Monday, July 20, 2009

an epiphany of the educational kind

Wow, I've just realized something amazing, and I hope I can hold on to it! So I'm writing it down here to try to preserve it.

For the past month I've been completely immersed in educational writings written at or about the turn of the 19th century. And it was actually useful as well as being fascinating. I think I know now where unschooling fits in the history of education and why it works as well as it does!

You'd think I would have figured this out before. It seems so obvious now, but I was feeling my way along the path before. Now I can "see".

The turn of the century brought a HUGE sea change in education. I still don't know why it happened. I am tentatively blaming it on Darwin, though that's a pity. Darwin's one of my favorite writers and seems like a real gentleman as well. Maybe it would be more proper to blame it on Darwin's readers. Anyway, that's still an open question. I'm going to see if I can eventually come up with any answers on that, because I'm curious, but it's a side point right now.

Anyway, around the turn of the century, what you see happening is that people like Fr Schwickerath, Charles Bennett, Charles Eliot of Harvard (before he went over to the "other side") and others were trying with valor and eloquence in their different spheres to preserve a classical idea of education based on excellence and formation of the ability to think, speak, write and act well. This form of education had a moral and intellectual aspect and the combined ends were an integrated person. Content AND method mattered but were not thought of as mutually opposed -- form to some extent is part of meaning, just as content is.

However, the opposition was too strong. The beginnings of the "science" of psychology, still quite crude back then, had substituted for philosophy as grounding for the art of education, and many people envisioned a new education that would have the power to shape and conform people for the ends of society. The end result, which makes me sad to write about it, is that by mid-century Greek had gone from the ordinary curriculum and Latin was on the way out. They were thought of as "useless" and "irrelevant".

Science increasingly found its way into the curriculum to replace the languages, but as many excellent thinkers had prophesied, science as a school subject can't fill a formative goal. No child knows enough math to do "real" science and so he ends up memorizing a bunch of second-hand information that he can never test for himself, and performing contrived demonstrations which are called experiments. Real science can only be evoked in the lower years through nature study and development of the habit of observation.

Instead of the classic literature, the literature and linguistics of the vernacular were taught. But the thing is, the literature appropriate for younger children in their own language is NOT the type of thing that really needs to be taught. In fact, more often than not, over-teaching is the result, and a harmful one. To a lesser extent this is true of word study and grammar of one's own tongue. Only at the university level is there really any need for formal, scientific analysis of literature, and even then it's often overdone to the point of absurdity (trust me on this).

On my old blog I quoted Cardinal Newman on self-education. The essential truth is that at the pre-college level of education, the vast majority of things learned in school are perfectly suited to being acquired by oneself with the help of a supportive family. Reading, writing, and arithmetic can all be picked up in this way. For the very few things that need more formal study -- secondary-level math, scientific method, and foreign languages, perhaps music as well -- it is very easy to find a textbook, a tutor or a local or online class to take.

Since there is no real uniform conception of what education is nowadays, unschooling is perfectly equivalent and often superior to what can be done formally in today's schools. For one thing, and this is a biggie, the kid's understanding and motivation doesn't get blighted from the start. This is SO big that it can hardly be overestimated as a plus for unschooling as compared to the normal school of today.

You see, before the early 1900's, the schools did have a function that was hard to bring into the home. The function was to teach Latin and Greek.

Later on, as a melting-pot for immigrants and an immersion into the language for those who didn't speak English, the public schools still served a valuable purpose.

For children with learning difficulties, school is generally not a good solution so far as I've seen. However, there are many homeschooled children with learning difficulties that make it hard for them to acquire the 3Rs easily. So I'm not saying that basic literacy and numeracy is always a breeze; just that they're not esoteric skills that need many hours of formal, esoteric training. Even with special needs, common sense and some targeted therapy usually help more than a vast formal machinery.

I don't think public schools are the Evil Empire, I just think they're bloated and constantly hungry for more. I think they are necessary in our present environment and if they were less centralized they would have better results. But a friendly family environment and a child with a library card and access to the world can do everything a school can do, only better. I know that's said often, but now I can see better WHY.

At best, in my opinion, a non-classics "building" school would probably be much like Charlotte Mason's. ... literature and nature based, with exposure to a variety of elements of culture. I think this is a nice innovation on the classics program targeted towards children of all classes and children learning from governnesses and parents in the home, with teachers who were not scholars themselves.

I think CM's method is superior to ED Hirsch's core curriculum, because it is more focused on formation than information, and is based on real literature and its workings on the individual mind through thinking, speaking and writing (all comprised in narration).

Hirsch and the K12 seem more "scientific" to me -- based on acquiring information, though I admit it's usually high quality information that is conducive to a good life, and I think it's superior to the normal school curriculum.

That helps me think this through quite a bit better than I've been able to do so far. I always felt weird about "teaching" things I was never taught, but learned to do in the precious hours away from the classrooms. So with my kids I unschooled writing, mostly unschooled reading, tried to teach math but sort of got in the way, unschooled science etc.

