For the past 40 years, I have had a vision of a world where children and young people are equal members of society, where they are liked, respected, trusted and empowered to control their own lives and to make their decisions about learning and life. And, for the past 35 years, it has been both my passion and my work to give life to that vision. My vision challenges many closely-held assumptions about how we nurture, educate and live with the younger generation. It also, by necessity, challenges assumptions about economics, women’s role, and many other aspects of life on this planet. Being a relentless challenger of those assumptions is the way that I contribute to fundamental change – radical change that, true to the Latin origin of the word, digs at the root cause of what’s wrong with how our society educates its young.
Like most other people, my upbringing and my schooling in the 1950s and ’60s taught me to accept what I was told by my parents, my teachers and everyone else in my life. I did that well. I was the only child of working class parents living in a Canadian mid-sized industrial city. My parents had waited out the Great Depression to get married, only to have difficulty conceiving, so they were 41 and 48 when I was finally born. I was a good little girl who got good grades in school with little effort, thanks, I imagine, to good test-taking skills, which were grounded in my strong reading and writing abilities. One of my early memories of school is wondering when they were going to start teaching me the things I didn’t know, rather than what I already knew. Many years later, I began to understand how, insidiously, school had reinforced my inadequacies and had left me with what I now called “learned incompetency” and a fear of not being able to do things “right” the first time.
Nobody in my family had gone to university and nobody suggested I go there either. My dream was to be an airline stewardess as we called them then. But I had not been encouraged to go after my dreams; instead, I was supposed to know my place. And, in my mother’s mind, school was my place because teaching was a suitable job for a woman and, as I realized much later in life, it had once been her dream. So, as a relatively naive 19-year-old, I went to teachers’ college. I was a good little girl there too and got good grades once again. I did especially well at lesson planning and bulletin board decorating. And, bolstered by my winning of public speaking awards in elementary school, I actually got quite excited about the prospect of standing in front of a class and filling those adoring and adorable little heads with important facts.
When I graduated, I got a job teaching working class kids in my old neighborhood. What disappointment and disillusionment to discover that I was spending most of my time yelling at ten-year-old boys to keep them from swinging from the lights and jumping out the windows! They were not interested in my carefully planned lessons and colorfully decorated bulletin boards. In fact, they didn’t want to be there at all. And, I quickly realized, neither did I. So, contrary to everything I had been taught, I terminated my career as a school teacher.
Then I did what I should have done while I was attending teachers’ college: I began my self-education. I started to think about how people learn…as well as what they need to learn and why – and what gets in the way of learning. As part of my research, I spent some time working at a daycare center.
Daycare centers were not prevalent in the early 1970s, but my developing feminism led me to believe they were crucial if society was to move beyond the nuclear family and its smothering hierarchy. But I was astonished at how undervalued and underpaid the entirely female staff was, especially for work that was so stressful and so important…and at what uninspiring places the centers were. I am a questioner by nature and that experience inspired a lot of questions: Why was our society apparently undervaluing this work? Was it because women were doing it? Or did we value the care of the next generation so little? Did caring for the next generation involve more than Kool-Aid and regimented “play” time? What is “liberated” about paying other women a minimal wage to look after our children so that we can have high paying careers? Why do women have to embrace the male model in order to challenge patriarchy? Is there a third way? And where do the children fit into all of this?
As for education, I decided that all those lessons I had so carefully memorized in teachers’ college about how to motivate students to learn were absolute nonsense. I realized that people (those kids in school and the daycare, as well as myself) learn things better if they are not compelled and coerced; if they are given control over what, when, where, why and how they learn; and if they are trusted and respected. I realized that until schools get in the way, children do not need to be forced to learn…because curiosity about the world and how it works is a natural human trait. I realized that memorizing material for a test (which I had done so well in school) isn’t real learning.
