A talk given at the Houston Unschoolers Group Family Learning
I suspect that not everyone in this audience knows
who I am or why I've been invited to speak to you today. After all,
I've never written a book or even an article about homeschooling or
unschooling. I've been called a number of things: a futurist, a
planetary philosopher, an anthropologist from Mars. Recently I was
introduced to an audience as a cultural critic, and I think this
probably says it best. As you'll see, in my talk to you today, I
will be trying to place schooling and unschooling in the larger
context of our cultural history and that of our species as well.
For those of you who are unfamiliar with my work, I
should begin by explaining what I mean by "our culture".
Rather than burden you with a definition, I'll give you a simple
test that you can use wherever you go in the world. If the food in
that part of the world is under lock and key, and the people who
live there have to work to get it, then you're among people of our
culture. If you happen to be in a jungle in the interior of Brazil
or New Guinea, however, you'll find that the food is not under lock
and key. It's simply out there for the taking, and anyone who wants
some can just go and get it. The people who live in these areas,
often called aboriginals, stone-age peoples, or tribal peoples
clearly belong to a culture radically different from our own.
I first began to focus my attention on the peculiarities of our own
culture in the early 1960s, when I went to work for what was then a
cutting-edge publisher of educational materials, Science Research
Associates. I was in my mid-twenties and as thoroughly acculturated
as any senator, bus driver, movie star, or medical doctor. My
fundamental acceptances about the universe and humanity's place in
it were rock-solid and thoroughly conventional.
|But it was a stressful time to be alive, in some ways even more
stressful than the present. Many people nowadays realize that human
life may well be in jeopardy, but this jeopardy exists in some
vaguely defined future, twenty or fifty or a hundred years hence.
But in those coldest days of the Cold War everyone lived with the
realization that a nuclear holocaust could occur literally at any
second, without warning. It was very realistically the touch of a
Human life would not be entirely snuffed out in a holocaust of
this kind. In a way, it would be even worse than that. In a matter
of hours, we would be thrown back not just to the Stone Age but to a
level of almost total helplessness. In the Stone Age, after all,
people lived perfectly well without supermarkets, shopping malls,
hardware stores, and all the elaborate systems that keep these
places stocked with the things we need. Within hours our cities
would disintegrate into chaos and anarchy, and the necessities of
life would vanish from store shelves, never to be replaced. Within
days famine would be widespread.
Skills that are taken for granted among Stone Age
peoples would be unknown to the survivors - the ability to
differentiate between edible and inedible foods growing in their own
environment, the ability to stalk, kill, dress, and preserve game
animals, and most important the ability to make tools from available
materials. How many of you know how to cure a hide? How to make a
rope from scratch? How to flake a stone tool? Much less how to smelt
metal from raw ore. Commonplace skills of the Paleolithic, developed
over thousands of years, would be lost arts.
All this was freely acknowledged by people who
didn't doubt for a moment that we were living the way humans were
meant to live from the beginning of time, who didn't doubt for a
moment that the things our children were learning in school were
exactly the things they should be learning.
I'd been hired at SRA to work on a major new
mathematics program that had been under development for several
years in Cleveland. In my first year, we were going to publish the
kindergarten and first-grade programs. In the second year, we'd
publish the second-grade program, in the third year, the third-grade
program, and so on. Working on the kindergarten and first-grade
programs, I observed something that I thought was truly remarkable.
In these grades, children spend most of their time learning things
that no one growing up in our culture could possibly avoid
learning. For example, they learn the names of the primary colors.
Wow, just imagine missing school on the day when they were learning blue.
You'd spend the rest of your life wondering what color the sky is.
They learn to tell time, to count, and to add and subtract, as if
anyone could possibly fail to learn these things in this culture.
And of course they make the beginnings of learning how to read. I'll
go out on a limb here and suggest an experiment. Two classes of 30
kids, taught identically and given the identical text materials
throughout their school experience, but one class is given no
instruction in reading at all and the other is given the usual
instruction. Call it the Quinn Conjecture: both classes will test
the same on reading skills at the end of twelve years. I feel safe
in making this conjecture because ultimately kids learn to read the
same way they learn to speak, by hanging around people who read and
by wanting to be able to do what these people do.
It occurred to me at this time to ask this question:
Instead of spending two or three years teaching children things they
will inevitably learn anyway, why not teach them some things they
will not inevitably learn and that they would actually enjoy
learning at this age? How to navigate by the stars, for example. How
to tan a hide. How to distinguish edible foods from inedible foods.
How to build a shelter from scratch. How to make tools from scratch.
How to make a canoe. How to track animals - all the forgotten but
still valuable skills that our civilization is actually built on.
Of course I didn't have to vocalize this idea to
anyone to know how it would be received. Being thoroughly
acculturated, I could myself explain why it was totally inane. The
way we live is the way humans were meant to live from the beginning
of time, and our children were being prepared to enter that life.
