Friday, 19 August 2011

A Little Way

I have written previously about a radical form of homeschooling called "unschooling". Perhaps the best introduction to unschooling for Catholics is a book edited by Suzie Andres, which I had previously seen in draft. Now published under the title A Little Way of Homeschooling, it is based on the experiences of a group of home-schooling families who saw in John Holt the articulation not just of a theory but of a spirituality of education, akin to the “Little Way” of St Thérèse of Lisieux – a way of trust and simplicity. Being based on the actual experiences of families over many years, the book builds a certain confidence that unschooling is not merely an ideology, and need not be considered an impractical, idealistic dream. (I should mention also the delightful black and white line drawings.)

These parents know exactly what they are doing. Here is Karen Edmisten: "Most of us would probably agree that in many areas of our society specialization can and does lead to fragmentation. Parsing education into subjects, which are then studied in a vacuum apart from other subjects, can also lead to a fragmented understanding of both the subjects and the world around us." Contrast the method or "unmethod" described in action here, in which history is full of literature, literature marches through history, history is interlaced with science, and everything points to Faith, because everything is connected with the Reason of everything.

There is in fact a deep compatibility between the radical homeschool or unschooling approach to education and other manifestations of the Catholic understanding of human nature. Natural Family Planning, like unschooling, is regarded by many as an impractical ideal or an ideology, but when practised in the right spirit it reveals itself as something else entirely. The point about NFP is that it requires mutual respect and attentiveness to the whole person of the spouse. It should not be treated as just another instrument for achieving the aim of reducing fertility. For a couple to master NFP is to for them to grow in mutual love and knowledge. Similarly, unschooling is based on respect for the child and love between generations.

And yet the accounts in the book underline one important fact. It seems that, to be realistic, one must acknowledge that the success or failure of the unschooling as well as the homeschooling approach depends in large part not just on the individual child and his motivation, but on the family as a whole, especially the parents. The flourishing of any individual requires the right kind of attention from others. Precisely because unschooling is a spirituality, it will only succeed (on almost any measure of success) if the family is of a certain type or has a certain maturity. As Cindy Kelly says in her chapter, “The most powerful way to encourage my sons to enjoy a new area of learning is to model it myself and continue our dialogue about their interests and mine.” Not every parent is capable of that; not all have the leisure, confidence, or motivation to do so. But for those who do, I can imagine - after reading this book - that it might work beautifully well.


  1. Stratford,

    Thank you for this thoughtful post.

    Your comparison of unschooling to NFP is fascinating and illuminating. In both cases the modern cultural outlook is extremely different from what we are proposing. The practices of artifical contraception and compulsory schooling are so nearly universal today that most people have a very hard time imagining how any life - let alone theirs - could include NFP or unschooling...Yet for those who have seriously considered and then dared to try these counter-cultural practices, there is no going back.

    You also wrote:
    "The flourishing of any individual requires the right kind of attention from others."
    So true!
    This statement reminds me of John Holt's approach. He had a rare gift for understanding the need of each person for gentle, sympathetic understanding and encouragement.

    I pray that A Little Way of Homeschooling offers such understanding and encouragement to all parents, so that they in turn can offer it to their children regardless of what educational approach finally proves best for their family.

    Lots to think about here!

  2. Thanks so much for the wonderful post. Along life's way, the Holy Spirit manages to give me encouragement just when I need it most and this time He has done so through you.

    As one of the contributors, I love the NFP analogy, esp. since I've often referred to where we are today as the NFP domino effect :-)

  3. Wow very true! Attentive really describes the parent's role in Unschooling.

  4. I'd take "attentive" a step or two more towards "attunement." Everything flows best in my home when the children and parents are attuned to one another.

  5. Wonderful post! I love the comparison of NFP to unschooling.

  6. A very key portion of this essay. .

    "The flourishing of any individual requires the right kind of attention from others. Precisely because unschooling is a spirituality, it will only succeed (on almost any measure of success) if the family is of a certain type or has a certain maturity."

    The Catholic unschoolers I know personally do not seem to acknowledge this. . the children tend to be naval-gazers who do not form easy friendships and the mothers tend to be over-controlling dreamers who do not see their children as others do. .

    A society cannot be transformed by those who will not participate in it. .

  7. I agree that is the danger (there are other dangers associated with schooling)! I would hate to think this is nearly always the case. I have experience of many homeschooling families that are not like that. In our case, we did not homeschool.

  8. Thank you for your understanding of my concerns about Catholic unschooling as I have seen it practiced. . I should have prefaced my post with a little background of my own. .I am a Catholic wife and mom, homeschooler for the past 13 years using a variety of set curriculums with a bit of my own inspiration tossed in. .my 4 children have played sports, participated in scout groups and been active at our parish. I have a grown son who is a college grad, married and awaiting the birth of their first child, a son currently in college, a daughter in Catholic high school and a child still being educated at home. I am currently teaching at a local Catholic parish based homeschooling co-op, and have been involved there in some way for the past 7 years. I have known and do know quite a few unschooling families who have also participated in this co-op and that has formed my admittedly dim opinion of this movement. I would urge others who may be at first attracted to this lifestyle of "unschooling" to see it in practice and judge it by its fruits before embarking. .

    My high school aged daughter is very interested in making the education of children her life's work and I have recommended that she read your blog and that of David Clayton, as I find both quite edifying. .