Monday, February 25, 2008

Unschooling and Christianity

For the past few months, I was largely reading about classical education and classical homeschooling. I am really inspired by it, and I believe that a traditional classical education is of great value. However, I was still struggling with my tendency toward unschooling, and working to find a good mix between the two.

Then I spend an hour on a radical unschooling site, and I'm ready to embrace unschooling wholeheartedly. Sigh.

Obviously, unschooling resonates with me. It is the natural extension of my parenting philosophy (AP/GBD: Grace-based-discipline), and it fits in well with my political leanings (libertarian). Just like GBD, the principles behind unschooling are universal and applicable to far more than just learning. I am really drawn to it, but I am uncertain if it is philosophically compatible with Christianity (of the Lutheran variety).

Certainly the majority of unschooling advocates profess many beliefs that are incompatible with Lutheran Christianity (or Christianity in general, or a belief in absolute truth, for that matter), but that doesn't mean that unschooling itself is necessarily likewise incompatible.

I see the main philosophy underlying unschooling as the principle that I don't have the right to force anyone to do something against their will. It doesn't matter if I think it is important or necessary, or I don't want to do it, or I feel I shouldn't have to do it, or I feel that the other person should have to, or anything - there is no reason sufficient for me to impose my will on another. I can encourage, persuade, set a good example, invite them to join me, etc., but they have to be free to say no.

This goes hand-in-hand with the unschooling tenet that forcing someone to do something against their will is a bad way to win hearts and minds anyway, and is thus generally counterproductive. If the end goal is that they freely choose to do 'x', because that is the right thing, or the best thing, or the most rational thing, then you should start how you plan to end up - allowing them to freely choose to do 'x', even if at first they don't choose 'x' nearly as often as you'd like.

Forcing them to do 'x' just teaches them that a) 'x' must be no fun, because otherwise you wouldn't have to force it, and thus, b) there is no reason to do 'x' unless you are forced to. The end result is, of course, that they never learn the value of 'x', nor do they learn the habit of freely choosing to do 'x', but instead learn the habit of doing 'x' only when forced to. If doing 'x' has worth - and you, yourself, are demonstrating that by example, so they are exposed to the idea of doing 'x' and its benefits - then its inherent value should win converts without having to resort to force.

By and large, I agree with that position. God has ultimate authority over all humans, and outside of the spheres where He has specifically delegated His authority (to parents over their children, and to governments over their citizens, both of which are subject to the constraint that they not use their power to compel actions that are against God's Word), no human has the right to force another human to do anything against their will, no matter how virtuous the compelled action. As well, God's designation of some things as right and others as wrong is more than just an arbitrary list, it is a description of reality: ignore it to your peril.

However, many unschoolers argue that, in addition to respect for persons, we have no right to forcibly compel others' actions because there is no reason our view of the "best"/"right" thing to do is any better than someone else' view of the "best"/"right" thing to do. In other words, they believe there is no absolute truth and no objective standards. Obviously, if there is no objective or higher reason to do 'x' over 'y', there can be no legitimate reason to force someone to do 'x' over 'y' - only selfishness.

Of course I strongly disagree here. I believe in absolute right and wrong, and also I believe that some things have more worth than others. I also believe, unlike many (but certainly not all unschoolers), that there is a qualitative difference between the parent-child relationship and every other human relationship.

As parents, we have been given a sacred and awesome responsibility: the right to override another human being's autonomy. God instructs parents to not abuse this right - "parents, do not exasperate your children", but neither are we to abdicate it - we are to "train up a child in the way he should go". I believe that proper use of our authority means that we are obligated to use the minimal force required (infringe upon our child's autonomy as minimally as possible) in our efforts to discipline - i.e. teach - them where needed. As well, we are obligated to never use our authority in a selfish manner, but only in our child's genuine best interests. We should use much prayerful discernment to ensure we are doing the best job we are capable of doing.

(As an aside, I believe the same principles apply when it comes to government's exercise of its authority - thus my libertarian leanings - as well as to humanity's authority over Creation. Thus why, amongst other things, I need to ensure that my treatment of my dog reflects his best interests, not my convenience; I am really struggling with this right now.)

So where I philosophically differ from "mainstream" unschoolers (and how weird is to see 'unschoolers' and 'mainstream' in a sentence without the connector 'are not', lol) is that:
  • I believe in absolute truth, and thus some things are right and some things are wrong.
  • I believe in objective standards, and thus some things are objectively better than other things.
  • I believe that the parent-child relationship is qualitatively different, and thus the parent does have the right to override their child's autonomy in circumstances where the child's best interest requires it.
As a result, I believe that not all activities, skills, and media are created equal, and that, in theory, a small subset may be so important that they must be done/learned/experienced by my children before they are adults, even if it requires force to accomplish. However, I would still be obligated to choose the least restrictive way of carrying it out. And in practice that could easily be straight-up unschooling; after all, I think it so valuable that it should be mandatory, and therefore I should be proficient and knowledgeable in it myself - they could easily learn it incidentally, or decide for themselves it is worth learning.

So, is the core of unschooling respect for persons, in which case I believe it is thoroughly compatible with Christianity, or does unschooling necessitate a rejection of absolute standards?


Dizziness said...

While we haven't agreed on matters of parental discipline, we too are largely unschoolers/homeschoolers. We don't have a formal curriculum and rely heavily on classical methods of reading, application, and oration.

I think you make a number of useful points in your post, especially in regard to parental oversight. I don't follow your libertarian tendencies though as it seems original sin has forever corrupted personal autonomy.

Unschooling doesn't abdicate absolutes but abdicates absolute educational methods of arriving at the absolute.

Forty-two said...

I like your tongue-twisting explanation of unschooling and absolutes =).

From my reading of the radical unschoolers, I think there is a huge difference between people who use unschooling techniques - such as no formal curriculum, world as a classroom, developing a learning lifestyle, etc. - and people who embrace unschooling principles as an integral part of their approach to life. That's why the phrase "radical unschooler" even exists: to differentiate the latter from the former.

Honestly, I should have labeled my post "Radical Unschooling and Christianity", since most of my post was talking about applying unschooling principles to general life, anyway.

As for the libertarian, original sin thing, I see it the opposite way: because of sin, governments will be filled with sinful human beings, and thus inevitably prone to corruption. Why in the world would I want to give them an ounce more power than I have to?

Adrian said...

[W]e have no right to forcibly compel others' actions because there is no reason our view of the "best"/"right" thing to do is any better than someone else' view of the "best"/"right" thing to do....

What could something like that possibly mean? It is an assertion about right and wrong that asserts that it is no better than any other assertion about right or wrong, including the negation of itself. It destroys the very doctrine of toleration is seeks to create. And, I dare say, this is not the first time this has been pointed out.

Personally, I think that most of what you say about unschooling implies merely that you have the burden of proof. We shouldn't take that too far -- to mean that it is impermissible to use force to make our children do things, anymore than we should take a prosecuting attorney's burden of proof to mean that no one can ever be convicted of a crime. It just means that we shouldn't ask our children to do stuff lightly. But, most parents don't. Even parents that are far too engrossed in keeping up with the Joneses are still only asking their kids to do things that make them thrive. They are still only acting in their perception of their childs' best self-interests.

With that said, though, I would say: know what you are doing is important. Don't just go along with social norms. Know exactly what you are doing and, above all, why. Then, even if you do the wrong thing from time to time or somewhat, you really did do the best you could and more than most parents ever do. You really did do right by your kids. Antagognizing your children over the social equivalent of some five year old little girl's pretend tea party is, indeed, wrong to do to them.