Long-Term Results of Unschooling

Dear Reader,

Peter Gray has now published all four parts of his series on the long-term outcomes of unschooling. The final post in the series is published in Psychology Today and can be read here.

I have previously reviewed Gray’s book Free to Learn which I liked though there were a few parts I took issue with. I would say I have about the same assessment of this series of articles. Gray’s approach was to survey a group of now grown unschoolers to see what levels of success they have had in their adult lives and to get their impressions of their educational experiences. I believe he had around 75 respondents. Some were unschooled their whole childhoods; others for only part of the time. As Gray himself acknowledges in one of the articles (the second, I think), this is a somewhat biased study in that it relies upon unschoolers to volunteer to participate. They “self-select” to be in the study and he admits that it is therefore more likely to include those who were happy with their experiences. Though I have to say, after reading the last in the series, I wonder if it also includes a greater than average number of those who were very unhappy with their experience and it might just be the middle ground that is underrepresented.

I don’t want to recap all of Gray’s findings here. I do think the articles are worth reading and I would encourage you to do so yourself. The brief summary would be that while they might not have what most of American society terms great success, they are more than not a group of well-adjusted, happy individuals who are pursuing careers that mean something to them and are often unique or creative.

In the fourth and final part of the series, Gray also discusses those individuals who participated for whom unschooling seems to have had the least success. It is here that I disagree with his characterizations. It should be noted that Gray is not an impartial observer. I am not sure this is an entirely bad thing. I think one who was not already familiar with and interested in unschooling would probably not have constructed a very good study of it. It takes some understanding of the principles behind unschooling to even begin to ask the right questions (and the same might be said for homeschooling in general as well). Nonetheless, Gray lets his biases come out in this last article and in one area, at least, he goes a step too far for my taste.

The most obvious example of Gray’s own opinions coming through is when he says that:

“In contrast to the parents in the previous survey, only eighteen (24%) of the participants in the present survey mentioned increased time, closeness or harmony with their family as an advantage of unschooling. This is quite consistent with the view, which I have expressed elsewhere (e.g. here), that children—no matter how much they need and love their parents—are in many ways more oriented toward moving on, toward adulthood, beyond their family of origin.”

Here Gray unapologetically says that this is his opinion and actually, I don’t have too much of a problem with that because he is upfront about it. And I also think, though as a parent I don’t like the idea, that he is not far off base. Our children are meant to outgrow us.

But the part that bothers me and where I think Gray’s views are coming through more subtly is in the last section in which he discusses those individuals for whom unschooling seems to have ben detrimental. Here is his summary of these cases:

“Of the 75 respondents, only three indicated that the disadvantages, for them, outweighed the advantages. It is instructive to look closely at them, to understand the conditions in which unschooling is not a good idea. In all three cases the mothers were described as in poor mental health and the fathers as uninvolved. In all three cases, the respondents felt socially isolated, ignorant, stigmatized, and “weird” because of their unschooling and their family environment. Two of these respondents attributed the isolation partly to the fundamentalist Christian beliefs of their parents.”

One of my criticisms of Gray’s book was that he has a biased and, I believe, inaccurate view of what Puritan education was. Here he seems similarly to have a negative view of what he terms “fundamentalism.” It should be noted that he uses this term without defining it. As a Christian, I know that the word can be used in many different ways and it is not at all clear here what sorts of things these parents actually believed. As he describes the three situations, what seems clear to me is that the mothers in particular were not really functional individuals. I am not at all sure that their religion has that much to do with it. If there is a connection, I think it is more probable that their own dysfunction attracted them to both unschooling, which did not require them to really parent, and to an extreme corner of Christianity which also allowed them to isolate themselves and their families. In other words, I do not think their version of Christianity is necessarily the cause of their failure to do well by their kids but that their underlying mental illness or dysfunction is the real problem. In his defense, Gray does not go so far as to blame Christianity or even fundamentalist Christianity outright, but one is left after reading his article with the impression that it is at least partly to blame. I can completely see that someone coming into this with an already not too positive view of Christianity would come out of it with those impressions confirmed.

From my own perspective, I would add that the fact that these families combined unschooling and Christianity, and especially a version of Christianity which might be termed “fundamentalist” should probably set bells ringing right away that something is not right. I am actually somewhat favorable to unschooling but at the same time I do not think that its underlying presuppositions are compatible with Christianity, particularly with what might be called conservative Christianity. (You can read an earlier post on my own take on unschooling here.) So the fact that people who adhere to such a branch of Christianity would choose to unschool already tells me something is off in their thinking. Obviously I think homeschooling is a wonderful choice and I hate when  it is portrayed as the choice of bad and abusive parents. But I think we also need to acknowledge that sometimes this is the case. Homeschooling attracts many parents who want what’s best for their kids but it can also attract those who are the worst of the worst. That these parents would then choose to “unschool” as a way to not really do anything for their kids is not a huge surprise (this of course is not really what unschooling is meant to be; I have known many unschooling parents who are very diligent and involved in their kids’ lives).

Though I take issue with the characterizations in the last part of this last article in the series, overall I do think Gray’s work is worth reading and I am encouraged, though I do not unschool myself, to think that it has been successful for many families and I am pleased to see that a mainstream publication is reporting these results.


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