Thoughtful Revolution

The Cons of My Current Condition

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.



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  1. * Kaya says:

    Where do you live? Is it possible that their is a Sudbury or otherwise democratic school in your area? That would solve all of your above mentioned problems except maybe externally set goals.

    And as for that… what do you live for? You need a passion. After years of reading, writing, researching & questioning, I found mine- saving the world through self-sufficient, democratic, radical parenting communities. What do you care about? Are you empathetic? Sympathetic? Self-centered? Do you need to help people’s emotional live? Fight for a cause? Find a way to have a lot of money or free time or whatever you cherish? It sounds like probably you need to go into community building if you like people so much. Pack your bags and come down to Austin, Tx where people are always doing wacky and community centered things.

    I’d be so glad to talk more about this. I’ve had many of the same problems as you’re currently having and I worked through them.

    H. Kaya Tessa Coltrane Kirks

    | Reply Posted 8 years, 2 months ago
    • * thoughtfulrevolution says:

      Hi! Thanks for your interest.

      1) I’m right outside Washington, D.C.; I’ve looked around for alternative schools, but all of the options were too far out of my area and/or my price range.
      2) I agree — I need a passion. The problem is, I feel like I’ve really pushed the ones I’ve had far past their expiration dates, and the ones I haven’t pushed so far are the ones that it’s almost impossible to follow through on. Education, for instance: beyond the tutoring and research I currently do, there’s not much that my situation allows for. And while I truly love to read, I’m not content with constructing a life around that. I suppose that, really, my biggest problem is that any passion of mine seems insufficient; at this point in my life, I need a variety and structure that can’t be provided by, say, a day spent reading. Perhaps that’s just a personality quirk that makes me uniquely unsuited to unschooling. I couldn’t say.
      3) I’d love to come down to Austin… D.C. is wonderful, but it certainly doesn’t have much in the way of “town square” or communal setups, let alone an alternative educational community.

      I’d love to correspond by email, if that would be all right with you!

      | Reply Posted 8 years, 2 months ago
  2. * Stefan says:

    This is remarkably similar to my situation.

    | Reply Posted 8 years, 2 months ago

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