Those who came before us were savages, little more than brutes.
Those who continue to live the way our ancestors lived are savages,
little more than brutes. The world is well rid of them, and we're
well rid of every vestige of them, including their ludicrously
||Our children were being prepared in school to step boldly into the
only fully human life that had ever existed on this planet. The
skills they were acquiring in school would bring them not only
success but deep personal fulfillment on every level. What did it
matter if they never did more than work in some mind-numbing factory
job? They could parse a sentence! They could explain to you the
difference between a Petrarchan sonnet and a Shakespearean sonnet!
They could extract a square root! They could show you why the square
of the two sides of a right triangle were equal to the square of the
hypotenuse! They could analyze a poem! They could explain to you how
a bill passes congress! They could very possibly trace for you the
economic causes of the Civil War. They had read Melville and
Shakespeare, so why would they not now read Dostoevsky and Racine,
Joyce and Beckett, Faulkner and O'Neill? But above all else, of
course, the citizen's education - grades K to twelve - prepared
children to be fully-functioning participants in this great
civilization of ours. The day after their graduation exercises, they
were ready to stride confidently toward any goal they might set
Of course, then, as now, everyone knew that the
citizen's education was doing no such thing. It was perceived then -
as now - that there was something strangely wrong with the
schools. They were failing - and failing miserably - at delivering
on these enticing promises. Ah well, teachers weren't being paid
enough, so what could you expect? We raised teachers' salaries -
again and again and again - and still the schools failed. Well, what
could you expect? The schools were physically decrepit, lightless,
and uninspiring. We built new ones - tens of thousands, hundreds of
thousands of them - and still the schools failed. Well, what could
you expect? The curriculum was antiquated and irrelevant. We
modernized the curriculum, did our damnedest to make it relevant -
and still the schools failed. Every week - then as now - you could
read about some bright new idea that would surely "fix"
whatever was wrong with our schools: the open classroom, team
teaching, back to basics, more homework, less homework, no homework
- I couldn't begin to enumerate them all. Hundreds of these bright
ideas were implemented - thousands of them were implemented - and
still the schools failed.
Within our cultural matrix, every medium tells us
that the schools exist to prepare children for a successful and
fulfilling life in our civilization (and are therefore failing).
This is beyond argument, beyond doubt, beyond question. In Ishmael
I said that the voice of Mother Culture speaks to us from every
newspaper and magazine article, every movie, every sermon, every
book, every parent, every teacher, every school administrator, and
what she has to say about the schools is that they exist to prepare
children for a successful and fulfilling life in our civilization
(and are therefore failing). Once we step outside our cultural
matrix, this voice no longer fills our ears and we're free to ask
some new questions. Suppose the schools aren't failing?
Suppose they're doing exactly what we really want them to do
- but don't wish to examine and acknowledge?
Granted that the schools do a poor job of preparing
children for a successful and fulfilling life in our civilization,
but what things do they do excellently well? Well, to begin with,
they do a superb job of keeping young people out of the job market.
Instead of becoming wage-earners at age twelve or fourteen, they
remain consumers only - and they consume billions of dollars worth
of merchandise, using money that their parents earn. Just imagine
what would happen to our economy if overnight the high schools
closed their doors. Instead of having fifty million active consumers
out there, we would suddenly have fifty million unemployed youth. It
would be nothing short of an economic catastrophe.
Of course the situation was very different two
hundred years ago, when we were still a primarily agrarian society.
Youngsters were expected and needed to become workers at age ten,
eleven, and twelve. For the masses, a fourth, fifth, or sixth-grade
education was deemed perfectly adequate. But as the character of our
society changed, fewer youngsters were needed for farm work, and the
enactment of child-labor laws soon made it impossible to put ten-,
eleven-, and twelve-year-olds to work in factories. It was necessary
to keep them off the streets - and where better than in schools?
Naturally, new material had to be inserted into the curriculum to
fill up the time. It didn't much matter what it was. Have them
memorize the capitals of every state. Have them memorize the
principle products of every state. Have them learn the steps a bill
takes in passing Congress. No one wondered or cared if these were
things kids wanted to know or needed to know - or would ever
need to know. No one wondered or ever troubled to find out if the
material being added to the curriculum was retained. The educators
didn't want to know, and, really, what difference would it
make? It didn't matter that, once learned, they were immediately
forgotten. It filled up some time. The law decreed that an
eighth-grade education was essential for every citizen, and so
curriculum writers provided material needed for an eighth-grade
|During the Great Depression it became urgently important to keep
young people off the job market for as long as possible, and so it
came to be understood that a twelfth-grade education was essential
for every citizen. As before, it didn't much matter what was added
to fill up the time, so long as it was marginally plausible. Let's
have them learn how to analyze a poem, even if they never read
another one in their whole adult life. Let's have them read a great
classic novel, even if they never read another one in their whole
adult life. Let's have them study world history, even if it all just
goes in one ear and out the other. Let's have them study Euclidean
geometry, even if two years later they couldn't prove a single
theorem to save their lives. All these things and many, many more
were of course justified on the basis that they would contribute to
the success and rich fulfillment that these children would
experience as adults. Except, of course, that it didn't. But no one
wanted to know about that. No one would have dreamed of testing
young people five years after graduation to find out how much of it
they'd retained. No one would have dreamed of asking them how useful
it had been to them in realistic terms or how much it had
contributed to their success and fulfillment as humans. What would
be the point of asking them to evaluate their education? What
did they know about it, after all? They were just high school
graduates, not professional educators.
