In early September, in a clapboard house situated on 43 acres just outside a small town in northern Vermont, two boys awaken. They are brothers; the older is 12, the younger 9, and they rise to a day that has barely emerged from the clutches of dark. It is not yet autumn, but already the air has begun to change, the soft nights of late summer lengthening and chilling into the season to come. Outside the boys’ bedroom window, the leaves on the maples are just starting to turn.
School is back in session and has been for two weeks or more, but the boys are unhurried. They dress slowly, quietly. Faded and frayed thrift-store camo pants. Flannel shirts. Rubber barn boots. Around their waists, leather belts with knife sheaths. In each sheath, a fixed-blade knife.
By 6:30, with the first rays of sun burning through the ground-level fog, the boys are outside. At some point in the next hour, a yellow school bus will rumble past the end of the driveway that connects the farm to the town road. The bus will be full of children the boys’ age, their foreheads pressed against the glass, gazing at the unfurling landscape, the fields and hills and forests of the small working-class community they call home.
The boys will pay the bus no heed. This could be because they will be seated at the kitchen table, eating breakfast with their parents. Or it might be because they are already deep in the woods below the house, where a prolific brook trout stream sluices through a stand of balsam fir; there is an old stone bridge abutment at the stream’s edge, and the boys enjoy standing atop it, dangling fresh-dug worms into the water. Perhaps they won’t notice the bus because they are already immersed in some other project: tillering a longbow of black locust, or starting a fire over which to cook the quartet of brookies they’ve caught. They heat a flat rock at the fire’s edge, and the hot stone turns the fishes’ flesh milky white and flaky.
Or maybe the boys will pay the bus no heed because its passing is meaningless to them. Maybe they have never ridden in a school bus, and maybe this is because they’ve never been to school. Perhaps they have not passed even a single day of their short childhoods inside the four walls of a classroom, their gazes shifting between window and clock, window and clock, counting the restless hours and interminable minutes until release.
Maybe the boys are actually my sons, and maybe their names are Fin and Rye, and maybe, if my wife, Penny, and I get our way, they will never go to school.
Hey, a father can dream, can’t he?
There’s a name for the kind of education Fin and Rye are getting. It’s called unschooling, though Penny and I have never been fond of the term. But “self-directed, adult-facilitated life learning in the context of their own unique interests” doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue, so unschooling it is.
It is already obvious that unschooling is radically different from institutionalized classroom learning, but how does it differ from more common homeschooling? Perhaps the best way to explain it is that all unschooling is homeschooling, but not all homeschooling is unschooling. While most homeschooled children follow a structured curriculum, unschoolers like Fin and Rye have almost total autonomy over their days. At ages that would likely see them in seventh and fourth grades, I generously estimate that my boys spend no more than two hours per month sitting and studying the subjects, such as science and math, that are universal to mainstream education. Not two hours per day or even per week. Two hours per month. Comparatively speaking, by now Fin would have spent approximately 5,600 hours in the classroom. Rye, nearly three years younger, would have clocked about half that time.
If this sounds radical, it’s only because you’re not taking a long enough view, for the notion that children should spend the majority of their waking hours confined to a classroom enjoys scant historical precedent.
The first incidence of compulsory schooling came in 1852, when Massachusetts required communities to offer free public education and demanded that every child between the ages of 8 and 14 attend school for at least 12 weeks per year. Over the next seven decades, the remaining states adopted similar laws, and by 1918, the transition to mandated public education was complete.
It was not long before some parents and even educators began to question the value of compulsory education. One of those was John Holt, a Yale graduate and teacher at the Colorado Rocky Mountain School who published his observations in How Children Fail in 1964. Ultimately selling more than a million copies, it was an indictment of the education system, asserting that children are born with deep curiosity and love of learning, both of which are diminished in school.
Holt became a passionate advocate for homeschooling, which existed in a legal gray area, but he quickly realized that some parents were simply replicating the classroom. So in 1977, in his magazine, Growing Without Schooling, he coined a new term: “GWS will say ‘unschooling’ when we mean taking children out of school, and ‘deschooling’ when we mean changing the laws to make schools noncompulsory and to take away from them their power to grade, rank, and label people, i.e. to make lasting, official, public judgments about them.”
