Why ‘Unschooling’ Doesn’t Work

Quitting school is suddenly popular. The “un-schooling
movement,” which claims that school is too expensive, too disengaged from the
job market, and too elitist for smart, independent youth, has become the
darling of hipsters, free spirits, and do-it-yourself-ers everywhere.

Take Dale Stephens, the twenty-year-old entrepreneur who was
home-schooled until age twelve and educated himself using free Internet
courses, mentorships, and apprenticeships. Stephens started the self-directed
learning organization
UnCollege and wrote Hacking
Your Education,
whose subtitle instructs its readers to “ditch the
lectures, save tens of thousands, and learn more than your peers ever will.” “You
don’t need to be a genius or especially motivated to succeed outside school,”
Stephens writes, as long as you have the three key ingredients of grit,
curiosity, and confidence.

Of course, un-schooling isn’t for everyone. Indeed, Stephens
calls for “grit,” but in our age of diminished self-sufficiency, fortitude is
not our most universal quality. The road to knowledge is always strenuous to
tread, but even more so when attempted solo. How does one know, when facing such
gargantuan tasks, whether the effort is worth the prospect of eventual reward? Moreover,
the yet unformed and uneducated student cannot judge what studies best suit his
needs, his vocation, or his intellectual development. How can he discern a
steep ascent to the mountaintop from a difficult dead-end, when all he knows
are the briars, the rocks, and the stitch in his side?

president Noah Porter grappled with the prudence of student autonomy towards
the end of the 19th century. Porter disputed with Harvard president
Charles Eliot over the proposed introduction of electives into a previously rigid
curriculum. “Their tastes are either unformed or capricious and prejudiced,” Porter
wrote of the student body. “
If they are decided and strong, they often require
correction. The study which is the farthest removed from that which strikes his
fancy may be the study which is most needed for the student.” We need not
return to a one-size-fits-all curriculum, but we’d do well to heed Porter’s


4 thoughts on “Why ‘Unschooling’ Doesn’t Work

  1. Your article’s content in no way justifies its title. Unschooling, regardless of its current applications, has rich philosophical underpinnings that are poorly understood by most people who either deride it in a flurry of self-righteous ignorance, or pretend to embrace without studying it, thus giving it a bad name.
    Unschooling implies a change in parental priorities, a shift in values, and a nontraditional way to think about learning and citizenship. You can’t proclaim that it doesn’t work, because it’s not a technique. U
    It’s like saying that thinking, or learning, doesn’t work.

  2. The full version of my article, posted at the National Association of Scholars’ website, should clarify my objective in writing this piece: http://www.nas.org/articles/too_cool_for_school
    It’s true that students aren’t the only ones with malformed or unformed tastes. Teachers must use their responsibility carefully, and it’s appropriate to criticize those who don’t.
    But unschooling works only for those students with diligence, acumen, and great mentors. The exceptional students will probably succeed in college or out of college. Others will likely falter in either situation. For those students left somewhere in the middle, formal education provides many of the missing pieces, whether external motivation (grades) for students lacking diligence, or furnishing mentors for students who need guidance, or sparking the imaginations of students who might never have thought to read Plato or Dante or Shakespeare on their own.

  3. Indeed. Why do we allow people the option not to enroll in college at all? Surely no one is capable of deciding not to pursue a degree until he has earned one.

  4. “‘Their tastes are either unformed or capricious and prejudiced,’ Porter wrote of the student body.”
    And this is now true of virtually all faculty outside the natural sciences. Thus, it can be no worse, and would likely be better, to let the students choose.

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