At the end of the Second World War, no one knew what
the economic future was going to be like. With the disappearance of
the war industries, would the country fall back into the pre-war
depression slump? The word began to go out that the citizen's
education should really include four years of college. Everyone
should go to college. As the economy continued to grow, however,
this injunction began to be softened. Four years of college would
sure be good for you, but it wasn't part of the citizen's education,
which ultimately remained a twelfth-grade education.
It was in the good years following the war, when
there were often more jobs than workers to fill them, that our
schools began to be perceived as failing. With ready workers in
demand, it was apparent that kids were coming out of school without
knowing much more than the sixth-grade graduates of a century ago.
They'd "gone through" all the material that had been added
to fill up the time - analyzed poetry, diagramed sentences, proved
theorems, solved for x, plowed through thousands of pages of
history and literature, written bushels of themes, but for the most
part they retained almost none of it - and of how much use would it
be to them if they had? From a business point of view, these
high-school graduates were barely employable.
But of course by then the curriculum had achieved
the status of scripture, and it was too late to acknowledge that the
program had never been designed to be useful. The educators'
response to the business community was, "We just have to give
the kids more of the same - more poems to analyze, more sentences to
diagram, more theorems to prove, more equations to solve, more pages
of history and literature to read, more themes to write, and so
on." No one was about to acknowledge that the program had been
set up to keep young people off the job market - and that it had
done a damn fine job of that at least.
But keeping young people off the job market is only
half of what the schools do superbly well. By the age of thirteen or
fourteen, children in aboriginal societies - tribal societies - have
completed what we, from our point of view, would call their
"education". They're ready to "graduate" and
become adults. In these societies, what this means is that their
survival value is 100%. All their elders could disappear overnight,
and there wouldn't be chaos, anarchy, and famine among these new
adults. They would be able to carry on without a hitch. None of the
skills and technologies practiced by their parents would be lost. If
they wanted to, they could live quite independently of the tribal
structure in which they were reared.
But the last thing we want our children to be able
to do is to live independently of our society. We don't want our
graduates to have a survival value of 100%, because this would make
them free to opt out of our carefully constructed economic system
and do whatever they please. We don't want them to do whatever they
please, we want them to have exactly two choices (assuming they're
not independently wealthy). Get a job or go to college. Either
choice is good for us, because we need a constant supply of
entry-level workers and we also need doctors, lawyers, physicists,
mathematicians, psychologists, geologists, biologists, school
teachers, and so on. The citizen's education accomplishes this
almost without fail. Ninety-nine point nine percent of our high
school graduates make one of these two choices.
And it should be noted that our high-school
graduates are reliably entry-level workers. We want them to have
to grab the lowest rung on the ladder. What sense would it make to
give them skills that would make it possible for them to grab the
second rung or the third rung? Those are the rungs their older
brothers and sisters are reaching for. And if this year's graduates
were reaching for the second or third rungs, who would be doing the
work at the bottom? The business people who do the hiring constantly
complain that graduates know absolutely nothing, have virtually no
useful skills at all. But in truth how could it be otherwise?
So you see that our schools are not failing, they're
just succeeding in ways we prefer not to see. Turning out graduates
with no skills, with no survival value, and with no choice but to
work or starve are not flaws of the system, they are features
of the system. These are the things the system must do to
keep things going on as they are.
||The need for schooling is bolstered by two
well-entrenched pieces of cultural mythology. The first and most
pernicious of these is that children will not learn unless
they're compelled to - in school. It is part of the mythology of
childhood itself that children hate learning and will avoid
it at all costs. Of course, anyone who has had a child knows what an
absurd lie this is. From infancy onward, children are the most
fantastic learners in the world. If they grow up in a family in
which four languages are spoken, they will be speaking four
languages by the time they're three or four years old - without a
day of schooling, just by hanging around the members of their
family, because they desperately want to be able to do the things
they do. Anyone who has had a child knows that they are tirelessly
curious. As soon as they're able to ask questions, they ask
questions incessantly, often driving their parents to distraction.
