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More on Unschooling

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Wendy Priesnitz’s recent post on the science behind unschooling was so widely read that I decided it would be good to follow up with a review of two excellent companion books on unschooling that recently came out.

The Legacy of John Holt: A Man Who Genuinely Understood, Trusted, and Respected Children fleshes out the man who coined the term “unschooling” in the first place and served as the movement’s unofficial leader until he died in 1985. A collection of deeply personal recollections by many of those closest to him, The Legacy of John Holt gives the reader a wonderfully intimate window into John Holt the person. The introduction, interestingly, is by someone who never met Holt and yet counts him as one of her most formative teachers as she navigated a graduate degree in education and went on to wrangle in her own way with the disaster that public education in this country has become. Kirsten Olsen, the author of Wounded by School and Schools As Colonizers, notes that Holt’s books no longer occupied the stacks of the Harvard education library when she was a student there. And yet that didn’t stop her from trying to find ways to infiltrate conventional schooling with Holt’s deep wisdom about children and how they learn best.

Then the opening chapter provides an easily digested recap of Holt’s core ideas and beliefs by his old friend and fellow trouble maker Roland Meighan. In many ways England’s John Holt, Meighan himself was the author of more than ten books on education. Together he and Holt conceived the idea of what they termed “flexischooling,” whereby parents could enter into a flexible contract with their children’s public school that would enable them to get the best of both worlds by splitting educational time between home and school. The idea has recently been gaining traction in the UK. Meighan’s chapter in the book represents some of his last writing, as he passed away on January 20.

A series of ensuing chapters by a woman who knew Holt as a homeschooling child, three compadres who liked to take Holt on hiking expeditions, the mother of one of Holt’s fifth-grade students when he was teaching in a private school in Cambridge, and his longtime editor paint a very human portrait of a man who was at one and the same time a playful mentor, a naturalist and acute observer of all things, a determined advocate for world peace, a music lover, a storyteller, a connoisseur of good conversation, a prolific letter writer, an apartment-dwelling earthworm composter, and a guy who could curse with the best of them when his temper was roused.

Elsewhere, Wendy Priesnitz, a longtime homeschooling leader in Canada and the publisher/editor of Natural Life and Life Learning magazines, reminisces about collaborating with Holt on the launch of his Growing Without Schooling newsletter, which would quickly establish itself as the cherished news organ of a continental movement. Priesnitz explains how the newsletter became an integral part of Holt’s “nickel and dime” theory of social change, by which he meant that lasting change only comes about slowly and incrementally, after people make substantive changes in their own lives.

And then there are contributions by the two people to whom Holt most directly passed the torch before he died, Pat Farenga and Susannah Sheffer, who took over the publication of Growing Without Schooling until it went the way of most non-mainstream print magazines in 2001, and who continue to find ways to enhance Holt’s legacy today. From Farenga we learn quirky details about Holt: how he liked the rehearsals of the Boston Symphony Orchestra perhaps more than their performances and even got permission to record them, and how he always picked up a bagful of litter as he walked down to the GWS office from his cluttered condo on Beacon Hill. Sheffer recounts how the correspondence she initiated with Holt when she was a young teenager led her to compile a book of Holt’s letters called A Life Worth Living—another must-read if you want to understand the person behind the ideas—after she joined the staff of Holt Associates in the wake of Holt’s passing.

The take-way from this sweet collection of stories is that John Holt’s life was very worth living because of the ways in which he touched so many other people’s lives in so many profound ways.


Then from the airwaves on 93.3 FM at McMaster University’s campus radio station CFMU, Radio Free School brings us Natural Born Learners: Unschooling and Autonomy in Education. Edited by Beatrice Ekwa Ekoko, a free-lance writer/blogger, founder of Personalized Education Hamilton, and the unschooling mother of three; and Carlo Ricci, a professor of education, founder of the Journal of Unschooling and Alternative Learning, and the unschooling father of two, the book is primarily a collection of interviews conducted by Ekoko and her daughters for a weekly radio show produced by Ekoko’s husband Randy Kay.

