The only thing that unschooling has in common with epilepsy is the particular brand of self-conscious embarrassment it inflicts when a stranger/new acquaintance associates the word with me for the first time. But I figure that since I’ve been putting it all out there, I might as well write about the unconventional choice that my hippie parents (sorry Mom and Dad, but you both know it’s true) made for me and my brothers when I was seven years old.
Though I probably shouldn’t avoid broaching the homeschooling issue as habitually as I do, I’ve always found it difficult to deal with reactions to my educational past. These seldom deviate from an established pattern: first surprise, likely because for someone who didn’t go to school for eight years, I’m pretty entrenched in academia; then disbelief, since, in contradiction with the most widespread stereotype of homeschoolers, my social awkwardness is, I like to tell myself, minimal; then a barrage of well-intentioned, but often vaguely insulting questions. It is during this last phase that I become most uncomfortable. The typical person can understand the concept of structured home education, especially when linked with labels like “Homeschooling for Excellence.” Complete lack of formal instruction, on the other hand, adds a murkier layer to the equation. That’s right: for the majority of my elementary and early high school years, I didn’t study math, science, social studies, or English in any structured way. In fact, following a few months of struggle, all efforts to convince me to learn the multiplication tables and long division ceased, and for the subsequent six years or so I did essentially no math at all.
In its most basic form, unschooling is any nerdy kid’s dream come true. I was not only permitted, but actively encouraged to spend days on end reading whatever pleased me. My classroom was the public library and my textbooks were any written material I laid hands on: novels, non-fiction, comics, self-help guides, parenting manuals. Unconstrained by what school curricula dictated for Canadian children in the mid-nineties, I had the time and resources to develop a weirdly specific understanding of my obsession of the moment, be it pioneers, horticulture, the Holocaust, or mermaids. At ten or eleven I developed a love for Reader’s Digest, which I acquired by the boxful at a local thrift store and devoured several at a time while my regular-schooled peers memorized world capitals and did algebra. Around the same time, someone gave me a stack of Seventeen magazines from the eighties; poring over the glossy spreads and advice columns with keen interest for large tracts of what should have been school time, I learned how to please my man, drop ten pounds, and develop a bikini-ready body in, depending on the article in question, two months, six weeks, or ten minutes a day. (Though my feminist mother didn’t hold an intervention, she did see fit to place a copy of Our Body, Ourselves on full display on a book shelf in the living room. Sexual liberation was, to eleven-year-old me, a traumatizing concept.)
About a hundred thousand homeschoolers in Canada, and many more in the United States, are currently being educated in families with incredibly diverse homeschool philosophies, some rigid, some based on religious concerns, some tweaked to individual children’s learning styles or needs. My experience lies with the variety of homeschooling that carries the greatest amount of stigma, and for good reason. Completely interest-driven learning is not without drawbacks. A quick survey of the men and women with whom I shared homeschooling pottery and dance classes shows a group of people in a tremendous range of educational and occupational situations. Several of my childhood friends went to high school in tenth or eleventh grade, got a high school diploma, and entered the work force, a few attended university, and a handful continue to struggle in their mid-twenties, unable to translate the interests that they cultivated as homeschoolers into practical careers. Even if I was formally schooled from ninth grade through to my doctorate, unschooling left me with noticeable gaps in knowledge routinely rote-learned in elementary and high school. Traditional modes of instruction have their problems, but there’s something to be said for a systematic approach to education.
Still, how many PhD candidates can say that Calvin and Hobbes constituted a sizeable portion of their fourth-grade curriculum? Or that Grade Six was all about the slave trade, Faulkner, and Miss Manners? Focusing almost solely on such disjointed interests didn’t make for an incredibly well-rounded education. It did, however, instil in me an appreciation for the written word, for learning for the sake of learning, and for reading for the sake of reading, all values that have allowed me to take initiative to fill in the gaps.