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'Why We Unschool': One Family's Account in Outside Magazine

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By Mark Walsh. Cross-posted from the Education and the Media blog. 

Outside magazine tends to feature stories one might predict: "The Coolest Summer Gear," "America's Surprising Cycling Mecca," and "Survive Anything: Five Tools That Can Save Your Life."

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But "special reports" on "the future of education"? Not very often. The September issue has just such a story, however. It's a report about "unschooling," a movement that has been around since the late 1970's that involves, to oversimplify, keeping children out of the supposedly prisonlike atmosphere of compulsory public schooling and letting them set their own educational agendas.

As Ben Hewitt, the writer of Outside's "We Don't Need No Education" piece notes, unschooling is a subset of home schooling, but unschooling families have long been associated with secularism, while many homeschoolers are motivated by religion. Hewitt asserts that unschoolers comprise about 10 percent of the estimated 1.8 million U.S. children who are home-schooled, though he acknowledges that "hard numbers are scarce."

So what's the "outside" connection? Hewitt is the author of a new book: Home Grown: Adventures in Parenting Off the Beaten Path, Unschooling, and Reconnecting with the Natural World.

The Outside story is a first-person account about how Hewitt and his wife, Penney, unschool their two boys, 12-year-old Fin and 9-year-old Rye. While their contemporaries head to school each morning, the boys usually head into the woods near their Vermont home to fish, look for mushrooms or wild onions, build shelters, or follow moose tracks.

There is some structure, Hewitt notes. The boys do chores on the family's small farm, and the parents have introduced some Waldorf educational curriculum into their days. 

Hewitt notes that "not infrequently I field questions from parents who seem skeptical that my sons will be exposed to particular fields of study or potential career paths. The assumption seems to be that by educating our children at home and letting them pursue their own interests, we are limiting their choices and perhaps even depriving them."

"The only honest answer is, Of course we are," he continues. "But then, that's true of every choice a parent makes: no matter what we choose for our children, we are by default not choosing something else."

If the boys want to become doctors or lawyers, they will, Hewitt says. 

What he wants for his sons is freedom, he says. 

"Not just physical freedom, but intellectual and emotional freedom from the formulaic learning that prevails in our schools," Hewitt writes.

It's a good read, even if unschooling, like mountain climbing, isn't for everyone. 

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