Thoughts on Unschooling and Religion

A guest post by John Young.

A recent scholarly report entitled, Homeschooling: The Ultimate School Choice, offers some surprising information about the motivation behind the decision to homeschool. In early contemporary homeschooling, religious-minded parents were a driving force behind the success of the movement, bringing their children out of school systems to avoid contact with either a curriculum or setting which did not accord with their beliefs. As a primary factor, however, religion has shrunk in years since— from 36 percent in 2007, to 17 percent in 2012. In comparison, the “environment in schools” has become the primary motivation behind the decision. Parents acting as “ideologues”—as authors Heuer and Donovan term them—are shifting toward those who are acting as “pedagogues.” A general concern for student well-being and an avoidance of the one-size-fits all classroom seem to be leading the way.

Readers might meet this raw data about religion with the rhetorical question: “Well, is this a good or bad thing?” I believe that if we consider what it truly means to “unschool,” then the data is in fact encouraging. When Patrick Farenga was pressed for a definition of unschooling, he responded: “Allowing children as much freedom to explore the world as you can comfortably bear as their parent.” Interestingly enough, he cited this in an essay he wrote about unschooling and religion called “Can a Christian Be an Unschooler?” (—the answer being “yes,” by the way). That said, it is quite clear that this definition—as well as the focus of the “pedagogy” parents—does not equate to religious conversion or catechism. Rather, the nature of unschooling opens up the world for the child to explore for herself, and if a religion were ultimately to be chosen, it is done through free exploration as opposed to ramrod indoctrination.

John Holt wrote comparatively little on religion per se, and only in a letter stated that he was an atheist and did not believe in an afterlife. However, I think his occasional comments on the matter enrich our understanding of unschooling, especially as the topic of religion comes into play.

One of Holt’s pillars was that while life consists of risks—namely, the risk of failure—most of what is meaningfully learned is learned through a mixture of success and failure. In How Children Fail, he laments how schools condition students to think that hearing a “no” means that they have done “wrong” and therefore learned nothing. In fact, most notable scientific discoveries come after a string of failed attempts. The cure for syphilis is called 606 because 605 failures preceded it. Almost every beginner student of the flute has tootled for hours on the mouthpiece just to make a solid note. A poet may discard a certain word and scour the dictionary for a replacement.

Holt further believed that if an action is taken which turns out to be unfavorable, then it is best for the young to experience a natural consequence, as opposed to an arbitrary, draconian sentence. The scientist who fails in an experiment hundreds of times is not jailed in a free society. The musical student who fails to produce a clear note can either give up with no other consequence than a loss of time and money or continue to spend effort and time. Poets are judged by their best gems, not their flaws. Holt gives an example of how if a child stays out too late, the natural consequence is to eat his meal cold or have to heat it up again himself; it is not fitting for the child to be forced to go hungry. In all these examples of experimentation there is no terror—no horror—no hell.

How is religion any different? . . . Or is it?

Too much of life and too much of existence, Holt believed, awaits us ready for empirical observation and exploration, given suitable risks, for him to have considered it a moral thing to inculcate a religion “just because.” Self-directed exploration, with educated risk-taking, was to him quite a beautiful thing. Worse still is the ultimatum: “If you don’t accept this Truth on face value, you are forever condemned.”

Holt specifically noted this in Freedom and Beyond, writing about options: “Many years ago I rode in a car with two eleven year olds. They were in the front seat with me, talking—not including me in their conversation, but not excluding me either. At one point one asked the other, ‘Do you believe in God?’ After thinking a bit, she said, ‘Yes, I suppose so,’ and then, after a pause, ‘After all, what choice do we have?’ . . . There is no use in our offering a choice to someone unless we can make him feel that it is a real choice, that he has an equal right to choose either way, that he can do so without having to worry about disappointing us or losing our friendship.”

Clearly, Holt had no sympathy for the idea of a singular conditional salvation—that of accepting a certain creed or prophet—whereby upon accepting Him/Her/It (or “getting it right”), a follower is bestowed with unending paradise, and those who “get it wrong” are beset with everlasting physical and emotional pain. In Instead of Education he wrote, “There can never be reality of encounter, truthfulness, honesty,” wrote Holt, “when one person holds power over another.” Even when religions ostensibly offer young practitioners a choice as to whether to join or not, if a parent or someone acting in loco parentis holds implicit power over the child's soul, then there is no reality of encounter.

Empirical evidence—all that we see in the natural world—does not confirm this absolutist belief; few of our human errors, if any, are 100% mind-bogglingly terrible, and none of our beliefs or actions makes us 100% worthy or unworthy individuals. Even for the worst human mistakes that we can see, we also see an end to them and generally an opportunity for redemption. More often than not, we usually have a second chance (and third, fourth, fifth, etc.) to get things right. Citing Patrick Farenga again from the above-mentioned essay: “John did advise people in his talks and writing to try as much as possible, to think and expect the best of children and to give them second chances, indeed as many chances as you can; is this not scriptural?”

In What Do I Do Monday? Holt writes: “Such people slip easily into one of the popular religions of our time, various ways of worshiping power and violence and suffering. Some of these may even go under the name of Christianity. Just as a man may feel his love of God as an expression of his feeling that the world is full of people and places and experiences to be loved and trusted, he may equally well turn to a love of God out of a feeling that nothing else can be loved or trusted. ‘God is good’ can mean that many things are good, or on the other hand that nothing else is any good. A man may cling desperately to the belief that Jesus loves him because he is certain that nobody else does. Thus Christianity can all too easily, as I fear it has for many people in our country, turn into a religion of hate and despair.”

This is clearly not a condemnation of all religion, yet it accurately describes the sentiments which have been occurring even before preachers were burned at Henry VIII’s stake for contradicting an Article of Faith, and will likely continue to occur in religious expressions of an absolutist type. These sentiments exist in violent sects that use bombs and weapons to coerce, but—quite frankly—also exist in the neighborhood church that states that unless a person make such-and-such a statement of faith, all is lost.

Holt would have none of it.

It is true that the homeschooling movement has gained increasing legitimacy in the developed nations for the part of religious groups wishing to pull their children away from the public schools. And it is also true that now most parents do not cite religion as the primary motivation for deciding to teach their own. This latter fact is good news all around, even for religious unschoolers, assuming that their definition of unschooling corresponds to Farenga’s “allowing children as much freedom to explore the world as you can comfortably bear as their parent.”

I like that. And I like to believe that those people who were meaningful to me in my life when I was young would have been okay if I had explored any religion or philosophy of a non-fundamentalist type, even if it were on unfamiliar to them. Children will have contact with new religions and philosophies as they read, as they meet others in the community, or as they travel. The less their parents make absolutist requirements, the less likely the children will do the same.

I believe that this, respectfully, is a good thing. Likewise respectfully, let children come to religion, if they come to it at all. In a world where so many are bound in religious strife—either externally or internally—peace would come so much more readily.