Holt died in 1985, having authored 11 books on child development. But along with veteran teacher John Taylor Gatto, author of Dumbing Us Down: The Hidden Curriculum of Compulsory Schooling, he popularized a movement. Well, maybe popularized is a tad generous; while it’s generally accepted that unschoolers comprise about 10 percent of the 1.8 million American children who learn at home, hard numbers are scarce.
In addition to fundamental curricular differences, there is also something of a cultural schism between the two styles. Home-schooling is popularly associated with strong religious views (in a 2007 survey by the National Center for Education Statistics, 83 percent of homeschooling parents said that providing “religious or moral instruction” was part of their choice), while unschooling seems to have no such association. “Unschooling has always been sort of code for being secular,” explains Patrick Farenga, who runs the unschooling website JohnHoltGWS.com. “It’s about understanding that learning is not a special skill that happens separate from everything else and only under a specialist’s gaze. It’s about raising children who are curious and engaged in the world alongside their families and communities.”
I can almost hear you thinking, Sure, but you live in the sticks, and you both work at home. What about the rest of us? And it’s true: Penny and I have made what most would consider an extreme choice. I write from home, and we both run our farm, selling produce and meat to help pay the bills. Everyone we know who unschools, in fact, has chosen autonomy over affluence. Hell, some years we’re barely above the poverty line. But the truth is, unschooling isn’t merely an educational choice. It’s a lifestyle choice.
And it can happen anywhere; these concepts are not the sole domain of rural Vermont hill farmers living out their Jeffersonian fantasies. Kerry McDonald left a career in corporate training to unschool two of her four children in Boston, though her husband, Brian, still works as a technology consultant. “The city is our curriculum,” says McDonald. “We believe that kids learn by living in the world around them, so we immerse them in that world.” Their “classrooms”—sidewalks, museums, city parks—may appear drastically different from those of my sons. But the ethos remains the same, that a child’s learning is as natural and easy as breathing.
Unschooling is also perfectly legal in all 50 states, so long as certain basic stipulations—from simple notification to professional evaluations, “curriculum” approval, and even home visits—are met. But many unschoolers have been reticent to stand up and be counted, perhaps because the movement tends to attract an independent-thinking, antiauthoritarian personality type.
To the extent that I hadn’t demonstrated these qualities previously, the arrival of my 16th birthday provided ample opportunity, rooted in two events of great and lasting importance. The first, of course, was the acquisition of my driver’s license. This came with a craptastic Volkswagen Rabbit that my mother had driven for the past half-dozen years and sold to me for $200.
The second was the quiet arrival of Vermont’s minimum dropout age. More than three million American teens leave school annually, a number that makes up about 8 percent of the nation’s 16-to-24-year-olds. Dropouts comprise 75 percent of state inmates and 59 percent of those in federal prison. They earn, on average, $260,000 less than graduates over their lifetimes.
My 16th birthday came on November 23, 1987; by the end of that day, my freshly minted driver’s license was cooling in my wallet. And by the midpoint of my junior year, I had pointed that little Rabbit, already bearing the scratch-and-dent evidence of my negligence, out of my high school’s parking lot for the last time.
The irony of my dropping out can hardly be overstated. At the time, my father—who earned his undergraduate degree at Cornell and his master’s at Johns Hopkins—was employed by none other than Vermont’s Department of Education. My mother graduated from Iowa’s Grinnell College and was a substitute teacher. My family’s immersion in structured education was total. It wasn’t merely the medium through which my parents made their way in the world: it provided the means to support their children, one of whom was now flipping the proverbial bird to the very hand that fed.
It might lend a degree of credibility to my role as my children’s primary educator if I could report that I dropped out of high school for reasons of virtue, perhaps to pursue a rigorous course of self-directed study in thermonuclear engineering or to dig wells in some impoverished sub-Saharan village. But the truth is, I left public school because I was bored to the point of anger. To the point of numbness. To the point of rebellion.
