PAM: I’m Pam Laricchia from livingjoyfully.ca and today I’m here with Carol Black! Hi, Carol!
PAM: Hi! It’s so wonderful to have you on the show. Many of our listeners may have come across Carol the same way that I first did, through her wonderful online essay about unschooling, A Thousand Rivers. She has other insightful essays published on her website, carolblack.org and she is the director of the fascinating documentary film, Schooling The World. She has two grown daughters, neither of whom has ever taken a standardized test. And I have ten questions for you, Carol, so let’s dive in!
CAROL: Okay! Great!
1. First, can you share with us a bit about you and your family and how you came to unschooling?
CAROL: For me, the whole process really begins very far back from really the time I was in first grade. I just remember being very disturbed by the effects on children of the grading and ranking that goes on in school. My friends were often the kids who did not necessarily get the good grades. They were the kids that had a little more life to them. And it just became clear to me at an early age that the kids getting the good grades were not even the most interesting children. They were just sort of obedient, dutiful, boring ones, often. I did get good grades and it really pained me being made the instrument of another child feeling bad about themselves. So, the competition and the comparison and the ranking really disturbed me.
It became very clear as I watched my friends go through the years how deeply damaging this was to them and how these bright-eyed children would wind up being made to feel stupid. And then by middle school, they would be the kids that are smoking dope and getting into trouble. But this was something that was being created. It didn’t have to be that way. It was only much later that it became clear to me how closely it all correlated with family income. How, even in a basically middle class public school, the kids in the honors classes were all the kids from the more affluent neighborhoods and the kids from the slightly lower income neighborhoods were all in the lower-tracked classes.
So, when I was in college, I went into a teacher education program. I was actually going to get certified to teach. I think I had some big idea of being part of the 70’s education reform movement that had been going on for some time.
But the book that really changed my life was reading How Children Fail by John Holt because all of his observations just matched my experience of what was being done to kids in schools. How really bright children were becoming unable to think well in the school context with the fear and the power relationship that was established there. It was like a light bulb going off for me and I just realized I was not going to be able to take part in this and do this to children. So, I dropped out of the teacher ed program and did other things.
But then, we actually lost our first child when she was about three weeks old. During that time, somebody from the hospital gave me this newsprint catalog of books, because we had no internet then, to find books about infant loss and bereavement. But my eye just fell on this book called Teach Your Own by John Holt. It registered in my brain and we were preoccupied at that time with other things, so I didn’t follow up on it until a couple years later when we finally had a healthy daughter.
It was sort of a funny story, because my husband and I had spent some time in Colorado when we were younger and we loved it there. So, we took our three-month-old daughter to Colorado and we were hiking. The aspens are in their full glory in September, so we were just thinking that now we have our happy family at long last and we would take our kids to Colorado in September to see the beautiful aspens turn. And then it sort of hit us both like, oh, you can’t go to Colorado in September, because your kids will be in school!
We just sort of had this full-body realization, both of us instantly like, that’s wrong. So, I remembered that I had seen that book. So, when I got home, I ordered Teach Your Own and the rest was history. My husband and I were just instantly, from the second we heard that you didn’t actually have to send your kids to school and didn’t have to make them do all the things that they do in school, we were just there and we never had any lengthy discussion and never looked back.
PAM: That’s awesome! It’s too bad that I didn’t first find out about the fact that they didn’t actually have to go to school until they were in school for a while. But all those epiphanies and that thought process that you went through, that you described, I really remember going through at that time. Because as soon as you realize it’s an option, the questions that come up are just incredible. And the September thing, yeah—exactly! It really controls us. Our lives get scheduled around it, don’t they?
2. I was wondering if you could share what your children are up to right now. Looking back, can you see a thread of their interests and activities that have brought them to where they are today?
CAROL: Well, there really is a kind of continuity. With all the different kids, because I now have had the opportunity to see their whole group of kids grow up, you do see how some of the kids, they really are who they are from a very young age. And others really transform. It’s almost like they metamorphose through different stages and really surprise you. So, it’s really been such a pleasure to watch all these kids grow up.
My daughters are 22 and 26. Isabel is 26. She unschooled all the way until college. She graduated in 2012 with a double concentration in literature and ecology and evolution and she is now doing research and writing for a nonprofit organization and she’s working on her own independent writing projects in addition.
Marina just graduated from college this year. She actually decided to go to high school for her last two years and then graduated this year with a double major in English and German literature and a minor in film studies. She’s leaving in a few days for a teaching fellowship in Austria where she’s going to teach English. She has long had a love, she just wanted to learn German from a young age, and has worked very hard to learn it as an unschooler. German is my mother-in-law’s first language and Marina was just fascinated by it and so, now she’s off to Austria which is where my mother-in-law was born. She had to leave in 1939 when Hitler came in. So, that has been the fulfillment of a long-time interest.
Isabel also was always interested in literature and art and drawing and really interested in plants. When Isabel was eight years old, she got really interested in orchids for some reason. She just became fascinated by orchids. So, she started collecting them and developed this really large collection of unusual species of orchids that she raised. She belonged to the local orchid society. There are orchid societies everywhere! They have competitions and she would have her plants in the orchid competitions.
Actually, one of her plants was in the film Adaptation because they shot a scene from the film at the Santa Barbara International Orchid Show where Isabel’s orchids were being displayed. So, that funneled into her interest in ecology and evolution in college.
She went to this really wonderful college called Bennington in Vermont, which was established as a very alternative college in the 1920s. They have something called the Plan process which is great for kids who have unschooled and who know how to manage their own interests and study. With the Plan process, the students craft their own area of concentration. They have a Plan committee of three mentor advisors who they meet with periodically and they draft a Plan essay and then they revise their essay every year as their area of focus becomes more clear.
