This may be an unpopular view in unschooling circles, but we have things we won’t sacrifice for the sake of freedom.
There’s a lot of focus on free children in unschooling – have you noticed? A lot. At first glance, it may even seem like freedom is the main thing. And I think it was initially, and still is for many.
John Holt and others who were writing last century certainly advocated that children be free, as their over-arching principle, although often freedom isn’t really defined, and sometimes comes from a libertarian perspective where the human right to individual freedom trumps everything else.
(I should mention that political theorists have defined freedom in so many different ways that actually, it becomes almost a meaningless word, if it isn’t given a definition. Which is part of my issue with the word. I should also say that freedom hardly even means “the ability to do whatever it is you wish” – in spite of this, it’s often taken to mean this.)
Of course I want my children to be free! Who wouldn’t? But when I started thinking about it more deeply, I realized the talk of freedom betrays a lack of understanding about different cultures, and about privilege (and about freedom itself!). It comes from a Western, liberal perspective that has been adopted and taken to extremes by, essentially, right-wing, no-government and pro-capitalism advocates, but also by some apparently left-wing liberals.
I was raised in a culture that was more nuanced than that – that believed in individual freedom but was also willing for it to sometimes give way to things like family and community. Where individualism seemed frankly like a privilege – life was to some extent a compromise, you sacrificed individual freedom to take care of the young and the old, to make a living, to provide comfort and safety for your family.
The freedom-above-all-else side of unschooling has never felt good to me.
To be clear, I believe strongly that oppressed and marginalized groups should seek liberation – often this will mean advocating for certain freedoms. I am not disputing this in the least.
I am disputing the uncompromising focus on freedom and individualism without a serious discussion of privilege, oppressive hierarchies and systems; in the sense that freedom for my children will look and hold such different meanings and connotations than freedom for children in marginalized groups. We need to recognise this.
I am disputing the focus on freedom without a serious conversation about how the ‘free’ market is not always (or ever?) a way to liberation. Without getting deep into why sometimes, an understanding of culture, background and family is more important than unbridled freedom at all costs. Without entertaining the idea that freedom and liberation are not always aligned, or the same thing.
Here is where I’m landing, as of today. I believe in liberation of children from an system that oppresses them, of all people from oppressive systems. This means that I believe my children’s freedom from school is valuable, and their freedom as individuals is desirable until it comes up against my own freedom, the freedom of our friends and neighbours, of our community at large, of adults and children in marginalized groups; until it comes up against the liberation of others who are in less privileged positions.
I want them to know this – that yes, they can have ownership of their bodies and minds and selves, but that they live in a family and a community – everyone matters just as much as they do. If freedom to them looks like coming home covered in sand and mud and dragging it all over the house, for me to clean up afterwards, then their freedom is also my prison.
If freedom for my white, middle-class, able children means upholding a system that oppresses others, or putting others in situations where they feel less free, then my children’s freedom is also someone else’s prison.
Unschooling is not about unbridled freedom; it’s about liberation. Liberation leaves no one cleaning up someone else’s mess, no-one living under an oppressive system.
It’s not about individualism; it’s about community. It’s not about existing in a value-less vacuum; it’s about questioning beliefs and systems but also ultimately standing for something.