a bird’s feathers or the cracks of a windowpane,
or in an exercise tape, all smiles and limber kicks –
or in tortilla chips, or coiled strings
or in a type pad with its hyper-used Enter key
jammed into limbo –
– and I can play the quiet contrarian too
at home, picking fights for the hell of it,
rational and prickly, all erudition no faith
and I can rub myself numb when I need to
with graphite and old paper –
– and when I walk my feet are unaccustomed,
like yours must have been, to the feel of strange ground,
and when I walk I am swollen like a rain cloud full to bursting,
vapor oozing from my ears, turning to fog –
– and you and I, we know the truth
in sailing away on hyphens, or hoisting uppercase;
there’s an escape hatch when we praise the folds
of a cherry blossom not yet blown, when our hands become the petals
and we can settle a new perch, peeking through sunshine
while we wait for winter to scatter us.
So, I was going to write something witty and insightful about my personal life (i.e. how theatre has consumed it, or how the more fun it gets the less I update my blog), but instead I have only one thing to leave you with.