Schooling Yourself

Each year more and more students drop out of school in order to educate themselves. According to the National Home Education Research Institute, the number of students in the U.S. who homeschool has grown by 7-15 percent a year for the last several years; around 1.9 million people were homeschooled during the 2000-2001 school year.

These students are turning to alternative education for a variety of reasons: some to pursue artistic or athletic interests, some for religious reasons, and some because they simply believe that they can learn more if they aren't sitting in a classroom all day.

"Dropout", "homeschooler" or "unschooler?" What's the difference?

There are no precise definitions for the terms "dropout," "homeschooler," or "unschooler," but each one has cultural and political connotations that set them apart. The term "dropout" carries the baggage of failure, hopelessness, drugs, and violence. A 1999 report by the U.S. Department of Education indicated that compared to high school graduates, dropouts are likely to earn less money, collect unemployment, receive public assistance, and be single parents.

The term homeschooler carries a different set of baggage. Homeschoolers are stereotyped as coming from the upper-middle class and being sheltered. Many are pulled from school by their parents for religious reasons. But there are many homeschoolers who don't fit this description.

Patricia Lines of the very same U.S. Department of Education that thinks badly of dropouts praised homeschoolers, saying that they "are asserting their historic individual rights so that they may form more meaningful bonds with family and community."

"In doing so," she continues "they are not abdicating from the American agreement. To the contrary, they are affirming it."

Recently, some very motivated and highly-skilled people are dropping out. These people want to show that dropping out isn't just something that happens to you when you can't handle school anymore: it is a choice that can be made in order to improve your education. Some are actually re-claiming the word "drop out." Others just call themselves unschoolers.

Homeschoolers are usually taught by their parents from state-certified curriculums. Unschoolers, on the other hand, teach themselves without a traditional curriculum. Unschoolers tend to be more politically opposed to the educational establishment than homeschoolers, and they tend to be more motivated than your average dropout. Unschoolers consciously and independently decide to leave school, usually in middle or high school. For some, leaving traditional school is an act of protest against the education system.

"Homeschoolers are usually taught by their parents from state-certified curriculums. Unschoolers, on the other hand, teach themselves without a traditional curriculum. Unschoolers tend to be more politically opposed to the educational establishment than homeschoolers, and they tend to be more motivated than your average dropout."

Unschooler Sarah Shapiro wrote of her decision to leave school: "I heard echoes of many a summer's end walking into a bookstore or a library as if it were a candy store, glancing longingly at all the books I want to read, and knowing that school would take up all my time instead."

I had a similar problem. For many years I felt that devoting myself to school was the best way to reach my life goals. In elementary and middle school I loved the satisfaction and praise I could win by succeeding at the things my school deemed important. By the time I quit traditional high school, however, I was an unhappy A and B student who aspired to do great things but lacked the time and the freedom of mind to do them.

Finally, when I was in tenth grade, I learned of a growing movement of "unschoolers" who believed that the essential lessons in life -- dedication, self-direction, and independent thinking - can be learned better outside of school.

When I decided to unschool, a friend recommended Berkeley Independent Studies as a way to school myself and still receive a high school diploma. At Independent Studies I meet with a teacher for each course one-on-one for a half-hour each week. Between meetings I do at least five additional hours of work for each course. I write my own curriculum for all of my courses; my teachers provide advice when I ask for it and sign off on the legal papers to get me credit for my work. Independent studies programs provide unschoolers with resources such as art materials, sports teams, social events, and one-on-one time to discuss ideas and projects with teachers.

As an unschooler I am able to devote my energy to things that are meaningful to me. And other unschoolers I know do the same. They work as veterinarians' assistants, bike across the country, invent electronics, work on political campaigns, play on sports teams, travel, intern with human rights organizations, work as radio DJ's, lay in bed reading all day, write for Wiretap magazine. The possibilities are endless.

Why do people go to school in the first place?
Arguably, what we learn most in school is acculturation. We go into kindergarten as five year olds without a sense of what is "culturally appropriate," and by the time we toss our caps at high school graduation we have absorbed many messages about how we are expected to act in the world. We are taught to act according to what is expected of our socioeconomic background and our gender. Philosopher and educator Bertrand Russell wrote, "Almost all education has a political motive: it aims at strengthening some group, national or religious or even social, in the competition with other groups. It is this motive, in the main, which determines the subjects taught, the knowledge offered and the knowledge withheld, and also decides what mental habits the pupils are expected to acquire."

