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  • Anna Brix Thomsen

Radical Unschooling: Education Outside The Box. 101

“Rules in the absence of principle are often found to be irrelevant by children. Principles lived fully make rules unnecessary.” —Karen Tucker

We are facing a time in history where breaking with the conventions of yesteryear is not only inevitable but in fact a necessity. Radical unschooling represents such a break with conventional thoughts, as it challenges everything we thought we knew about education and parenting.

Out with the old. In with the New.

The realization that we exist in an Orwellian system of control is slowly but surely making its way from the fringes of society to its mainstream arenas. The walls of segregation are thinning and the veil of wool that we have pulled over our eyes is slowly but surely starting to unravel.

We realized long ago that the revolution would not be televised. The time of paramilitary overthrows of totalitarian regimes is over. The grand idea of a global revolution has become archaic in a world where the powers of a system that should not be, has wormed itself into every fiber of our existence and has engulfed the world in a paralyzing toxic haze.

One by one, we are starting to realize, each in our own way, that to subvert the subjugating mechanisms of this system, we must to become creative, and as the Icelandic activist and member of the Pirate Party Birgitta Jónsdottir puts it: find ways to hack the system from within.

All over the world, people are finding ways to subvert the system of control, from guerilla gardening to co-op farming and alternative media outlets. This is done, not through vehemently fighting against the system and demanding that it change, but through understanding that, as corporate whistleblower Richard Grove puts it: “The system wasn’t broken, it was built this way.”

We must assist the system to collapse – and we do that through immersing ourselves into the system, through changing it from within.

Hacking the System from Within

The iron claw of the system reaches into even our most private and intimate spaces, but instead of looking upon that with apathy and trepidation, we can use this as an opportunity to start hacking the system virtually anywhere, in any place, in any area of our lives – and we can do that as individuals without necessarily having the support of large communities, vast financial resources or intricate knowledge about how to take down the overlords of the military-industrial complex.

Each one of us has skills and abilities or unique insights into sustainable solutions that can be used to defuse the firewalls of the system, from independent journalists that tirelessly work towards exposing the cognitive disinformation oozing from the mainstream media to high-school kids inventing affordable 3-D printers in their bedroom.

We can hack the system in our personal lives through recognizing the inner mechanisms installed through predictive programming, where our minds too are subject to the system of control, for example through the alluring promise of happiness and fulfillment offered to us by the advertisement industry. Once we understand the mechanisms and see them for what they are, once we admit to ourselves that we too fell for the magic trick, we can begin the process of restoring (or for the first time creating), our sanity.

We can hack the system in our relationships with other people, through agreeing upon principled ways of living, where we see that which is best for everyone, (including children and animals) as being of equal importance, thereby disrupting the patriarchal, authoritarian and speciesist narratives that for so long have governed and restricted our lives and our ability to co-exist peacefully with one another on this planet.

Education and upbringing is a hallmark example of the extent to which the system of control has saturated our lives, bodies and minds. We do not realize is how extensively our way of seeing the world and more importantly; how we see ourselves in it, is a direct result of our upbringing and education. As Ivan Illich, the author of “Deschooling Society” puts it: “School is the advertising agency which makes you believe that you need the society as it is.”

One of the most prominent examples of how it is possible to hack – and thereby take directive action to reprogram, the system in our day-to-day lives is through radical unschooling.

Radical Unschooling Paves the Way for a New Humanity

Unschooling is an educational philosophy, but even more than that, it is a form of direct political activism that aims at empowering the future generations through a total paradigm change – and it is all happening inside the home.

Educator John Holt coined the term ‘unschooling’ in the 1970’s. Holt believed that children did not need to punished or threatened into learning, that each child had a natural capacity and ability to learn. Unlike traditional homeschooling that aims at bringing the traditional school classroom and curriculum into the home, unschooling takes the approach of ‘learning through living’ where the child has no textbooks, no tests and no curriculum to follow, but instead can follow its own interests and passions, with the guidance and support of a parent.

Common – and for most provocative – examples of how different unschooling is from traditional schooling includes: no fixed bedtimes for children, no restrictions on food and no restrictions on media consumption. Unschooled children wake up and go to bed on their own accord. They have no chores, no homework, no textbooks to read and they learn in the way that is most comfortable and interesting to them. As such an unschooled child might spend weeks or months on end playing Minecraft or building with Legos, all supported and facilitated by their parents. Unschooled children are also not expected to learn how to read, write or learn math according to any specific time-frame or method and are often self-taught at that.

