To School Or Not To School: Why It Is A Question

I’ll come right out and say it: it was sheer morbid curiosity that led me to click on and read Brigitte Mah’s “To School or Not to School: Why Is It a Question?”

I already knew what I was going to get.  Ignorance about what unschooling is and what unschooled kids are actually like.  Contempt and hostility toward unschooling from someone who doesn’t actually understand what she holds in such contempt.  

I wasn’t disappointed.

That said, I’ll answer her question.  I’ll tell you why I believe that to school or not to school is a legitimate question that everyone should be asking.

But first, since I linked to her article and I will be quoting from it, let’s clear up six myths about unschooling that Mah is perpetuating.

Unschooling Means an Absence of Formal Learning

According to Mah, “…unschooling is exactly what it sounds like.  It’s removing your child from any part of the institution of formal learning, and that includes sitting down and learning at home.”

That’s a common misperception of unschooling.  It’s also simplistic, completely missing the boat on the philosophy of education that guides intentional unschooling.

Unschooling isn’t necessarily removing a child from any part of the institution of formal learning.  Lots of unschooled children, including my own at various points in time over the past 13 years, have taken formal, academic classes.  Erica is taking an art class at a big homeschool co-op this year.  Jarrod is taking an algebra class from The Great Courses and will be starting an English Composition class from ASU’s Global Freshman Academy next week.

Additionally, unschooling a child doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll never do any sit-down and learn at home.  Jillian does stuff that looks a lot like school at home several times a week.  We’re working on reading, and she’s learning cursive.  She’s ¾ of the way through a Right Start Mathematics book.  She also works diligently on Touch Type Read and Spell.  She does those things when she wants to and doesn’t do them when she doesn’t want to.  Either choice is equally acceptable to me.

Unschooling recognizes that an education shouldn’t be something that one person, regardless of good intent, in a position of authority does to another person who has no power to resist or escape.  What unschooling does is restore freedom and autonomy to a child, allowing that child to continue learning the way he did before he reached school age and how he will have to learn as an adult.

Unschooled Kids Just Watch TV or Play All Day

​“What does your kid do all day, if he or she isn’t learning to read, write, and do math?  Ski?  Watch TV?  Yes and yes.  That’s exactly what happens.  No lessons.  No structure.  Kids can do whatever they want with their days,” Mah insists.

Here, Mah makes four assumptions about education in general and unschooling in particular that are patently untrue:

Mah assumes schooling or schoolwork and learning are the same thing.  Most adults need not look further than their own experiences with institutionalized education to debunk this assumption.  How much of what you supposedly learned in your own K-12 years do you actually use?  Even more damning, how much do you even remember?

Mah assumes the only way kids will learn reading, writing, or math is by sitting in a classroom, led by an authority figure. I learned to read before I’d ever crossed the threshold of a classroom.  Jillian figured out that 3 + 3 + 3 + 1 = 10 well before she was school aged and without any direct instruction.  I gave Jarrod a book and he taught himself how to read and write cursive after he discovered, to his annoyance (because he couldn’t yet read or write in cursive), the Spiderwick Chronicles Book of Monsters was written in cursive.  

Mah assumes children will not choose to pursue worthwhile knowledge on their own, without being assigned prescribed lessons and coerced somehow into doing it. It may be true that, after a few years of having an authority figure spoon (or force) feed them information they neither wanted nor needed right then, kids in school will not choose to pursue worthwhile (or academic) knowledge on their own.  When kids have the freedom and the autonomy to pursue the knowledge or skills they have recognized as useful, beneficial, or desirable, they will.  The information or skills they choose to pursue may not – oftentimes won’t – look like what people like Mah would deem acceptable, though.

Mah assumes unschooling means no lessons, no structure, and no schedule.  Lots of unschooled kids have lessons, structure, and schedules.  They just adopt those lessons, structure, and schedules purposefully, rather than having them imposed upon them arbitrarily by someone else.  The lessons, structure, and schedules of unschooled children will not resemble the standardized lessons, rigid structure, and odd schedules that children in school must be conditioned to accept.

