Category Archives: Education

Open Mindedness

I have been thinking about, and writing about open mindedness quite a bit today, including a post at Forging Soul, and three comments at Penelope Trunk’s homeschooling blog. I decided to go ahead and put those comments together here, even though I would recommend checking out the original thread in it’s entirety here.

The first comment asks how far open-mindedness should reach:

Great points, especially the idea that listening to your kid helps them learn to think properly. If you never let your kid actually *ride* a bicycle they will never be much of a bicyclist. By the same token, many people think–and think most deeply–mainly by talking to others. This can be true even with introverts who, due to their intensely subjective focus, can find other people to stimulate new lines of thought.

I wondered if you would hit what I consider the ultimate test of open-mindedness: currently held scientific paradigms.

Evolution is one of those. It is incorrect to say that evolution is true. It is the best explanation we currently have. It is the consensus until a scientific revolution expands upon or overturns the current paradigm. Evolution has lasted a good while. Most likely it will be overturned in the sense that newtonian physics was overturned, by gaining a deeper understanding into the exceptions and anomalies (very large and very small and very fast in the case of newtonian physics–that spawned quantum theory and relativity). Is science, in any area, ever done? To me, no one who would answer that in the affirmative is a real scientist. Science can be settled, as newtonian physics was before it was upended by the two main fields within physics, but science–by definition–is never incontrovertible.

IF…even the bedrock of evolution can be understood as needing refinement and possibly even overturning someday, then one is in a much better position of open-mindedness to question far shakier paradigms. An example of this is questioning medical providers, who claim the mantle of science but must be examined with rigor. When you look at what it took to get doctors to start washing their hands, you see this is no science, and it never has been. It has a scientific aura, but the business of medicine is at best an art. And any art depends on the quality of the artist. There tend to be fewer good artists than poor ones at any given point.

Climate science, social sciences? Now we’re into areas so grey, so political and politicized that I believe a mindset a little beyond open-mindedness, and into downright skepticism is appropriate. Doubt first. These are also the most likely scientific areas for ideologues to promote as incontrovertible.

I note your link to defines open-mindedness as an intellectual virtue. Virtues are something that need to be cultivated. There are seeds of virtue in the hearts and minds of all children, but these seeds need conditions suitable for their growth and fruition. I believe the optimum conditions for the childhood development of all virtues is a healthy loving family. In home-schooling the family is given full force. It’s no guarantee but it is a big step in the right direction if you want to see your kids develop virtues like open-mindedness.

Then, I responded to a comment about statements by Bill Nye that it is morally wrong to teach religious ideas that conflict with science:

A person who set out to reap an avalanche of anti-science sentiment could do no better than to condemn people for exercising their constitutional right to religion, to essentially term them child-abusers. Patronizing such people is not helping either.

I suppose trying to use the power of the state to limit this inalienable right might be even better for creating hostility toward science and scientists.

In short, Bill Nye is not doing science any favors with this kind of talk. It is the same freedom of belief that allows science to exist at all, that allows people to believe as their conscience guides them. Undermining that precious freedom is a step backward into darkness, not progress.

To the extent science is true, it will win people over by being true, over time, without coercion. Bigotry and tyranny do not become good things, even when they are practiced in the name of science.

So I agree, Adam, learning to disagree with civility–to agree to disagree–is a valuable lesson at any age. It’s funny how many people value an open mind so highly, right up until the moment someone disagrees with something they hold dear.

And finally, I tried to sum up my thoughts after having reflected on the 20 some comments that had accumulated this morning:

Adam, I will grant you that everything I have ever said in my life has been arguably “somewhat false” :) I only aim for having some nugget or essence of useful truth! A hard enough target.

I’m heartened by the civility of the discourse here, when as I’m sure you have seen, even a totally unrelated science blog post or youtube video can erupt almost instantly into the most imbecilic and infantile name-calling arguments between various kinds of true believers.

Your comments, and those of Redrock, Nonnie, and Daniel all have shown nuance, consideration and restraint that indicates what I think is an admirable openness of mind. In so doing, I believe you show yourselves to be true friends of science, and a productive part of the long term social process of science slowly “settling.”