It’s a great collaborative, mentorship way of developing your area of study and it works really well for unschooled kids. Grades are also optional at Bennington. Isabel never wanted to take grades, but for a while, one of her advisors advised her to take grades in case she wanted to go to graduate school. She started it out for a few weeks and decided she couldn’t do it because it completely changed the way she thought about the work that she was doing. We were like, “That’s fine. Don’t do it!”
Marina went to a more conventional liberal arts college. She really enjoyed it. She’s always enjoyed more structure and more social activity than her sister. She likes to be where the action is.
So, you see a lot of different definitions of unschooling online and I don’t agree with all of them. I think it’s so important that we don’t fall into this thing as unschoolers of just valorizing a different kind of child than the kind of child that’s valorized by the schools. I think that how much structure and how much social engagement and even deadlines and all of those kind of things, how much all of that people want, is a natural personality spectrum and we just have to support our kids in finding out what works for them.
I subscribe to what John Holt said which is that kids have the right to control and direct their own learning, which includes the right to decide, “if, when, how much, and by whom they want to be taught and the right to decide whether they want to learn in a school and, if so, which one and for how much of the time.”
I think it’s really natural for an unschooled kid to become curious about school. It’s a big part of our society and we shouldn’t expect them to just take our word for it, what it’s like. They may want to see it for themselves and see what the experience is like and make their own mind up about it.
So, Marina did decide to go to school for her last two years and we were very supportive of that. But it was kind of funny, because her teachers would say, “Why are you so different from our other students?” And she said, “Because I don’t have to be here.” She was really clear about that. It’s all been an interesting experience in that way.
PAM: Yeah, I think that is such a great point. A few episodes ago, we talked about that, because the whole point really is supporting your child and helping them learn the way they want to learn and being able to support them if they choose school as a way. My daughter, when she was still at home and learning but when she was really interested in photography, she really wanted to set up a schedule for herself, for her own routine for her days.
So, she started a 365 project for it. She felt she wanted to start at noon and she would work until she had her picture for the day and maybe sometimes that wasn’t until midnight when she was finally happy with it. But she learned so much about herself through that structure. The hugest point is that it’s always their choice. It’s just such a different experience when they get to choose and experience whatever it is that they’re looking for.
CAROL: Yeah and if I can just add one more thing, I really think one of the most important things for an adult to know as they go through life is what amount and kind of structure and social engagement works best for them to bring out of themselves what they want to be. Because some people really are happier with a more independent, inner-directed life. And some people are really happier in a social structure that has a set of parameters like that and almost a structure of accountability. If other people are counting on you, that may be the thing that helps you motivate yourself.
So, people are really different in that way and knowing who you are and what the best way for you to live and feel happy and fulfilled is such an important thing to know about yourself. So, give kids the opportunity to experiment with that and figure out what works best for them.
At one point my daughter had imbibed this idea that when people start having these competitive descriptions of their brilliant, genius, unschooled children who are sending satellites to the moon and stuff like that, she was just like, “Yeah, I’m not like that!”
You don’t want to wind up holding up these examples of these very high-achieving, self-directed students and make other kids feel bad about themselves for not being like that and able to function in quite that way. So, that’s really the key, is to help kids find what works for them and to feel good about it.
PAM: That’s always the challenge, isn’t it? On one hand, when people come and they learn about unschooling, they want to know, will my child be able to go to college? Will they be able to be successful? You can give them all these examples of unschooled kids who look conventionally successful. But the whole point, though, for those people who know those kids, it’s such a different experience because they weren’t setting out to be successful.
Conventionally, kids know you need your good college, your good job, and then, you’re an okay person. Whereas, in my experience anyway, for most unschooling kids, when they look conventionally successful, they’re only there because it’s something that they’ve chosen to do. It’s something that they want to do. It’s a by-product rather than the goal. It was never the goal itself.
CAROL: Right, right.
The goal of life is not to be better than other people. It’s really important to remember that and make sure that our kids understand that as best as possible, because this society is so competitive. I do think it’s in the same sense that we try to raise our daughters to be confident and not imbibe this cultural value of thinness as equivalent to beauty and you want them to feel good in their own bodies and be confident in who they are at a healthy weight, but still, they are affected by these other cultural standards that are out there. It’s impossible to completely protect them from that.
I think the cultural standard of comparison and competition is very similar. You can sort of shield your kids from it, really, especially if you have a good homeschooling/unschooling group where not being competitive and not comparing kids is the ethos of your group. Then you can really give them this wonderful childhood where they just don’t worry about that stuff. But then, at a certain point as they get into their teen years, they live in this world and they see how everyone is being compared and ranked and they have to learn to navigate that. It can be stressful for them. I think it’s very parallel to how girls have to navigate the weight issues. We just have to try to support them, but you also have to acknowledge that you don’t have total control over it.
PAM: Yes. I think that’s a really apt comparison, because I found in the teen years, and even now, there were so many conversations that I’d have with my kids because there are just so many cultural and societal messages that of course they absorb, because they are engaged with the world. It came up all the time, even hanging out with friends and going to activities. It was really a lot of processing for them to see how our lives were different. Their relationship with their parents was another huge one, the difference in autonomy. The control that they had over their lives was a huge thing. To be able to understand why it’s other ways, what the other messages are, and how both these ways to be in the world are there and how to navigate it and understand it and still be able to move through life the way they were most comfortable, with that control and respect for the people in their lives.
