AERO: This article was written in 2009 for Life Learning, and Natural Life Magazines. AERO reprinted it in 2011 for our community. That post (among others, stay tuned) has become neglected on our old site, and deserves proper display here on our new site. Thanks, Wendy!
When I was a young mother, I wore a t-shirt with the words: “The hand that rocks the cradle rocks the boat.” The phrase put a spin on a 19th century poem entitled “The Hand That Rocks the Cradle Rules the World” by American poet William Ross Wallace. I understood at the time that becoming a mother was increasing my desire to create change in the world, although I didn’t know where that would lead me. I had already realized that, as the feminist movement espoused, the personal is political. I had already challenged a few assumptions about how life was supposed to work – including rejecting both the style in which I’d been parented and the institution of school as an effective vehicle for education.
As much as I didn’t like the rules of the status quo, I also didn’t like labels – even the ones that accompanied my rebellion. In fact, I’ve fought my whole adult life to avoid descriptions of myself that involve isms and ists. I dislike being referred to as an environmentalist, an activist, a feminist, a humanist, a homeschooler, a radical unschooler, a life learner…although each of those words describes an aspect of my life and work. As helpful as such labels can be to connect with others who think similarly, they can also constrict, separate, polarize, alienate and confuse. And because they name groups with a specific set of “membership requirements,” they help perpetuate stereotypes.
School is where we learn to sort, segment and label in that manner, where knowledge is broken up in to subjects and students are grouped by age and their ability to perform on tests. And the post-secondary world has turned segmentation of knowledge into an art. So I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised the first time an academic feminist scorned me because of my advocacy of life learning and its apparent support for the stay-at-home mom. However, it had never occurred to me that unschooling and feminism were mutually exclusive. In fact, I am quite certain that it, in all its label-defying glory, is the ultimate feminist act, for a variety of reasons on which I’ll elaborate in this article. But over the years, I’ve encountered many people – including some self-doubting life learning feminist moms – for whom the picture isn’t quite that clear.
I wasn’t always quite so sure of myself and once upon a time was even apt to wonder if my outlook on education was at odds with some of my other progressive stances. That changed when I began to observe young children and how little respect they and their caregivers receive.
I trained to be a teacher in 1969 but realized after just a few months that neither I nor most of the students wanted to be in the classroom. So I quit teaching. Researching a more suitable career and curious about how children learn (something that hadn’t been a major part of the teachers’ college curriculum), I spent some time working at a daycare center.
Daycare centers were not that 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? What is “liberated” about paying other women a minimal wage to look after our children so that we can have high paying careers? Does one have to have a paid job in order to be a feminist? Why do women have to embrace the male model in order to challenge patriarchy? Is there a third way?
My husband Rolf and I soon chose to begin our family. Once pregnant, I struggled to understand why feminism wanted me to make a choice between my rights and those of my future children. We decided to create a life that would affirm the rights of all members of our family. And thus it became 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.
Motherhood focused my early political consciousness. It helped me understand how the choices I make in my personal life are linked to those I make on a larger scale. I remember thinking that a mother’s body is the first environment for human life, so I’d better ensure I was providing a clean, nurturing place for my unborn child to grow, as well as ensuring a safe, respectful world for her to live in after birth. And that’s when I began to weave change-making into my life.
At the personal level, one of the things this meant was that our children would learn without school. And so my husband and I set about creating circumstances to allow that to happen. With the panache of youth, we started the family business that publishes this magazine, thinking we would all stay at home together for the next decade or so, happily living, learning and making money together. While the fairy tale didn’t turn out exactly as hoped, our lives taught our children – by experience, which is the best kind of learning – about making a living, about working out differences, about the need to be critical of the power structures in society and in the microcosm of family and personal relationships…and much more.
In some ways, what I was living has since been defined as “empowered mothering” by York University Women’s Studies professor and founder of the Association for Research on Mothering Andrea O’Reilly. However, I don’t identify with this label any more than any others because O’Reilly’s stance is woman-centered, rather than child-centered. She describes empowered mothering as using the role of mother to challenge systems that smother women’s choice, autonomy and agency. And that seems to leave out children’s choice, autonomy and agency. Dismantling patriarchy is crucial to creating a whole society but we can’t accomplish that by ignoring the rights of another group of people.
Perhaps O’Reilly and others in the educational industry think that our public schools are taking care of the kids. But they’re not. As I wrote in my book Challenging Assumptions in Education, our public school systems perpetuate social hierarchies, disempower children, coerce them – supposedly for their own good – and encourage a destructive level of consumerism and consumption. Furthermore, they are not democratic because they don’t allow children and young people to control their choices and their daily lives. School teaches submission to power based on size, age, intellect and sometimes ability to bully, and there are race, gender and class biases, and even sexual harassment. The very structure of schools delivers a hidden socioeconomic curriculum of standardization, competition and top-down management by experts.