Fortunately, around the same time, I met and married a man who somehow intuitively knew all of this, although he hadn’t articulated it before. In the early days of our relationship, Rolf and I spoke often about how and why we would not send our future children to school, not quite understanding what a monumental decision that was. While I took my first tentative steps towards believing in myself as a writer and change-maker, he and I started a family. When I was pregnant with our first daughter Heidi in 1972, I fought anger, frustration and sometimes despair at the state of the world into which I would bring her. As it does for many women, motherhood was focusing my early political consciousness. It was helping me understand how the choices I make in my personal life are linked to those I make on a larger scale.
Propelled by a desire to create a better world for our children, we decided that Heidi and her sister Melanie, who was born 18 months later, would grow up not only absent from school, but unfettered by many of the assumptions people make about children’s subordinate place in the world. Rolf and I began to create a life that would affirm the rights of all members of our family. With that, I embarked on my life’s work to advocate for children’s right to be raised and educated with respect and without the “isms” – sexism, racism, classism, ageism, consumerism and other elitist or destructive social influences.
Then, in 1976, when the girls were ages three and four, Rolf and I started the home-based business that remains a vital part of our lives and my work to this day. With a small credit card advance, we launched a company that would publish both books and magazines, beginning with Natural Life, and would allow us both to stay at home with our daughters. We were in our mid 20s, with no training or experience in the media world. He was a plumber and I was an unemployed teacher/fledgling writer. But we had the panache of youth and we knew from experience that there was a need for information and inspiration to help people question the status quo and the conventional, consumer-oriented ways that were damaging our Earth. In those days, questioning the status quo meant joining the back-to-the-land movement, growing one’s own food and learning about non-conventional methods of parenting. So that is what those first few issues of Natural Life were about, with articles about how to plant cabbages, have a home birth and construct a wash bucket bass fiddle.
Our home business was, itself, a deliberately alternative economic, social and environmental choice. But little did I know that the experience would have ramifications far beyond the value of putting food on our family’s table – or that it would teach me to challenge assumptions…about economics, education and food production, about what is truly important in life. Since my business education was self-directed, it also provided me with a living model of the sort of life-based learning experience I was beginning to envision for children – one that involved a combination of motivation, hands-on experience, questioning, mentor seeking, reading, error making and correction, and discussion. (It also provided me with the ability and the impetus – a decade later – to create The Home Business Network, which would legitimize home business and help other women create careers for themselves while staying at home with their children.)
Along the way, my family and I lived a good life, while being true to our principles, at least most of the time. Instead of writing advertising copy to sell breakfast cereal or press releases to “greenwash” the public images of various multinational corporations, or composing mind numbing speeches for well meaning politicians, I plugged away at semi-profitable alternative journalistic pursuits, using my talents and skills to create change. We walked or rode our bikes whenever possible. We recycled and reused long before it became chic. We grew some of our food and bought locally grown organic food when we could. We made our own clothes or purchased them with no concern for brand name labels (and a fierce desire to avoid advertising those labels on the outside of our clothing). We also made our own entertainment. And for our young daughters, we facilitated life-based, self-directed exploration instead of sending them to school.
By the late 1970s, I was feeling the need to reach out, to communicate with other families who were challenging the assumption that children must attend school. But there was no mechanism for that. So, using my editorial platform in Natural Life magazine, I went public with our family’s educational choice. Soon, we were in contact with a few other like-minded families who were pioneering homeschooling. And I found myself to be in demand for media interviews, endlessly explaining how children learn without being taught, that a self-directed education does not equate with poor socialization, and that non-academic does not necessarily mean anti-intellectual. My speaking out led directly to a couple of run-ins with school authorities who mistakenly assumed that their authority legally and ethically extended into our home. At that point, I realized there was a need to educate school boards and their employees about homeschooling law, to advocate on behalf of homeschoolers, and to more formally organize what was becoming a movement. So, I founded the Canadian Alliance of Home Schoolers (CAHS). It was a national network that provided both advice and credibility to homeschoolers, and that nurtured many of the provincial support and advocacy organizations that are in place today in Canada.
