Unschooling: home-schooling, the extreme version.

Imagine never going to school. Never having to wear a uniform or eat pre-packed lunches, never having to cover books in contact or having to carry a suitcase of books every morning .  Writer and blogger Kate Fridkis can’t imagine any other way.  She writes:


“I didn’t go to preschool. And then I didn’t go to kindergarten. And after that I didn’t go to elementary school. Or middle school. Or high school, even. I was homeschooled.

I say “unschooled”, to differentiate myself from the 80% of homeschoolers who educate at home for religious reasons. And because we never really believed in text books. I was unschooled, and I felt really lucky.

People always ask me, “Which one of your parents taught you?”

That’s still the way everyone thinks about learning. There’s a teacher and a bunch of students. There’s an adult who knows more, and some kids who know less. And the adult stands there and tells the kids things. And the kids learn.

Neither one of my parents taught me, and, of course, they both did. Just as everyone’s parents teach them things about being alive. And skills for navigating the world. And to cover their mouths when they yawn. I learned how fun it is to sit and gossip for hours from my dad. From my mom, I learned the value of occasional ritualistic formality (requesting that everyone share something they’d like to improve about the world at a holiday gathering. Or having the gathering in the first place).

I learned how to make wildly creative sandwiches. I learned how to write thank-you notes. But most of the “Can you tell me what six times seven is” type of instruction stopped when I was twelve or so. After that, my mother’s role in my education was more like that of a guidance counselor. I checked in with her. We worked on various curricula that I mostly didn’t follow, because I had so many other books I wanted to read, and so many of my own, critically time-sensitive projects to complete.

People stopped me constantly, along the way, to ask me what my family did for lab. How did we get the equipment? It would’ve been a lot easier if I could’ve just said, “We don’t. We don’t do lab.” I mean, we looked at strands of our hair through a microscope and read biology books, so I probably could’ve, but I felt like the world might not be ready. So I said things about auditing college classes and local community-based opportunities.

You know, the community science lab, where little unschoolers can clock in all the hours they need with a genuine cow’s eyeball and a scalpel. There was a homeschooling resources catalogue that sold cows’ eyes. I said absolutely not. Absolutely, absolutely not. Mom thought it might be fun. She thought everything might be fun.

People stopped me to ask about socialization. That’s the big one. Can you talk to other people? Do you have friends? How weird are you? (Educated guess, their expressions said: probably pretty weird.) I especially loved it when they asked me if I could talk to other people when I had already been talking to them for fifteen minutes.

Here’s the good and bad news: I’m sort of normal. I spent a lot of time when I was younger pretending to be exceptional. It felt like the only way to justify my abnormal upbringing. I put on a show for every adult in sight, trying to prove that unschoolers weren’t just socially capable, we were all geniuses.

No one told Kate that this was a terrible, terrible outfit. Unschooling is great like that

College was not something it occurred to me to care terribly about. I already had this complete life. I was working, teaching regularly, writing terrible fantasy novels, and writing music. I didn’t have any interest in picking a single career path, and I didn’t see the point in sitting in a classroom, after all those years of avoiding just that.

But I went. It was almost as though my parents weren’t sure what happened at eighteen, other than college. They’d enabled me to come this far, on my own, but there was no question about me joining the schooled world eventually.

In college, I learned how to be bored for the first time. I know I’m supposed to talk about how enlightening the experience was. College always opens the world up for everyone. That’s practically its tagline: College: Opening Up The World.

I guess my world was too open already. I learned how stressful being good at something was. You have to stay ahead constantly. I learned how to doodle. Before then, I’d painted and sketched. But now I was doodling endless circles and swirls and stacks of bricks in the margins of notebook after notebook. And I forgot how to think that I could do more than one thing. I forgot how to be a homeschooler. And after a while, when I realized that, I missed it.

When they find out that I was unschooled, people ask me, “Did you like it?”

It’s such a simple question. Like, so, you had a forty-year career as a statistician. Did you like it? You walked on the moon, did you like it?

But then, some things are a lot simpler than they should be. When I asked my mom why she decided to unschool my brothers and I, she said, “I liked being around you.” People expect a massive critique of society, which she can also do, when she feels like it. But underneath that is something much more straightforward.

I think that people want homeschooling/unschooling to be incredibly complicated because school has become incredibly complicated. Education has become a messy, chaotic topic that we, as a nation, can’t stop talking about. “Waiting for Superman”, budget cuts, teen suicides, charter schools, healthier school lunches, colleges flooded with applications, student debt, student loans that go forever, elite preschools, KIPP, abstinence only sex ed, gay kids at prom, no child left behind, teachers’ unions, rubber rooms, standardized testing, teacher suicides, cutting music and art classes, where it all is going, what we might be able to do, whether we should do it, and if it really works at all.

And then there are the people who drop out. The people who don’t start in the first place. People like me. We’re still a tiny minority — about 3% of the population, according to some studies (the exact numbers are never really clear). But we have a lot to say about education. And even when we don’t say anything at all, our lives speak for us.

When people ask if I liked it, I always say yes. Of course I liked it! I got to sleep until ten! What’s not to like? I didn’t get graded! I didn’t take any standardized tests before the SAT. I didn’t ever have to raise my hand. I wore ridiculous outfits, and no one told me they were ridiculous. I thought I was beautiful. I learned about things just because I was interested in them. Everyone should try it!

I, for one, am planning on unschooling my own kids if/when I have them.

It’s not a simple world. Not everyone who wants to has the economic ability to homeschool, especially not with very young children. And sometimes, when I’m being very mature and serious, or moping, or feeling insecure, or feeling like a total realist, I think that it’s not clear to me exactly what parts of myself I gained from school (college, grad school) and what I gained from unschooling. It’s all mixed together now.

I do know though, with completely certainty, that I liked myself a lot more as an unschooler. I thought I had more potential. I thought I could do anything, and I was excited about it. Maybe learning that you can’t do anything is just a part of growing up. But maybe it’s not. Maybe it’s a part of being schooled.”

Would you homeschool if you had the option? Could you?  How did you feel about your own schooling experience?