Mass schooling is a relatively recent phenomenon, an experiment in education that gained steam following the industrial revolution, becoming increasingly widespread in the nineteenth century, in part, due to advocates like Horace Mann. Mann was a social reformer skeptical of parents’ abilities to properly educate their children to become future employees and democratic citizens. He believed that these common schools, as they were called, could remedy the lack of proper discipline found in some homes. Notably, Mann homeschooled his own children outside the dictates of these common schools he advanced for other people’s children. Further, he and his fellow reformers worried about the flood of diverse immigrant families that were challenging contemporary cultural and social hegemony. Mann went so far as to argue that these marginalized groups were “wholly of another kind in morals and intellect.”
Mass schooling champions asserted that compulsory education was necessary for preventing the corruption of young children in the hands of those they deemed ill-suited to properly foster their moral and intellectual development—namely, their families and respective communities. Traditional schools were to be the means of instilling a particular sense of shared American identity that would allow American democracy to function well.
This is not to color all mass schooling advocates as cultural chauvinists but to highlight that what we consider traditional schooling today is, in many ways, informed by the notion that parents and children lack the skills required to learn outside the schooling system. Traditional schooling embraces a view that learning best occurs when a uniform curriculum is imposed upon young minds, children being segregated according to age within rigid classroom structures. It is commonly held that becoming a successful and contributing member of a democratic society requires going through the mass schooling system. Conventional schooling’s primary goal is knowledge acquisition—with everything else being secondary. Students tend to be treated as passive subjects, receptacles for the knowledge considered necessary by their teachers, school system administrators, and other centralized educational authorities.
What might a more student-centered learning environment look like? What if instead of imposing a universal curriculum onto children, they were instead provided with the resources needed to help them achieve their own self-selected goals? What if becoming a socially- and emotionally-intelligent human being was the primary goal of an educational approach, rather than being supplemental to knowledge acquisition?
Jeffrey Howard speaks with Tiersa McQueen, an unschooling parent of four children. Following her own experiences as a teacher and her children’s encounters with mass schooling, her family has embraced unschooling and gentle parenting. According to McQueen, these two philosophies go hand-in-hand, holding central the idea that children deserve full respect, greater autonomy, and tailored support as they learn how to thrive as young people—and eventually, as adults.
Despite her advocacy for self-directed learning, she acknowledges that she isn’t completely opposed to schooling. It’s still an option for her kids should they choose it. However, as a Black parent, she is well-aware of the school-to-prison pipeline and the reality that Black children are punished far more frequently and severely than other children in schooling environments. She expresses that she can’t wait for traditional schools to change in order for them to become safe and nurturing places for her children.
McQueen considers the criticisms lobbed at unschoolers and self-directed education advocates, suggesting that many of them are stereotypes pertaining to a type of homeschooler that doesn’t really exist anymore. Unschooling and gentle parenting are difficult for some people to imagine, and have their own share of difficulties, but she observes that her relationships with her own children have never been better. She also notes that the depth of her children’s learning has increased dramatically as they’ve been able to direct time and attention toward their own goals and interests.
Some things to further consider. A century ago, the philosopher and social activist John Dewey proposed a notion of education as “learning by doing,” emphasizing the need for practicality in meaningful learning. What might happen if more young minds were afforded this approach, supported by family and community members as they experimented with overcoming the challenges they face in their particular social environments? In what ways might an unschooling approach to learning better prepare people to navigate the demands and problems unique to their local contexts? And how might unschooling better prepare children to participate in democratic living?
“When You Get Into Unschooling, It’s Almost Like a Religion” by Molly Worthen (2020)
Raising Free People: Unschooling as Liberation and Healing Work by Akilah S. Richards (2020)
Untigering: Peaceful Parenting for the Deconstructing Tiger Parent by Iris Chen (2020)
“First Impressions of an Unschooling School” by Jeffrey Howard (2018)
Unschooled: Raising Curious, Well-Educated Children Outside the Conventional Classroom by Kerry McDonald (2019)
Horace Mann’s Troubling Legacy: The Education of Democratic Citizens by Bob Pepperman Taylor (2010)
“My Pedagogic Creed” by John Dewey (1897)
Democracy and Education by John Dewey (1916)