In those days, my thinking was developing apace, helped along by discussions with John Holt, who was kick-starting a parallel American movement and sought our publishing advice as he launched his Growing Without Schooling newsletter, and with many strong homeschooling mothers on both sides of the border. With the help of this growing network, I formulated a list of the questions I was most often asked – and was most curious about myself – and contacted as many homeschooling families as I could find with the first Canadian homeschooling survey. This early research, which I published in 1989 – as imprecise and unscientific as it was – put a face to the movement in Canada, allowed me to estimate the size of the homeschooling population, and provided the basis for future studies.
All the while, I struggled to reconcile my trust in children’s ability to learn about the world unrestricted with the growing number of religious families who were choosing homeschooling in order to control how and what their children were exposed to. As uncomfortable as I was with enabling school-at-home, I felt that the small and fragile movement needed to support all motivations and styles.
Truth be told, in 1979 I had not yet fully slayed the schooling dragon in my own mind. If I had, I might have given the Canadian Alliance of Home Schoolers a different name! After all, the learning experience that my family was living had nothing to do with school (except for a determined lack of it!) and it was more community- than home-centered. Nevertheless, when I wrote my first book on the subject, I gave it a confusing and oxymoronic name: School Free – The Home Schooling Handbook (1987, The Alternate Press). I eventually came to understand that what we now popularly call “homeschooling” is not meeting its full potential – and, in many instances, is becoming more like school and therefore less of a real alternative. But in those days, homeschooling was not at all common and I was trying to reach as broad a spectrum of readers as possible with the message that, since public schools were not meeting children’s needs, alternatives had to be created and supported.
I have since become more precise about my use of language to describe my vision. But that early “big picture” thinking led me understand the need to reach out to people espousing other alternatives to public school. (I had already decided that the public school system was so broken it could not be fixed, so I never contemplated working for change within the system.) My work as editor of Natural Life connected me with many wonderful people and a few organizations which shared the holistic view that everything – including education – is woven into the fabric of life (a notion that I find somewhat lacking in many of today’s progressive organizations, which often ignore public education’s problems).
One of those that inspired me in the 1970s was the School of Living, with its focus on organic agriculture, cooperatives and worker-owned businesses, appropriate technology, local self-reliance and, of course, self-education, which was, arguably, its core. Ed Nagel’s National Association for the Legal Support of Alternative Schools (which was an early legal advocate of homeschooling) was another part of my outreach, as was Education Otherwise in the UK.
Closer to home, the Ontario Association of Alternative and Independent Schools (OAAIS) attracted my attention and some of my time. In the same way that homeschooling was (perhaps still is) an awkward member of the alternative education community, I was somewhat of an outsider on the OASIS board, which was mostly populated by middle-aged male representatives of religious schools who were seeking government funding for their institutions. Nevertheless, I ended up serving a term as president of the association in the late 1980s, in the interests of solidarity for alternatives to the warehouse-model of public education.
Combining my love of writing and editing with my activism also resulted in more publishing endeavors, notably Child’s Play, which I published from 1983 through 1992. Child’s Play – first a newsletter and later a magazine – was a source of support, resources and inspiration for families interested in home-based learning, alternative schools and natural parenting.
Over the years, as I found my writer’s voice, became a broadcaster and conference presenter, and interacted with the media about home-based learning, I gained some insights – and strong opinions – about how our use of language can either reinforce the status quo or nudge change to happen. I began to understand how words like “teaching” and “schooling” imply that some people are doing things to other people, that people at the top are acting on those farther down the totem pole. I realized that our public education system reflects a paternalistic worldview, which puts Man at the top of the hierarchy, controlling everything underneath, including women, children, animals and the earth’s resources.