I thought Cindy and Coleen, for their part, did a good job of reflecting the fact that to have religious beliefs that might seem to encroach on scientific domains is neither the end of the world, nor the downfall of society. I happen to believe in a supreme consciousness, so I sympathize with the efforts all such believers must go through to function in a modern technological society. It is a rigor that atheists like Bill Nye are spared, since–for them–there is nothing to reconcile. That rigor, that wrestling of heart and mind and struggle to resolve facts and beliefs and the heightened awareness of differences it brings, is something that gives great value to the viewpoints of many religious people–and I wish more secularists saw that value and made use of it to enrich themselves.

Our family switched a while back from watching television together to reading classics aloud (something I heartily evangelize for!) and my son started reading Sun Tzu’s Art of War aloud today. It seems to me that Sun Tzu felt the fundamental principle of war is deception. Deception allows you to bring about bad judgement in your opponent. And by controlling deception, one can guide which bad decisions your opponent makes, and thus win.

And it occurred to me that the somewhat less-studied Art of Peace has a similar fundamental principle: honesty.

For me, honesty starts with this realization, that Socrates and I suspect even Carl Sagan would heartily endorse: we do not know as much as we’d like to. Nor probably even half as much as we think we do. Nor a fraction of what we will one day. Being honest with ourselves consists of being willing to consider things we disagree with and reach rich, sophisticated answers, or sometimes break through to the simplest answers, rather than carry around a stock of straw-men that we can project on everyone who has a different point of view or belief from us.

I am sensitive to this also because I’ve been a homeschooler. An unschooler in fact. Just one of many unconventional beliefs I have strongly held. I’ve spent half my life fighting for my right to evaluate the merits as my ability allows and live based upon the conclusions I reach, such as they are. I do not require others to agree with me, just give me room to explore for myself. I’ll listen to your arguments, just don’t take for granted that I hold my opinion due to ignorance or mental incapacity, since you simply do not know that.

As I said, this discussion has been pretty encouraging. Perhaps none of us has as much to fear as we might be led to believe by the overwhelming prominence of the most strident percent or two of the internet that seems to dominate so much traffic on these subjects.

Some Advice For A Beginning Unschooler

Mark and Nathan ReadingMy friend and fellow blogger Tony Fuentes asked me a couple questions in the comments that I felt needed a bit more room to answer.

Are there any resources you would recommend to a total newbie at unschooling? Also, is there a “technique” to unschooling your kids? Or is it more of a self-taught thing on the part of the parents?

Let’s start with a couple terms. “Homeschooling,” is the term used by most of society to describe what you’re considering. It involves you and your child complying with whatever ordinances your municipality has set for excusing children from the standard compulsory education proscribed across the country. It is a legal matter. And it is not trivial in most places, it requires meeting requirements and submitting forms, seeking approval from school boards and possibly other government agencies. This varies according to your state and even your individual school system.

Within the community of people who have chosen to do this, however, there is a spectrum between better-schooling-at-home (described typically with that same term “homeschooler”), and natural learning (usually called “unschooling”). Homeschoolers use a conscious and purposely-chosen curriculum. Unschoolers use a curriculum that emerges organically from their child’s interests, personality, and learning styles. The spectrum mainly involves the balance of parent-led vs. child-led curriculum.

Where on that spectrum you feel most comfortable is something you will have to decide, probably many times, over the course of raising your children. Some unschoolers like to prefix themselves with “radical” and that just means that they are not just “inspired” by the concepts of natural learning, they are fully committed to the sometimes scary prospect of letting their kids learning nature express itself organically, and in it’s own time.

No matter what style you end up with, homeschooling and unschooling each involve dedicating your life, over the course of your children’s childhood, to education. Theirs of course, but also your own.

The best estimates I could find for recent times in the US are that about two million kids in the US are homeschooled. It has been doubling every ten years or so. It has quadrupled since my wife and I started in the mid nineties. Some of us who started back then are still battle-scarred from the repeated scorn of peoples’ reactions that we were “damaging” our kids. You’ll find a considerably more tolerant atmosphere now, but it is important that you realize you are choosing to be a very small minority. A minority many people still think they have an obligation to set straight.