In short, schools – and society in general – treat children the way women don’t want to be treated. They don’t trust children to control their own lives, to keep themselves safe and to make their own decisions. In this way, feminism and life learning are one and the same because they trust people to take the paths that suit them best.
Aside from allowing academic freedom, life learning is about living more mindfully – acting altruistically (instead of earning gold stars or the approval of authority figures), respecting individuals for who they are, overturning discrimination, being aware of and remediating the conflicts inherent in our society, working cooperatively, and learning about and improving the world by living in and acting on it.
Life learning parents care deeply about children’s choice, autonomy and agency. They respect young people’s right to make their own decisions (within parameters that address their physical and emotional safety, of course). They understand that when children are part of a community, they have an interest in making that community function well, taking responsibility for their actions and contributing to the group.
One of the stereotypes about life learning that results in feminist criticism is that of too much togetherness – children who are home alone with mom all the time, tied to the umbilical cord or the apron strings. On the surface, that’s based on ignorance. But aside from the fact that life learning kids typically spend more time in their communities exposed to a more diverse range of people and experiences than kids in school, the apron strings criticism denigrates the value of the mother-child relationship. Being an activist of any sort is more than resisting; it’s also about providing positive alternatives. Parenting practices like cosleeping, prolonged breastfeeding and family-based education are powerful and nurturing alternatives, which provide the early security that leads to independence.
One of the questions I asked almost 40 years ago – the one about paying for childcare in order to have a career and retain the feminist label – is still on my mind. These days, some feminists are working to solve that conundrum through the use of tax credits or other methods of financially rewarding caregiving parents; others believe higher quality childcare, workplace reform and better pay for childcare workers is the solution.
But there is, as I mused so many years ago, a third way. What if we overturned the male model of success that feminism adopted in creating equal opportunity for women? If we reject the idea that success is only about money, we can forge new attitudes toward what’s important in life. Challenging the notion that feminism relates only to equal opportunity within the workplace and can only be obtained by a full-time paying career is controversial, but there is a growing movement that questions the tradition that well-being is based totally on economics. As I wrote in the last issue of Natural Life, the Genuine Progress Indicator is one tool that has been developed to factor caregiving, pollution and other positives and negatives into the accounting that we know as GDP. One of the proponents of that idea is feminist and environmentalist Marilyn Waring. The author of the book If Women Counted, she was one of the first to suggest that the GDP sustains the institutionalized enslavement of women by focusing solely on production and consumption in the market sphere, thereby rendering women’s unpaid work invisible.
Taking the notion further, Australian academic, author and social commentator Susan Maushart asserts that motherhood needs to be at the center of human society, from which all social and economic life should spin. Society needs to “acknowledge that bearing and raising children is not some pesky, peripheral activity we engage in, but the whole point,” she says. Warehousing kids in daycare or school so mothers can get on with what they see as their real lives is not part of that vision, but we need to find ways to ensure economic security for women of all classes, and extend the vision to include fathers as well.
It has been said that feminism is the radical notion that women are people. Even more radical, I would suggest, is the notion that was printed on a t-shirt my young daughters once shared: “Kids are people too.” At this point in history, allowing them to live and learn in the real world, unfettered by the discrimination inherent in compulsory schooling, is the best way to honor that idea. We need to find ways to make that possible without diminishing anyone else’s rights. Then we will truly be on the way to creating a more egalitarian society.
Challenging Assumptions in Education by Wendy Priesnitz (2000 and 2008, The Alternate Press)
Feminist Mothering by Andrea O’Reilly, ed (2008, State University of New York Press)
Mother Outlaws by Andrea O’Reilly, ed (2004, Women’s Press)
The Maternal Is Political: Women Writers at the Intersection of Motherhood and Social Change by Shari MacDonald Strong, ed (Seal Press, 2008)
A Sense of Self: Listening to Homeschooled Adolescent Girls by Susannah Sheffer (Boynton/Cook, 1997)
The Price of Motherhood: Why the Most Important Job in the World is Still the Least Valued by Ann Crittenden (Holt, 2002)
This essay first appeared in Natural Life Magazine.
I came to The Highland School at ten years old. I first went to a Sudbury school in Berlin, Germany which I enjoyed but found something lacking. My mother heard about a democratic boarding school in WV, from a staff member at my Sudbury school. After a year of thinking, wanting to be more independent, I applied and was accepted. Once I was there, I fell in love with it, and with that, my dorm life started.
I have been in the dorm for seven years now. Life in the dorm has changed over my time depending on the people who are in it. When I first came, there were four other students in the dorm and two staff. Over the years we’ve had differing ratios of boys to girls; some kids stayed for years, others for a semester, and many came from different countries. Our rules changed with them, and also our ways of doing things. Some rules we keep and others we change based on our experience. We make those changes democratically in our meetings.
