Our new lifestyle of homeschooling (and under that official umbrella, unschooling) is in some ways influenced by my own school experiences, which were fairly competitive and intense. With the exception of music, foreign languages, and sometimes math and science, I did not enjoy any of my classes in high school. And yet, nearly all of my time outside of class was consumed by studying, homework, and participation in application-padding extracurriculars (admittedly, some of those, like theater and vocal jazz, were pretty cool. But I probably would not have done others, like debate, if I didn’t think they would look good on my college application). When I got into Harvard early action, I was ecstatic. Through much hard work, I had won the game! Looking back on that time, though, I see a miserable, isolated and self-focused young person who had perfected the skill of jumping through hoops to attain a fleeting sense of approval and self-esteem with every gold star.
When, years later, in graduate school in a low-residency program at Goddard College, I was encouraged to just follow my own interests and create my own path in a nonlinear, process-focused approach, it was so different, so much more fulfulling, than my previous school experiences that the semesters there felt more religious than academic.
Two books I’ve read recently resonate with my own thinking here: William Deresiewicz’s Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite & the Way to a Meaningful Life and John Taylor Gatto’s Dumbing us Down: The Hidden Curriculum of Compulsory Schooling. Deresiewicz, a former Yale professor, observes how high-achieving students are often lacking in creativity and sense of purpose—not unrelated to the fact that they are so high achieving in our educational system, which rewards following the rules and submitting to the path laid out for you. Gatto, a former New York State Teacher of the Year, describes how, in addition to rule following, what kids actually learn in school is to be indifferent, dependent, and confused—and that this is no accident, but rather, qualities that folks wanted to instill in students in order to create a populace of docile workers and passive consumers.
While this may sound extreme, it resonates enough with my own experiences and observations to make me question the traditional schooling model. I can see from my daughter’s experience in a public kindergarten last year that she adapts fine to rules and expectations. She would come home eager to do her homework and to get the right answer on math worksheets, because at the end of the week, that would help her get a prize. But she had no time to follow her own interests, and was already way ahead of the class curriculum in some areas, so in that respect unchallenged. She was made to read, for example, texts that repeated the same words or phrases over and over again, and then regurgitate the main idea. Reading—something she naturally gravitated towards—was becoming a chore, an empty checkbox, rather than an exciting path of discovery.
I do not want my daughter to be a sheep, no matter how “excellent.” I want to do my best to give her the freedom and opportunity to craft a meaningful life for herself. And at the moment, the best way to do this seems to be to stand actively apart from the standard schedules, rules, and assessments of the traditional school path.