If two million kids are home schooled, then these represent about three percent of all kids in the US. Estimates vary but roughly one third of homeschoolers consider themselves unschoolers. So you are electing to be in a class that represents only one percent of the US population. Radical unschoolers might be half that.

So unschooling is the fringe of the fringe, and you’ll need to explain yourself, and defend yourself, to not just well-meaning people in every sphere of life where people inquire about your kids (which is every sphere) but also to other people who educate their kids at home. This is why self-educating yourself about the benefits and arguments for and against is usually a good place to start. Unschooling can get lonely unless you take measures to connect to others who can lend you support and encouragement.

I believe your oldest child (or only child) is still very young. There is time. My advice to you is to start with reading some of the seminal thinkers in the “movement.” John Holt has a number of books to choose from, I’d recommend starting with “How Children Learn.” You might be able to get it at the library, although buying has the advantage that you can underline and write your notes in the margins!

My favorite author and thinker–on both the ills of government schooling and the benefits of home education–is John Taylor Gatto. I suppose I would recommend starting with “Weapons of Mass Instruction.”

Understand intellectually what your heart and gut are telling you right now about unschooling. Take turns reading these and other books, and discussing them, with your wife because this is something that the two of you are going to do together and it is an enterprise on the order of starting a business together. You will want to be on the same page and similarly committed. You will be each other’s essential core support.

Begin your adventure by teaching yourselves why and how unchooling is the best way available to you to achieve the following in raising your children:
[custom_list type=”check”]

  • Healthy body.
  • Positive attitude.
  • Considerate and attractive personality.
  • Independent and inquisitive mind.
  • Vivid and creative imagination.
  • Sound and responsible character.
  • Warm and open heart.
  • Whole psyche.
  • Beautiful soul.


Then I’d recommend trying to find a homeschooling group, and if possible an unschooling group near you. You’ll need guidance on meeting the legal guidelines in your municipality. It is possible you might have to move to a community more amenable to your efforts. It’s possible you might have to start your own unschooling group.

And of course, online communities can be very helpful. Back when I started, Sandra Dodd was one of the only people out there and she has been a solid voice of leadership ever since. I looked for a couple hours and she was still the best I could find. Many talented thinkers and fellow unschoolers are accessible through her site, as those she worked with and mentored have matured into leaders in their on right.

The National Home Education Network looks like it has some good articles. And Enjoy Life Unschooling has a pretty good roundup of resources too. I read Penelope Trunk’s Homeschooling Blog regularly and comment pretty often. She’s often controversial but always interesting, and her blog gives one view into the life of a person struggling through the first steps of finding her way unschooling. Many of her commenters are great to read as well. I’d also recommend checking out the sites of some of the people who’ve commented here. Seeing the way ordinary people work out the details of unschooling can be more informative than reading scholarly articles.

You could check out Forging Soul too, where I try my best to help adults who may not have had the luxury of being unschooled, work on that same checklist of personal development that I listed above. When all else fails, e-mail me :)

Edit: Commenter Michele reminded me about Joyce Fetteroll’s excellent site Joyfully Rejoicing. Well worth a visit, and thanks Michele!

Good For Nothing

Photo of stream and forest in Olmsted Falls, Ohio
School's Open.

The Quebec History Encyclopedia includes a retelling of a story from Benjamin Franklin’s Essays that sums up the impression the schools of 1744 in Virginia left on the elders of the people of the Six Nations.

Several of our young people were formerly brought up at the colleges of the northern provinces, they were instructed in all your sciences, but when they came back to us they were bad runners, ignorant of every means of living in the woods, unable to bear either cold or hunger, knew neither how to build a cabin, take a deer, or kill an enemy, spoke our language imperfectly, were, therefore, neither fit for hunters, warriors, or counselors; they were totally good for nothing.

Some things are timeless.

Please check out the original linked above, it is well worth the read.

On Socialization

Shark Tank Photo by Derek Key on Flikr (click for link to original)My last post got a whole lot more attention than I expected, so here is another comment I left at Penelope’s blog last month:

Over the years, a few people have had the patience to explain to me what exactly it is they mean by socialization, when they say that homeschooling does not provide an adequate amount.

