Friday, August 26, 2011

Review of 101 Reasons Why I'm an Unschooler by PS Pirro

In the United States, parents of means have a great deal of freedom regarding what type of education to choose for their children. I stress parents of means because it is important to acknowledge that the economic (and cultural) restraints of living in poverty severely limit choices which others take for granted. But more on that later.

PS Pirro is a blogger, self-published writer, and unschooling mom living in the midwest. If you don't know what unschooling is, you can find a decent explanation on Wikipedia. In 101 Reasons Why I'm An Unschooler: a manifesto for living and learning in the real world, Pirro begins with a disclaimer:

"While this book in its new configuration is a little more polished, it remains a personal manifesto. Not every point will resonate with everyone. That's why the title is 101 Reasons Why I'm an Unschooler, and not 101 Reasons Why You Should Be an Unschooler."

And it's a good thing she writes this from the get-go, because the language of the rest of the book is so strident and provocative, it is hard to believe she isn't advocating unschooling as a glorious solution to our current public education woes.

Pirro compares schools to prisons and even slavery. It doesn't get more inflammatory than that, and it bothers me that the term "slavery" is pulled out so often in emotionally-charged discussions of social issues. Slavery was people in Africa forcibly rounded up, thrown on ships in chains where many died and were tossed into the sea like garbage, then auctioned off in a foreign land as if they were cattle. Slavery, even today, is young girls ripped from their families and forced to have sex with grown men while their pimp-captors collect the fees. Slavery, even today, is farm workers in Florida who are chained, beaten, shot and otherwise physically forced to work in dangerous and unsanitary conditions despite illness, pregnancy, or desire to escape. I am not persuaded when someone diminishes the horrors of real slavery by comparing it to compulsory education. Indeed the title of the second half of the book is "Free the Children". The book is full of such all-inclusive language, such as "Imagine a whole generation of them (unschooled kids), and imagine what a world they could build if given the chance." If this is merely a personal manifesto, then why is the language not that of a memoir? Instead, it is general and has the tone of someone trying to start a revolution. Pirro is really talking out of both sides of her mouth.

Whenever someone is so outspoken and adamant about a personal choice, I must wonder what has brought on such fiery need for public justification. On this subject, I'm drawn to the conclusion that how parents raise and choose to educate their children is apparently too emotionally charged a subject for many people to engage in calm debate. People who make a choice viewed as rare and radical by the mainstream are targets of a great deal of criticism and even ridicule, even when what they are doing is perfectly healthy. Indeed, despite the fact that unschooled (and homeschooled in general) children tend to do just fine academically and professional compared with their traditionally school peers - in fact many end up attending Ivy League colleges and going on to impressive professional careers - the response I get when I bring up the topic of unschooling to people who have never heard of it is typically "That's just ridiculous. A kid will never learn everything they need to know that way." I suggest that Pirro is being most honest in her introduction. She isn't advocating unschooling as something for everyone. Instead, along with giving her personal reasons for unschooling, she's using inflammatory and generalized language to emotionally vent the frustration she feels from being criticized by people who misunderstand her choice. This doens't excuse Pirro from using such language since it makes for a confusing message and serves as a barrier to constructive discussion. Of course the people who hastily voice their assumptions that unschooling will produce illiterate, spoiled, lazy children are equally creating a barrier to those discussions. Given the importance that upbringing and education play in the lives of children, it is a shame people can't just calm down and stop laying judgment before they have enough information.

Pirro spends much of the book lamenting the damage school does to children's natural curiosity, love of learning, sense of self worth and accomplishment. But all of these contentions are vague and speculative. The book is little more than her own personal ruminations. Instead of offering a unique personal perspective, stories, and experiences, the book amounts to a feel-good read for unschoolers who want to feel superior about their choice.

Many points which have the potential of provocative food for thought are ruined by exaggeration or poor reasoning. For example:

In reason #7 Pirro goes on to talk about teenagers encouraged to be consumers and not producers and to take on debt before they even have their first job, and points out that labor laws prevent kids from taking on jobs which have the potential to teach them a lot without putting them in harms way. These are good points, but she doesn't go into any detail and then dillutes the point with nostalgic harking back to the good ol' days that just don't apply to modern society:

"In the not-too-distant past, people were considered adults after passing through puberty, at which time they were thought to be old enough and able enough to take on adult responsibilities like work and marriage and guarding the king."

Facts of modern society, such as that the divorce rate is higher for people who marry younger or that high school dropouts are more likely to end up in prison and earn considerably less money at more menial jobs, or that the rates of teens being victims or perpetrators of crimes in urban areas is higher after school, on weekends, and in the summer, go unmentioned. Our social ills connected with teenagers go much deeper and are far more complex than Pirro is willing to understand.

