My Thoughts on the William Deresiewicz Interview in The Atlantic

William Deresiewicz, a former Yale English professor who has written about a lack of critical independent thinking among students in higher education, has a new interview in The Atlantic:

The Ivy League, Mental Illness, and the Meaning of Life

I think Deresiewicz expresses some very important ideas in this interview. I believe that a large part of education, collegiate or otherwise, should be dedicated to the type of self-reflection he talks about. Asking questions about the meaning of life, the nature of the mind, of the self, of society, and searching for answers to those questions in literature, art, music, religion, the whole of the humanities–this is genuine education. No doubt economic concerns and hard skills ought to be part of an education, but they should not overshadow the self-reflection that the humanities provide.

Learning hard skills helps us do certain important things in the world, but an education in the humanities helps us build for ourselves a framework through which to understand ourselves, society, and the larger world. Both aspects of education are important in fostering a well-rounded person, but constant external reinforcement of educational goals by parents and schools seems to cut young people off from an earnest approach to the humanities (instead the humanities are approached for some other end, like improving college admission chances). By the time students get to college, there is little intrinsic drive toward the humanities or the big questions it poses and attempts to answer. There is also a lack of independent, critical thinking about what one wants and why. There is only the vague promise of happiness and perfection to be granted by wealth and status. Those things they did from a young age in order to get into college are now replaced by some other extrinsic driver.

Granted, this scenario is a generalization. It does not affect every young person entering elite universities. But the culture of “excellent sheep” is nonetheless a problem, primarily because it prevents many young people from blossoming as independent thinkers. Instead of dictating for young people what they ought to want, we need to help them reach a state of self-determination in terms of who they want to be and what they want for themselves and for the world.

Coffee with Wini Haun & Introduction to Unschooling

Wini Haun is the founder of the Northside Unschoolers Group of Chicago. She and her husband homeschooled (or rather, ‘unschooled’) their three children. We sat down for coffee at Buzz Cafe in Oak Park, IL.

Firstly, it’s important to know what “unschooling” is. Unschooling is a form of homeschooling, but unlike many forms of homeschooling in which parents teach a set curriculum to their children, unschooling parents primarily focus on their child’s own interests. The basic premise of unschooling is that children learn and grow best by exploring the world on their own terms. There is no official way to unschool. Parents simply take what their child is interested in and explore it with the child or set up the child to explore it on his or her own.

According to Wini, parents can often do what schools cannot, because parents “naturally address the first needs of the child.” A child requires those first needs–like feelings of psychological and emotional safety–to be met before she or he sets out to explore and learn. Traditional school settings cannot always address these ‘first needs’. They might not have the resources or the time to do so. If you’re a teacher who needs to get through a lesson with multiple children, you may not have the patience or level of relationship to help each individual child become comfortable and ready for self-driven learning.

Additionally, unschooled children get the benefit of learning directly from real-world experience. Instead of listening to a teacher describe the world and the ways in which it works, unschooled children explore the world for themselves. When they learn by exploring the world, and when their own intrinsic motivation drives them to want to know more about certain things, they inevitably pick up basic math, reading, writing, scientific facts, etc, out of necessity, interest, or a mix of the two.

I admit it sounds a little too good to be true, but that may be because I’m so used to traditional schooling that I have a hard time imagining an education without school buildings, classrooms, or (traditional) teachers.

Coincidentally, we had both come to the cafe from yoga. Wini encountered yoga for the first time in seventh grade. Two young, brilliant teachers had been hired at her school, and all of the kids grew to love them. Then, unexpectedly, the two teachers were fired for budgetary reasons. Seeing their kids get terribly upset at having lost two great teachers, many parents decided to protest by boycotting the school. They set up a “parent’s school” in a local community space in which one parent at a time led classes on a wide range of skills and topics. One parent taught a yoga class, and Wini really enjoyed it. She’s been doing yoga ever since. The “parent’s school” lasted for a week or two before the children returned to ‘real’ school. Nonetheless, it seems that that early experience helped lay the groundwork for Wini to realize that school is not necessarily the only or even the best place to learn.

Before we left, Wini recommended I read How Children Learn by John Holt. She also mentioned John Taylor Gatto and Grace Llewellyn as educators whose work has had a major influence on the unschooling movement.

In addition to founding the Northside Unschoolers Group, Wini is also the choreographer and artistic director of a dance company. You can find her website here: http://www.winifredhaun.org/

You can read more about unschooling here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Unschooling

Wini Haun

Wini Haun

Three Goals

As I set out on my journey into alternative education in the US, I’ve identified three important goals to focus on:

  • The overarching goal for this project is to gain a better understanding of alternative educational practices being used today. I want to know what people are doing to educate against the grain, how (and whether) their approaches work, and the aims behind those approaches.
  • The second goal is to understand how educators, parents, and communities foster students’ intrinsic motivation to learn. I believe that intrinsic motivation is the key to a meaningful education, and that it is sorely lacking in many traditional school settings. It’s easy to observe intrinsic motivation in a young child at play. How can intrinsic motivation be continued into the later years?
  • The third goal is to find out peoples’ notions of the “ultimate purpose” of education, and to see how those notions affect students, parents, teachers, and schools. Is it even necessary to have a clear notion of an “ultimate purpose” in order to be effective?

Thank you for joining me at the beginning of what I hope will be an exciting and fruitful project.

Yours Truly,

Michael Goldberg