Dave Pollard wrote about unschooling on his blog How To Save The World


In Grade 11, my second last year of high school, I was an average student, with marks in English in the mid 60% range, and in mathematics, my best subject, around 80%. Aptitude tests suggested I should be doing better, and this was a consistent message on my report cards. I hated school. As my blog bio explains, I was shy, socially inept, uncoordinated and self-conscious. My idea of fun was playing strategy games (Diplomacy and Acquire, for fellow geeks of that era — this was long before computer games or the Internet) and hanging around the drive-in restaurant.

Then in Grade 12, something remarkable happened: My school decided to pilot a program called “independent study”, that allowed any student maintaining at least an 80% average on term tests in any subject (that was an achievement in those days, when a C — 60% — really was the average grade given) to skip classes in that subject until/unless their grades fell below that threshold. There was a core group of ‘brainy’ students who enrolled immediately. Half of them were the usual boring group (the ‘keeners’) who did nothing but study to maintain high grades (usually at their parents’ behest); but the other half were creative, curious, independent thinkers with a natural talent for learning. The chance to spend my days with this latter group, unrestricted by school walls and school schedules, was what I dreamed of, so I poured my energies into self-study.

To the astonishment of everyone, including myself, I did very well at this. By the end of the first month of school my average was almost 90%, and I was exempted from attending classes in all my subjects. I’d become friends with some members of the ‘clique’ I had aspired to join, and discovered that, together, we could easily cover the curriculum in less than an hour a day, leaving the rest of the day to discuss philosophy, politics, anthropology, history and geography of the third world, contemporary European literature, art, the philosophy of science, and other subjects not on the school curriculum at all. We went to museums, attended seminars, wrote stories and poetry together (and critiqued each others’ work).

As the year progressed, the ‘keeners’, to my amazement, found they were struggling with this independence and opted back into the regular structured classroom program. Now our independent study group was a remarkable group of non-conformists, whose marks — on tests we didn’t attend classes for or study for — were so high that some wondered aloud if we were somehow cheating. My grades had climbed into the low 90% range, and this included English where such marks were rare — especially for someone whose grades had soared almost 30 points in a few months of ‘independent’ study. The fact is that my peers had done what no English teacher had been able to do — inspire me to read and write voraciously, and show me how my writing could be improved. My writing, at best marginal six months earlier, was being published in the school literary journal. On one occasion, a poem of mine I read aloud in class (one of the few occasions I actually attended a class that year) produced a spontaneous ovation from my classmates.

The Grade 12 final examinations in those days were set and marked by a province-wide board, so universities could judge who the best students were without having to consider differences between schools. Our independent study group, a handful of students from just one high school, won most of the province-wide scholarships that year. I received the award for the highest combined score in English and Mathematics in the province — an almost unheard-of 94%.

The experience spoiled me for university — I graduated in two years, which was all I could bear, by taking extra courses and summer courses, just to get through it. And the independent study program, despite its extraordinary success, was not repeated in subsequent years. Part of the justification for the pilot program had been to free up teachers’ time to spend with students who needed more individual attention; yet the dubious reason we were given for its cancellation was that “it was unfair to deprive the average students of the presence and example of the more outstanding students”.

All this is by way of introduction to my thoughts on PS Pirro’s excellent new book on Unschooling, which is in effect what my belated “independent study” experience was an example of. Here’s an excerpt to give you a flavour of the book:

The world of the classroom is so unlike anything the real world has to offer – with the exception of other classrooms – that kids can excel at school only to find themselves utterly lost in the real world. Some people think this is the result of failed schooling, but a few of us suspect otherwise. We suspect that this sense of displacement and confusion is actually the result of schooling that succeeds in its most basic unwritten objective: to keep you dependent, timid, worried, nervous, compliant, and afraid of the World. To keep you waiting. To keep you manageable. To keep you helpless. To keep you small.

Educated, confident, creative people are dangerous to the status quo, dangerous to a centralized economy, dangerous to a centralized system of command and control. Those in power don’t want you educated. They want you schooled.