3. I love the bigger picture lens through which you see and talk about unschooling, through our conversation already, through your essays on your website, and through your film, Schooling the World. I was wondering what brought you to explore how children learn across different cultures and incorporate that into your view of unschooling?
CAROL: Well, in a lot of ways, that also really dates back to our experience with our first child who we lost. The experience with her in the hospital led to a lot of really deep questioning about our culture and our institutional ways of dealing with children. When our daughter Anna was in the hospital, she was hooked up to all these electric monitors and they were tracking her vital functions and her vital functions were very unstable. They were all over the place, up and down, but I began to realize that every time I held her, her vital functions, her breathing, and her heart rate would stabilize. Then when she had to go back into the, they called it an “isolette” interestingly enough, the little plastic box, then her breathing and heart rate would become irregular again. Then I would hold her and it would stabilize.
So, this was this very consistent effect that I began to notice and at that time, we weren’t into any kind of alternative parenting or anything. But I started to think about this later on and I started to research it and found out there was quite a body of research about this effect on newborns in the hospital. And then further research just shows that our species, we are primates. We are a part of a whole family of mammals that evolved to carry and hold our infants. Being held has this physiological effect on your body temperature and your blood pressure and your heart rate. Essentially, as social mammals, we’re not fully biologically separate from each other. We’re really relying on each other to regulate our physical processes at the most basic level. You always see studies about how peoples’ immune systems don’t function well if they are too isolated.
So, then I just realized this obvious thing that, if you look at pre-industrialized cultures all over the world, you see that infants and young children are almost constantly held. So, I began to be curious about birth and child-rearing traditions in those cultures. The interesting thing at that time was there was very little that was available. There were the older things like Margaret Mead and then the more counter-culture things like The Continuum Concept. But I was reading widely in anthropology and you could read a whole ethnography of a culture and it would tell you all about warfare and kinship structures and initiation rites and almost nothing about child-rearing practices. I guess that was just like housework or women’s stuff to these mostly male anthropologists and they were just not that interested in it.
But I began to pick up bits and pieces here and there and just slowly started to realize that a lot of how learning was structured in these cultures was very consistent with what John Holt and others were saying about learning.
In the last five to ten years, there really has finally started to be this explosion of serious scholarship on learning in other cultures. What’s coming out is that they basically unschool and there is almost no formal teaching. Children learn by observation and experimentation. You often can’t tell exactly how they learn the things they know. All the things we see as unschooling parents.
It’s important not to romanticize or essentialize other cultures. There’s a huge amount of variety and they’re not perfect in every respect. Every culture has its own problems and pathologies. But one anthropologist has said you really also can’t overlook that there is a remarkable degree of overlap in the broad findings about how pre-industrialized societies approach children and learning.
I think this does resonate with our experience as unschoolers and the idea that institutional school is in no way the norm and should in no way be considered the norm for human learning. It’s a very recent experiment.
PAM: Yeah. That’s really interesting. It’s not something that I had originally come across, so I have been really fascinated as I have been reading your stuff and watching your film just how much information there is about how humans really learn, not just children, how people learn within their own culture and society. It leads nicely into the next question.
4. I wanted to talk about your essay, A Thousand Rivers: What the modern world has forgotten about children and learning. I’ve seen it being shared in unschooling circles for years. In it, you make the point that people today don’t really know what children are actually like. They only know, at this point, what children are like in schools. Your classic quote, which I know I’ve shared, is, “Collecting data on human learning based on children’s behavior in school is like collecting data on killer whales based on their behavior at SeaWorld.”
It’s such a great quote, because it really hits home how different children are in school and out of school. And it’s not something you see until you bring them home and inside an unschooling environment where they begin to take control. Because controlling a child’s learning from the outside, content, pace, style, has such a profound effect on how they see themselves, both as learners and as people, doesn’t it?
CAROL: Yeah. I think it’s kind of paradoxical, but it can distort things so completely that you just literally have no way of knowing what people would have been like if you hadn’t done that to them. So, people will always say, if you unschool I’m sure you’ve heard this, someone will say to you, “Well, unschooling would never have worked for me. I would never have done anything difficult if somebody didn’t make me.”
The response to that is, “Well, maybe. That might be true, but you don’t actually know that for a fact, because you really don’t know what you would have been like if you hadn’t spent most of your tender developmental years being forced to do really boring things against your will. So, if you really would have had choice to follow your own interests maybe you would have taken on challenges and you would have worked hard.”
I do also think to a great extent people are who they are and the form of education doesn’t fundamentally alter that. But someone can be driven into a very resistant state where they are resistant to doing anything difficult, because they do identify it with an imposed authority that they are resistant to, and where they develop that deep, deep feeling of failure and those deep, defensive moves to protect against failure, one of which, perhaps the most common, is to never try very hard at anything, because that way the failure doesn’t hurt as much. It really can be such a distorting thing.
PAM: Yeah, that failure piece is a big piece, too. The other thing that I see so often is you have so many parents that come up who say, “My kid would never learn if they weren’t told they had to learn.” And the children, so often, after a few years of school, really believe that, too. So many times my daughter’s friends would come up and say, “You must be so bored because you don’t go to school.” They could only imagine doing things because they were told they had to do them. That’s very interesting.
CAROL: There are also the kids that say, “Oh my god. I wish I could do what you do.” I’ve had so many kids come up and say, “Carol, will you unschool me?”
PAM: I found that happened when they were younger and then later on in their teens. There were these middle years where they didn’t really want to do that, because they felt good about school. That was the only option they could see. Did you find that?
