What with burying my life in alternatives to traditional education (hybrid academies! distance learning assistance programs! dig a hole in the dirt and sit in it! take a nap!), I've come across several families in which "alternative education" means "unschooling." It's always a little scary to address educational decisions--talk about tapping our deepest passions as parents--but it is also vital that parents working in alternative education face and discuss the implications behind our educational choices. What we do speaks to our children and they will ponder what we did for them (or to them!) all their lives.
Unschooling families choose to learn free from a set curriculum--unlike in many homeschool homes, there is no attempt to recreate the traditional school syllabus or scope and sequence.
The biggest question is, of course, Does it work? The maddening answer is, of course, yes and no.
First, the yes. Unschooling can work very well in particular situations. I've found that it can be fun and fruitful for a mother (or father) who enjoys hands-on work, long walks through muddy fields, and doesn't feel much need to "check" her kids' progress against the rest of the world. Unschooling is generally what does happen (by default) for small children in a large homeshcooling family. The 3-year-old doesn't need a curriculum, but does need lots of time to absorb herself in play, a little guidance in getting started (or finishing) on a project. Even a 5-year-old can flourish with a pile of books, a sketchbook, and lots of time.
Again by default, we naturally find ourselves in "unschooling" periods of life. Mom is pregnant and sick, or postpartum and tired, so the syllabus just doesn't happen in full. She can get everyone to the library (maybe) and order art supplies online, but that's about it. Great things can happen.
But then there's the no.
There does come a time when the parents must answer this question: What is the goal of education? Clearly, the goal of everything we do as parents must eventually redound to eternal salvation. There are many ways of bringing our children up in the Faith. But if education at eternal salvation, it does so in a more specific way. Education both helps the individual to flourish as an individual and as a social animal.
The basic philosophy of unschooling presupposes a sort of Rousseauian "voluntarism"--or, the assumption that all a child's activities should voluntary, as far as is possible. The problem is that, in the Catholic worldview, a child's capacity to choose the good is not yet fully formed. A child is not a "noble savage." He's just a savage.
Once the children reach a certain age, there are certain skills that become necessary for her to pursue her passions. There are virtues and strengths that she has not yet encountered and which she will need in order to--later in life--be both a strong individual and a "servant of all." Not all children will become the next Pascal, but all children need an ordered and sequential introduction to the beautiful numbers Pascal saw. Not all children will become teachers, but all children need to learn how to communicate effectively--not just in lengthy opinion pieces on a blog--but also in the specific situations in which their world and culture place them.
In a sense "unschooling" is a wonderful way to introduce children into the world of a more formal course of study. It's also a perfectly normal and acceptable break from the formal lesson plans over which most moms slave. For a few children, unschooling may indeed be the only way they will ever learn--think of Mozart. But parents must make the decision to abandon all structure in the full awareness of what unschooling implies about human nature, human society, and the reasons we exist.