It is not up to teachers or school administrators to figure out what you should be or do. It’s not up to the State, it’s not up to your guidance counselors. It’s not up to your parents. What you do with your life ought to be up to you. What you learn ought to be up to you. How you navigate the world and create your place in it ought to be your decision. Your life belongs to you. School does its best to disabuse you of this notion. Unschooling celebrates it. Unschooling puts the responsibility for creating a satisfying life squarely where it belongs: in the hands of the one living it.

PS presents 50 reasons why schooling is, in every imaginable way, bad for us and our society, and then 50 reasons why unschooling, which she defines as “learning without formal curriculum, timelines, grades or coercion; learning in freedom” is the natural way to learn. She argues that we are indoctrinated from the age of five to cede our time, our freedoms, and what we pay attention to, to the will of the State, so that we are ‘prepared’ for a work world of wage slavery and obedience to authority. We are deliberately not taught anything that would allow us to be self-sufficient in society. And in the factory environment of the school, where teachers need to ‘manage’ thirty students or more, ethics and the politics of power is left up, from our earliest and most vulnerable years, to the bullies and other young damaged psychopaths among our peers, to teach us in their grotesquely warped way. As PS explains, it is in every way a prison system.

Unschooling, by contrast, starts with the realization that you ‘own’ your time, and have the opportunity and responsibility to use it in ways that are meaningful and stimulating for you. When you have this opportunity, you just naturally learn a great deal, about things you care about, things that will inevitably be useful to you in making a life and a living. Your learning environment is the whole world, and you learn what and when you want, undirected by curricula, textbooks, alarm clocks and school bells. You develop deep peer relationships around areas of common interest, once you’re allowed to explore and discover what those areas of interest are. And the Internet and online gaming allow you to make those relationships anywhere in the world, to draw on the brightest experts on the planet, and to communicate powerfully with like-minded, curious people of every age, culture and ideology.

Many people argue that unschooling will only work for the very brightest and most self-disciplined children. On the contrary, I think we are all perfectly suited to unschooling until the school system begins to beat the love of learning, the ability to self-manage, curiosity, imagination and critical thinking out of us. By the time we have reached the third grade it becomes much more difficult, and my success in unschooling in twelfth grade was, I will agree, due to my above-average intelligence and initiative — most of my intellectually-crippled peers just couldn’t manage by that time without the strictures they’d become accustomed to. They had long ago lost the desire to learn, and to think for themselves.

If every child was unschooled — given the chance to explore and discover and learn in the real world what they love to do, what they’re uniquely good at doing, and what the world needs that they care about — then we would have a world of self-confident, creative, informed, empowered, networked entrepreneurs doing work that needs to be done, successfully. We would have armies of people collaborating to solve the problems and crises facing our world, instead of going home exhausted at the end of the day seeking escape, feeling helpless to do anything that is meaningful to thems or to the world. We would have a world of producers instead of consumers, a world of abundance instead of scarcity, a world of diversity instead of what Terry Glavin calls “a dark and gathering sameness”. We would have a world of young people choosing their lives instead of taking what they can get, what they can afford, what is offered to them. We would have a world of people who are nobody-but-themselves, and who know who they are, and how to live and make a living for themselves.

In the final part of her book, PS encourages us to check out unschooling gatherings in our own area, and find out more, find out what we can do to grow this important movement. She describes some of the groups that are organizing travel adventures to enrich unschoolers’ experiences even further, and provides a host of resources for further reading and exploration of the unschooling movement.

I’m growing increasingly convinced that if we have any hope of coping with the crises that we face in this century, it lies in the generations now in the “school system”.

More precisely, it lies in getting them out of that system, and making this the last generation of “schooled children”.

Given the damage we’ve done to the world — due in no small part to the “education system” that has molded us — damage that future generations must reverse, it’s the least we can do for them, and, at last, for ourselves.

