Imagine being a kid and having no school bus to wait for, no quizzes to fret over, no curriculum to slog through. Imagine that the only thing guiding your education is your own curiosity, with the occasional assist from Mom and Dad. That was the experience of Astra Taylor, a writer and documentary filmmaker who was raised in the radical pedagogical tradition known as unschooling.
The unschooling movement got its start amid the idealism of the 1960s and ’70s. Iconoclasts such as Paul Goodman and John Holt argued that children should be trusted to create their own educational goals. At the heart of the unschooling ethos, Holt wrote, was the idea that “the human animal is a learning animal.”
For Taylor and her three siblings, unschooling worked pretty well. They created their “own standards of excellence,” she recalls, “which were often impossible to meet. Yet failure in intellectual and creative pursuits felt honorable as opposed to humiliating.” The children were free to engage with subjects that captivated them; Taylor’s younger sister “fell in love with painting when she was 12 years old and devoted year after year to mastering her craft, an investment of time denied most artists until they enter graduate school.” Now she’s a well-known artist. A newsletter on environmentalism and animal rights that Taylor published for three years “prepared me for my adult work better than almost anything else I’ve done.” (She concedes that she and her siblings also watched countless episodes of The Simpsons, and “when we weren’t inspired—which was often—we simply did nothing at all.”)
Are there any gaping holes in her knowledge? Not that she can tell. Taylor says she and her siblings “are all literate, can count well enough to balance a checkbook, and have had, or will have, the opportunity to pursue higher education.”
She did worry about her lack of credentials, and enrolled in a public high school in Georgia, where her family lived, then briefly studied at Brown University. After years of marching to her own drummer, however, she found the education on offer lacking. By far the worst part was the boredom, “the obligatory raising of hands and answering of questions, the trying to look busy when you’re about to doze off, the wish to be anywhere in the world beyond the window.”
Is it utopian to imagine unschooling for all? Taylor recognizes her advantages, including a stay-at-home mother and a father who was a university professor. A few schools, such as the Albany Free School in New York State, try to make a similar experience possible for children of all socioeconomic backgrounds. But the Albany school depends on fundraising and extensive volunteer labor (including the uncompensated work of teachers, who receive only an $11,000 annual stipend)—clearly, an unscalable model.
But the unschooling of every American child is not Taylor’s goal. Instead, she writes in a follow-up published on the n+1 Web site, “Taking a closer look at the radical margins may help us ask better questions about what we really want from our educational system.”