First, some personal history. I did well in a very limited public school system (south Texas, 1951-1963)--underfunded, overcrowded (40 in many elementary school classes), old textbooks, and some seriously bad teachers (a few really good ones, a lot of mediocre ones, some VERY bad--abusive, dishonest, incompetent.) The school did not prepare me well for a major university, but given the resources, it wasn't all bad. Still, from third grade on, I was always at odds with it--the expectations for girls in that era were such that I had to fight for the classes I wanted, and was always pressured to scale down my ambitions. I often wished I could stay home with the textbooks--I was reading well by first grade (and tested at 12th grade level in reading by about fifth grade) and very self-motivated. I wanted to avoid the hassles of the classroom and just learn. By high school I hated school, but knew that doing well was my only way "out"--so I made the honor roll and graduated 12th in a class of over 300, taking the hardest courses I could find.
So in college, when I discovered Maria Montessori's books, I started thinking how I would teach my own children--I really liked a lot about the Montessori approach, and recognized that my mother had used something similar before I started public school. I also read (then and within the next ten years) John Holt's books on education, which influenced my ideas. While taking my second degree, I found Karen Pryor's book Lads Before the Wind, in which she described using positive reinforcement training with dolphins, whales, ponies, and children. I tried the techniques with a horse (very difficult to bridle) and in 45 minutes trained him to lower his head and open his mouth for the bit. Aha--I had a new set of tools! The utility of the techniques for child-rearing was obvious. We could not have biological children, as it turned out, and adoption was a much slower process than we'd hoped, but at age 38 we adopted a baby who turned out to be autistic.
The homeschooling movement, as an evasion of public school for the purpose of religious indoctrination and racial separation, was really ramping up then, in the mid-late '80s. Though homeschooling had long been around, in small numbers and with different reasons, the movement to homeschool to prevent children being "contaminated" by people or ideas the parents did not want them to learn took off along with the religious right's increasing political power, and there was a push to legalize homeschooling in all states where it was not legal. As it became clear that our son was severely disabled--and that the local rural school system lacked the resources to give him the services he needed (law or no law--there was no money) I was working with him at home--and a private preschool also helped enormously for three years. I found that using Pryor's behavior management techniques (as written even more clearly in Don't Shoot the Dog) and Montessori methods (from the original books, making my own teaching materials because the official Montessori ones were hellish expensive), we made progress. When he was of age to attend public school, the local elementary had a special ed classroom that was basically a warehouse--spec ed kids had no access to the computer room, for instance, and he was already using my computer to write) and the first grade mainstream teacher was only concerned with whether he would sit still and be quiet. (With his severe language delays, he needed encouragement to talk, not enforced silence.)
So I began homeschooling him, with the blessing and relief of the local schools. I had copies of the elementary school's curriculum and schedule...which didn't work for us, exactly, but gave me a baseline to work from. He shot ahead in math and geography, shot ahead briefly in reading (he was already reading single words) and vocabulary) but then began lagging in comprehension--all typical of autistic kids. I homeschooled him for 12 years, then he transferred to the high school for four years, in spec ed. By then, he had enough emotional stability, communications skills, and social skills to handle the high school environment in special classes without being a problem to others or suffering too much stress. He loved it, in fact. In the meantime, while homeschooling, we were able to travel off-season (less stressful), work on life skills, teach flexibility, etc.
My goals were not all academic: I wanted him to have the basic life skills to live on his own someday, so he was exposed to cooking, dishwashing (by hand--we have no dishwasher), clothing care, choosing clothes appropriate to an occasion, traveling by bus, train, subway, and airplane, etc, etc. Many lessons were experiential, because he learned best that way--he learned to use hammer, screwdriver (both hand and powered of the latter), saw, pliers while helping his dad build things or repair things. He learned to paint by helping paint the hall. But some were more formal lessons, especially early on. It was, in fact, a mix of methods--whatever worked to help him learn a particular set of skills or body of knowledge that I felt was important. Some certainly qualified as "unschooling" by John Holt's definition; some was definitely based on Montessori; some was based on what I had learned later, reading about cognitive processes and--in cultural anthropology books--about the teaching/learning methods in other cultures around the world.