[From How to Save the World]


  1. AvatarEdward

    I agree that for those, like myself, who are self-directed and naturally averse to hierarchy would do exceptionally well in progressive schooling situations, or whatever you want to call it: student-directed learning, free skools, unschooling, deschooling.

    Yet, I would venture to guess that a sizable percent of people are naturally “keeners” and would be intimidated by unschooling. Furthermore, before we had state-sponsored schools, we had a multitude of private religious schools which would indoctrinate, segregate, and subjugate people to an even greater extent. It is possible to regulate private schools, but that isn’t much different than state-sponsoring.

    Thus, for gifted students, we should certainly provide schools where they can thrive, but for those who cannot thrive there, I think the current school system isn’t that horrible… or at least I haven’t got any better ideas.

  2. AvatarMichel Bauwens

    Kevin Carson, via email:

    Robert Pirsig’s comments (as “Phaedrus”) on the “Church of Reason” might be relevant here:

    I can relate, from personal experience, to the scenario “Phaedrus”
    describes. When I was in high school, I was signed up for
    Pre-Calculus Algebra against my wishes, with my complaints brushed off dismissively: “Well, you need math to get any kind of a good job these days.” At the time I was interested in history and political philosophy, and read extensively in those subjects on my own time.

    When my own reading interests competed with the hated Pre-Cal for my time, I wound up dropping out of Pre-Cal with a failing grade, and hated math for years afterward.

    Then a few years ago I wrote a book defending the classical political economists’ labor theory of value against marginalism. My review of marginalist literature focused mainly on the Austrians because of their relative freedom from higher math apparatus, and largely neglected neoclassical econ after Marshall. I sorely felt the lack in the first edition of the book, and decided it needed to incorporate the neoclassical version of marginal analysis. So now, after more than twenty years, I’m reteaching myself algebra and trig so I can
    pick up enough calculus to read 20th century econ. It didn’t become interesting to me until I perceived its relevants to my own, self-determined needs.

    Another anecdote: A couple years ago, I saw a sign at a local
    bookstore announcing it carried Watership Down and the rest of the
    public schools’ summer reading list. Thank God, I said to myself,
    that we didn’t have mandatory summer reading lists when I was in
    school. I first read the book when I was about 40 or so, and loved it. But if I’d been forced to read it against my will, via an act that I regarded as school bureaucrats stealing summer time that was rightfully my own, I’d have hated the book and cursed it to my dying day.

  3. AvatarMichel Bauwens

    I have to agree with Edward’s feelings on this. Though I hated school myself, I experienced that one of my children did not fit well in an alternative and relatively unstructured school environment, and she wanted to join a more disciplined learning environment, where she thrived, and she was happy in public school all the way to graduation.

    Less personal: public school, despite all its flaws, was instrumental of social advance and equality of opportunity, and it worked rather well in this until the advent of neoliberalism started to starve public education of funds. What’s wrong in my opinion, is not ‘places’ of learning, but rather their centralized management, which discourages and demoralizes local school establishments.

    I think the debate echoes the old left/right divide, the left assumes that people are naturally ‘good’, full of potential; the right that people are naturally enclined to evil, unless strong institutions guide them. Why not accept both truths, but above all create a system with broad freedom of school, so that unschoolers can unschool, alternative education methods can thrive, and those that prefer a disciplined method also have choices, with the partner state authorities imposing only a minimal skillset requirement, to insure equality of opportunity for all.

    Like Edward, I would not trust that every human being would want to naturally do the effort of learning, and also that especially those living in less privileged social situations, would get larger doses of assistance.


  4. AvatarMichel Bauwens

    A potpourri of reactions from our p2presearch mailing list.

    First I forgot to add the 2 last paragraphs of Kevin’s previous remark. This will be followed by additional contributions.

    Kevin Carson:

    I can’t count the number of instances when I was confronted with
    something before I was ready to assimilate it, and then turned around years later and eagerly absorbed it when it became relevant to my interests.