Unschooled Kids Won’t Fare Well in the Real World

In one paragraph, Mah acknowledges a study that recounts the extraordinary successes of unschooled children.  In the next, she dismisses that success because it doesn’t look like the success she envisions as the best sort.

She “worries” about how unschooled kids will do once they’re out in the “real world”.  What she fails to appreciate is unschooled children spend their entire lives in the “real world”, rather than being sequestered from the rest of the “real world” inside of classroom walls with a group of same-age peers and adult overseers.

Unschooling Empowers Children too Much

“I worry,” Mah writes, “because while unschooling may have its place in your family dynamics, does giving so much empowerment to kids set them up for failure in the real world?”

Mah has it backward.  Warehousing children inside of institutions of education, herding them as groups from one class to another and one grade level to the next, giving lip service to student engagement, while you treat them like Pavlovian dogs whose days are programmed with bells and demand they ask permission before doing something as basic as using the bathroom, sets children up for failure in the real world.

Unschooled children, on the other hand, get lots of practicing with making increasingly significant decisions about the direction of their lives under the guidance of their parents.  

Unschooled Kids Won’t Learn to Follow Orders

​“How will someone who has never had to take orders do in a dog-eat-dog employment world where anyone can be replaced at any time?” Mah wonders.

It’s a fallacy that unschooled kids never find themselves in situations where they must take direction or orders from an authority figure. A school is not the only place a child goes that will have rules, regulations, and authority figures.  Think: sports and clubs.  My teenagers have been heavily involved with the United States Naval Sea Cadet Corps, where it’s all about the chain of command and learning to follow before learning to lead, for six years.


…to the place where I can tell you why to school or not to school is a legitimate question.

​In her conclusion, Mah declares, “I’m putting my faith in an institution that will give her a variety of personalities to cooperate with, learn from, and interact with.  And at the end of the day, if I am not happy with what or how she’s learning at school, I can, as her parent, take it upon myself in the evenings and on weekends to help her learn.”

I wholeheartedly support her right to make that particular choice on behalf of her own child.  I could not, however, disagree more with that course of action.  In fact, I question the sanity of any parent who would allow her child to remain in school where she is “not happy with what or how she’s learning”.  

To school or not to school is a question because unschoolers don’t share her faith in institutionalized, compulsory schooling.  We won’t place our faith in an institution that:

  • Dehumanizes children, taking what should be a unique and deeply personal endeavor and twists it into a one-size-(doesn’t)-fit-all debacle
  • Strains the bonds of families, making the parents act as agents of the schools long after the school day is over
  • Isolates children from life outside the classroom walls
  • Works against human nature and everything we know about how people actually learn
  • Denies children the basic civil liberties we take for granted as adults and would never tolerate having stripped from us in adulthood

And once we get to homeschooling, to school or not to school is a question in the minds of unschoolers because the foundational beliefs of unschoolers about education are incompatible with authority-directed, compulsory schooling – even if that authority is mom or dad and the schooling is happening at home.

To school or not to school is a question because unschoolers have rejected the assembly line style of education that churns out obedient little worker bees, in favor of allowing our children to pursue something more personally meaningful and authentic. Unschoolers strive to create rich lives for ourselves that transcend the cog-in-a-wheel model of employment that schools spend years conditioning children to accept as both normal and inevitable.

That model was intentionally replicated here in America by giants of the Industrial Revolution, with the express purpose of filling those assembly line jobs “where anyone can be replaced at any time.”  In the Information Age, it’s also failing our nation’s children at alarming rates.  

So rather than summarily dismissing that which she doesn’t understand, Mah and others like her should be holding their own beliefs about education up to scrutiny.  Maybe stake out the position of devil’s advocate and ask that same question – to school or not to school – of institutionalized education. 

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About the Author Becky

I’m a married, homeschooling mama of three who is passionate about self-directed learning.

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