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The Case for Cinderblocks

Reading Astra Taylor’s n+1 essay “Unschooling,” I was reminded of my first semester in a classroom. Like many student teachers, I’d been offended by the idea of myself as an authority figure. Standing in front of the class at the chalkboard felt like a lie. Was I smarter than my students? No. Did I know more about the subject I was teaching? Not always. I was so afraid of humiliating kids that I refused to call on a student unless her hand was raised.

In practice, that meant that over and over again I gave a lot of outgoing kids the chance to speak, while effectively ignoring the ones who weren’t interested. When no one’s hand was raised, I wasted time wondering what to do next. In the middle of the semester, my students filled out their evaluations. “Dear Ms. Erickson,” one student wrote, “when no one raises their hand, it’s okay to just call on someone.” He was right. It was okay. I’d been protecting tenth graders from something they were perfectly prepared to face.

It is this false and misguided sense of children’s fragile identity that informs the educational philosophy of “unschooling.” Demographically, unschooling is homeschooling for middle class people with master’s degrees. Its heroes are Paul Goodman, John Holt, and A. S. Neill, the author of a once influential but largely forgotten book called Summerhill, about a boarding school run entirely by the students.

Taylor’s self-education — which she says she experienced as a compromise between the wild fantasy of freely communing with other young people and the reality of submitting “to irrational authority six and half hours a day, five days a week, in a series of cinder-block holding cells” — involved reading, weeding vegetable gardens, running through the woods, publishing an animal rights newsletter, and watching reruns of the The Simpsons with her three siblings. Her mother facilitated.

Dana Goldstein has already written at length about the economic infeasibility of unschooling as a national philosophy for education, and Taylor has responded that her essay is not meant to be prescriptive, but instructive. It’s the values we should take from radical pedagogy, the willingness “to take seriously words like ‘freedom,’ ‘autonomy,’ and ‘choice,’” which have been ceded to the political right, she argues. Looking “at the radical margins may help us ask better questions about what we really want from our educational system and how to go about getting it.”

These are questions worth asking in the golden age of young adult dystopian fiction. Are schools jails? Is institutionalization an inevitably soul-crushing enterprise, meant to inculcate children into, in Taylor’s words, an “ethos of boredom”? Is it time for the Left to take choice seriously?

The fundamental problem with unschooling, an essentially anarchist critique of compulsory education, is that it fails to account for the fact that privilege and authority, though intimately linked, are not the same thing. It is not only possible but preferable for teachers to guide children without “molding” or forcing them. Goodman and Holt were both committed to delaying socialization in children, regarding growth as an individual, solitary, and natural pursuit that must be protected from the corrupting influence of adults. It’s a primitivist impulse. It’s also sentimental and paternalistic.

Insistent as these critiques are on the primacy of individual freedom, they almost always invoke self-guided learning as a liberating answer to the oppressive teacher-student relationship. The idea is that, as Goodman wrote, “natural” learning means that the organism itself must create its own structures as it goes. One common refrain is “you don’t need to teach a baby how to speak. You speak to it and it learns to speak” — in other words, let nature do her work, and everything will turn out fine.

But it doesn’t always turn out fine. In fact, this contradicts everything we know about learning and cognition. Inquiry and engagement are important, but students also need scaffolding, in the form of “modeling, direct teaching, and prompting, which is gradually removed as students become adept at self-evaluation and metacognition” (Resnick and Williams Hall). Teachers use direct instruction strategies not just to bore kids, but because they work: a combination of direct instruction and real life examples is a more effective way to teach than either is on its own.

Taylor writes, “Our solitude, to paraphrase Thoreau, was not trespassed upon. What a gift! What kind of respect for intellectual or artistic immersion is signaled by a world in which the sound of a bell means that the work at hand, no matter how compelling or urgent, must be put aside, and something else started? How deeply can anyone enter a subject in fifty minutes unless the material is broken down into component parts too small to communicate any grand purpose?”

I read this as a refutation of worksheets. And fine. Who doesn’t hate outlines and graphic organizers? Before I began teaching, I promised myself I’d never go near a photocopier. Compare/contrast exercises feel reductive, mechanistic, too “Another Brick in the Wall.” But it turns out that this breaking down into component parts is exactly what many students need in order to get to the grand purpose. Study after study has shown that students’ ability to identify the structure of a text influences whether or not they understand and remember what they have read. One researcher found that only 11% of ninth graders consciously identified and used high-level structure to recall their reading, and this group was able to recall twice as much as the students who did not use the strategy. Training the other 89% to identify and use top-level structure more than doubled their recall performance.

