When unschooling is discussed, the practitioners presented or referenced tend to be families that are white and middle class or rich. The inevitable questions come up: Can poor or working class families afford to pull their children out of traditional schools? How can single-parent-families do this? Have non-White families even considered this fascinating new way of educating?
Then the inevitable responses: “Maybe poor families can do it, but with lots and lots of work.” Or, “Single parents will have to be quite creative in order to make this work.” Or, “Families of color don’t necessarily do this as often as White parents, but there’s a growing number that are. So that’s great!” The problem with these questions and subsequent responses is that they position Whiteness and wealth as the default standard-bearers of unschooling and other self-directed education practices.
Of course, centering Whiteness and wealth is common practice in the settler-colonial, imperialist context that is the United States, which requires enslavement and genocide in order to maintain itself. However, in the name of resisting this practice, it is important for those of us interested in self-directed education to take issue with the assumption that it falls under the purview of White wealth, as that assumption more accurately reflects the normalized and dominant identities of a Western-dominated global system, rather than the groups that historically practiced self-directed education, whether voluntarily or involuntarily. Indeed, a consideration of historic education Indigenous practices in the lands presently called the United States – and the practices of various groups who have been legally or circumstantially excluded from schooling – should remind us that the very groups not often seen as ‘typical’ unschoolers actually have extensive histories of self-directed educative practice.
When discussing self-directed education here, I speak as one existing at the intersections of multiple marginalized identities, as a member of groups whose survival within this settler colony hinges upon an understanding of the individual as an inextricable part of and dependent upon both human and non-human community. Based on this positionality, then, my understanding of unschooling and other unforced education practices is not merely ‘allowing’ children to ‘do what they want’ all day. Rather terms like unschooling, natural learning, and self-directed education are, to me, shorthand for the fostering of a human existence that values each individual’s exploration of how to be – while also recognizing that this being occurs within a wider human- and non-human context, a context that is affected by and can affect the individual, and upon which the individual is dependent.
Under this definition, living without school is not only about the learner. It is about all who surround the learner – both human and non-human, alive and inanimate. Such living not only requires community, but it requires the health of that community. Not only a learner’s search for purpose, but a search for that purpose in a world of other purposes just as valuable as one’s own. It requires an awed humility – a recognition of one’s greatness and smallness, and the commitment to live fully within both. It requires a trust in instinct – an acknowledgement that our heart and gut have always been right, though the dominant culture tells us we are wrong.
Marginalized groups have been learning the world for a long time, and without school. Before and throughout this colonialist era, it is the way we learned to manage our food systems and organize communities. It is the way we learned to predict weather and navigate seas. It is the way we learned transportation routes and our stories. It is the way we learned ourselves and others. It is the way we learned who the oppressors really were, despite what they told us about themselves in their schools.
It is the way we learned to survive under Western colonialism and imperialism. And it is the way we will thrive beyond it.