Thoughtful Revolution

A Follow-Up (On Nature vs. Nurture)

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.


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