CAROL: Well, I think you actually have both types of kids: the type of kid who adapts pretty happily to school in their younger years, but then they become truly miserable in their teens. And then you have the opposite, the kids who are happily unschooling or homeschooling in their elementary years and then want to go to school in their teens. In some cases, the social environment of the teen years is obviously a draw and also a punishment. It depends on how you feel about that. I’ve had some kids who were pretty socially happy at school who still desperately wished they didn’t have to go through the academics.
PAM: We would have a lot of kids coming to visit and hang out at our house for a long time, whenever they could! Yeah, sure! Come on over!
5. Another great observation that you share in the article about unschooling children is that they want their learning to be their own. I was wondering if you could talk about some of the ways that we might unintentionally interfere with that.
CAROL: My feeling about it is it can be really subtle. Kids really read your mind, at least a lot of them do. If you have an agenda, they will smell it on you. You have these people who think they can encourage and cajole and what they think of as facilitating, the kids are still experiencing it as kind of invasive, as kind of a crossing of their boundaries. I do think that some children probably are more naturally willing to please the adults and fulfill their fantasies and give them what they want and other children are more naturally independent.
My kids were very naturally independent and they could smell my agendas from a mile off. So, you really have to learn to back away. A typical thing is if a kid says maybe they would like to play the piano and the next day the moving guys are bringing the piano into the living room. You’re going to facilitate their desire to learn piano and then they say that maybe they’d rather take karate.
This is an interesting thing that you do hear in a lot of indigenous cultures but you also see it in a lot of Hollywood movies about mean, violin teachers and spelling teachers and things like that, where the child has to come to the teacher and the teacher initially rebuffs them and the child expresses a desire to learn and the teacher will rebuff them two or three times until the child really, really, demonstrates a serious interest. Then they will finally, sort of reluctantly, agree to teach them.
As unschooling parents, most of us aren’t going to go that far. We generally want our kids to feel that we are in a state of readiness to help them out with what they are interested in. We do the strewing thing, where you fill your house with things that you think might be of interest and seek out opportunities that you think they might enjoy. Then, if you don’t leave that little bit of space for them to make it their own, it’s incredible how much resistance you can still generate.
It’s really funny and they just will see you getting excited about something that they’re doing and they will back away. I think it’s a real sense that maybe the parent has a little too much ego invested in it or something. They just feel it as an invasion and they back away. And I feel like I have seen unschooling families where people are really struggling with a late reader and they really want the kid to read and they want to be able to wait but the waiting is taking too long and they’re getting anxious and maybe the parents are starting to bicker between themselves about it.
I do wonder sometimes if people are getting stuck in this in-between zone where they’re not forcing the kid to do the thing, but they’re hovering over it in a way that still causes this aversive reaction. It unnerves them that you care so much and it kind of taints their own interest in the activity because they can just feel you hovering over it.
So, I wind up telling people to either just make them do it or you’ve got to just let it go. You don’t want to get stuck in the middle with that. It’s a zen thing of letting go of attachment to the outcome. Sometimes for unschooling to work, you really have to be able to let go, even when it’s challenging.
PAM: I wrote this question because I found that to be such a fascinating piece of unschooling. Just a little bit of expectation, they pick up on it, totally. Then I find that they can sense that them doing it would be more about satisfying you than about satisfying their own interest. Then they’ll back off on it, because it’s not theirs to own.
That point about your reading example is really great, because if you get stuck in that middle, there’s no communication there. You’re not telling them what to do but they can feel those unspoken expectations so they kind of avoid it and you avoid it because you don’t want to push, per se, but you’re kind of at an impasse but you’re actually getting in the way just as badly.
CAROL: Yeah, I think it’s true. I think it’s an interesting thing to navigate. I think a lot of people think, “Oh, I’m going to unschool my kids, or I’m basically going to unschool, but there’s a couple of things…” Look, people do all kinds of different things that work for them. But it really is possible to get stuck in a place that’s neither here nor there and you kind of have to go one way or the other way for it to be psychologically healthy. It is interesting!
6. You published a new essay on your website earlier this year, On the Wildness of Children: The revolution will not take place in a classroom. In it, you note that compulsory schooling, as you mentioned earlier, is basically a social experiment that was originally conceived in the late 1800s to adapt children to the new industrial age. Yet in only about seven generations, school has become an integral part of modern childhood and this background has been forgotten.
With unschooling, we choose to leave this experiment behind and look at how children are naturally wired to learn. We soon come to see that learning isn’t really a special activity, in and of itself at all. It’s a natural by-product of being alive and living in the world and spending much of their days, in what you shared that researcher Suzanne Gaskins calls a state of “open attention.” Can you describe what that looks like?
CAROL: A couple of the moms in our group and I, we just started talking about the fact that our kids really seemed to be in a different mental state than school kids. Everywhere we took them, where there were adults like at a museum or aquarium, we would take them on animal tracking hikes, things like that, people’s jaws would drop and they would remark that they had never had a group of kids like them before. It was something they hadn’t seen before, because basically the kids were very engaged, they were relaxed, they were alert, they were respectful, they were interested in things, they listened, they picked everything up, they asked good questions, and ultimately, they remembered everything. They didn’t forget the things that they learned.
So, we just began to notice this in our kids and we didn’t have a term for it at the time but when I read Suzanne Gaskins’ description of “open attention,” I realized that’s what it is. It’s the brain in an open, alert state, taking in information from the environment, in this open way.