With my daughters growing up and leaving home, and the years passing more quickly, I began to wonder if the small, personal choices my family and I were making went far enough. I watched child poverty and the abuse of women and children grow to epidemic proportions globally, while social safety nets were being torn apart in the name of fiscal responsibility. Youth crime appeared to be increasing, fueled at least partially by the violence that surrounds us, in both real life and in the media. Indigenous peoples were still fighting for their basic rights. I saw logging companies continue to ravage forests, tobacco companies cynically buying their way out of responsibility for their deadly product, global warming wreaking havoc with world weather patterns, garbage dumps overflowing, nuclear power plants and oil tankers leaking, and toxic chemicals being found in mothers’ milk. I saw schools being overtaken by bullies, standardized testing and “dropouts” who were shunned by their communities. This was in spite of decades of effort on the part of activists around the world.
My need to “do more” led me, in 1996, to accept an invitation to run for the leadership of the Green Party of Canada. Although I had no formal experience with politics, I remembered that, as the feminist slogan goes, the personal is political and many of the choices I had made in my life were most definitely political.
The Canadian Greens were only 13 years old at the time, and I took on the daunting task of trying to build a truly progressive, grassroots alternative to the mainstream political parties. Unfortunately, I quickly learned that many in the tiny party wanted a party that was not a party, an organization that would not organize and a leader who would not lead. Disillusioned with other political parties, they were understandably wary of anything that could be construed to be hierarchy or bureaucracy. To the party’s disadvantage and my frustration, this translated into a distrust of initiative, which resulted in lack of action and in endless conflicts about structure and process.
Feeling virtually alone in my desire to build the party from the bottom-up and tired of butting my head against a wall of testosterone, I once again cut my losses and resigned, disillusioned by the party’s lack of ability to walk its talk, in spite of some wonderful policies and dedicated people. I tried to write a book about the experience, but soon realized that the experience had taught me something important, in the same way my brief school teaching career had done: I had learned that only when we have truly rejected the top-down model of ideological change will we be able to concentrate on building sustainable alternatives.
And surprise, surprise, I realized that I had known the source of the problem – and hence the solution – all along! One of our most revered and supposedly democratic institutions uses the tool of compulsion to subject children to a standardized curriculum, molds them into obedient consumers and fits them into their places in the hierarchy, leaving few of them able to do anything except keep paddling. So I ended up back where I had started from – thinking and writing about children and how we can best equip them to save the world, or at least to live happily and productively in it. The green politics book I was trying to write quickly became Challenging Assumptions in Education – from Institutionalized Education to a Learning Society (2000, The Alternate Press).
In 2002, I decided that the time was ripe to launch a magazine on the subject of what I was, by that time, unwilling calling unschooling. We named it Life Learning, and the phrase quickly began to be used as a substitute for “unschooling” and “radical unschooling” by those who were, like me, uncomfortable with a term that was non-descriptive at best and negative at worst. The magazine, over its six years of publication (the economic downturn in 2008 prompted us to integrate it into Natural Life magazine), nurtured an international community of wonderful readers and writers who believe children learn best without coercion, and based on their own interests, motivations and timetables. I edited an anthology of essays from the magazine entitled Life Learning: Lessons from the Educational Frontier (2008, The Alternate Press), and its website continues to be place for the community to gather.
Recently, a PhD student successfully defended her thesis entitled Reflections on Homeschooling, Mothering and Social Change: The Life History of Wendy Priesnitz. However, neither my life nor my work in support of homeschooling, mothering and social change are over! My mission for the next decade involves using traditional networking, social networking technologies and the printed word to continue to influence both parents and educators to support children and young people as they educate themselves about the world and rescue it from the mess this and previous generations have made of it.
This essay first appeared in the book Turning Points: 27 Visionaries in Education Tell Their Own Stories (2009, Alternative Education Resource Organization).
Photo by Jack Delano. Children in a company housing settlement, Puerto Rico. Dec 1941.