I supported (had supported since my own miserable school experiences) homeschooling...but I was appalled, in talking to some other homeschooling parents, at their desire to prevent their children learning anything that conflicts with the parents' religious or political views. (The Texas Textbook Massacre is a direct descendant of this attitude.) Education should open doors, not slam them shut. I consider any parental activity that denies children access to more knowledge to be a form of neglect. Children will live in the world someday--they will not stay in the kiddy-pool forever, but will be flung, perforce, into the great ocean. So they need to get those water wings off and learn to swim. They need to know real history--not the invented history that hides unpleasant facts about our past. They need to learn real science--not some invented makebelieve that suits their parents' narrow theology.
And they need some structure, some organization, to what they're taught, by whatever method is being used. Which is what made the "unschooling" family on the TV program so shocking. Holt's idea was not the kind of chaotic mess that that family demonstrated--no schedule, no plan, no awareness by the parents that some skills are actually necessary and should be conveyed (by whatever means works for that child.) Just turning kids loose to do whatever they want is not "unschooling"--it is anti-schooling. It is a refusal to take paental responsibility for how those children will fare as adults. "I want to do whatever I want when I want" is not a viable rule of life. The irresponsibility of both children and adults in that family was...astounding. The mother is an advocate for her version of unschooling (which includes never telling a child he/she can't do something, as well as not giving them any direction, any responsibility--they can do whatever they want whenever they want.) There seems to be no sense of responsibility to society--no understanding of a social contract in a community setting. It's hard enough to bring up children to have a sense of responsibility beyond themselves when you're working at it...these children won't have it--are already demonstrating that they don't have it. Which means that if they ever leave home, they will be completely unable to integrate into society in any form.
I am not in favor of treating children like cookie dough, all to be cut with the same shape. I know kids are different--I was very different--and I think we as a society benefit from recognizing, and developing, individual talents and skills. I think more attention to individual skills and talents--and a broader base of education, with more methods available to suit more children--would be excellent. I think kids who can learn on their own should be allowed to do so, and those who need more support should be given it. But I'm also not in favor of treating children like a row of carrot seeds--just letting them grow, with no guidance, no instruction, no chance to learn the bodies of knowledge, skills, and character traits that will enable them to make real contributions to society and achieve more satisfaction for themselves.
The children in that family did not appear to be happy in their chaos. The eldest, slumped in a chair on the porch answering an interviewer's questions, stayed up watching TV or playing video games until midnight or later most nights, and slept until 10 or so in the morning...he looked no happier than the average boy his age being asked questions by a stranger. In fact, he looked less happy...he liked not going to school because he could do whatever he wanted, he said, but it didn't appear to be giving him any satisfaction; his face and posture expressed a kind of aimless boredom. The younger school-age children appeared unable to settle to any activity, and spent a lot of time running around screeching. I realize that a short television segment cannot present a true picture of anyone's life, and perhaps the presenter chose particularly chaotic bits to show, but the body language of the children was that of individuals with no real relation to other family members.
And I cannot see happiness ahead for them, if they ever live anywhere else (and maybe not then. Will the older brother who wants only to do what he wants when he wants it refrain from making use of his younger sisters when hormones get to work? Incest is common enough even in families with boundaries, I saw one younger child hitting at another while the mother, talking away, ignored them--how much violence will there be as they get older and stronger?) Happy people, in general, are those with a constructive purpose, with healthy interpersonal relationships based on respect and reciprocity. Nobody was showing that.
I call this neglect at the level of abuse. Children deserve a chance to learn more than what they find out when left alone, uncontrolled, untaught. I found abuse within the school system, but that's no reason to tolerate abuse out of the school system. Good education is not abusive. Good education opens the doors and windows, shares knowledge and skills, aims at freeing children from their own limitations to the extent possible. Ideal education (which no one has yet quite figured out) would allow every child with a serious talent to take that talent to the limit...whatever the talent. Every child would have the chance to learn--using the best techniques for that child--to the limit of his/her ability. That's a dream, at this point. But avoiding abuse is possible--abuse by teachers both verbal and physical, abuse by parents who limit what they allow a child to learn for religious or political reasons, and abuse by parents who ignore their parental responsibilities and call that "unschooling."