However, it would be hard to "unschool" the classics the way they were obviously taught in the schools. I'm sure they were sometimes taught badly, mechanically and punitively, but not always. And even the boys who weren't taught in the best way possible were glad for that kind of education when they were older (ETA at least a lot of them were -- probably not all, or there wouldn't have been such a push to eliminate the classical course from the curriculum)

It would be easier to "unschool" a form of CM, but it would take a mom who really knew what she was doing and so I'm glad there is plenty of guidance available out there on the 'net.

Seeing all this, I can see that John Holt et al might have been "progressive" in their environments but were maybe more like "neo-progressives". They looked around and saw the detritus of education around them in the 70s and thought that it was generally useless, superficial, even harmful. And it was, largely because of the earlier "reforms". So their "progressiveness" was actually in some regards a throwback to more classical humanistic concept of education, even though they didn't consciously harken back to that tradition and undoubtedly opposed it in many ways.

This is something I've noticed for a long time but am understanding more clearly now. I am afraid I may not be at the point of being able to actually COMMUNICATE my understanding clearly yet, though.

Now I have a slightly better idea of what I'm doing -- so it was worth it, all this immersion into educational history and philosophy. I shall have to remember the "prayer and questions" format as well since I think that helped me get somewhere in my thinking instead of just spinning out in orbit like I sometimes do.


  1. Wow, Willa! This is incredible! Thanks for submerging yourself so that we could all benefit! Everything you say rings so true. I think our public school system actually creates learning disabilities in a way, because 1)they don't respect the individual development of each child so they tend to rush them and label them too quickly to deal with the 'problem' and 2)they force the kids to have to deal with peer approval all the time, so the kids feel stupid and different and this feeling of inferiority makes learning a pain instead of joyful (which is what it should be for every child, even those with special needs).

  2. Very interesting. That sounds just about right to me. I think you've helped me to pinpoint too the line between my attraction to and discomfort with unschooling. Stepping back to look at the big picture does help put the details into perspective.

  3. I'd be curious to know how the development of ABA therapy and B.F. Skinner's work relate to the way education is viewed now. Skinner, in particular, believed that all aspects of education could be isolated, broken down and taught in a very scientific way. Think of Pavlov and his dogs and relate that to all of education of children. Ironically, Skinner applied his theories to his daughter, kept her isolated and taught her things in a very scientific manner. She ended her own life as a young adult.

    I have a very difficult time embracing unschooling but I am coming to see its merits more and more. Your series has been informative. Thanks!

  4. Susan, funny you mentioned Skinner since I've just been reading Beyond Freedom and Dignity and finding it very interesting. I will probably write out some thoughts when I finish reading the book.

    Do you see some of his ideas particularly affecting special education? I was just wondering since with Aidan I've encountered therapists who had a very behavioral approach.

    I find unschooling hard to "do", personally. However, I tend to find it more "philosophical" than most homeschooling methods as they are generally practiced nowadays. I think most of our ideas of "structured" education tend to be informed by the scientific approach of our century and the preceding one. But that's sort of babbling. I don't purely unschool, obviously, but I think unschooling raises important questions about the role of family, of early learning, of agency, that are quite important and generally not often addressed elsewhere.

  5. Phenomenal post! I also loved Susan's observations on Skinner, behavioral psychology, and ABA.

    BTW, behaviorism was considered gospel in the psychology field around the 70's -- some psychology departments were advertising for faculty with ads that read "only behaviorists need apply." Obviously quite a bit of this trickled down into education in this century, and probably into many other spheres as well.

    About unschooling ... I'm becoming increasingly convinced that it's not something you "do." And I don't think there's any such thing as "pure" unschooling. I think it's more of a philosophical bent that informs our thoughts and actions -- not an educational method or technique.

  6. Skinner's ideas greatly effect special ed as far as autism goes. That goes hand in hand with the fact that ABA, as taught by Lovaas, is constantly being promoted as the only treatment for autism with any scientific backing. Skinner's ideas go hand in hand with the Lovaas approach, at least from my limited understanding.

    I think educators also like this mode of education because it makes evaluative reports easier to write. There is a specific goal and there is specific progress on that goal that can be reported on. I admit, I do find this notion attractive too.

    I do like using unschooling as a method and I agree with your definition of it Willa. It seems to be more of a mindset than an actual system of education. And I do use it quite a bit. My problem with it stems from my autistic child, my oldest. Unfortunately, his way of coping with his hypersensitive senses is to shut down and withdraw. Makes it very tough to engage in learning with him. I like your description, Laughing Stars, that unschooling is a philosophical view that directs how we interact with students as we teach.

  7. Meant to tell you that I really liked this. Nice overview of something I've been trying figure out for years!


I would love to hear your thoughts on this!