Is Unschooling a First World privilege?

In an unschooling forum I frequent, someone asked whether unschooling was a privilege for the wealthy and those who live in 1st world countries. This was actually something I had given some thought to a while back and I wanted to share my thoughts on the subject.

One day I saw an ad that emphasized the importance of children in poor countries being able to attend school and become literate. It occurred to me in that moment to pose the following question to myself: If school is so vital to these third world children, why am I so totally opposed to my own children being in school? Why is it good for those kids and detrimental to my own? Is unschooling elitist?

First, I think it’s important to define what is meant by unschooling. There are lengthy discussions devoted to this subject on the Internet, but for myself I would rather call it Natural Learning because I believe it is a normal, natural function of young mammals to learn. In other words, I believe that human children are programmed to acquire the knowledge and the skills required to become a functioning, contributing adult in their unique society. For example, a child growing up in a rainforest hunter-gatherer tribe will naturally learn to hunt, craft bows and arrowheads, weave baskets, learn the herbal lore, etc. Here in the Western world (aka: 1st world) the skills our children need are more complex. First and foremost they require literacy, and access to technology helps a great deal. They need a basic understanding of economics and math (think shopping: price comparisons, discounts, taxes, balancing a checkbook, interest rates, etc). Being a technological society it is helpful to have at least a basic understanding of science and the scientific method. Art is an important part of our culture, and history helps us to put it all in context. Not all children will be drawn to all these subjects to the same degree, just as tribal children may take on different roles depending on their natural skills, class system, or gender for example.

The problem with unschooling in the Third World, as I see it, is that these are often countries that are trying to be Westernized, but aren’t there yet. Their traditional means of “making a living” (be that farming, hunting, etc) can no longer provide families with the food, shelter, clothing, and other basic needs. Or it may be that, as a culture, they believe that if their children can partake in Western society (the Global economy, if you will) they will be better off. I’m not going to pass judgement on this: I am nowhere near educated enough on the issues facing the Third World to be so arrogant. But the net result is a situation where children need to acquire skills that the adults in their community do not have. How can a child learn to read in a home with no books, and parents who cannot read to them? How can they learn about technology with no access to a computer? Unschooling, or natural learning, cannot work in this situation.

In other words, it’s not that unschooling is something only people in wealthy countries can do. It’s that Natural Learning cannot take place when the skills children must acquire, and the resources to acquire them, are not available to the children within their home or among the general adult population. There is a disconnect between what the adults in the society are able to do and model and pass down as information, and what the children must know to be functioning adults in a society that is DIFFERENT from the one in which they are being raised.

My kids are being raised in a household with plenty of access to books and parents who can read to them, and both learned to read all on their own. A child in Africa will never learn to read on her own without access to those things; school is her best option. That, to me, is why institutionalized schooling is so important to children in third world countries, whereas here in Canada I am doing everything I can to keep my children out of institutionalized schooling.

Categories: natural learning | 6 Comments

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6 thoughts on “Is Unschooling a First World privilege?

  1. There are probably a million things I should and could say about this post.
    First of all thanks for writing it, I myself have been thinking about writing a similar post. Though it might take a while.
    The problem with unschooling ‘developing’ nations is indeed – as you suggest – a dissonance of the ‘global’ economy with an unglobal world. Moreover the pretended global economy is just a cover up for the West sucking dry the ‘third world’.
    For some (Africans, because that it where I live and I cannot account for other parts of the world) unschooling might still be the way to go, and the current schooling system only holds those people back. For an African going to school until the age of 18 is a seriously long time…
    Anyway, have to think aboout this some more, but I will write the post – one day

  2. Excellent article. People are often confused when I say I do support public education despite the fact that I feel it isn’t for my family.

    Found you through Authentic Parenting.

  3. Very well said. I followed this discussion and felt a strong pull toward these thoughts but was having difficulty formulating the words to express what I was feeling. Thanks for saying what I couldn’t!

    Followed you here from your post on my blog, via MDC.

  4. driftwoods

    Thanks for writing this. It’s the very topic that’s been plaguing my mind lately.

  5. Pingback: Aravinda’s Blog » Blog Archive » Is natural learning only for the rich?

  6. I found your post while googling “unschooling in the third world” because I live in Lebanon (Middle East) and I am wholeheartedly for unschooling but don’t know how it would work in terms of going to university should they decide to, and if they decide not to, how would they go about making a living? Lebanon is not “third world” in terms of poverty, illiteracy and technology. I am from the lower middle class (I don’t own anything but I get by on a living). I have no trouble whatsoever providing the right environment for my children to learn naturally, but if they don’t go to school (which is illegal and there’s no exemption) they won’t be able to go to university because there aren’t any progressive universities that I can afford. And they won’t have a career because Lebanon is extremely traditional when it comes to the job market; you need to have a degree to even consider applying for a full-time job. I myself did not go to university. I graduated highschool and started working as a translator soon after and have been doing so for the past 10 years. But what if my children decide they do want to pursue a profession that required university education? What if they feel like it’s impossible to pursue it because they are “outcast” in this job market? What if none of this changes in the next 10-15 years?

    I just wanted to chip in with the questions that are standing in the way of my dedication to my children’s unschooling. If I had enough money to put aside a trust fund for my kids to pursue what they want through capital or through bribery I wouldn’t think twice about unschooling. Actually I my 8-year-old didn’t go to school until he was 7, he’s now still in grade 1 and even though others think that’s a shame I am happy that he got to learn a lot on him own terms and in his own pace, he didn’t read until he was almost 7 but now he doesn’t just memorize the text he’s supposed to read like other students do, he actually reads it. And he’s had all that time to practice his hobbies (he’s very artistic) he even encourages all his classmates now to make art and share together. I still would choose to unschool my children because of the troublesome aspects of school here, specifically in terms of “discipline” and also because they enforce religious teachings which I believe should not be enforced but explored naturally.

    I realize I, too, am privileged compared to people living in extremely poor countries where illiteracy is prevalent and education is an ambition, but I suppose we all have our struggles.

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