General School Meeting
At The Highland School we have a weekly General School Meeting which is run democratically by an elected chairperson. Every school member from the youngest to the oldest has one vote at the meeting. The General School Meeting is one of the most important aspects of our school. It is where we make the majority of our decisions including any new rules. We also create subsets that are called clubs and guilds. These special interest groups are responsible for specific areas, for example, Tree House Committee, which deals with the building of tree houses or Conservation Club, which deals with recycling, Adopt a Highway and preserving natural resources.
How we do things in the Dorm
We are responsible for taking care of many things ourselves. We do our own grocery shopping. We usually go on the weekend to a variety of stores in nearby cities that we decide upon in our dorm meetings. We each currently get a hundred dollars every two weeks for our grocery shopping trips.
We’ve set up housekeeping chores which include cleaning the kitchen, laundry days, and general cleanup. For example, on dish nights we load/unload the dishwasher and clean the rest of the kitchen, we also do our own laundry. The way we set this up changes. Usually, everyone does a night a week and then work together if we don’t have enough people for all the weekdays. In Dorm Meetings, we also decide such things as whether we have quiet hours and when they are. Our Dorm Meetings answers to the weekly General School Meeting. We use Dorm Meetings to resolve any disputes that are not covered by our judicial system. We can also decide on small trips after common school hours and deal with other things that come up such as planning to cook meals together, we deal with disputes about whose stuff is in the sink. If no one remembers, usually someone volunteers or we come up with a different solution.
Life in the dorm
Living in the dorm with all kinds of people from all sorts of backgrounds can be fun. It is also challenging.
I still remember an experience in 2012. There were two boys named Tom and Harry. Tom was a type of person who liked to poke fun at people. Harry was a bully and thought he was on summer break. Sarah and I were in our early teens and the new boys were older. So, as you can imagine Sarah and I didn’t get along that well with Tom and Harry who often poked fun at us. Especially me since I was a very emotional kid and would tear up at any insult. There were many judicial complaints and long meetings.
One evening, we were all in the dorm living room and someone mentioned the video game Blockheads. We talked about how we hadn’t played it in a while. After some reminiscing, we went into another room. We formed teams of Sarah and Harry and Tom and myself. We played the game for hours and for the first time that semester enjoyed each other’s company. Sarah and Tom made fun of us, for turning off the devils which made the game easier. We laughed and had a fun time, all together. The next morning we were back to our feud, but it was less intense. To this day, I think of the fun we had that night and smile.
I have also made friends for life at Highland. My first year there was a girl named Alex. We always watched Futurama in her room and even finished it. Even though she left at the end of my second year, we still talk to this day. We even do the same silly things; just that she is in the Philippines and I’m in West Virginia.
Often the interactions in the dorm are similar to sibling relationships. We have highs and lows like brothers and sisters. However, the key factor is that we live in a democracy, where our individual rights are protected by the system we create together. We hold each other responsible for our actions. In the case of Tom and Harry, there were ways for me to deal with them through our judicial system. If it had gotten to a point where they wouldn’t stop harassing me, I could have brought them up for expulsion at our GSM, but we worked it out on our own.
Why I think boarding school is valuable. It is a unique experience to live away from home and share a place with people from across the world and figure out how to get along with them. You get a new perspective on life by taking care of yourself and being responsible for your own things. The dorm is another step towards being more independent with the support of others if needed. You are always able to reach your parents and talk to friends, but you can also find out who you are on your own.
I didn't fly for a long time after that, maybe 10 years. But these day I somehow wind up flying huge distances. Less than two weeks afrer we came back from a great International Democratic Education Conference in Israel I had to immediately submit a visa request to speak at a conference in St. Petersburg, Russia. I would never in the world have accepted this invitation, except that it was for my friend Olga Leontyeva. Despite all odds she continues to pursue her father's concept of Park Schooling in Russia and elsewhere. I met her father, Russian theoretical scientist Miroslav Balaban. His concept was that going to school should be like going to a park. You go there when you want, for whatever are your personal reasons. And you leave when you want. Nobody has the right to know why you went or to test you on the way out.
Olga has applied these concepts in Russia and continues to do so. She has a Park School project organizing in St. Petersburg, which I visited on my second day. And the major education conference that I attended was built partly around the support of this project. They expected 1000 attendees. So I came in support of this courageous work.
Try as I might, I couldn't sleep on the plane to Helsinki. We left at 5:30 from New York and arrived at 8;30 AM in Helsinki, which was 1:30 New York time. The weather was cold, wet and foggy. Any foggier and they might not have been able to land. Then we transferred to a small propeller-driven plane. A bus brought us there from the terminal. As we walked up the stairs from the tarmac it suddenly began to hail! I didn't sleep on that leg either, and we landed in snowy St. Petersburg with a big bump!