Day after day I sat, compelled to repeat and recite, and little of it seemed to have any bearing beyond the vacuum of the classroom. Everything I learned felt abstract and standardized. It was a conditional knowledge that existed in separation from the richly textured world just beyond the school’s plate-glass windows, which, for all their transparency, felt like the bars of a prison cell.
Peter Gray knows just how I felt. Gray, a Boston College psychology professor who wrote the 2013 book Free to Learn: Why Unleashing the Instinct to Play Will Make Our Children Happier, More Self-Reliant, and Better Students for Life, is unsparing in his criticism of compulsory education. “Children are forced to attend school, where they are stripped of most of their rights,” he says. “The debate shouldn’t be about whether school is prison, because unless you want to change the definition of prison, it is. School deliberately removes the environmental conditions that foster self-directed learning and natural curiosity. It’s like locking a child in a closet.”
What kids need instead, Gray contends, is exploration and play without supervision. It is this that allows them to develop self-determination and confidence. If he’s right, current educational trends are not promising: in 2012, five states voted to increase the length of the school year by no less than 300 hours.
Of course, unschooling is not the only choice. Increasingly, families are turning to options like Waldorf, the largest so-called alternative-education movement in the world. It was founded in Stuttgart, Germany, in 1919, based on the teachings of Austrian philosopher Rudolf Steiner, who believed that children learn best through creative play. In 1965, there were nine Waldorf schools in the U.S.; today there are 123.
Sending our children to a Waldorf school was never an option for us, if for no other reason than tuition, which can run as high as $30,000 a year. But when Fin turned five, the age at which we deemed it necessary to introduce some structure to his days, Penny and I sought to integrate aspects of the Waldorf curriculum into his learning. We purchased reams of thick craft paper, along with pastel crayons and watercolor paints. Penny arranged a small “schooling” station at our kitchen table, under the assumption that our firstborn would sit contentedly, expressing his innate creativity even as he learned the rote information necessary to navigate the modern world.
It was, to put it mildly, a flawed assumption. Fin chafed at every second of his perceived captivity. Crayons were broken and launched at innocent walls. Pages of extremely expensive paper were torn to flaky bits. Bitter tears were shed, even a few by our son. It was an unmitigated disaster.
It was also a watershed moment for our family. Because as soon as we liberated ourselves from a concept of what our son’s education should look like, we were able to observe how he learned best. And what we saw was that the moment we stopped compelling Fin to sit and draw or paint or write was the moment he began doing these things on his own. It was the moment he began carving staves of wood into beautiful bows and constructing complex toys from materials on hand: an excavator that not only rotated, but also featured an extendable boom; a popgun fashioned from copper pipe, shaved corks, and a whittled-down dowel; even a sawmill with a rotating wooden “blade.”
In other words, the moment we quit trying to teach our son anything was the moment he started really learning.
In my early twenties, having passed my General Educational Development test and endured two semesters in Vermont’s state college system, I lived for a time in a $75-per-month bungalow just outside the bucolic Vermont village of Warren. This was at the apex of my immersion into bicycle racing and backcountry skiing, and I worked infrequently in a bike and ski shop, subsisting on the time-honored action-sports diet of boxed noodles, canned tuna, and expired Clif Bars liberated from the shop’s dumpster.
The bungalow was attached to a rambling, ranchlike structure that looked out over the valley; it was one of those seventies-era, quasi-communal homesteads that carried the lingering scent of sandalwood incense and the fetid body odor unique to heavy tofu consumption. A sign by the door read Resurrection City. Resurrection from what? I had no idea, and no one seemed to know.
During my yearlong tenure at Camp RC, as it was affectionately known, the main house was occupied by a single thirtysomething fellow named Donald who homeschooled his two young sons, Crescent and Orion. Or maybe he unschooled them. I do have a vague recollection of them sitting at a table, studying… well, something. But, for the most part, the boys ran wild, exploring the surrounding woods. On weekends, Donald packed up his orange VW van and drove with Crescent and Orion to bike races and music festivals, where they hawked vegetarian burritos. By the ages of six and eight, the boys were prepping orders and making change.