    The problem is that coerced learning based on someone else’s agenda can be pretty efficient at instilling a hatred of “learning,” as much so as if that was the actual goal. But then I’ve almost always been the sort of person who instinctively hates anything assigned to me by some authority figure sitting behind a desk (genuine work is to jobs as genuine learning is to schools).

    Marc Fawzi:

    Just sharing a story along the same lines:

    I refused to believe that the formal concept/definition of the ‘limit’ in calculus was making any sense as far as why someone would have even thought of it. So I went and researched the history of calculus and found out that Newton had come to it through an intuitive feat not through formal construction but his peers couldn’t assimilate it into the rational story that is mathematics so he went on to explain it (after the fact) as a formal concept, i.e. invented the rational story for it after he had used it intuitively.

    In the same effort to understand the history of rational story constructed mathematics, with all its bits and pieces, I found out about a completely different version of calculus called ‘non-standard analysis” where the concept of the limit is defined differently. At that point I realized that even at a top engineering school, even in a mathematics class, the teacher is more harm than benefit. So I went on teaching myself everything I wanted to learn (something that started when I was 10) and dropping out of my classes (to work on some hardware/software idea) and did not finish my degree until I was 28… and that caused a lot of havoc upfront that freed me from the false safety of the traditional path and caused me to be really angry about the educational system (and the stupid system we have built around it) … an anger which I wouldn’t trade for anything except the complete dissolution (or constructive evolution) of the system…

    Sam Rose:

    Kevin, there is much merit in your insights here, I think.

    John Taylor Gatto explains the history of forced schooling, and the attitudes that extend into Universities, in The Underground History of American Education [1] where he argues that education in the US is largely meant to create a caste system, and has largely succeeded in doing this.

    2 page sumarry from Digital Youth Research by Mizuko Ito et al [2] also outlines the problems with coercive education, based on research about how kids actually go about learning.

    Some of this education is already shifting to smaller networks of mutual mentors, open research and development enthusiasts, and others. I am directly involved in forming mutual mentoring for people interested in creating commons-based and networked business systems. We are also engaging youth by creating a mentoring network where youth realize their possibilities beyond “jobs and careers”, and realize how to employ open knowledge networks, open license design, and open source software to create new form of youth self-employment, rapid decision making, collaborative intelligence and civic engagement. Adults mentor, but projects and energies are directed by youth.

    While traveling around and taking to students and teachers in schools, we discovered that youths often have little awareness of their possibilities. And, we discovered that teachers and administrators are focused on antiquted problems, like “declining enrollment”, and the assumed need to close schools, cut back on “costs” etc. Our proposal to schools is to do exactly the opposite of what they are currently doing:

    * Instead of closing and demolishing unused schools, use the spaces for indoor hydronic and aquaculture food production, and flexible fabrication. Students can use the spaces to found businesses.

    * Switch focus from training students for careers with corporations, and compliance, to giving students liberty to learn from each other, and from innovators in their community.

    Destroy the misconception that the only way to make money is to charge people for abundant goods that can instead be released under an open license, and exponentially innovated upon. Instead, help students to learn how to innovate, to find and serve ever-emerging niches within their local systems (whatever local means to them).

    Notes from Sam Rose:

    1. John taylor Gatto, “The Underground History of American Education – John Taylor Gatto,”

    2. “digitalyouth-TwoPageSummary.pdf,”

  5. Kevin CarsonKevin Carson

    Michel, I understand that many people (your daughter) may prefer structured learning environments. In some cases I prefer that myself; when I do so, the teacher or mentor becomes a sort of “hired consultant” who is working for me, rather than vice versa. But I think the important point is that your daughter’s preference of structure over complete self-direction was a choice, and the central motivating factor was still her own desire to learn rather than being subject to someone else’s will.

    I don’t have a problem at all with structure, as such, any more than I have a problem deferring to the craft knowledge of a plumber or electrician whose services I engage. In fact, I often browse through college course catalogs online and use course syllabi as a guide to studying subjects.

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