One of the things that she says is that “open attention” is broadly focused. The important feature of it is that if something happens over here to the right or left of you, you’re going to notice it and turn your head and watch that, because something interesting happened over there. But of course, kids in school are punished for doing that. They’re expected to just focus their attention on the teacher or their work and develop this kind of tunnel vision.
So, I think when you have that tunnel vision quality and you move out into the world, you’re not naturally as observant. You don’t pick up things. You have this shut-down quality where you’ve learned to exclude the environment from your awareness to some extent, but then you’re told to focus on something that doesn’t interest you very much and you’re in a state of resistance to that. And it really shuts down a lot of the mental capacity of kids.
So, then people just start to think that’s how kids are. They have these demeaning stereotypes about kids and their cell phones and how kids aren’t interested in anything unless you force them to be. I think with their cell phones, kids actually are focusing in a way that’s not resistant, because they actually are communicating with each other, they’re being creative, whether it’s schooled kids or unschooled kids. In that realm, they are the same because they’re using it to communicate with each other, to be creative on Instagram or Snapchat or whatever, they’re playing games, they’re interacting in all kinds of ways. I find that this generation of kids who interacts through technology and text, they have really deep interpersonal relationships. They talk about everything! More than we did when I was that age!
So, they really learn a lot. But the unschooled kids have that openness and attitude toward the entire world and they’re not in that shut-down, resistant frame of mind. So then, their minds are basically just, as many people have remarked, they’re not in this resistant, avoidant state.
So, they’re naturally just absorbing everything about the world and they’re kind of mapping the world and revising their maps and 90 percent of it just goes on without anybody being consciously aware of it and they develop a pretty clear understanding of things. It is interesting how every child does map the world differently and they do have different areas of awareness and things that they’re not aware of, which of course is true in a school where there is a required curriculum as well. Every kid learns something different and has things that they don’t learn.
So, how you want to choose to address the gaps in your knowledge is an open question for everybody. Having a mandated curriculum doesn’t completely solve that problem. But I think the larger question for us is, how can we begin to rebuild our communities in a way that gives kids more freedom and more access to the adult community? That’s a question that John Holt started asking all these years ago.
I feel like some moves have been made in that direction with mentorships and apprenticeships in the communities, but I feel like we have to re-imagine the world of adult work in a way that can allow access to teenagers into work places and adult community spaces so they can continue that process of observant, participatory learning in a broader range of environments.
PAM: Yeah. I think that gives them the opportunity for that open attention. When I first read that phrase in your article, I went to some of the links and searched that. And the description of that learning state really encompassed a lot of what we see in unschooling kids and how differently they approach their days.
I used to always marvel when I would take the kids to the science center or to the aquarium or whatever, how differently they would each go through it. Then you’d see the school groups go through and you’d see that tunnel vision as they worked their worksheets, where they had to go, how many minutes they had at each space. It was always so interesting to see how they put that map together. I loved that picture that you talked about, how they build their own maps. And they are very different for each person.
When we talk about gaps in what they learned, you’ve got this compulsory curriculum, but so often, everybody’s map is individual, because that’s the map that works best for them in their life. And then when there’s a gap in it that they decide they want to use, they know they can learn and figure that thing out at any time, at any age. That’s the nice thing about taking away the compulsory school years from the picture is that it’s a world and it’s learning, and I’m going to do those pieces when I encounter them. The idea of opening up the adult world to teens to start engaging in the things that they find interested in the gaps that they are interested in filling, that would be a really great next step.
Now I’d like to shift and talk about your documentary, Schooling the World. I really enjoyed watching it. It was really fascinating. Something you wrote in the introduction I wanted to share with the listeners. “The film Schooling the World asks us to re-examine some of our deepest assumptions about knowledge, learning, ignorance, poverty, success, and wealth. The purpose of the film is not to provide all the answers, but to ask a question, to open a conversation. Our hope is that you will be able to use the film with your friends, colleagues, students, or organization to begin conversations that will be deep, challenging, and inspiring.”
7. I really loved that your goal was to spark conversation, so I’m hoping we’ll do that with the podcast too. So first, let’s talk about the culture of schooling. What are some of the differences between the culture of schooling, which basically defines modern childhood nowadays, and the culture of childhood in a traditional society?
CAROL: Well, people have come up with different lists. Manish Jain at Shikshantar has his list of differences in the culture of schooling. The list that I come up with is, first of all, the physical separation of children from nature and from the community. It’s just this radical departure. Children have always grown up immersed in the natural world and immersed in the adult community. The idea of physically separating them from those things is new.
The next thing, age segregation. Segregating them by age is so completely unnatural. It really cuts off what I think is one of the most natural, fluid forms of learning, which is the tendency of children to learn from slightly older children. Children are always fascinated by kids that are two, three, four years older than they are. They want to emulate them. They just are going to naturally absorb whatever they can from those kids. That is such a powerful engine of learning that is just cut off by segregating kids by age and then putting them in a room with, what, one lady?
The next big thing that’s kind of invisible to us, and I do have another piece called, Occupy Your Brain: On Power, Knowledge, and Common Sense, which is largely about these structures of authority and coercion that are embedded in our ideas about learning. And in these traditional societies, kids have a lot of autonomy. There are other cultural societies where kids are required and expected to do more productive work for the family. In the hunter-gatherer societies, there’s more complete freedom, but the idea that people are going to just control your moment-by-moment actions and behavior is just not there in a lot of societies. They have a high degree of respect for the autonomy of the individual and the right of the individual not to be interfered with.
Leanne Simpson, who is a Nishnaabeg scholar, has a beautiful way of just saying that the Nishnaabeg view of learning is based in consent and the right of the individual to be free of violence and the use of force.