The ability to recall what you have read matters a lot. The brain’s working memory capacity is limited, and if it’s entirely devoted to decoding a sentence, it’s less likely to be able to construct and engage with meaning. This is why we have to spend years learning basic math before we get to calculus. What separates experts from novices is not some innate mystical genius; it’s the automaticity and pattern recognition that comes only from hours of practice. Sometimes, learning is work because it’s work, not because it’s busy work.

There’s another aspect of Taylor’s argument that I find troubling. Why shouldn’t kids be asked to put away their crayons and go to lunch at the same time? Why do we assume that clear boundaries, a schedule, and a sense of hierarchy are so threatening to students? Why must the individual’s vision be so carefully and serenely sheltered from other people, who are experienced in this framework as interruptions? There is value in being pulled out of a daydream. There is value in learning to cope with a little coercion, in knowing what it means to cooperate on a daily basis with someone who doesn’t love you, someone who’s not your family member.

Taylor summarizes the debate over compulsory schooling as, “Do we trust people’s capacity to be curious or not?” To me, it seems to be about sparing children the discomfort of conflict. Curiosity leads us to follow our own interests, but what about the interests of others? Conflict is what happens when we’re asked to reckon with them. Just as not every child learns to read “when they’re ready,” some students understandably “resist the critical thinking process; they are more comfortable with learning that allows them to remain passive” (as bell hooks writes).

True, it’s not important or desirable that every student become a professor. I’m not arguing against the incorporation of technical training into public schools. But, whether we’re willing to admit it or not, there is a body of mainstream academic knowledge that students either have access to or don’t — for example the ability to speak “Standard English” — and that access is crucial to being able to support oneself as an adult. In Other People’s Children, Lisa Delpit writes about her disillusionment with her progressive, child-centered teacher training: “In many African-American communities, teachers are expected to show that they care about their students by controlling the class; exhibiting personal power,” and “‘pushing’ students to achieve.” Teachers who don’t exhibit these behaviors are regarded as uncaring.

“There are several reasons why students and parents of color take a position that differs from the well-intentioned position of the teachers I have described,” she writes. “First, they know that members of society need access to dominant discourse to (legally) have access to economic power. Second, they know that such discourses can be and have been acquired in classrooms because they know individuals who have done so.” Delpit sees the public schools as a place where students should be acquiring the skills and language that help them survive and transform systemic oppression.

At the heart of the anarchist vision for public schooling is the idea that if public schools don’t work for you, you should stop going. Burn them down. Refuse to pay taxes. Rebelling against the institutional part of public institutions is the defining characteristic of this response to structural inequality. Goodman sees schooling as social control, the individual thwarted, taxes squandered on “war, school teachers, and politicians.” True, education systems have in many cases throughout history served to reinforce the class structures of the society that set them up. But tearing them down or boycotting them and rebuilding on a local level is not a viable solution.

The fact is, we don’t need more decentralization in our public schools. U.S. schools are already highly decentralized compared to others around the world. Liberals and conservatives have long resisted the creation of a national curriculum, effectively handing the power over to Texas and California to create a de facto national curriculum because they order the most textbooks. In 2010, the Texas Board of Ed. approved a social studies curriculum which emphasizes the importance of capitalism in American life. Board members were unable to agree on whether Darwin’s theory of evolution should be included.

“Unschooling” ends with a portrait of the Albany Free School, an alternative school where students pay a sliding scale tuition averaging a little over $100 a month. “Pitching in to weed the vegetable beds or feed the chickens are fine examples of how the Free School staff turns necessity into virtue, creatively stretching their meager resources while embracing self-reliance and simple living,” writes Taylor. It’s a model school, though she readily admits it isn’t scalable. Nor would we want it be. The school’s existence relies on fundraising, volunteering, the work of interns, and teachers who make a stipend of only $11,000 a year with no benefits — well under the already low going rate. In doing so, it adds to the devaluing of care work on which American capitalism relies.

It’s no accident that this is a microcosm of what is happening to public schools, where parents and kids are increasingly being asked to pitch in and paint the building or hawk candy bars to fill budget gaps. That’s because the values of freedom, autonomy, and choice are in perfect accordance with market-based “reforms,” and with the neoliberal vision of society on which they’re based. Alternative, student-centered education sounds like community action, until you remember we’re already paying for public schools, and patching them up after hours is an inadequate and piecemeal way to go about changing them. We need a common space that offers students access to knowledge they may be but aren’t necessarily getting at home — and we need to insist, through taxation, that the wealthy contribute to it. Make no mistake: “unschooling” is a retreat from this ideal.