Saturday, July 17, 2010

Through a Lens, Darkly

"Unschooling is stupid."

(Comment left on a YouTube interview with Mark Frauenfelder, 
founder of BoingBoing and editor-in-chief of Make Magazine.)

A long, long time ago (in my salad days, when I was green with inexperience), I knew a family whose kids weren't going to school. They didn't do school at home, they just "lived." And they seemed very happy.

At the time I was a single woman with an exasperating job and an unsatisfying life. I was not happy, but I hadn't yet made the connection between my unsatisfying life and the assumptions under which I was living.  So when I looked at that family whose kids didn't go to school, and didn't really homeschool in any sense of the word, I, dear reader, was judgmental.  Yes, I was.

I was sure these parents were off their nut, and equally sure that their kids were going to grow up to be, oh, I don't know... Deficient. Crippled. Damaged.

Life is so ironic.

And here's the thing: I felt that way about that family's choices even though I had longed for release from school when I was a kid, my longing set against my absolute certainty that such release was, sadly, impossible.  I carried that certainty with me for a long time. School, I knew, was a given, like teething.  Yes, it hurt, but it was necessary.  You had to go through it or you'd end up gumming your way through life.

So I sniffed with disapproval at that ridiculous, benighted family.  How could they not understand something so basic?

Like I said: ironic.

It's deeply ingrained, this schooling paradigm.  When even those who were damaged by school will take up its banner, it's not hard to understand how the system is able to perpetuate itself in spite of its well-documented  shortcomings.  It's a kind of Stockholm Syndrome, where the captives come to identify with their captors.  Or domestic abuse, where the victim defends the abuser.  Or maybe it's more like that old Ferengi line, "We don't want to end the exploitation, we want to become the exploiters."

When I write about inculcated norms, this is part of what I'm talking about.  When I write that schools are in the business of inculcating norms, this is what I mean.  The perception in our culture that school is indispensable is a lens ground to precision by the process of schooling itself.  And the notion that individuals can't find their way in the world without that lens is part of what keeps so many really smart people utterly myopic about school.

So when I hear someone say something stupid about unschooling, I try to remember how nearly impossible it is to perceive that we're wearing lenses while we're wearing them.  And even when we know we're wearing them, how easily we come to rely on the clarity of the world view they provide.

Even when that world view is harmful.  Even when it's shallow and anemic. Even when it's (ahem) just stupid.