And so, the fact that we have wrapped learning up into these structures of dominance and non-consent and coercion and punishment is a cultural thing that really dates back to an idea of children as sinful beings whose wills need to be broken, because they’re naturally sinful. It’s a holdover from that cultural strain, which is not universal in the world. Not everybody looks at life that way.
Another big difference is the idea of individualism and competition and ranking. In a lot of indigenous societies, direct competition, any kind of boasting or bragging are really frowned upon. It’s really considered extremely bad manners to set one person above another in any way.
People who have studied this have discovered that in schools, if someone says, “You’re the star student,” indigenous students will often then intentionally lower their performance, because they don’t want to be held up that way over others. The funny thing was, as a kid who got good grades, that’s exactly how I felt. I just hated it. I hated that feeling, from early childhood, that I was being used to make other people feel bad. You would never voluntarily do that yourself, but that kind of boasting, bragging, setting one person above another is institutionalized in the system.
It’s really strange when you think about it. Because everybody knows that you shouldn’t compare two siblings and say, “Well, why can’t you be as smart as your sister?” Everybody knows you shouldn’t do that, but the schools do that. It causes really predictable family issues. It damages relationships between siblings in ways that are really life long.
The other idea is this whole idea of standardization, that we’re going to tie learning goals to standardized, chronological age and then call it failure or disability if people don’t meet those standardized, age-based goals. So, it’s the invention of failure, the construction of failure. Failure doesn’t need to exist just because one person learns something at a different point in time than another person. They’re going to learn it when they’re ready. Indigenous societies are much more flexible in that sense that they don’t have strict ideas about the timing of learning.
Then just the idea of learning as an abstracted, text-based thing as opposed to something that’s contextualized in everyday activities. And just the idea that the best way to learn is through explicit instruction with explicit evaluation.
There’s a very recent article that’s come out where this guy does a cross-cultural survey and finds that across many, many, many cultures, it’s something that adults understand that children will learn better if you don’t teach them explicitly. As an unschooler, I have usually been value-neutral on that. If somebody wants to learn something explicitly, that’s great. If they don’t want to do that, that’s great. However they want to do it is great.
But it’s interesting to know that in a lot of these cultures it is kind of taken as a given that people will learn better, and more deeply, and more solidly if they learn through experience and experiment and by figuring things out on their own instead of being instructed explicitly.
I could go on. There’s more. There’s the idea of knowledge as objective and secular and analytic, as opposed to a lot of cultures that have a very holistic view of knowledge where spiritual beliefs permeate your knowledge. Your botanical knowledge is connected to your spiritual beliefs. And your basic survival skills and how you live in the world are all connected in a very holistic way with community values and spiritual beliefs. And there isn’t this separation of objective knowledge and spirituality, including a sense that we live in a sort of reciprocal, ethical relationship with other species and the earth.
Again, the idea of objective knowledge is that I’m the subject, you’re the object. So, we render other species, plants, animals, and the earth itself into an object for our scrutiny. And indigenous societies don’t see things that way. Again, I don’t want to make excessively universal claims here, but in many indigenous societies, you will see it being framed this way in different places around the world, the idea that you have a reciprocal ethical relationship with the earth and with other species and that’s how you have to view them and understand them, which is just a very different way of understanding your place in the world.
PAM: It is really different and that is a really great list. I really loved that from the documentary. There were so many different pieces that came out.
One thing that really jumped out at me when I was watching was the discussion around failure. At first you’re thinking about learning, well, you learn it or you don’t learn it, and what kind of environment is most supportive of learning? But the idea that what you’re really saying by not learning something is that a lot of kids will take that on as a failure and as a judgment of themselves. It had me thinking and I came to realize how much I had internalized that myself.
You were talking about the explicit instruction and evaluation versus just picking it up and it really got me thinking how much better I did learn and understand things and remember things when I was picking them up myself. But, through school, I became so scared to do that, because I thought, somebody has to teach me this and teach me the right way, because everything else seemed like a failure. So, that was a really fascinating piece of it.
CAROL: It is interesting that even things like Khan Academy, which I have mixed feelings about because they’re using a very conventional, explicit model of teaching. And yet obviously, at a certain point, it’s difficult to find a circumstance where you’re going to just pick up advanced chemistry. So, you’ve got to come at it somehow. The good piece of what Khan Academy is trying to establish is that you haven’t failed, you just haven’t learned it yet.
Because it really is a crazy thing when you think about it, this idea that if you don’t take high school chemistry, you don’t learn chemistry when you are 17 years old, you will somehow be left behind! Chemistry is not going anywhere. Chemistry is still going to be there if you learn it when you’re 19 or when you’re 23. Depending on what you want to do with your life, there are so many fields, even rather technical ones, that if we could just reorder some of the ability to pick up knowledge as you need it in different sequences and without this idea that there is this one track that you have to go through and if you don’t get that chemistry piece when you are 17, it’s just irrevocable, it’s gone from you now. There are a lot of ways we can be more flexible about even these explicit instruction areas.
PAM: Yeah. I find with a lot of newer people who come to unschooling, that is such a huge piece to get rid of, because we’ve already absorbed this whole school system into our lives so much that, if you don’t know this particular set by the time you’re 18 and are stamped to graduate to be able to live competently in the world, even as parents, we feel like we’ll have failed if they haven’t hit all these buttons. So, that’s a really huge thing for people to work through, that timeline thing.
8. In conversations about traditional cultures, it’s regularly suggested that those who appreciate their ways are romanticizing them, downplaying problems that are within the culture, like infant mortality or infectious diseases. What the film brings out so clearly is that maybe we are romanticizing our own culture and our version of education when we export it overseas.