In many of her reasons, Pirro suggests that compulsory education is the reason for widespread drug use (both prescription and recreational), mental disorders, learning disorders, debt, and mass consumption. She provides no details and no evidence for any of this. That these problems in our society exist is apparent. That an individual is somehow safe-guarded from them by being unschooled is not.

In reason #21 Pirro claims, "Life may reward the innovator and the inventor, but school rewards the conformist." Whether life or school rewards an innovation or invention depends on what it is. Vincent Van Gough's innovations in painting went unappreciated until after his death, and he suffered both in status and financially, like many other nonconformist artists and writers in history. Plenty of inventors and other creative types in history were taken advantage of by savvy entrepreneurs who manage to make heaping profits while the creator collects pennies. For example, the story of Thomas Edison taking advantage of Nikola Tesla. On the flip side, even in these days of standardized tests and reduced funding for the arts and extra curriculars, students are still assigned projects and papers that encourage creativity. If anything, the problem lies not with schools in general, but rather, in under-funding for certain schools, particularly those in neighborhoods suffering from a myriad of other economic woes that impacts the culture of the entire community, including the schools.

Pirro speaks of "false choices" that adults often give children, as if the only valuable choices are the ones children make entirely for themselves. She claims that when a student is offered a choice between this and that, it is not a real choice because they cannot refuse either. Again, this rings false based on my own experience. For example, for senior AP English my class was given the choice between reading Pride and Prejudice and The Brother Karamazov. I chose the latter because it sounded more interesting to me, though I never would have chosen to read it on my own. I was so enthralled by it that I later went on to read other books by Dostoyevski, and took Russian literature in college just for the enjoyment. Russian literature has shaped my perspective on history, human psychology, and ethics. I am deeply grateful for that "false" choice.

In reason #24 Pirro criticizes school for forcing families to arrange their lives around schools schedules, but do families not already arrange their lives around work schedules? Also, presumably an unschooled child with a great number of interests involving trips, lessons, teams, etc. needs parents able and willing to arrange their lives around those activities. No matter what it is, families will be arranging and compromising their schedules to accommodate each other. That is simply the nature of family.

From reason #66: "Conventional, compulsory schooling does not produce mathematical wizards or scientific geniuses, and can actually undermine a fledgling interest in math and science through its relentless drills and cafeteria approach to studies: a dab of biology, a cup of chemistry, a spoonful of physics, whether one wants it or not."

Pirro provides nothing to back up her assertions. The American education system is hardly known for its drilling kids in math and science. China, however, is known for approaching education in all the ways Pirro criticizes, and yet it dominates the top scores for math according to the Programme for International Student Assessment (of which the United States lags far behind in math.) Sure one can challenge test results, but while not all abilities are easy to test for, math comprehension is one of those subjects which is relatively easy to measure. Asians in general are known for pressuring kids to conform to conventional standards of achievement and to succeed in traditional school settings, and surprise surprise, they are disproportionately represented in medical and technical fields which require a great deal of math and science education. Are we to just ignore these facts and take Pirro at her word?

Reason #86 gives a laundry list of famous figures in history who received little formal education and then claims this to be proof that formal education is unnecessary. Since every example she gives is a historical figure, Pirro is making an incredibly absurd comparison given that she doesn't take into account huge cultural differences between then and now in how children were reared at home and how society was structured.

In reason #51, PS Pirro ventures into totally unfounded speculation, writing:

"Kids learn like crazy for the first five years or so of their lives, when their primary source of information comes from direct experience with the world. Then they go to school, where everything is mediated, and within a few years their learning curve flattens out.

"...But maybe it's not all - or even mostly - physiological. Maybe there's a something deadening about the whole school experience, something that undermines learning, interferes with what is a natural process and replaces opportunity and desire with limits and demands.

"Maybe the longer kids maintain their direct experience with the world, the longer the period of learning like crazy will last."

She doesn't elaborate on what she means by "learn like crazy" or where she obtained her information about how and how much children learn during the first five years and afterward. She doesn't elaborate on the importance of "opportunity", in other words, the environment the child is immersed in during various stages of development. Nor does she bother to acknowledge the huge differences between schools in poor and affluent neighborhoods, private, public, and homeschools, rural and urban areas. Nothing but vague speculation with weighty implications.

The book downplays the fundamental differences between children and adults. In all her talk of freeing the children, she ignores that children are necessarily limited by immaturity and reliance on caretakers. No matter how much freedom a child is given, they will never be allowed to do everything an adult can choose to do. Regardless of how a child is raised, childhood is a time of development and preparation for adulthood. It is not and cannot be identical to adulthood. So in a sense, there will always be some things which are artificial or trial-runs compared to the "real world."