Many people fear that if children weren't at school they be wreaking havoc in the streets all day. Some schools use much of their resources trying to keep their students on campus and out of trouble. What an expensive baby-sitting program! Kevin Arnold, a teacher at an alternative education program, said that he chose not to teach at a traditional school because he wanted to be an educator, not "a police officer in a classroom."

Can an unschooler still get a high school diploma?

It is possible to test out of high school by taking a GED (General Educational Development), which is technically equivalent to a high school diploma on
a job or college application. Another option is to enroll in an independent study program. California laws dictate that every school district must provide an independent study program if it is requested by a student. Other states offer similar programs.

Carl Brush, the director of the Berkeley Independent Studies program, says: "I think the ultimate advantage is that people come out of here, if they succeed, with the ability to manage their time in a way that they can create and maintain. We depend so much on a boss or an institution to divide our time -- tell us when to get up' when to have lunch, when to take our breaks' that when we are given open time we have a hard time using it well. People who succeed in this program' learn how to make those kinds of choices. I think (that they become) more productive human beings."

Does unschooling work for everybody?

Unschooling and other forms of self-directed education benefit many people. But some who try it go back to regular school for a number of reasons.

Unschooler Eva Owens explained in a magazine called Growing Without Schooling a
pattern that many of us go through: "We start out thinking of what we won't have to do when we stop going to school, and it takes a while for us to think about what we do want to do." After unschooling for a while, some people find new interests and goals that they never knew they had. They become inspired by activities that were not available to them in school, or by subjects that they used to detest but now approach from a different angle.

On the other hand, there are people who can't adjust to the flexibility. Some unschoolers who need structure deliberately design their own internal and external structure instead of returning to school.

"We start out thinking of what we won't have to do when we stop going to school, and it takes a while for us to think about what we do want to do."

For some people, another drawback to unschooling is being separated from their peers. Unschoolers who don't become involved in group activities tend to get lonely and return to school in order to be around their friends all day. Others, who find the social scene at school to be superficial or petty see this as a plus. I spend my time with all the friends I used to go to school with in addition to the friends I have made at my jobs and internships, at Independent Studies, in my youth community action group, in my dance classes, and in my travels.

Can unschooling really prepare you for adult responsibilities?
Many people stay in high school because they worry that if they dropped out they could not get into college. However, all sorts of colleges welcome unschoolers every year - from Ivy Leagues to tiny liberal arts schools. In fact, according to the College Board homeschooled seniors have scored consistently higher on the SAT's than high school students for the last three years.

Grace Llewellyn, author of The Teenage Liberation Handbook, sent a letter to over fifty American colleges asking them how their admissions committee would view an application from an "creative and enterprising" unschooler with "little or no formal education" but who "has taken care to meet your admissions requirements other than attending school." Here is a typical response she received:
"I have little doubt that I would be delighted to admit a person (like that) described (in)your letter. Besides, I would like to see a large number of them in any class. In addition to the normal skills required for success in college, people like this would have a degree of initiative, independence, self knowledge and philosophical perspective that would make them desirable college students indeed. I suspect they would also have a degree of maturity not often encountered in typical college first-year students'
-Thomas S. Anthony, Dean of Admissions at Colgate University.
When unschoolers get to college are they really prepared to learn a standard curriculum and sit in lecture halls instead of learning through experiences and designing their own "curriculum?"

Arnold says that Independent Study students are well prepared for colleges that require an ability to work independently, but not always as prepared for traditionally structured universities. Unschooler Kirsten Shepler, for instance, had a difficult time choosing a school that didn't give her the same freedom whe'd come to expect. "I just couldn't see myself choosing to go back to an imposed curriculum," she said. Shepler eventually attended Goddard, a college in Vermont where, as an undergraduate, she could design her own independent study projects.

Unschooling is more a philosophy than a specific set of acts. As many go on to college or careers they still consider themselves unschoolers. It is about trusting in one's own capability to learn by exploration instead of requiring an authority figure to dictate how, when, and where learning will take place.

School is for learning. But for learning what? Whether you go to a public school or a private school; whether you love school or hate it; whether you are in first or twelfth grade, it is important to question what it is that you are truly learning in school--regardless of whether you ever plan to leave the structure of a traditional schools. What does it mean to be an educated person? What does it mean to prepare for your future? We each need to answer these questions for ourselves. Unschooling has helped me do just that.

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