We’ve seen through experience that the school structure also brings with it a lot of consequences like lasting damage to our children’s creativity and as we were talking about branding so many children as failures. We also often fail to consider the depth and the breadth and the complexity of those knowledge systems that we are displacing. You were talking about how closely tied some of them are with the spiritual knowledge and the objective knowledge.
I loved the point that Wade Davis made at the end of the film. He said, “These peoples, these cultures, are not failed attempts at being us. They are unique answers to the fundamental question, ‘What does it mean to be human and alive?’ Their answers have allowed them to live sustainably on the planet for generations.”
So, how might we move beyond romanticizing either side of this cultural confrontation and have deeper conversations about how we connect and engage with other cultures around the world?
PAM: It’s a small question, right?
CAROL: It’s been kind of ironic for me, the way people will hit me with the infant mortality piece with this, “Ah ha! You’re forgetting about infant mortality!” I’m not forgetting about that, because I lost an infant and I know what that feels like very well. The really interesting thing, though, is that non-industrialized cultures, they have higher infant mortality, higher childhood infectious disease. There are certain pathologies of traditional societies.
And then there are the pathologies of modernity and industrialization, because we have higher rates of suicide and mental illness. You’re exchanging problems which are actually, in some ways, very direct and simple to solve, like childhood infectious disease. Although, that can change population rates, which can then become a complex problem to solve.
But we’re exchanging the pathologies of the traditional world for the pathologies of the modern world. Our life expectancy is longer largely because you average in childhood mortality. When you don’t have childhood mortality, then your life expectancy seems longer. But we have very high rates of obesity and diabetes and mental illness. When these countries are rapidly industrialized, domestic violence goes up, crime goes up, addictions of all kinds go up.
A lot of these pathologies are associated with schooling. School failure and suicide are very closely linked and just rampant in indigenous societies that have rapidly industrialized and where people have gone and built schools and brought this whole ranking and failure model into these previously relatively egalitarian social groupings. We are cherry-picking the good things about the modern world and not looking at the problems we have.
In the end, I think, to leave this behind, we have to face the very hard truth that this is a racist way of thinking about other people. It’s still a reflection of the kind of colonial, ethnocentric, racist way of looking at our fellow human beings. It’s like the idea of the “developed world” and the “undeveloped” or “developing” world is our modernized version of viewing people as either “civilized” or “savage.” It’s not fundamentally different.
People from these other cultures are people. They are adults. They are as intelligent as we are. They have good and bad traits, just like we do. They have areas of insight and they have blind spots, just like we do. They’re not “undeveloped.” They are human beings that have developed along very different lines. Just because other people haven’t focused on the technological development that we have focused on, does not justify our viewing them as children, as beings that exist at some kind of lower stage of development. They are our equals. That’s not romanticizing people. That’s viewing them with respect as your equals, as your fellow human beings.
If we look within our own culture and you see one person is an Olympic athlete and another person is an astrophysicist and another person is a brilliant musician, you don’t think of one of them as being more developed than another. They are human beings who have developed along different trajectories. They have developed different capacities that are to some degree latent in all of us. They’ve spent their time differently and they’ve focused their efforts differently and they’ve arrived at different places. I think that that’s how we have to look at other cultures.
There’s this really nice film about Red Crow College (Re-Learning the Land: A Story of Red Crow College), an indigenous college in Canada, that Udi Mandel and Kelly Teamey made. This man named Narcisse Blood, who teaches at that college, he says that you have to understand that indigenous knowledge is a complete knowledge paradigm that is as extensive and complex as the modern knowledge paradigm. It’s not just a little bit of folklore and a little bit of plant lore and cute stories and cute traditions that we can celebrate on the weekends. It’s a complete different knowledge paradigm. It’s a different way for human intelligence to operate in the world.
I think that we do need to look at it that way and then we’ll understand that, yes, of course, we have things to share with each other in both directions. We have things that we can offer. They have things that they can offer. We should just talk to each other as equals and see what we can learn from each other.
The other thing that people will often say is that, well, isn’t it inevitable that these societies have to join the developed world because there’s no going back? To that, I always answer that the one thing that is inevitable is that our society is not going to continue as it currently is operating. The trajectory that we are on is completely unsustainable and it is going to change, whether we like it or not. That’s where Wade Davis’ idea of the ethnosphere, of ethnodiversity as being valuable in the same sense as biodiversity, is so important, because we are going to have to learn to live a satisfying life in a way that is less destructive to the planet that we live on.
And these other cultures have a lot of knowledge about how to build a complex social system where everyone is cared for and that supports human psychological health by embedding people in a network of social relationships where they feel like they’re not going to slip between the cracks and they’re not having to face things on their own. They have very rich traditions of ceremony and of living with nature that enable them to live a satisfying life without the levels of material consumption and environmental destruction that we base our idea of the good life on. We’re going to need these other models to learn from, because we have to change. It’s not they that have to change. We have to change.
PAM: That came out so clearly, all these ideas came out so wonderfully in the film. I really enjoyed it. It really hit home, the ethnodiversity, the fact that we are all equals. There isn’t better than/less than kind of judgement. As Wade said, none of these cultures are failed attempts at being human. We are all living in our cultural knowledge base, like you had mentioned before. I think the film did such a great job at raising the questions and the conversations. As you said, we don’t know what the answers are, but there is certainly lots that we can be talking about.
9. I was hoping that you could share a bit about what the filming experience is like. Your daughters came along at the time, right?