That said, children are more free than adults in the sense that they are free from adult responsibilities. If an eight-year-old gets drunk on dad's beer, dad is the one held accountable. In reason #53, Pirro writes:

"But most things in life aren't school. Most thing in life are nothing like school. To attempt to learn how to live one's life by going to school is like trying to understand the life of a wild creature by studying it in a cage.

"Unschoolers already live in the real world. We spend our days absorbed by and engaged with the real world. We are free of the systemic constraints and artificial timetables imposed by school, and instead draw our inspiration from everything else."

Such a utopian description might apply to a minority of people who are independently wealthy or lucky enough to have careers with an incredible amount of autonomy and ability to create one's own schedule, but most adults have to work 25-40 hours per week (many even more just to make ends meet), and most jobs, from minority wage service industry positions to highly professional careers in medicine, law, and business, involve "systemic constraints" and "artificial timetables" imposed by employers and clients.

And this brings me to what bothers me the most about PS Pirro's book: its disregard for the role economic factors play in the "real world." No where does she even hint at the huge advantages families of means have over poor families who live in low-income neighborhoods. She speaks of unschooling as if it were an option for anyone, despite the huge number of single mothers under the poverty line; the fact that even in most two-parent households, both parents must work just to make ends meet; the fact that more and more people on the lower end of the economic spectrum must continue working well into their 70's. Who exactly is going to stay at home to facilitate this oh-so-amazing unschooled experience for the children? With cuts to public libraries, recreation centers, and other cultural institutions, particularly in poor areas, who is going to provide the resources to feed the hungry minds of these budding geniuses? In his book Intelligence and How to Get It, Richard Nisbett cites studies which show that even when poor kids keep up academically with middle class kids during the school year, they fall behind in the summer, and this disadvantage builds up over time, resulting in less success in family life and careers in the future. The implication is that middle class kids have the advantage of summer camps and trips, stimulating toys and games and adult interaction at home. All the wonderful sorts of things Pirro celebrates in her book, that help them stay intellectual sharp. If poor kids fall behind academically, and at least in urban areas become more likely to be victimized by or perpetrate crimes in the summer, what would the endless summer of unschooling mean for them? It's easy to choose unschooling when a parent has the freedom to stay at home, to dilly dally, to surround themselves with all sorts of stimulating books and activities, and can romp off any time to museums and parks. What a luxury.

Pirro rightly complains about the near worthlessness of a high school diploma for securing a fulfilling and lucrative career, and the growing need for people to take on heavy loads of debt seeking higher education just to achieve any kind of job security, much less job satisfaction. (She calls debt slavery, too. *sigh*) But she blames schools for what are much more widespread and mainly economic and often race problems, and she offer no practical solutions for the kids most hurt by a dysfunctional system. Unschooled kids succeed in various facets of life for the same reason almost all middle class kids succeed: they are children of privilege. As the comedian Louis C.K. bluntly put it when Jay Leno asked him about his daughters, "...two white girls in America. They're doing great."

It is interesting that many of the serious problems with Pirro's book - that it is vague and incomplete, highly speculative, makes numerous appeals to common sense but little to hard data and evidence - mirror concerns and criticisms about the type of education an unschooler is likely to receive. With the writing of this book, Pirro seems to reinforce the idea that unschoolers will only maintain interest in a subject until it gets difficult and then move onto something else; that they will be self-absorbed; that there will be significant gaps in their knowledge, particularly with regards to math and science. It is tempting to judge the unschooling approach harshly using this book as evidence of unschooling's shortcomings. However, I suspect that such a judgment would be hasty, given how many people who attended traditional school express selfish attitudes and behaviors, and fail to adequately understand complicated statistics and economics, or distinguish pseudo-science from real science. I also suspect certain aspects of the unschooling approach (many of which are incorporated into progressive education schools) are superior to approaches used in mainstream schools.

While it is definitely a virtue to question convention, it is not a virtue to outright reject all convention. Regulations and industry standards are never perfect, but we have them for many good reasons. We can't all live in a bubble of personal exploration, constantly re-inventing the wheel and having to spend endless hours investigating everything from whether our drinking water is safe to whether our family doctor is competent. When they work right, conventions free up a lot of our time by allowing us take some things for granted. Pirro seems to assert her individualism and independence to an extreme, even down to self publishing this book. I have read many self-published books, and have come to the conclusion that while there are some goodies out there, their overall poor reputation is warranted.

Does PS Pirro's rant offer anything meaningful to the conversation or body of information about the unschooling approach? For the reader who is curious about the unschooling mentality, who can get past the vitriol and condescension (From reason #95: "Unschooling is not for everyone, but neither is freedom. If it were, we wouldn't be so quick to trade ours away.") and keep an open mind (but not so open that his or her brain falls out) this book can encourage us to question many assumptions we as a society tend to make about how children learn and how they are best prepared for adulthood. It isn't much of a resource, but at least it is a very quick read and can be a springboard for further inquiry.


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