Natural Born Learners sets out to address the fundamental questions, what is unschooling/natural learning/self-determined learning and what does it look like in practice?, and then to illustrate the answers with the stories of a dozen or so individuals who were unschooled as children and are now leading highly interesting adult lives.

Quite appropriately, Ekoko and Ricci set the tone with John Taylor Gatto, the whistleblowing New York City schoolteacher who was named New York City Teacher of the Year three times before becoming New York State Teacher of the Year in 1991; and then much like John Holt, ultimately concluded that conventional education is hopelessly unreformable. Gatto says in a chapter entitled
“Schooling: A Highly Questionable Practice,” “The more I understood the historical currents at work in this institution, the more I saw that it can’t lead to the kind of world I personally want to live in. School definitely has a distinct purpose, unlike what most of us think. It’s about social control, and that purpose has been successfully achieved … we now have a well-schooled planet.”

Readers are later treated to a second helping of Gatto in which he discusses possible strategies for real social change and says, “You look and move like everybody else and don’t draw attention to yourself, but from time to time you find where the gears are meshing and you put a nice handful of sand in them. The biggest handful, though, will be your children. If they come of age with independent, critical minds, with a good attitude towards things and without expecting change to come easily, enjoy the struggle of testing themselves, this gives them good lives. In having good lives, they’ll be helping me and you and everyone else. It will happen after I’m dead, I think, but at some point a critical mass of people will emerge who just won’t accept bullshit any longer.”

Along the way we also get to hear the transcribed voices of a number of contemporary unschooling leaders: Pat Farenga and Susannah Sheffer, to whom John Holt passed on the leadership of Holt Associates and Growing Without Schooling magazine; Wendy Priesnitz, publisher/editor of Life Learning magazine and author of Beyond School, Living As If School Doesn’t Exist; the late Roland Meighan, originator of Educational Heretics Press and author of ten books on education; Grace Llewellyn, author of The Teenage Liberation Handbook: How to Quit School and Get a Real Life and Education and founder of the Not Back to School Camp for homeschooling teenagers; Matt Hern, founder of the Purple Thistle Centre—which he calls an alternative to school—and the author of Deschooling Our Lives; Katharine Houk, author of Creating a Cooperative Learning Center; Monica Wells Kisura, professor of intercultural communication and researcher on African American homeschooling patterns; and the late Brent Cameron, founder of a publicly-funded, internet-based educational alternative for over 2,000 homeschoolers in British Columbia and author of SelfDesign: Nurturing Genius Through Natural Learning.

The books final section featuring the stories of young adults who grew up unschooling provides a compelling testimonial to the efficacy of the unschooling paradigm. One typical example is Dale Stephens, who after becoming one of the first winners of a Thiel Fellowship—funded by Paypal founder Peter Thiel and each year awards $100,000 to 20 people under the age of 20 to use toward the start-up of their own original ventures, founded UnCollege, a web-based resource consortium for students who want to educate themselves outside the lines of traditional higher education. Stephens is also the author of Hacking Your Education and makes frequent appearances as an education expert on all the major television news networks. Another is Kate Cayley, who immediately after college co-founded her own theater company, co-directs an outdoor theater festival in Toronto, and already has a full-length play and a novel for young adults to her credit.

Indeed, as Mark Twain famously once said, “Don’t let schooling interfere with your education.”

2 Comments Post a comment
  1. I just pulled my kindergartner from school last month and plan not to send my oldest back next year for 3rd grade. For now, we’re just taking it easy. Well, HE is. I’m overwhelmed with excitement and reading material. I forget how I found your site, but I’m SO glad I did. What a valuable resource.

    I feel like I have my kids back again. “Unschooling” came natural to me before they left for public school. I didn’t even know I was doing it. Still, it’s a huge leap of faith for me to drop all structured learning.

    …the more I think about it, though… it was a bigger leap of faith to send them off to school in the first place. And not in the good way.

    March 28, 2014
    • Chris Mercogliano #

      I’m glad you found the site too, Kelsey, and thanks for sharing a little bit of your story. I absolutely love the way you used “leap of faith” to describe sending your kids off to school as well as to putting your trust in natural learning at home. Brilliant.

      March 28, 2014

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