I was blown away. And jealous. This was the childhood I wished I’d had, equal measures freedom, responsibility, and respect, with none of the rote soul-crushing memorization that had soured me on school. Sure, Crescent and Orion could be a bit wild—I once found the front bumper of my truck kissing a spruce tree that stood between the driveway and the house—but they were precocious and self-aware, brimming with confidence and curiosity. They looked you in the eye and spoke in full sentences. They were constantly running and laughing and playing. I’m not sure how else to put it except to say that never before had I known kids who so fully embodied childhood.
When Penny, then my girlfriend, came to visit, she noticed it, too. “Those kids are amazing,” she said. “I didn’t even know there were kids like that.”
Fin and Rye almost always wake up before dawn. We do not have an alarm clock, but early rising is our habit, ingrained over the decade and a half we’ve run our small farm. We tend to chores as a family: Penny heads to the barn to milk cows, I move the rest of the herd to fresh pasture and slop the pigs, and the boys feed and water their dwarf goats, Flora, Lupine, and Midnight.
By seven the chores are finished and we convene at the wide wooden table for breakfast—eggs, usually, and bacon from last year’s pigs. After breakfast, I repair to my desk to write and Penny heads to the fields or orchard. Fin and Rye generally follow their mother before disappearing into the woods. Sometimes they grab fishing poles, uncover a few worms, and head to the stream, returning with their pockets full of fish, fiddlehead ferns, and morel mushrooms. Occasionally I join them, and these journeys are always marked by frequent stops, with one boy or the other dropping to his knees to examine some small finding, something I would have blithely, blindly stumbled over.
“Papa, look, wild onions.” And they’ll dig with their young fingers, loosing the little bulbs from the soft forest soil. Later, we’ll fry them in butter and eat them straight from the pan, still hot enough that we hold them on the tips of our tongues before swallowing.
Other times, they work on one of the shelters that they always seem to be constructing; their voices carry across the land as they negotiate materials and design.
“Fin, let’s put the door on this side.”
“Did you say ten and three-eighths or ten and five-eighths?”
“Rye, we need another pole on this end.”
These shelters are so prolific that occasionally I come across one I hadn’t even known existed, and I can see the evolution of the boys’ learning in the growing soundness of these humble structures. Winter’s first big snowfall no longer spells collapse; the boys have learned to slope the roof and to support the ridgepole at its center. They face the openings southward and build on a piece of well-drained ground. They use rot-resistant cedar for anything that will contact the soil.
Fin and Rye are proficient with most of the hand and power tools that form the backbone of any working farm. By the time they were eight, both of them could operate the tractor and, in a pinch, drive the truck with a load of logs. They split firewood alongside us, swinging their mauls with remarkable accuracy. They are both licensed hunters and own .22 rifles and 20-gauge shotguns. They wear belt knives almost everywhere, oblivious to the stares of the adults around them, some concerned, some perplexed, and some, it often seems to me, nostalgic.
Our sons are not entirely self-taught; we understand the limits of the young mind and its still-developing capacity for judgment. None of these responsibilities were granted at an arbitrary, age-based marker, but rather as the natural outgrowth of their evolving skills and maturity. We have noticed, however, that the more responsibility we give our sons, the more they assume. The more we trust them, the more trustworthy they become. This may sound patronizingly obvious, yet I cannot help but notice the starring role that institutionalized education—with its inherent risk aversion—plays in expunging these qualities.
Our days do have structure: chores morning and evening, gardens to be turned and planted, berries to be picked and sold, all these things and so many more repeating in overlapping cycles. But even within these routines, Fin and Rye determine how their days will be spent. Often they disappear for hours at a time, their only deadline being whichever meal comes next. On their backs, they wear wooden pack baskets that they wove under the tutelage of a friend who also unschools her children. When they return, the baskets are heavy with the small treasures of their world and their heads are full of the small stories of their wandering: the moose tracks they saw, the grouse they flushed, the forked maple they sat beneath to eat snacks. “The bark felt thick,” Fin tells me. “It’s going to be a hard winter.”