Radical unschooling takes unschooling a step further as it rejects any notion between educational and non-educational spaces. As protagonist Sandra Dodd says: “everything leads to everything.”[i] Radical unschooling is further more an approach to parenting and education where equality and respect become practical and tangible principles that can be transferred into the participants daily lives. The parent is no longer an authoritarian figure who’s role it is to modify behavior through punishment, but a partner and a facilitator who makes it possible for the child to explore and develop their unique natural learning abilities. Education is no longer about the child preparing itself to be functional in a dysfunctional society but about exploring life in a natural and expansive way. Radical unschooling thereby becomes not only a way to transform the notion of what a family is or how education happens but can even be utilized as a tool for self-transformation of who we are as parents and human beings in our relationships with one another.

By showing that a child that learns from home (and life in general) in its own pace without any restrictions, is just as equipped to step into society, perhaps even more so, than a traditionally schooled child, radical unschooling parents are challenging the very foundation of our education systems. It can however only work if the parent dares to step out of their preconditioned ideas about life and as such become a catalyst for change.

Radical unschooling provocatively questions the very foundation of our education systems and playfully shows us how it is possible to not only succeed by stepping out of the schooling industry, but also how tremendously limited we have become because of it. As John Holt says: “Trust Children. Nothing could be more simple, or more difficult. Difficult because to trust children we must first learn to trust ourselves, and most of us were taught as children that we could not be trusted.”

Deschooling Detox

A specific element of radical unschooling thus has to do with a detoxification period that parents as well as child who have been in the school system, have to go through called ‘deschooling’. One of the key aspects of deschooling is that especially the parents have to go through a process of deconstructing and letting go of preconditioned fears and beliefs programmed into them through their own school years. This could for example be the parent thinking that “a child needs boundaries and routines” or that “punishment teaches the child that there are consequences in life.” (Author Charles Eisenstein has long been a protagonist for the process of deschooling and regularly hosts seminars on the subject. [ii] In his seminars he encourages participants to investigate the effects that schooling has had on them.)

Another aspect of the deschooling process is a period of ‘binging’ on things and activities that previously would have been seen as ‘sinful’ such as gorging on candy, computer-games, movies or staying up very late. According to many unschoolers this is a natural part of the process that will slowly but surely even itself out, where the child and adult will become more inclined to making decisions that are best for them as they get in contact with their authentic selves beyond the limitations of rules and restrictions.

Dangers of unschooling

Unschooling is often criticized as leaving children unprepared for stepping into society. Those critical of the philosophy fear that unschooled children are left unsupervised and unsocialized and that they will have trouble integrating in society, as they grow older. According to a survey[iii] done by professor Peter Grey Ph.D at Boston university for Psychology Today, unschooled children do not only go onto higher education such as college, but tends to do remarkably better than their traditionally schooled peers.

Unschoolers have claimed that one of the reasons why unschooled children do well in college and university is because they have been self-motivated to learn their entire life. Often they have discovered a passion for a specific area already in their early teens, so when they start college they are self-driven and purposefully directing their education. Prominent unschooled people who have gone on to being successful in the system includes filmmaker Astra Taylor, astronomer Lisa Harvey-Smith and professor of law at Duke university, Jedediah Purdy.

So perhaps the greatest danger of unschooling is how it questions everything we thought we knew about education and shows us that the traditional school system is not only failing at its basic task of educating the young, but that it was never meant to in the first place.

The greatest anarchistic experiment of our time?

Radical unschooling might very well be one of the greatest anarchistic and open source experiments of our time. As Sandra Dodd says: “I never knew how much damage school did, until I saw someone who hadn’t been”. It begs the pertinent question of what the world would look like if all children were supported to harness and explore their unique natural learning abilities? Radical unschooling might very well be a significant key to the transformation of the world system, exactly as it will be significant to transform the way we live with the earth, the way we conduct business, how we work together or the way we view and speak about gender. No stone can be left unturned when it comes to subverting the subjugating mechanisms that has become our accepted ways of co-existing.

Each area of our lives that we dare to look upon with brutal self-honesty and see for what it truly is, through the veil of conformity, and thus take responsibility for changing, will be a significant and imperative key to rewrite the codes that govern our lives. It will not happen overnight and it will not be a global revolution where the whole world will joyously join together in some grand awakening. Instead it will happen one individual at a time, on a one-on-one level, from within the very depths of the system, in the miniscule seemingly insignificant everyday moments of our lives.

Radical unschooling shows us how each of us can take the process of changing the world into our own hands by starting with ourselves. Radical unschooling is an example of the transformation that our societies (and minds) has to go through, for us to upcycle the toxic waste of the past and turn it into something of substantial and lasting value – not just for us, but for generations to come.


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