Introduction

I am a college professor and an unschooling parent.  Once upon a time, I thought these things were quite compatible.  Increasingly they seem to be at odds.  I am endeavoring to reconcile my pedagogical ideology with my actual job, and I’ve decided to write about it as I do.  Welcome.

Unschooling – at least the way my family does it – is largely based on the writings of John Holt.  After years as an educator, Holt concluded that children learn best by, essentially, not being instructed. His work has inspired a generation of unschoolers who “teach” our children by letting them play, traveling with them, providing them with access to things in which they are interested – by, in short, following their leads.  By and large, unschooled kids do what they want, and don’t do what they don’t want to do.  And by and large, unschooling parents work very, very hard (on multiple levels) to be able to do this.

For our family, this works beautifully.  For the other unschooling families with whom we spend our time, this appears to be working beautifully. The unschooled children we know are creative, open, confident, talented, kind human beings.  They know what it is to pursue a goal out of pure interest, to complete a task they devised themselves.  They know how to discern interest from boredom, and how to recognize and nurture their own passion when they feel it.  They know how to make connections across activities, ideas, thoughts, stories, paintings, music; things remind them of other things, and they know how to run with that.  Their worlds and their daily lives are not compartmentalized.  They know how to think.  They like to think, because they have learned that thinking means spending time and energy on interesting things.

Cut to my career.  I am an academic.  I research, I write and I teach.  I love teaching.  I have loved it since I began doing it, well over a decade ago.  I have always succeeded in fostering a lively environment, in which I focused much more on the process instead of the outcome.  Activities and assignments were difficult but quirky enough to appeal to most of the students, where their interests dictated the direction, pace, and often even the material of the course.  “Teaching,” though, has always meant “facilitating,” “inspiring,” “provoking.”  It has never meant “telling,” which is what my students increasingly seem to think it means.  In my early teaching days, I did not feel coercive.  I did not feel like I was pulling teeth.

Part of it is simply that I’m getting older (and my students are not).  The gap between us is widening.  They get my jokes less often and I have to ask them about pop culture references and new slang words more often.  I expected that part.

I did not expect their reaction when they grumbled about an assignment, and I naively said, “Really?  But it’s just like a puzzle!”

Almost in unison, at least fifteen of them raised their eyebrows and looked at me as if I were completely out of mind.

“Ah! You don’t see that it’s a puzzle…” I surmised.

“We see that it’s a puzzle.  Why would we want to do a puzzle?” one of them clarified.  The others nodded.

“Puzzles are fun!” I exclaimed.

They erupted in laughter.  Seriously, they thought it was a riot that I would say that puzzles were fun.  I was skeptical, and spent the next twenty minutes trying to hit upon puzzles that they in fact enjoyed.

I was unsuccessful.  Puzzles were not leisure.  They were tests in disguise.  They were sources of anxiety and tension, things that were used to sort the can-dos from the can’t-dos.  The point of all puzzles was to solve it correctly, and therefore, they could not be fun.

These are the children who were not “left behind.” They are adults now.  They have spent 12 years (or more) doing as they were told (or at least looking as if they were doing as they’re told).  What they were told to do, apparently, was pass tests by any means necessary, in subjects that meant little to them.  If they wrote papers, they did not see them as their creative products, but as another test.  Their papers were graded alongside rubrics; they either did what they needed to do, or they did not.  Many of them (have I mentioned, a heartbreaking number of them?) – are now completely uninvested in their own intellectual processes and products.  They resent me because they feel they “have” to be there, and I cannot understand why they are not excited to be there.  This, I absolutely did not expect.

My job, as I see it, is to help them to be excited to be there.  My job, as they see it, is to give them a good grade so that they can get out of this completely irrelevant class and get a job.

I teach sexy subjects, and I’m a charismatic, dynamic sort of speaker.  When I fail to ignite a spark class, I get radical.  I get desperate.  And I repeatedly make the same mistakes.  I ask them what books they want to read.  Most of them don’t care; reading is reading, they tell me.  “If you’re gonna make us read, it doesn’t matter what book.”

I give them the freedom to redesign the class; what do they like to do?  Would they prefer several shorter assignments, or longer ones?  Thirty sets of shoulders shrug.  I leave their paper topics open, so that they can write about what interests them, do something interesting with whatever they have gleaned from the material.  This drives them crazy.  Time after time, class after class, they glare at me and say the same thing:

“Just tell us what to do.”

Many – not all, but far, far too many – of my students are averse to intellectual freedom.  I did not expect them to resent me for empowering them in the classroom and in their own work.

Remember St. Elmo’s Fire (the movie, not the weather phenomenon)?  Mare Winningham worked in a social services office.  During one scene, a young mother (played by Kaaren Lee) brought her children to the office to pick up her welfare check.  Mare sat down with her and shared news about a new job opening that might be a good fit.

“Just gimme my check,” the woman muttered.

The always-well-intentioned Winningham tried again, pulling a piece of paper from a pile with another opportunity.

“Just gimme my check,” the woman said, a little louder.

Good ol’ Mare tried one last time.  When Kaaren Lee responded, the words were almost the same, but her tone captured a brilliant, poignant blend of exhaustion, desperation, hopelessness and rage.  Just gimme my damn check.

In 1985, of course, audience sympathies were with poor Mare, diligently trying to help a lazy, unmotivated welfare mother to a better situation.  But I heard in that line that the situation was simply insurmountable.  There was no way out, nothing was going to get any better, and why the hell couldn’t Mare Winningham see that and give her the money so she could go buy her fucking groceries?

I want so badly for my students to want to change their relationship to books, to writing, to thinking…to school.  Everything would be better for them if they did that.   They look like they simply don’t want to bother. But a handful of times each semester, Kaaren Lee’s voice echoes in my mind, and I hear that heartwrenching hopelessness… that aggressive and oppressive apathy.

Therein lies, for me, the tension between being an unschooler and being a professor in today’s world.  My pedagogy depends upon my students caring.  I am not an elementary school teacher or a secondary school teacher.  I would not want to teach in a setting that felt coercive to students.  I developed my expertise and my skills and my course syllabi out of the assumption that I would be teaching students who wanted to be there with me.  I believed that their presence in my classroom would be, at least a good deal of the time, an indicator of their interest.  I don’t know what to do with students who do not want to play with these topics and ideas, or travel through these readings or films, or create together, through talk or writing or art.

And so I am on a mission to figure out what to do in these apparently-increasingly-common situations, in which I am charged with “teaching” students who are there because they see no viable alternative.

Just gimme my damn degree.