Apparently, the socialization school is uniquely qualified to provide involves learning to handle people being mean to you, being rude or cruel to you, possibly even being violent toward you. It’s about toughening you up so you can withstand “real life” which, they tell me, is this way.

I’m told the commandment that one needs to operate effectively in this world is “do unto others, as the opportunity arises.”

I have to agree, school is quite effective at teaching that. Not so much because of the teachers but because of the kids descending culturally en masse to the lowest common denominator.

And I concede, homeschooling does tend to sorely lack this kind of soul-toughening.

Brought up mainly by their own parents, rather than designated strangers, children will tend to be treated with respect, patience, consideration, even love. As a result, a child does tend to retain the naive concept–that they get from who knows where–that it is generally best to treat people as you would have them treat you. They will expect people to be reasonable and mature, by and large. They will likely have learned that acting this way is how people get along in the world with a minimum of fuss.

Is such a child, once exposed to the real world, destined to be devoured by it? This is where we may differ.

To the extent these arguments have any merit, the world is a rough place largely because of the ways we desensitize and systematically de-humanize kids. The solution is not more de-humanization, no matter what we call it.

Kids can be taught the dangers associated with the sharks of the human world without them having to be thrown into an actual shark tank.

Five Basics Of Unschooling

Stakes supporting young plants. Image by on

Today on Penelope’s homeschooling blog, Penelope Trunk and a commenter who I know from comments at Forging Soul, Jennifer, were discussing the struggles they face with unschooling. I commented twice on that thread actually, first here, then I could not resist posting the second one–check it out if you want to take a look at the discussion.

This comment summarizes probably just about every point I have made on the topic (in other comments) over the past few months:


Jennifer, and Penelope, I see this struggle a lot in parents who are unschooling young kids. Maybe it’s universal.

Unschooling is more than the negation of a wrong–more than the usual definition we all start with as simply “not schooling.”

It is doing something right: creating a better alternative educational process. And you’re still figuring out exactly how–which is natural.

There are things I have come to believe as an unschooling parent that I must do right to fulfill my responsibilities, and to achieve the goals that motivated me to unschool in the first place. This has helped me be confident in myself as an unschooler. Here are five suggestions:

1. Support the natural learning process. Give your child room to discover the threads of interest and follow them to their passions. Create an environment of trust by being honest about the demands of life, as well as the joys. Treat your child as a human being, worthy of respect and dignity. Give them freedom to discover the world and understand themselves–in their own way.

2. Be mindful of your child’s development, and be ready to offer guidance. Make yourself available as a resource your child can draw upon as needed for help measuring progress, setting goals, making realistic plans, managing themselves, and dealing with others. These are life-lessons that you’re uniquely qualified and positioned to help with.

3. Provide materials and opportunities: Books, recordings, equipment, opportunities to see more of the world and meet people with shared interests from whom they can learn. Don’t just answer requests; offer! If it’s not immediately apparent to them why you’re offering, don’t be afraid to sell it a little. Your child’s job is to churn through what you give them along with what they find on their own. Your job is to make sure they always have new things to churn through.

4. Be involved. Children crave parental recognition, encouragement, and approval. This does not mean spending every moment with the kids or smothering them. It means taking an interest in what they are learning because they are learning it. It also means sharing your interests with them. If you try, but cannot bring yourself to endure a subject your kids have passion for, you have a responsibility to find someone who can–or hire someone who will.

5. Finally, don’t be an un-parent. As much as children need an education, they need parents more. This means cultivating a relationship where they return the trust you give them. As unschooled children, they enjoy immense freedom, but not unlimited. If you say that great literature is great, and it’s worth the learning curve, they should have long experience that you tend to be right about these things. If you say a certain amount of math will be needed in life, they will trust you as an authority on what life is all about, because of your obviously greater experience. Sometimes you have to work through the difficult part of learning to get to the more rewarding part. That is an important thing to learn. The best time for your child to discover he needed to know how to swim is not the first time he finds himself in way over his head.

Unschooling is natural, but it properly has a certain rigor, like farming or birthing or breastfeeding. It takes time to build the skills and then to build your confidence in them. Give yourself that time.

As far as I can tell the two of you are both on the right track!