Their curiosity extends to everything they can reach, which is why
every parent soon learns to put anything breakable, anything
dangerous, anything untouchable up high - and if possible behind
lock and key. We all know the truth of the joke about those
childproof bottle caps: those are the kind that only children can
People who imagine that children are resistant to
learning have a nonexistent understanding of how human culture
developed in the first place. Culture is no more and no less than
the totality of learned behavior and information that is
passed from one generation to the next. The desire to eat is not
transmitted by culture, but knowledge about how edible foods are
found, collected, and processed is transmitted by culture.
Before the invention of writing, whatever was not passed on from one
generation to the next was simply lost, no matter what it was - a
technique, a song, a detail of history. Among aboriginal peoples -
those we haven't destroyed - the transmission between generations is
remarkably complete, but of course not 100% complete. There will
always be trivial details of personal history that the older
generation takes to its grave. But the vital material is never lost.
This comes about because the desire to learn is hardwired
into the human child just the way that the desire to reproduce is
hardwired into the human adult. It's genetic. If there was ever a
strain of humans whose children were not driven to learn,
they're long gone, because they could not be culture-bearers.
Children don't have to be motivated to learn
everything they can about the world they inhabit, they're absolutely
driven to learn it. By the onset of puberty, children in
aboriginal societies have unfailingly learned everything they need
to function as adults.
Think of it this way. In the most general terms, the
human biological clock is set for two alarms. When the first alarm
goes off, at birth, the clock chimes learn, learn, learn, learn,
learn. When the second alarm goes off, at the onset of puberty,
the clock chimes mate, mate, mate, mate, mate. The chime that
goes learn, learn, learn never disappears entirely, but it
becomes relatively faint at the onset of puberty. At that point,
children cease to want to follow their parents around in the
learning dance. Instead, they want to follow each other
around in the mating dance.
We, of course, in our greater wisdom have decreed
that the biological clock regulated by our genes must be ignored.
|What sells most people on the idea of school is the fact that the
unschooled child learns what it wants to learn when it
wants to learn it. This is intolerable to them, because they're
convinced that children don't want to learn anything at all - and
they point to school children to prove it. What they fail to
recognize is that the learning curve of preschool children swoops
upward like a mountain - but quickly levels off when they enter
school. By the third or fourth grade it's completely flat for most
kids. Learning, such as it is, has become a boring, painful
experience they'd love to be able to avoid if they could. But
there's another reason why people abhor the idea of children
learning what they want to learn when they want to learn it. They
won't all learn the same things! Some of them will never learn
to analyze a poem! Some of them will never learn to parse a sentence
or write a theme! Some of them will never read Julius Caesar!
Some will never learn geometry! Some will never dissect a frog! Some
will never learn how a bill passes Congress! Well, of course, this
is too horrible to imagine. It doesn't matter that 90% of these
students will never read another poem or another play by Shakespeare
in their lives. It doesn't matter that 90% of them will never have
occasion to parse another sentence or write another theme in their
lives. It doesn't matter that 90% retain no functional knowledge of
the geometry or algebra they studied. It doesn't matter that 90%
never have any use for whatever knowledge they were supposed to gain
from dissecting a frog. It doesn't matter that 90% graduate without
having the vaguest idea how a bill passes Congress. All that matters
is that they've gone through it!
The people who are horrified by the idea of children
learning what they want to learn when they want to learn it have not
accepted the very elementary psychological fact that people (all
people, of every age) remember the things that are important to them
- the things they need to know - and forget the rest. I am a
living witness to this fact. I went to one of the best prep schools
in the country and graduated fourth in my class, and I doubt very
much if I could now get a passing grade in more than two or three of
the dozens of courses I took. I studied classical Greek for two
solid years, and now would be unable to read aloud a single
One final argument people advance to support the
idea that children need all the schooling we give them is
that there is vastly more material to be learned today than
there was in prehistoric times or even a century ago. Well, there is
of course vastly more material that can be learned, but we
all know perfectly well that it isn't being taught in grades K to
twelve. Whole vast new fields of knowledge exist today - things no
one even heard of a century ago: astrophysics, biochemistry,
paleobiology, aeronautics, particle physics, ethology, cytopathology,
neurophysiology - I could list them for hours. But are these the
things that we have jammed into the K-12 curriculum because everyone
needs to know them? Certainly not. The idea is absurd. The idea that
children need to be schooled for a long time because there is so
much that can be learned is absurd. If the citizen's
education were to be extended to include everything that can be
learned, it wouldn't run to grade twelve, it would run to grade
twelve thousand, and no one would be able to graduate in a single
I know of course that there is no one in this
audience who needs to be sold on the virtues of homeschooling or
unschooling. I hope, however, that I may have been able to add some
philosophical, historical, anthropological, and biological
foundation for your conviction that school ain't all it's cracked up