Unschooling and the Mainstream Media

Unschoolers—specifically the Biegler family and the Martin family—stepped into the ring with network television recently and, in my opinion, they got trounced. Is unschooling (the Rocky Balboa of educational options) ready to take on the mainstream media (Apollo Creed)? Should we even see bringing the message to the mainstream as a goal?

When John  Holt went on the Phil Donahue TV program, it was 1978, and he was talking about teaching your children at home. Now, it’s 2010 and we’re talking about not teaching your children at all. In 1978, the US was in post-Watergate mode—cynical about institutions and top-down received wisdom. While some might say that cynicism exists today, it’s not the same thing: the post-Reagan, post-9/11 US may be unhappy with its institutions, but it isn’t at all ready to part with them, and, although many Americans are open to hearing about alternative energy and alternative medicine, when it comes to children and school, the majority still clings to the conventional “pre-K through post-grad” plan as the key to success in life.

Think about what unschoolers who present their lives to the mainstream media are asking the American viewing audience to absorb. Unschooling shakes up the way most people define normal life.

  • It shatters the accepted ideas of what people, both children and adults, do all day.
  • It throws out the time-honored traditions of “Because I said so” and “Do as you’re told.”
  • It questions the long-standing rules of “three meals a day” and early to bed, early to rise.”
  • It removes punishment from the rules of the game.
  • It removes rules, replacing them with principles, which require thought. As Sandra Dodd wrote, “For a lot of people, thinking too deeply about what they believe is too painful. It’s just easier to do what was done to them.”
  • It removes “easy,” although its goal is ultimately an easier, simpler, truer life.

Everything I just listed is not going to come across in a segment on an edutainment program. Yes, someone out there in the heartland might see it and feel a twinge of receptivity, but I don’t think the possible twinges are worth the possible collateral damage—that is, the risk that a bunch of post-Reagan, post-9/11 “clingers” are going to seize upon unschooling as un-American and try to make it illegal.

Television has changed since 1978, too. The rise of reality shows (cheap, easy, profit-makers) and draw-a-line-in-the-sand journalism has made the mainstream media less respectful and less sensitive to people’s beliefs than ever before. Anyone who steps in front of a camera is up for grabs as an object of mockery and dehumanization. Is that what we want for unschooling?

I advocate growing the idea of unschooling through the alternative media. For example, the Progressive Book Club, which seeks to “help drive political, environmental, and social change,” includes several books it categories under Education. One is The Death of Why, which I’ve reviewed on this blog. If Sandra Dodd’s Big Book of Unschooling was on this list, a lot of people who would be much more likely to be open to the ideas she prsesents might read it. And a book—whose content is controlled by the author, not by a television executive—might be a better way for people to learn about something complex and far-reaching.

How about going a few rounds with PBS before we enter the ring with ABC? A company that seeks to shine a light on alternatives—not a company such as Disney, which seeks to homogenize experience for the sake of profit—is the better host if you want to introduce people to something radically different from the norm. A PBS program called To the Contrary did a segment on unschooling in 2006. Wouldn’t it be great if local PBS stations did more?

So, basically, I think Rocky needs to spend some more time at the gym before he tries to knock down Apollo Creed. I might even think that Rocky should postpone his chance at the title until Apollo Creed is forced into retirement. I don’t know if we’ll ever be mainstream, but I know that I don’t want us to become the next Snooki. As Dennis Miller used to say, before we went all post-9/11 on me, ” that’s just my opinion. I could be wrong.” What do you think?

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8 Responses so far »

  1. 1

    Laura Weldon said,

    It’s all about building bridges of understanding. Often that’s done gently, gradually and with nuanced presentation of all angles. Not something mainstream media does well.

    As for Progressive Book Club, they also need that new book, what’s it called? Oh yeah, Free Range Learning: How Homeschooling Changes Everything……

  2. 3

    Cristina said,

    Have you read the Sparkling Martins blog response to the segment? It’s very interesting. I think it’s good that there are some families out there willing to risk some mocking in order to get the word out about unschooling. When I first heard the term I was not ready for the message, but over the years I’ve grown to understand what a better way it is. I’m not your average citizen, but I think as long as the word keeps circulating, new people will be drawn to the ideals that it represents. Those are the ones you are trying to reach. Little by little!

    Peace and Laughter!

    • 4

      sgaissert said,

      Thanks, Cristina. I have read it, and your point (as well as theirs) is a good one. I agree that the word needs to circulate, but I still think the circulation needs to be more focused. I’m glad you took the time to leave a comment.

  3. 5

    Margie said,

    Agreed! I’m glad I heard & read enough to decide first. The shows would not have encouraged me I don’t think. I wish they could, but like you said, lots to process all at once.

  4. 7

    Cassi said,

    I’m so glad you blogged about this topic – I have been really torn about it myself. And, I have to say, you’ve swayed me. I think it needs to be a grass roots movement, which has already started with blogs, small magazines, books, etc. The mainstream media may approach our unschooling families with promises of a fair story, but it just can’t be that way, unless they’re willing to devote a large portion of the program to it. Like you said, so many assumptions have to be challenged that, unless they give the appropriate time and energy to it, most viewers will come away with misunderstandings and possibly anger.

    • 8

      sgaissert said,

      Thanks, Cassi, for your comments. I think the mainstream media can handle large, difficult topics when they really make an effort, but I don’t think the will to do that exists yet, where unschooling is concerned.


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