Shades of Unschooling

Meet the unschoolers is a nice introduction to unschooling. It clarifies that unschoolers may be homeschooled or may attend another school at the same time. It introduces the distinction between unschooling and radical unschooling. It helps us understand why unschooling is mostly cool but not all cool.

With traditional formal education in the US, “Most children learn to read by 6 or 7 years of age. Some children learn at 4 or 5 years of age.” 
Regarding one unschooled child, Meet the Unschoolers informs us “By age 9, Ishaan could read and write, largely propelled by a need to engage on gaming chats and enter Google search words.” Prima facie this is thoroughly unimpressive. It still might be that the level of literacy obtained by the unschooler was higher than the level of literacy described in the article on traditional education, but it’s at least non-obvious which in turn makes any benefit from switching to unschooling also non-obvious.

In general, unschooling suffers from a “dearth of relevant data” much like many alternative modes of education. It sort of comes with the territory. By virtue of being the normal thing, traditional education is better studied. By virtue of being the new or weird thing, alternative education is understudied. As such, traditional education becomes in some sense at least a safe bet.

Radical unschooling takes things to the next level. Ordinary unschooling allows children to avoid the negatives associated with traditional schooling, but it leaves open the door for parents to teach children as they see fit. In this way, unschoolers might benefit from having a highly educated parent construct a customized learning plan, or occasional use of parental discipline, and so on.

Radical unschooling eliminates the paternal role of the parent entirely. For me this becomes problematic. I’d love to have my concerns overturned by research demonstrating that radical unschooling is associated with improved measures of life success, but no such data exists. Instead, I’m left with the feeling that radical unschooling creates opportunity costs where parents fail to act in situations where they genuinely know better than the child does, and the child actually suffers as a result. One point of data is that children who never attended religious services became atheist at a significantly and importantly earlier age, or if they did regularly attend but then stopped regularly attending by age 13. Be sure to review Table 3, Block 7, the complete model. Also be sure to read the interpretive caveats due to the fact that the entire sample is a group of self-selected atheists.

It seems to me that radical unschooling is most aligned to a permissive parenting pattern, and permissive parenting is mostly recognized as not great parenting. Would radical unschooling involve taking your child to church, even if they don’t want to go? I don’t think so. What about making your child eat spinach? What about using physical restraint to stop one child from punching another?

In contrast to this anti-authoritarian paradigm, some parenting experts suggest the traditional authoritative parenting style is generally good for development. Of course, the new cool thing is to use a carrot-only approach. No punishments, only positive rewards. However, you are allowed to forego carrots as you see fit. As an economist, a foregone carrot looks just like a stick to me. There are also these endless debates about what constitutes abuse in parenting. Obviously, beating your child senseless is a bad thing, but what about time out? Is locking a child in a room against their will coercion, abuse, or nonviolent and fine? It completely depends who you ask.

Given my Christian priors, I’m skeptical that a foregone stick is universally good. At this point I’m a fan of swerving traditional education and therefore I’m sympathetic to moderate unschooling, but radical unschooling looks to me like an entire abdication of a parent’s natural and moral leadership responsibility.

I once heard Richard Wagner talk about an economic theory of leadership which boiled down to a sort of leader-as-first-mover theory from a process economics perspective, in contrast to the drivel we see out of most business schools. It was one of the most brilliant 10 minute rabbit trails I ever heard him ramble on about and I wonder why he hasn’t turned it into a paper. Market transactions almost never truly spontaneously obtain between buyer and seller as theorized in the neoclassical paradigm.

Wagner’s theory only relates tangentially, but you can see how the parent would be the natural transaction-initiator in a situation where the child has no idea what’s going on and hasn’t even learned to speak or read. If there are any mutually beneficial exchanges to be made they will seem probably to originate with the parent’s activity, not this sort of radical non-parenting approach.

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