CAROL: Yeah, we went with a very tiny crew. We had two crew members and my husband and me and our kids and one other friend who went along with us. They participated in a variety of ways and they were able to get photography tips from the camera guys and they would hold the boom and things like that.
One funny thing that happened was that Isabel, who was 16 at the time, actually conducted one of the key interviews in the film. Because we were all taking a break, Isabel and the two camera guys went up to this school that was near the place where we were staying to kick a soccer ball around on the field. And they discovered there was this ceremony going on that was honoring this woman who had raised money for the school. So, she was the German woman who is interviewed in the film.
They were just there on the spot. They didn’t have time to come back and get Neil and me. So, the camera guy just went up and introduced himself and said, “Oh, can we interview you about your involvement with this school?” And she said, “Sure.” And then the camera guy said, “Isabel! What would your mom ask if she was here?” So, he basically said, “You do it! You do the interview!”
So, Isabel, who knew exactly what I would ask because she knows everything that I think, that’s one of the burdens of being an unschooled child, you know all of your parents’ thoughts and feelings. So, she actually did the interview. She did a great job!
The girls also formed a relationship with a little girl who is interviewed in the film because she was just kind of hanging around one of the places where we were staying. They got to know each other and she was very eager to participate in the film. So, they made that connection as well.
It’s just that usual thing. A lot of people think in terms of kids being in the way or being some kind of burden on the process of adult work. But, it’s just not the case, I think a lot of homeschooled and unschooled kids are very naturally considerate and respectful and they either make themselves useful or they go off and do something else. It’s just not a problem or in any way a burden to have them around. It’s just a lot of fun so they get to learn some things and it all works well.
PAM: I thought it sounded like it would have been a great time. And I love your point that either they participate or they find something else that’s interesting to do. It really is so nice living with them, isn’t it? And she did do a great interview with that German woman! That’s hilarious! She got some good answers there.
10. Looking back now, what, for you, has been the most valuable outcome from choosing unschooling.
CAROL: People say this, but it’s like they always say people on their death bed don’t say they wish they had spent more time at the office, they say they wish they had spent more time with their kids.
I really feel just the time that you have with each other as a family and the time you have to be out in nature and to read books together and think and talk together, it’s just the most precious part of life. To me, that’s the most important thing.
There was a guy who made a good point about how we raise or educate our kids. He was a proponent of the idea that kids pretty much turn out to be who they are and we don’t really have that much control over them actually. He told that to one woman and she just felt despairing, because she was like, if it doesn’t make any difference, then why does it matter how I treat my kids? And his answer was, well of course it matters how you treat your kids. You don’t get to pick how your husband turns out but of course it matters how you treat him.
It’s not about molding your child or doing something that is going to make your child into necessarily a different kind of person, but it’s just about treating each other with respect and living together in a way that feels mutually respectful. It’s a work in progress for most of us, obviously.
Unschooling isn’t a panacea and it doesn’t solve every problem in life. The way I kind of look at it is I think our society is way off course in a lot of ways. Of course we’re completely unsustainable. I think the way we’re living right now is too socially isolating and fragmented and our communities have really kind of broken down and disintegrated. The levels of mental illness and depression and anxiety are really epidemic. Unschooling doesn’t solve all these problems. I see it as a transitional stage in gradually developing or rebuilding better ways to live on the earth. It’s a step in the right direction.
There’s this Lakota man who does a traditional horsemanship program with at-risk youth. What he was saying, for the Lakota people who are maybe less far off course than we are, he said it’s taken us seven generations to get this far off course and we have to expect it may take seven generations to get back. So, I look at it that way and explain it that way to my kids and hope that they will understand whatever failures or things that didn’t work well in their childhood as this transitional process.
My parents were born into a world that was racist, sexist, authoritarian, colonial, with a lot of very negative values. And we’ve tried to change a lot of those values in our lifetime. But it’s a work in progress. My parents tried to raise my brother and me in ways that were more respectful and less violent than the ways they were raised. My husband and I have tried to move that process along by questioning the institutional setting for learning and trying to give our kids the respect to learn what they want to learn when they want to learn it. That’s just the next step. And then, this next generation will be able to see ahead. We can’t see what lies ahead, but they’ll see what the next step is and then they’ll take that.
I think there’s a good chance what we need to do is rebuild our communities to be both more sustainable and more healthy and hospitable for children and families, and rebuild ways of living together as communities that are really more workable for both people and other species and the planet. I look forward to seeing what the next generation is going to come up with!
PAM: That’s a great point! We didn’t get here overnight. It’s going to take the same kind of time to find a different way of being.
That’s interesting that your most valuable outcome is the time that you get to spend with your children. As you mentioned, even with unschooling, it’s not about molding them to some kind of unschooling ideal. It’s really being able to spend that time with our children and letting them be, discover themselves, and helping them gain that level of self-awareness that is so different.
That’s awesome. I want to thank you so much for taking the time to speak with me, Carol! It’s been a fascinating conversation!
CAROL: Well, thank you. It’s been fun.
PAM: It’s awesome! Before we go, where’s the best place for people to connect with you online?
CAROL: I have a website at carolblack.org and I’m on Twitter and on Facebook. I’m ONE of the Carol Blacks on Facebook. I’m in all those places and there’s also the Schooling the World website at schoolingtheworld.org which has a lot of information about the film.
Right now, we do have the film up to watch for free on my website at carolblack.org/schoolingtheworld.
PAM: Oh! That’s awesome! I will be sure to share that link as well. Thanks very much, Carol. Have a great day!
CAROL: Okay. You, too! Thank you!