They were very slow in customs as usual but apparently OK with my visa. I had to get a work visa rather than a tourist visa. They greeted me with a sign with my name on it in the terminal. We then waited for Olga's plane which was late from Moscow. Apparently it was late because of a security stoppage because of the terrorist attack in Paris. Actually just last week a terrorist blew up a subway in St. Petersburg, killing 10.
Olga arrived from Moscow and they brought us to the hotel where the conference guests were staying. I was completely wiped out, having not slept for more than 24 hours. But Olga felt strongly that we should see the Hermitage right away as there might not be any time. It turned out she was right and I would not have missed it for anything. She was even able to get a friend who was a researcher there to get us in. The museum is the most spectacular one I have ever seen. Other museums have great things in them. But in addition to having incredible collections of every artist you have ever heard of going back millennia, the museum itself is a masterpiece. Everywhere you look is a masterpiece-the floor, the ceiling, the hallways, everything!
Yaacov Hecht arrived from Israel that evening. Gala, one of the conference organizers, has a small preschool in St. Petersburg. I met her last year at the IDEC in Finland. She wanted me to go with her to a location where they were having a pre-conference day with parents and children, with many activities and discussion topics. Since it was snowing, Yaacov wanted to just walk in the snow with Olga, since it almost never snows in Israel.
Gala and I went to the pre-conference events. Many people were there. I wound up doing several spontaneous workshops and having many discussions. After one of the presentations a woman came up to me to discuss the school she was organizing near Moscow. She even had a site and had started construction. She was interested in joining our school starters course in September.
What impressed me overall by the people I met was their sheer determination and courage to create good environments for their children despite the current political climate.
From the pre-conference I was sent by taxi to another site where Park Schooling was being demonstrated. It was on the third floor of a mall where they rent space on the weekends. This is in anticipation of starting a full school in September. The parents who send their children to this program are committed to the idea.
As I arrived I went into a room full of parents who were waiting for Olga and Yaacov for a presentation on democratic education. But they were late. So, on no notice, I started a warm up presentation about democratic education and then fielded some questions from parents. After about a half hour Olga and Yaacov arrived.
I left it to them and went to a supermarket in the mall, looking for something to eat. A young man who worked there came over and started talking to me in English. He explained that he knew I wasn't a Russian grandfather. He said, "He wouldn't be wearing a baseball hat. He wouldn't be wearing a cartoon shirt. He wouldn't be wearing jeans. AND he wouldn't be smiling! " He helped me shop for a healthy salad.
I went back to the Park Schooling demonstration. On the way, I realized that the entire third floor of the mall was dedicated to children's stores and activities. I watched various groups meet in the demo, largely self organized, around particular topics of interest such as biology and acting. Other children were just playing with various toys or games.
Another taxi took me and Yaacov to a special dinner for foreign guests at a nice restaurant. There I met various important players such as people from the Ribikov Foundation who were a key conference sponsor. This was their first conference geared primarily for parents rather than professionals.
The next day was the conference day. The weather was still gloomy, and we walked in the rain over to the IT University that was hosting the event. Nevertheless, more than 1000 people arrived to participate, mostly parents and their children!
First, there was a dance on stage featuring children with adults dragging them and pulling them, representing the feeling that most children have in today's society.
After introductions and greetings, the first keynotes and workshops started. They were in several large venues. Marko, who hosted last year's IDEC in Finland, was one presenter. His interpreter showed up late so they were ten minutes behind schedule. Olga was next and therefore had to start late, doing a presentation on Park Schooling. When a conference official came in to cut her short she barked back, "I not finished! I have 5 minutes more!" My interpreter was shocked. I was not! Olga has had to fight for every inch of progress. I once asked her if she was afraid someone would stop her from promoting her ideas. She told me that she stopped having fear and just does what she believes in. She finished her presentation.
My keynote was in the main auditorium. They were in a TED-like format with only 25 minutes for each presentation. In the instruction sheet I was sent they said, "We are open to all new formats and are interested in an interactive dialogue with the audience" and suggested that we use an innovative approach. I decided to take them up on this with a demonstration of "organic curriculum" with student volunteers on stage. Of course, this was a tremendous leap of faith: I've gone to Russia, asked for student volunteers I've never met, hoping they can come up with questions they would like answered, all in a different language, and all in 25 minutes!
In the late morning my interpreter, Victoria, a 33-year-old mother, teacher and chemistry student and I went around and asked for volunteers. She had to explain to them what we wanted and ask them to come to the auditorium later that day and go on stage. We found 12 who agreed, age 6-13. We had no idea whether they would even show up.