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Can a Christian Be an Unschooler?

by Patrick Farenga

Patrick Farenga, the Publisher of Growing Without Schooling, gave me permission to post this article from GWS Issue 106, Aug/Sept '95, p. 34. This is copyrighted material. (See end of article.)

Once in my travels across the country I was at dinner with some homeschoolers and one of them remarked to me, "You know, John Holt was right. I don't know of anyone who homeschools more than two or three years without throwing their curriculum out the window and developing their own by following their kids' interests. What we need is a Christian John Holt."

I thought to myself at the time, "What's so awful about the real John Holt? Why must John's rich and flexible ideas about education be claimed by someone else before they will be heard?" These questions re-emerged for me after I read an interesting article written by Mary Hood titled Can a Christian be an Unschooler? She frames many of the issues surrounding this question which I want to address.

Mary Hood feels that John Holt's ideas are rooted in the work of Rousseau; I respectfully disagree. In nearly all of John's work he emphasizes that the root of his ideas about learning is his direct observations of children and his own learning experiences. This, plus lack of training as a professional teacher, form the basis for his deep trust and understanding of parents and children and of the possibilities for learning outside of school. The most that I think can be said is that Holt's conclusions on certain issues were similar to Rousseau's, but to claim that Holt's ideas are rooted in Rousseau's establishes an unfair bias against Holt for many readers, since it is immediately noted that the ideas of Rousseau are not Biblical in origin. In any case, again, it would be simply inaccurate to think that Holt himself felt that his work grew out of Rousseau's.

Hood goes on to contrast Calvin's idea about harshly disciplining children to force them down the right path with Rousseau's idea that natural man was born good and was deabsed by contact with the outside world. She then posits John Holt squarely on the side of Rousseau. Frankly, I find nothing in John Holt's writing to support this claim.

John never wrote that children are naturally good. However, he did often write that they are natural learners (Learning All the Time, p. 159, for example). In How Children Learn he wrote, "What I am trying to say about education rests on a belief that, though there is much evidence to support it, I cannot prove, and that may never be proved. Call it faith. This faith is that man is by nature a learning animal. Birds fly, fish swim; man thinks and learns." To the criticism that all Holt advocated was leaving children alone, let me give a full quote to assure the context of this often misunderstood idea:

"Life is full of ironies. I wrote How Children Learn hoping to help introduce the natural, effortless, and effective ways of learning of the happy home into the schools. At times I fear I may only have helped to bring the strained, self-conscious, painful, and ineffective ways of learning of the schools into the home. To parents I say, above all else, don't let your home become some terrible miniature copy of the school. No lesson plans! No quizzes! No tests! No report cards! Even leaving your children alone would be better; at least they could figure out some things on their own. Live together, as well as you can; enjoy life together, as much as you can [My emphasis -- PF] Ask questions to find out something about the world itself, not to find out whether or not someone knows it."

(Teach Your Own, p. 229)

John is saying leave children alone rather than give them unasked-for teaching. He is not advocating ignoring children as an educational precept. Parents and other concerned people are certainly part of the equation of unschooling: Live together... enjoy life together...

Nowhere in John's 10 books do I recall seeing any philosophical statement that children are naturally good and would grow up better if they had no contact with the outside world. In fact, John wrote often and passionately about how adults can help children learn by participating with other people, young and old, in activities in the real world. John also had his eyes open to the fact that people can be willfully bad: "Human society has never until now had to come to grips with the source of human evildoing, which is the wish to do evil..." (John was referring to the dropping of napalm and white phosphorous on men, women, and children in peasant villages in Vietnam. The Underachieving School, p. 117). Finally, John did advise people in his talks and writing to try as much as possible, to think and expect the best of children and to give them second chances, indeed as many chances as you can; is this not scriptural?

Using a spectrum from Rousseau to Calvin, Hood locates Holt right next to Rousseau; then she writes that she actually feels more comfortable with someone in the middle, Charlotte Mason. However, I think from my reading of Holt that he is far more in tune with Charlotte Mason's ideas about good and evil than he is with Rousseau's! Mary describes Mason's position this way: that children were born neither good nor bad, but with tendencies towards both, and that our role as adults was to provide gentle guidance to those in our care.

According to Mary Hood's article, what differentiates a relaxed Christian homeschooler from an unschooler is that:

"...inside, where it counts, I have an underlying structure, clearly defined goals, and a firm Christian value system. We have a Christian family structure in our household, and our kids know that there are limits to their behavior. They don't run around flipping the TV on whenever they want to, and they don't call us by our first names... ...So can a Christian be an unschooler? I guess the answer is yes and no. I prefer the term relaxed. You can't be an unschooler and a Christian if that means you think the children are going to be perfect little flowers. You can't treat the family as if it was a total democracy if you believe in the Christian family structure. You can't let discipline go down the drain in the name of respecting children..."

The unfortunate stereotype of unschoolers being unstructured, undisciplined, and doormats to their children is strongly implied here, and like all stereotypes is wrong and unfair. Further, the term unschooling means many things now that it didn't mean when John coined the word to describe learning without going to school. When pressed for a definition of unschooling, I now reply "Allowing children as much freedom to explore the world as you can comfortably bear as their parent." However, for John Holt unschooling was simply a better word than homeschooling. If you look up "unschooling" in the index of Teach Your Own it says "See homeschooling."

More to the point, though, unschooling is an educational approach, an attitude towards learning. It refers to the ways in which we use books, materials, and experiences to learn and grow. The type of underlying structure you have inside yourself, your goals, value system, discipline, whether you watch TV or call parents by their first names, whether you use a patriarchal, democratic, or any other type of family structure, are not unschooling issues; they are parenting issues. Whether unschoolers or not, every parent must deal with these issues.

John Holt certainly offered advice about discipline and other parenting issues -- sibling rivalry, kids testing the limits of their parents, and so on. Since homeschooling, no matter how it's done, does involve questions of how to live happily with one's children, it makes sense that John discussed these questions and that our readers often discuss them now. Indeed, I know of no homeschooling publication that can talk about teaching children at home without bringing up parenting issues at some point. The two are indeed related. But that doesn't mean that they are always identical, or that practicing a certain homeschooling style -- for example, not using a packaged curriculum -- necessarily means taking a certain position on family and parenting issues.

I want to end by noting that I agree with nearly all of what Mary Hood writes about children and learning. I respect that she learns from Holt's work and can take what she needs from it, leave what she doesn't like, and build from there. I just want to correct common misconceptions some Christians hold about Holt's work. Where Mary Hood and I differ is on matters of personal faith and parenting, which are very important matters but also very private and personal matters. Homeschoolers can agree on matters of how children learn and can even share a similar homeschooling style without agreeing on all of those personal issues; Christians can be unschoolers.

Mary Hood's book The Relaxed Home School is available from her for $10.95 + $2 shipping at PO Box 2524, Cartersville, GA 30120.

Copyright © Holt Associates 1995. Growing Without Schooling is published by Holt Associates and costs $25/yr. subscription (6 issues):
Holt Associates
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617-864-3100, fax 617-864-9235

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