Which brings us to the inevitable issue of what will become of my boys. Of course, I cannot answer in full, because their childhoods are still unfolding.
But not infrequently I field questions from parents who seem skeptical that my sons will be exposed to particular fields of study or potential career paths. The assumption seems to be that by educating our children at home and letting them pursue their own interests, we are limiting their choices and perhaps even depriving them. The only honest answer is, Of course we are. But then, that’s true of every choice a parent makes: no matter what we choose for our children, we are by default not choosing something else.
I can report that Fin and Rye both learned to read and write with essentially zero instruction, albeit when they were about eight years old, a year or so later than is expected. They can add and subtract and multiply and divide. I can report that they do indeed have friends, some who attend school and some who don’t, and their social skills are on par with their peers. In fact, Penny and I often hear from other adults that our sons seem better socialized than like-aged schoolchildren. Fin and Rye participate in a weekly gathering of homeschooled and unschooled kids, and Fin attends a weekly wilderness-skills program. In truth, few of their peers are as smitten with bushcraft as they are, and sometimes they wish for more friends who share their love of the wild. But even this is OK; the world is a place of wondrous diversity, and they must learn that theirs is not the only way.
What if they want to be doctors? They will be doctors. What if they want to be lawyers? They will be lawyers. Peter Gray, he of the belief that school is prison, has studied graduates of the Sudbury Valley School in Framingham, Massachusetts, where “students” as young as four enjoy complete autonomy to design their own course of study, even if that involves no studying at all, and found that they have no difficult gaining entry to elite colleges, nor in achieving high GPAs. A home-based education, even one as unstructured as my sons’, does not preclude acceptance into a university; in fact, many colleges have developed application processes geared specifically toward homeschooled students, and while there are no major studies of unschoolers exclusively, homeschoolers are significantly more likely to take college-level courses than the rest of us.
“I look back at unschooling as the best part of my life,” Chelsea Clark told me between classes at the University of South Carolina School of Law, where she was accepted on full scholarship after graduating Phi Beta Kappa from the university’s undergraduate program. “It was a huge advantage, actually. I had the confidence of knowing what I wanted to do, and I wasn’t burned out on classroom learning like most college kids.” Chelsea was unschooled throughout her high school years in the small town of Dorchester, South Carolina.
Still, perhaps the best answer I can give to the question of what price my children might pay is in the form of another question: What price do school-going children pay for their confinement? The physical toll is easy enough to quantify. Diabetes rates among school-age children are sky-high, and the percentage of 6-to-11-year-olds who qualify as obese has nearly tripled since 1980. And what do children do in school? Exactly. They sit.
Inactivity is also bad for the brain. A 2011 study by Georgia Health Sciences University found that cognitive function among kids improves with exercise. Their prefrontal cortex—the area associated with complex thinking, decision making, and social behavior—lights up. The kids in the study who exercised 40 minutes per day boosted their intelligence scores by an average of 3.8 points.
Yet the physical and cognitive implications of classroom learning have played minor roles in our decision to unschool Fin and Rye. It’s not that I don’t want them to be healthy and smart. Of course I do—I’m their father.
But, in truth, what I most want for my boys can’t be charted or graphed. It can’t be measured, at least not by common metrics. There is no standardized test that will tell me if it has been achieved, and there is no specific curriculum that will lead to its realization.
This is what I want for my sons: freedom. Not just physical freedom, but intellectual and emotional freedom from the formulaic learning that prevails in our schools. I want for them the freedom to immerse themselves in the fields and forest that surround our home, to wander aimlessly or with purpose. I want for them the freedom to develop at whatever pace is etched into their DNA, not the pace dictated by an institution looking to meet the benchmarks that will in part determine its funding. I want them to be free to love learning for its own sake, the way that all children love learning for its own sake when it is not forced on them or attached to reward. I want them to remain free of social pressures to look, act, or think any way but that which feels most natural to them.
I want for them the freedom to be children. And no one can teach them how to do that.
Ben Hewitt’s new book is Home Grown: Adventures in Parenting Off the Beaten Path, Unschooling, and Reconnecting with the Natural World. He blogs at benhewitt.net.